Don Pardo, the booming voice of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ dies at 96

08/19/2014 12:36 AM

08/19/2014 1:00 AM

Don Pardo, who literally introduced television viewers to some of America’s biggest stars and soon-to-be-stars as the longtime announcer for “Saturday Night Live,” died Monday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 96.

Pardo’s death was confirmed by his daughter, Dona Pardo.

Pardo, whose career began in the radio age, continued through the end of the last season of “SNL” in May, when he performed the introductions on the finale, hosted by Andy Samberg.

Pardo was with “SNL” from the show’s first episode in October 1975, and performed the introductions for 38 seasons, missing only Season 7. For many viewers, the names of scores of stars — from Chevy Chase to Eddie Murphy to Tina Fey — were first heard in his sonorous baritone, which announced the cast each week at the end of the opening skit.

“Every year the new cast couldn’t wait to hear their name said by him,” said Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator, who hired Pardo in 1975.

But for an older generation, Pardo was familiar long before Michaels started “Saturday Night Live.” He was the announcer for an assortment of widely watched game shows, including two of the most popular television has ever seen, “The Price Is Right” and “Jeopardy!”

While not many people knew his face, practically every American for a span of more than half a century knew his voice. And for the long line of budding stars who came out of “SNL,” that voice was validation. As Maya Rudolph told Pardo in a video tribute when he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 2010, “The moment you said my name was the height of my career.”

Dominick George Pardo was born on Feb. 22, 1918, in Westfield, Massachusetts. (It was George Washington’s birthday, the source of his middle name.) His father, also named Dominick, a bakery owner, and his mother, Viola, were immigrants from Poland. Pardo’s eventual first name was the result of a several-step process to distinguish himself from his father.

“They used to call me Nicky, and I didn’t like that,” he said in an oral history he recorded in 2006 for the Archive of American Television. “So when I got into radio, I took up Dom.” That, though, didn’t stick. “People would always say ‘Don,’” Pardo continued. “I said, the heck with it; I’ll be Don.”

Pardo had become interested in oratory and theater while a student at Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut, and in 1938, while living in Providence, Rhode Island, he began working with local theater troupes, among them the 20th Century Players, which sometimes performed on WJAR, the NBC affiliate in Providence. After about a year, the station manager there, impressed with Pardo’s voice, offered him a job as an announcer for $30 a week — a pay cut from his job at Brown & Sharpe, a machine tool manufacturer, but his new bride, Catherine Lyons, told him to take it anyway.

In 1944, he and a friend, Hal Simms, who would also become a top radio and TV announcer, made a fateful weekend trip to New York, visiting the NBC studios to watch some of their smooth-voiced heroes at work. When Pardo stopped by to thank Patrick J. Kelly, the supervisor of announcers, for arranging the tour, he ended up with a job offer. He started at NBC in New York on June 15, 1944.

“I was put on the night staff, naturally, 6 to signoff,” Pardo recalled. “Signoff was 2 a.m.”

As a staff announcer, he did more than introduce shows and read commercials. The announcer also played the role of engineer, getting the radio programs going and cuing up the right bits at the right time. If you could not do those chores, he said, you would not last as a radio announcer.

But Pardo had joined the network just as NBC was experimenting with programming in a new medium, television, so he quickly found himself out of his radio comfort zone. One day in 1946, the boss came in and asked if he knew anything about baseball. He and another announcer wound up calling three televised baseball games.

Pardo called the games as a radio announcer would, following the maxim never to allow any dead air, which proved a poor mix with a medium in which viewers could see the action. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, he recalled that one reviewer dismissed his efforts with this phrase: “He doesn’t know the game, and he wouldn’t shut his mouth.”

Pardo found himself shuttling between radio and television, but the newer medium increasingly took up his time; he was assigned to a variety of programs, including “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and some early game shows. An assignment he received in 1956 proved to be a keeper: the original “Price Is Right,” hosted by Bill Cullen. The show’s popularity made his voice famous, and the occasional on-air mention by Cullen began to attach a name to that voice. (He even filled in for Cullen once. “I was terrified,” he recalled in the oral history.)

Pardo said the way “The Price Is Right” was shot led him to develop his peculiar elongated delivery. “The cameras are moving so slowly, and that’s the way I had to describe it: slowly,” he said of the merchandise on the show, which he would describe before contestants tried to guess its price. “Those cameras were large then. You want to make sure you describe what the camera is on.”

The show, based in New York, switched to ABC in 1963, but Pardo chose to stay with NBC. He was still a staff announcer, which meant he had other duties besides “The Price Is Right.” He was, for instance, the first to tell viewers of WNBC, the network’s flagship station, that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, breaking into a “Bachelor Father” episode to do it.

Pardo’s decision to stay at NBC when “The Price Is Right” departed was fortuitous because that left him available to announce a new NBC show that made its debut in 1964, “Jeopardy!” A trivia show in which contestants tried to provide the questions after seeing the answers, it was hosted by Art Fleming, who made a point of thanking Pardo by name in each episode, helping to elevate him further out of the announcer anonymity of radio.

The original “Jeopardy!” ran until 1975, again a serendipitous endpoint because “Saturday Night Live” began the next year. The show’s creator, Michaels, was born the year that Pardo started at NBC. He has said he liked Pardo for the job as a sort of counterpoint to the wackiness of the show.

“It couldn’t have been a more different culture,” Michaels said. “But it was perfect for us.”

“That authority voice” botched the very first opening, calling the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players the “Not for Ready Prime-Time Players.” But the inauspicious beginning was quickly forgotten, and Pardo became a signature part of the show, not just announcing the cast, musical guest and host at the beginning, but also introducing “Weekend Update” and playing an integral role in many other bits. He missed only Season 7, after Michaels had stepped away temporarily from the show.

Pardo, who had a lifetime contract with NBC, retired in 2004, but he continued to do “SNL” even though he had moved to Arizona after his wife died in 1995. For years he would fly to New York each week. In more recent seasons, he recorded his material in Tucson.

Over the years he had countless odd moments and memorable encounters as he became a pop-culture touchstone. In 1976, he appeared in a Frank Zappa performance on “SNL.” In 1984, he had a voice cameo in the Weird Al Yankovic song “I Lost on Jeopardy.” He was in the Woody Allen movie “Radio Days” in 1987 and was a guest star on a 2009 episode of “30 Rock.”

Pardo is survived by his daughters, Paula, Dona and Katherine, and his sons, David and Michael, as well as five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Michaels said the show would surely present a tribute to Pardo next season. “It was a happy accident and in some great way our lives intertwined,” he said. “It was always exciting. Whatever montage we did to open the show, whatever pictures we used it didn’t really come alive till you heard him say it.”

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