BIll Walker (1922-1995)
Walker, Bill (1922-1995)
When he first appeared on stage, playing a character called Alf in a community theatre production in Regina, the reviewer declared that "Alf was inaudible".
That was the last time anybody ever said that about Bill Walker, one of the busiest television personalities of the 50s and 60s.
Bill graduated high school at the age of 16 and had no further formal education. But he was a voracious reader and student of history and languages, teaching himself French, German, Spanish and Italian.
His first public performance was at the age of nine when he sang The Wreck of the Old '99 in a kiddie's talent show on CJRM Regina. At 16 he was hired as an announcer by CJRM and worked there for two years before enlisting in the Air Force in 1941. In 1943, he was assigned to RAF Squadron 77 in Yorkshire, where he piloted a Halifax bomber on 35 missions over Germany, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war, he returned to CJRM as morning man and program director. At the same time, he began performing in community theatre. After a shaky start as Alf, he went on to win the best actor award at the Saskatchewan Regional Drama Festival five years in a row. He was also the only actor to win the best actor award at the Dominion Drama Festival twice - in 1947 and 1950.
One of his first productions was JUNIOR MISS in 1945, playing the father of a young dancer named Marilyn Whittet. Two years later they married.
In 1950 they moved to Winnipeg where Bill became the host of the top-rated morning show Walker's Wigwam on CKRC.
In 1955, Bill moved to Toronto and his face soon became familiar to audiences across Canada, beginning with weekly appearances on live commercials for Ford during the Ed Sullivan Show. His association with Ford lasted for 30 years. He was also spokesman for Timex, Wardair, and BA Petroleum, among others. He was equally busy as a commercial announcer in New York, and commuted back and forth regularly.
Bill also hosted and performed on many CBC TV variety shows in the 50s and 60s, including The Jack Kane Show, Music '60, World of Sport, and Parade. He was a panelist on Live a Borrowed Life from 1960-63 and the moderator of Flashback from 1963-66. He was twice the host of the CNE Grandstand extravaganza. Later, he became the host of the popular CHCH-TV charades show Party Game with Dinah Christie, Jack Duffy, and Billy Van, and of Communicate for the CBC. In 1967 he was chosen to be the on-camera host for A Salute to Canadian Television, a ninety-minute compilation of programs from the CBC and CTV, which was screened in New York for the U.S. National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Bill was renowned in broadcasting for his memory: he could learn a script almost instantly, edit it on the fly, improvise changes, and time it perfectly - a valued gift in the days of live television. He was disdainful of cue cards and teleprompters.
Between announcing assignments, Bill kept busy as an actor. He appeared in several CBC live dramas in the 50s and early 60s, in stage productions and in a 1961 Canadian 3D horror film The Mask.
In 1979, Bill returned to his private radio roots, joining CFRB Toronto, where he delivered The News and His Comments.
Bill retired in 1985, although he still accepted occasional commercial or acting assignments. One night in 1994, while driving home, he was broadsided by a driver who ran a red light. He suffered a hairline fracture in his neck which caused him considerable pain and aged him far beyond his 71 years. He died the following June.
Among his honours were Liberty Magazine's All-Canada talent award for Best Announcer 1959-'60, the Lions Club International Foundation Melvin Jones Fellowship for dedicated humanitarian services, and a Canadian Association of Broadcasters Lifetime Achievement award.
Bill and Marilyn had four children: Scott, a CBC radio news anchor, Debbie, a TV producer, Michael, president of Walker Media, and Stephen, who went into advertising.
Alf may have been inaudible, but Bill Walker's magnificent voice entertained audiences for decades.
Written by Scott Walker - July, 2003