Robert V. Walsh, advertising executive, dies

He had appeared in local playhouses and in films and was a Center Stage founder

  • Robert Walsh
Robert Walsh
December 21, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Robert V. Walsh, a retired advertising executive who won critics' praise for his performances at local theaters over the past five decades, died of a respiratory ailment Dec.14 at Gilchrist Hospice Care. He was 89 and lived at Roland Park Place.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was the son of Irish immigrants. He won a New York Regents Scholarship and earned a history degree at Manhattan College. He also debated, was yearbook editor, participated in dramatics and competed in track and field. He later received a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in the spring of his senior year. He became a meteorologist and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and on the Alaska mainland.

After the war, he was hired by NBC radio in New York as a member of its guest relations division. He later described the job as "a nice bottom of the ladder." An NBC staff announcer admired his speaking voice and encouraged Mr. Walsh to audition for posts in radio. He became a staff announcer at WJIM in Lansing, Mich.

"He had a deep, magnificent voice," said a friend, Ralph Piersanti, who lives in White Marsh. "He was cast when someone was needed to sound like the voice of a god or a senator or judge."

At that job, he met his future wife, Ruth Beecher Lawson, a recent graduate of Ohio University who had been hired as a writer-broadcaster. The two were soon selected as a team to put a new radio station, WPDX, on the air in Clarksburg, W.Va.

Mr. Walsh was program manager and chief announcer, and she was women's program director. They also joined a few others in establishing a Clarksburg community theater. They began appearing together in the 1940s and remained active as an acting couple for decades.

"On stage and off, they were a delightful pair," said F. Scott Black, a Baltimore theater director who cast them in "The Magnificent Yankee." "He was a commanding presence and a good actor who made quite an impact on his audiences."

In 1948, after their marriage, Mr. Walsh became director of radio and television for VanSant, Dugdale & Co., a Baltimore advertising agency then located in the Court Square Building.

Family members said he led several of the agency's clients into the new medium of television. Mr. Walsh used well-known figures to appear in ads. He cast NBC "Today" show host Dave Garroway for Black & Decker products, John Cameron Swayze for Fram filters and Jim Henson's puppets, then known as Sam and Friends, which became the Muppets.

"He agreed never to cast me in his ads," said his wife, who went on to create the voice for the much-recalled ad, "More Parks sausages, please."

He retired from the firm in 1982 as senior vice president for marketing and a member of the company's board of directors.

He and his wife appeared together at Vagabond Players performances at the old Read Street playhouse. They became associated with the Johns Hopkins Playshop, later named Theatre Hopkins, where they acted together and separately in plays on the Homewood campus. He performed in "Queen After Death," "Charley's Aunt," "The Cocktail Party" and "The Seagull," among other productions. He and his wife appeared together in a 1991 production of "The Cocktail Hour."

In the early 1960s, the Walshes joined a group of theater lovers who became the founders of Center Stage. He served on its first board of directors. He and his wife were also supporters of the 1981 Baltimore International Theatre Festival and later attended Everyman Theatre performances.

As an actor, Mr. Walsh was cast in John Waters' "Cry-Baby." He also appeared in other films, including "Dave," "Suspect" and "Broadcast News." His TV work included "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "A Man Called Hawk."

"Bob was a good character actor. He appeared as the judge in the scene with Polly Bergen," Pat Moran, a local casting director, said of his role in "Cry-Baby." "He was one of the first people I thought about when I needed to fill a role for a mature, dignified man."

He had a role in the 1976 Tall Ships visit to Baltimore. He recorded his voice in the native languages of all of the crews aboard the visiting ships. His welcome was broadcast from a speaker on a police helicopter as the ships docked.

Mr. Walsh taught classes in marketing and management at Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He also posed for local commercial photographers.

A Democrat, Mr. Walsh once introduced former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt at a meeting of Baltimore's United Nations Association. She later commented favorably on his introduction in her "My Day" column.

His last acting work was for a readers' theater production in 2009 of Dylan Thomas' "Under Milkwood" at Roland Park Place.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 29 at Trinity Episcopal Church, 120 Allegheny Ave., Towson, where he was a former vestry member.

In addition to his wife of 62 years, survivors include two sons, Dr. Eric Walsh of Portland, Ore., and Mark Walsh of Chevy Chase; and four grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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