Bob Dalton, 74, a pioneer in Washington television who spent 44 years in front of the Channel 9 cameras and was long regarded as the king of noon news, died yesterday of pneumonia at Suburban Hospital. He had been under treatment for cancer.
When Mr. Dalton left WUSA-TV at the end of 1995, The Washington Post's television reporter, John Carmody, said the newscaster had "virtually owned" the noon news. In the show's heyday, half the sets in Washington tuned to news at noon would be watching Mr. Dalton.
Veteran Channel 9 anchor Gordon Peterson last night called Mr. Dalton "just a grand guy with a good word for everyone." Decades of extraordinary changes in television "never changed him. He was still the same guy." Mr. Dalton came to Channel 9 in 1951 and compiled a record remarkable for its longevity in a medium often seen as having little respect for seniority in on-air talent. As the medium grew and developed, Mr. Dalton did news and everything else, including making pitches for milk and beer and wearing a cowboy hat as host of a western series.
At one time, he provided a series of daily business reports on the radio in addition to his television demands.
After Mr. Dalton suffered a heart attack in the early 1980s, the station received so many inquiries about his health that it put on a live broadcast from his home, detailing the progress of his recovery. In one notable assignment in 1953, he was host of a clutch of horror movies that the station had programmed under the title of "The Black Cat." In introducing the films, Mr. Dalton was clad in a black leotard. On his lap, to enhance the atmosphere of fright, was Thanatopsis, a large black cat.
Switching on the brilliant television lights made the animal nervous. Inevitably, on one show, the cat answered the call of nature. On another, it dug long claws through Mr. Dalton`s leotard and into his thighs. Years later, Mr. Dalton remembered with amusement that the cat earned a $5 talent fee for each show. Mr. Dalton received no extra pay.
"It's been a lot of comfort for me that I have outlasted that cat," he said long afterward.
Mr. Dalton was born in Washington, attended the old Central High School and, after serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, embarked on a radio career that took him to Annapolis (WASL) and Richmond (WRNL). Accepting a job as one of three announcers hired from among 200 candidates at Channel 9, he returned to Washington in 1951. For the early part of Mr. Dalton's career, the station was owned by The Washington Post Co.
The pay -- $60 a week -- was less than he had been getting. But he suspected the opportunity was greater. As "Captain Nine," he was host of a space-opera series. He wore the cowboy as "The Range Rider." He wore a pith helmet for "Ramar of the Jungle," and he was host of a weekly boxing show as well.
In an interview 13 years ago for The Post's television magazine, Mr. Dalton chose to credit part of his success to the freewheeling, improvisational nature of early television. "You had to have some talent," he said, "but mostly, you had to be lucky -- in the right spot at the right time."
That, he said, was how he got to be a "business expert," and midday news anchor. As he told it, his lack of business experience was seen as a plus, because it would keep him from using financial jargon.
Soon he was giving 20 reports a day on radio and had a slot on the evening TV news. Soon after, he said, the station manager was looking for a midday anchor. Mr. Dalton said, "How about giving me a chance?" And the boss, as the story went, said, "Why not?" Mr. Dalton, who lived in Bethesda, later anchored segments of the evening news and won honors from his colleagues in the industry.
Survivors include his wife, Fumiko, and a daughter, Debbie, from an earlier marriage that ended in divorce.