Monday, July 6, 2009

Actor Harve Presnell and Old Time Radio Announcer Ken Roberts Pass On

Harve Presnell

Actor Harve Presnell, who played Mr. Parker on the series The Pretender and appeared in films ranging from The Unsinkable Molly Brown to Fargo, passed on June 30 at the age of 75. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Presnell was born George Harvey Presnell on September 14, 1933. He was drawn to singing and acting while still young. In fact, his stage debut was at age 16, singing in an opera. He attended the University of Southern California for a time, then left school to train in Europe. He sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale on several albums. He would go on to sing with the San Francisco Opera in their 1957 production of The Carmelites. He also appeared on the 1960 Columbia recording of Carmina Burana. Concurrent with his career in opera, Harve Presnell also appeared on television in episodes of General Electric Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It was while he was performing Carmina Burana in Berlin that Meredith Wilson heard him. Wilson, fresh from success with The Music Man, then wrote the part of Johnny "Leadville" Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown specifically for him. Presnell made his Broadway debut in The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1960. He would also play the party of Leadville Brown in the movie version of The Unsinkable Mollie Brown, which was released in 1964. In the Sixties Presnell appeared in the movies The Glory Guys, When the Boys Meet the Girls, and Paint Your Wagon.

For the most part during the Seventies and Eighties Presnell concentrated on the stage. Over the years he appeared in productions of Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel, and Scarlett, a musical version of Gone With the Wind. In 1980 Presnell returned to Broadway, taking over the role of Daddy Warbucks in Annie.

Harve Presnell made an impressive return to film in the Nineties, with two roles in movies released in 1996. He played Dr. Isaac Howard, the father of legendary pulp writer Robert E. Howard, in The Whole Wide World. He also played Wade Gustafson in Fargo, the imposing father of Jean Lundegaard and hence the father in law of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). Presnell would go onto appear in such films as Larger than Life, The Chamber, Saving Private Ryan, Face/Off,Patch Adams, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Flags of Our Fathers.

Presnell would also have a career in television. He was a regular as Mr. Parker on The Pretender for the entirety of its run (1996-2000) and guested on such shows as The Outer Limits, Dawson's Creek, Frasier, Monk, and ER.

Harve Presnell was an extremely talented man. As a singer he was possessed of a powerful baritone that was put to impressive use in both The Unsinkable Mollie Brown and Paint Your Wagon. As an actor he was very versatile. He could play the gentle, kindly Dr. Howard in The Whole Wide World and in the same year play the imposing, bullying Wade Gustafson in Fargo. While many might not recognise his name, I am sure they remember his face and his powerful voice.

Ken Roberts

Ken Roberts, whose golden voice announced shows from the era of Old Time Radio to that of television soap operas, passed on June 19 at the age of 99.

Ken Roberts was born on February 22, 1910 in Manhattan as Saul Trochman. He grew up in the Bronx. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He attended law school and even worked in Fiorello H. La Guardia's law office as an intern. He entered radio in the late Twenties, working at station WPCH in New Jersey. In 1930 he started work at WLTH in Brooklyn. It was not long after he entered the radio business that he changed his name so it would not "sound so Jewish."

It was in 1930 that he received a job at the Columbia Broadcasting System's New York City Station, WABC. He beat out 40 other applicants to get the job. He was with WABC for twenty years. It was there that he became one of the most familiar voices in radio. Among the many shows he announced were The Fred Allen Show, The Shadow, Ellery Queen, Easy Aces, Baby Snooks, You Are There, and This is Nora Drake. Presnell also emceed game shows, such as Quick as a Flash and It Pays to be Ignorant. Like nearly all announcers in the days of Old Time Radio, Presnell narrated commercials, developing the uncanny ability to be friendly and even jovial no matter what the product was.

With the advent of television Ken Roberts moved to the new medium, where he may be best known for announcing soap operas. He was the long time announcer on such soaps as Love of Life and The Secret Storm. He was also the original announcer for Candid Camera and on the game show Dollar a Second, on which he first narrated adverts for Mogen David wine. He parodied his own delivery as a soap opera announcer on The Electric Company in the recurring sketch "Love of a Chair."

Despite dashing good looks and an incredible voice, Ken Roberts had only one major acting role to his credit, as dimwitted athlete Mel Kahn in the Broadway play Hitch Your Wagon in 1937. As perhaps one of the most identifiable voices in radio, Woody Allen utilised Ken Roberts as the announcer in his movie Radio Days.

Ken Roberts was one of the greatest radio announcers of all time, perhaps the greatest of all time. Although he grew up in the Bronx, Roberts' voice could not be identified as coming from any particular part of the United States, while remaining identifiably American. Because of this, Ken Roberts as an announcer was pleasing to everyone's ears. His voice also possessed a warm, friendly tone that was quite versatile, ranging from the melodrama necessary for radio shows such as The Shadow and the television soap operas to a more jovial tone used for game shows and commercials. Announcing on literally thousands of hours of radio and television over the years, Roberts became an integral part of the American fabric from the Thirties into the Seventies.


Toby O'B said...

Merc, do you know of anyplace online where one might hear Ken Roberts' voice in action?

Terence Towles Canote said...

As a matter of fact, yes. Ken Roberts was the announcer on The Shadow from its earliest days. You can download some of the episodes here and here. The Shadow also has some of the old episodes up on his MySpace page.