Ken Roberts, 99
Ken Roberts, 99; Golden-Throated Announcer Introduced Soap Operas
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Ken Roberts, 99, an announcer whose urbane baritone introduced the long-running TV soap operas "Love of Life" and "The Secret Storm," and who memorably parodied his dramatic delivery on the 1970s children's show "The Electric Company," died June 19 at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He had pneumonia.
In a career that spanned eight decades, Mr. Roberts acted on Broadway and established himself as a radio personality before making the transition to television during its infancy. He introduced two CBS soap operas, "Love of Life" from 1951 to 1971 and "The Secret Storm" from 1954 to 1974, the second of which provided an early credit for actor Christopher Reeve.
One of his last roles was an off-screen bit as an announcer in Woody Allen's "Radio Days" (1987), a film that also featured his son, actor Tony Roberts.
Steve Beverly, editor of the online newsletter "The Daily Game Show Fix," said Mr. Roberts had one of the most familiar anonymous voices in radio and television. "For Ken Roberts, it was, 'I know that voice, I know that voice,' " Beverly said. "He had what executives called a golden throat."
On radio in the 1940s, one of Mr. Roberts's most prominent roles was emcee of the quiz show "Quick as a Flash," which dramatized a moment in history and asked contestants to guess the event. Skilled at creating a convincing jovial personality no matter the product, he was also in particular demand narrating commercials, which later carried over into his TV work for Mogen David Wine advertisements.
"I would quote some doctor's message about some hair tonic and give out with joy," Mr. Roberts said in a 1945 New York Times interview. "Or advise the use of a chest rub to save you from pneumonia or worse and laugh with almost maniacal glee during the one-minute announcement.
"But now I don't feel like a phony," he said. "I can toss around atrocious puns like the one about the world beginning with an Adam and ending with an atom, and just laugh and laugh and laugh. I feel human when talking into that mike, not like a grinning, foolish puppet on a sponsor's string."
Mr. Roberts was born Saul Trochman on Feb. 22, 1910, in Manhattan. He attended law school before entering show business in the late 1920s at a small New Jersey radio station. He mopped, played piano, recited poetry and announced the call sign, WPCH, on the hour.
In 1931, he beat out 40 other applicants for a full-time position as an announcer on CBS's New York outlet, WABC, where he stayed for 20 years. Among the shows he introduced was a game show parody, "It Pays to Be Ignorant." Mr. Roberts would tease fake contestants -- played by actors -- who would incorrectly answer questions such as, "Who came first: Henry I or Henry VIII?"
Mr. Roberts, who stood over 6 feet tall, had an intimidating physical presence that was put to use in the 1937 Broadway comedy "Hitch Your Wagon," where he played a dimwitted football star.
His first wife, the former Norma Finkelstein, died in 1984. Survivors include his wife of 11 years, Sydell Salzberg Roberts of New York; two children from his first marriage, Tony Roberts and Nancy Roberts, both of New York; two stepchildren; and four grandchildren.
In the early 1970s, he signed on with the PBS children's show "The Electric Company" and is best remembered for announcing a sketch called "Love of Chair," a play on "Love of Life." Supported by quivering organ music, Mr. Roberts melodramatically described the pantomime movements of a boy and his only chair.
As a farcical line that paid homage to his soap opera days, he intoned a cliffhanger question at the end of every skit: "What about Naomi? . . . And what about Naomi?"