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October 19, 2010

Don Pardo

By Juan Morales

In December of 2004, after an incredible sixty years and six months of continuous employment as a staff announcer at NBC, Don Pardo informed the network that he was retiring. Unbeknownst to Pardo, his decades of service had placed him in elite company.

“I was told after I quit that I had a lifetime contract if I wanted it,” he says. “I found out that only two people had ever had lifetime contracts — Bob Hope and me.”

Truth be told, Pardo, who will turn ninety-two on February 22, has not completely retired. Since giving up his day-to-day duties at NBC, he has continued to work at the longest single gig of his career — as announcer for the iconic sketch-comedy series Saturday Night Live, which airs on NBC but is produced independently by Broadway Video, the company founded by SNL creator Lorne Michaels. From SNL’s 1975 debut to the present, Pardo has announced every season of the show but one.

When Michaels first hired him, Pardo was already a thirty-year veteran, and something of a legend at NBC. In addition to vast radio experience, he had worked on dozens of noteworthy television productions, from variety shows such as Caesar’s Hour and The Jonathan Winters Show, to dramas like Follow Your Heart and Three Steps to Heaven, to a long list of game shows, including the original versions of the enduring classics The Price Is Right and Jeopardy!

Beyond sheer talent, the secret to Pardo’s remarkable longevity may be his daunting work ethic. “When I was growing up,” says his daughter, Donna, “my siblings and I used to stand outside the bathroom door, waiting to use it, while he practiced in front of the mirror. And when I went to Saturday Night Live with him last year, he was reading the script over and over, making marks and underlining things. He’s an absolute perfectionist. Even when he hangs pictures, they have to be right in line.”

Then, of course, there is his instantly recognizable voice. Bob Stewart, creator of The Price Is Right (and a fellow Hall of Fame inductee), cites Pardo’s resonant baritone as a key element of the show.

“He lent an authority to it,” says Stewart. “In fact, as part of the script that we followed, after he described something, Don would say, ‘Price authority, Gimbel’s department store,’ or whatever, establishing who it was that put the price on that particular product. He just had — and still has — that magnificent voice. In a way, he dramatized the show.”

Pardo’s flair for the dramatic developed in his youth. Born in Westfield, Massachusetts, he grew up primarily in Norwich, Connecticut. He first caught the acting bug in high school stage productions at Norwich Free Academy, where, in his senior year, he won the Newton Perkins Prize for public speaking. After graduating, he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he honed his speech and diction at Boston’s Emerson College, and acted in local theater groups.

One of those groups, the 20th Century Players, performed regularly on Providence radio station WJAR, an affiliate of NBC. On one occasion, the station manager heard Pardo deliver a lengthy narration, liked his voice and offered him a position as an announcer. Pardo was thrilled at the opportunity, but reluctant to take it because the salary was less than half of what he was earning at an aviation manufacturer where he had taken a job to support himself and his wife while continuing to pursue his acting ambitions.

“When I told my wife about the job,” Pardo recalls with a laugh, “she said, ‘We’ll manage somehow, but you’ve got to take it. Otherwise, there will be no living with you for the rest of our lives.’”

In 1944, two years after he joined WJAR, Pardo took his first trip to New York City, a weekend visit to see NBC and, especially, experienced announcers like Frank Gallop and Ed Herlihy. When he arrived, he met with Patrick Kelly, who supervised NBC’s announcers, to request a pass to observe production. A few hours later, Pardo returned to thank Kelly, who surprised him by asking if he had ever considered announcing for NBC.

“In order to even audition,” recalls Pardo, “you had to have five years’ experience and a college degree. I had neither. But he said, ‘Why don’t you come to the studio and I’ll record you, in case you want to consider it in the future.’ So I went to the studio and read something for about a minute or so, and he said, ‘All right, that’s enough.’ All I could think was, boy, I must have really stunk.”

On the contrary, the twenty-six-year-old made quite an impression. When he returned to WJAR on Monday, he got a phone call from Kelly, who wanted him in New York the following week to start a new job at NBC. Again Pardo was thrilled but torn; his wife was pregnant and not able to relocate to New York on such short notice. But when he shared the news, her reply was familiar: “She uttered again, ‘If you don’t take that job, there’ll be no living with you for the rest of our lives.’ So I accepted.”

After the baby arrived, the family settled in New Jersey, and Pardo settled into his work at NBC, which at the time was still largely a radio company. But over the next several years, he made a smooth transition into the new medium of television. An early highlight came in the summer of 1946, when he was assigned to announce portions of three baseball games — a Giants game at the Polo Grounds, a Yankees game at Yankee Stadium and a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field — for a New York City television audience that, at the time, was made up of about sixty TV sets.

His television work increased in the early 1950s, as the industry matured and programming expanded. Early credits included All Star Revue and The Colgate Comedy Hour, both of which featured some of the biggest names in entertainment, and Winner Take All, his first teaming with renowned game show host Bill Cullen.

Pardo and Cullen reunited in 1956 for what would become one of the most popular game shows of all time: The Price Is Right. In addition to his on-air duties, Pardo was responsible for warming up the studio audience before the cameras rolled. He was so good at getting the crowd excited that he influenced the show’s opening.

“He was fantastic in the warm-up,” says Stewart. “The audience came in, and he would talk to them and get them pumped up. Then, when the magic moment came for the show to start, he would put his hands up and the crowd would go totally silent. I was walking by one day, and saw this, and said, ‘The sound they’re making is so exciting, let’s not cut them off.’ So the trademark of the show became that when we came on the air, there was crowd noise. That was because of Don.”

In 1963, The Price Is Right moved to ABC, and the show’s executive producer, Mark Goodson, made Pardo a generous offer to continue as announcer. By that time, however, Pardo and his wife had four children, and he opted for the security of his staff job at NBC.

For a while, Pardo returned to general announcing duties, and on November 22, 1963, when news broke that President John F. Kennedy had been shot during his visit to Dallas, he was the first to read the bulletin on the air. His first reaction upon reading the wire copy was “horror,” Pardo says. “When I read the bulletin, I thought I sounded pretty good, considering. But in retrospect, I don’t know how I did it.”

His decision to stay at NBC paid off when, in 1964, he became announcer for a new game show, Jeopardy!, created by Merv Griffin and hosted by Art Fleming. With its fast pace and quirky inversion of the conventional quiz-show format — players were provided answers, to which they had to supply the correct questions — Jeopardy! was a hit, and Pardo, who Fleming acknowledged by name at the top of every episode — became famous in his own right. Pardo stayed with Jeopardy! during its entire eleven-year run, missing only one broadcast out of more than 2,700 that were produced.

When the show wound down in 1975, he considered relocating to California, where so much television production had moved. In the end, however, he decided to stay in New York because of the deep roots he and his family had established there, and also because he had been hired at Saturday Night Live; he had a hunch that it might stay on the air a while.

Thirty-five years later, it’s safe to say that his instincts were correct. With his formal vocal style and kinescope-era pedigree, Pardo may have seemed an unlikely choice for SNL, a youthful, brazenly irreverent show starring the likes of Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and John Belushi. But Lorne Michaels’s counterintuitive choice subverted expectations brilliantly.

“He was very much an ‘announcer,’” says Michaels. “That’s what I wanted — that authority voice.” “Don is the absolutely perfect voice for Saturday Night Live,” says Stewart. “Here’s this zany, totally wacky show, where anything can happen, but he always maintains a certain dignity. That, in itself, is comedic. The contrast between his serious announcement at the top of the show, and what comes after it, is part of our culture. It works like a charm, and when the history of Saturday Night Live is written, he will be an integral part of it.”

After leaving NBC in 2004, Pardo moved to Tucson, Arizona. Today, when SNL is in production, he flies to New York the Thursday before each broadcast and returns the Sunday afterward. The travel can be difficult at times, but he still gets a thrill out of warming up the audience and announcing the show.

“I won’t let him quit,” jokes Michaels. “He’s long past retirement, but I won’t acknowledge it. I can’t imagine the show without him — and as long as he’s there, I stay young.”

Although SNL represents his most enduring body of work, Pardo is proud of everything he has done, from soap operas, game shows, commercials and specials, to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades, Oscars and Emmys telecasts, to one-off larks like the video for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 1984 song “I Lost on Jeopardy!” and a recent episode of the NBC comedy 30 Rock.

As he scans his long list of credits, he pauses, chuckles, and says, “How is it possible to have done all of those shows and still do my work as a staff announcer? Even I, looking at some of them, am amazed.”

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