Ed Walker didn’t really want to do it. He was tired and sick, he said, and not really up to it. Besides, his voice — the instrument of his preposterously long radio career — was no longer what it had been.
Just once more, pleaded Lettie Holman, Walker’s boss. For the audience, she said. For posterity. His daughter, Susan Walker Scola, agreed, urging her father on.
Walker reconsidered. Okay, he said. One more.
So they assembled last week to record one more, the last of the untold thousands of radio programs Walker has done since he broke into radio as a college student 65 years ago, when Harry Truman was president. Holman was there for the final show, as were audio engineer Tobey Schreiner and a couple of Walker’s radio associates, Rob Bamberger and Bob Bybee. The vehicle was “The Big Broadcast,” the weekly radio-nostalgia program that Walker has hosted for the past 25 years on Washington public station WAMU (88.5 FM).
The setting was Room 623 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. Walker, 83 and battling cancer, had been there a week. He did the show in a hospital gown, connected to a bank of hospital monitors. He insisted on getting out of bed to sit upright. An old pro knows you sound better that way.
“Good evening, everybody, and welcome to another edition of ‘The Big Broadcast,’ ” he began one last time. “My name is Ed Walker.”
Outside the room, a hospital worker fired up a floor-polishing machine. They waited until the man moved down the corridor. Schreiner, holding a mike close to Walker’s lips, asked for another take.
Walker restarted and continued: “All these years I’ve been trying to play the music and the shows that I think you all enjoyed. Well, tonight I want to turn things around a little bit and I’m going to do my favorite shows because this will be my last ‘Big Broadcast.’ Things come and things go, and right now it’s time for me to go. So we’re going to play some of the shows that I think have special merit, shows that are my personal favorites.”
And then Walker riffed and reminisced about the radio programs he has loved since childhood, most of it from memory but some — dates, actors, trivia — from notes produced on a Braille typewriter. (Walker has been blind since birth.) His favorites included “Dragnet” and “Gunsmoke” episodes from 1952; a 1945 Jack Benny show; “Fibber McGee and Molly”; the 1949 Lux Radio Theater production of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston re-creating their movie roles.
He told a story about interviewing Benny in 1968. The great comedian played along when Walker and his lifelong friend and radio partner, Willard Scott, cooked up a bit about Benny hawking cigars before his nightclub act. Scott and Walker ask him why he’s doing it. “I need the money!” said Benny, who always pretended to be a cheapskate. “He was wonderful,” said Walker fondly.
In a rare moment of self-indulgence, Walker included a recording of himself: an old skit from “The Joy Boys,” the popular comic program Walker co-hosted with Scott from 1952 to 1974.
“So that’s ‘The Joy Boys,’ a name which will go down in history,” he said after the clip. He paused and chuckled before adding, “We hope.”
Walker’s usually lively timbre is slower and less assertive on the last recording (which will be broadcast on WAMU on Sunday at 7 p.m.). It’s the same friendly Walker voice, familiar to a few generations of listeners in Washington, but he sounds increasingly weary as he goes on. And maybe a little sadder, too.
Scola said her father was crestfallen when his doctor gave him some bad news about his health a few weeks ago. “He asked if he had to give up his work,” she said a few days after the final show. “And the doctor said, ‘Yes, because you won’t have enough energy.’ He didn’t feel good about [ending it]. He said the other day, ‘I wish I didn’t have to stop.’ Thinking about that as the final time — well, it’s very bittersweet.”
The last show, in fact, was difficult for him, both physically and emotionally, she said. She knew it would be. She stayed away from the hospital, not wanting to make the busy room even busier. Later that day, when her father was discharged, she took him home to a nursing facility in Rockville. He was exhausted.
But she said: “It was a great blessing to me. I’m very grateful. Radio has been my dad’s life. How unusual is it to actually do what you love almost up to the end?”
Holman, the station’s program director, acknowledged that Walker doesn’t sound like the Walker of old. But she said the recording was “very honest. . . . It gave some closure to him and his audience.”
Walker’s health issues forced him to skip his Oct. 18 program. (Bamberger filled in for him.) It happened to be the start of WAMU’s pledge drive, and Walker’s name inevitably came up from time to time over the course of his usual four-hour time slot. The phones rang and rang; the station raised $60,000, twice the usual amount for the period.
All told, the hospital session took about 3
His last recorded words were: “So for one more time, let’s end the show the way we always do. Remember, it wouldn’t be Sunday evening if we didn’t have Eddie Cantor to sing.” Cantor’s voice came up, crooning the program’s traditional farewell song: “I Love to Spend Each Sunday with You”:
Lets make a date for next Sunday night
I’m here to say it will be my delight
To sing again, bring again the things you want me to
I love to spend each Sunday with you
“Good night, everybody,” Walker said.
And then Ed Walker did something he may have never done in half a million minutes in front of a microphone. He started to cry.
Everyone in Room 623 cried, too.
A previous version of this story had an incorrect date for the program Walker’s health issues forced him to skip.