Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Walt Teas, if you please."

Remembering the pioneering freelance voice-over king of the Baltimore-Washington market.

I had a sinking feeling last week while vacationing up in Provincetown. An omen of sorts, you could say. I thought of Walt Teas out of the blue, and wondered if he was still around, if not still working, at least enjoying his later years?? Turns out, quite coincidentally that Walt passed away that very same day. Cue the spooky incidental music, Elmer!

Just prior to our leaving on the trip, we got our copy of the 2007-2008 Washington/Baltimore AFTRA-SAG Talent Directory. Or, as we call it, "the Book." I was glad to see that the Book has gotten larger this time around, with a new Color talent ad section to show off those spiffy 3-color process eight-by-tens in miniature. In recent years, the Book's girth had dwindled considerably thanks to the bad economy after 9/11 and various industry factors like the insidious proliferation of so-called "financial core" non-union performers (our forebears had a more accurate term for them: "legalized scabs.") Sadder still were all the names and faces of veteran talent who were no longer listed due to poor health, retirement or death. BTW, I'm still trying to stay out of those latter categories myself. (sheepish grins!!!) I was somewhat cheered-up by seeing some old familiar faces reappear in the Book. Among them being one Flo Ayres, the queen of the Baltimore voice-over scene for many decades. When one thinks of Flo, one cannot help but think of Walt Teas. Seriously! They seemed joined at the hip, if not at the microphone! LOL!!!

Way back when, in the 1950's and early 1960's, almost no one in our AFTRA Local and SAG branch dared to venture outside of the then-somewhat-secure jobs of staff announcer, disk jockey or station talent. Doing so-called "freelance" work -- considered by many as "career suicide" -- was something only done to supplement one's income. Rarely did any talent take that ultimate leap-of-faith by quitting a good-paying radio or better-paying TV gig to pound the pavement, knocking on ad-agency doors, hawking your demo reel in the hopes of being self-employed full-time as a freelance voice-over talent. It was almost unheard of ... except in Baltimore ... except for Walter Allen Teas, Jr., and his long-time female counterpart, Flo Ayres. Walt and Flo were true trailblazers in this then-new field of work, paving the way for the generations of freelancers to follow. They worked numerous "sessions" at local recording studios throughout the region, and later were some of the first talents to build their own home voice studios for quick-turnaround that is the industry norm these days. Fast-forward to today, where any serious freelance voice talent has a home studio complete with ISDN digital lines, fax machines, PC's, announce booths, soundproofed closets, mixing boards, etc. These are the ones you hear doing all of the so-called "Imaging spots" or station ID's, news promos and late-breaking real-time radio spots promoting a local TV newscast. While they can thank their own ambition and persistence, today's performers owe a huge debt of gratitude to both Flo Ayres and to Walt Teas.

To give you an idea of how ubiqitous Walt's voice work was, you could fly from IAD to LAX to BOS and hear his recorded voice announcing flights over the FAA-run public address systems in most major airports. If you ventured up into Adams County to the hallowed battlefields of Gettysburg, you would hear Walt's voice narrating an historical context piece. In Center City Philadelphia at storied Independence Hall, again Walt Teas' voice described the 1776 scenes for you. He also did countless radio spots for sponsors like Safeway in the 1970's. Flo Ayres used to do tons of work as well. Many fondly recall her line "Central Charge-it, Please!" in spots for the DC-based local shopping plate. Remember, this was in the days long before BankAmericard and MasterCharge!

Walt and his family lived in the Westerlee subdivision in Catonsville, Maryland, not far from the old Double-T diner and the old WBFF-45/WFMM-FM Rolling Road tower site. He and his son, Alan, ran Sound One Productions out on old US 40 in nearby Ellicott City and later in Catonsville. Some of you may be ancient enough to recall Walt's voices for the many animal characters at the now-defunct Enchanted Forest amusement park near Ellicott City, as well as his old radio gig at Baltimore's famed WFBR radio. Walt is survived by his loving wife of 63 years, Betty Lou, his son and business partner, Alan, along with relatives, friends and colleagues too numerous to mention here.

The influence of Walt Teas is immeasurable. He was one of my many local role models as I was growing up and learning the craft at local studios and radio stations. It is a sad day for our region and our industry. But, recalling the ever-present smile in Walt's voice, we won't remain sad for long! He wouldn't stand for it. So, life goes on ... and so must we. Thanks, Walt! That's a wrap!