From New York stages to vaudeville playhouses, to Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, to KUOM Radio and the Lake Harriet Pavilion, the mellifluous voice of Minneapolis baritone Arnold Walker soothed ears and warmed hearts for more than 50 years.
As MC for the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, Walker always grabbed a drum and led a children’s march midway through the group’s summer concerts at Lake Harriet. He called it a “seventh-inning stretch” for restless kids, and for 25 years it was a signature moment at events that attracted up to 2,000 people per night.
Walker, a longtime Minneapolis resident, died Aug. 6 at an assisted-living facility in Minnetonka. “He essentially died of old age,” said his son, Adam, of Chicago. He was 90.
Entranced by music and theater from childhood, Walker embraced everything from operettas to jazz, new music and the classics.
One of his favorite roles was Pooh-Bah, the “Lord High Everything Else,” in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Mikado,” which he first sang in a Manhattan company in 1949 and reprised with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1956.
“It’s a humorous role, as all Gilbert and Sullivan are, but requires very nimble singing and stage work,” which he was known for, his son said.
Walker later honed his skills as a narrator and director of musical productions. With Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony (now Minnesota Orchestra), Walker narrated the ensemble’s 1958 musical interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
In 1970 he narrated a Minnesota Orchestra program in which Peanuts cartoon characters encountered the 4Bs: Beethoven, Bach, Brahms and Bartók.
His warm, inquisitive personality charmed the new music crowd, too, leading to his 1973 narration of the world premiere of Dominick Argento’s oratorio “Jonah and the Whale” at Plymouth Congregational Church.
“They were just so generous and supportive,” said Merilee Klemp, a musician friend of 40 years referring to Walker and his wife, Helen Rice, who died in 2012. “They would frequently host parties and even premiered a chamber piece by [Minneapolis composer] Eric Stokes in their house.”
Walker was born in St. Paul to Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine or Belarus. His parents ran “ma and pa” grocery stores in the Twin Cities.
He graduated from Central High in Minneapolis in 1943 and then worked in the family business for three years while saving money for his escape.
“Literally, on his 21st birthday in 1946, he took all his money, packed his bags and went to New York,” said Adam.
In New York, he sang in semipro choral groups and musicals, performed at Borscht circuit theaters in the Poconos, and continued to pursue Rice, a friend from the Twin Cities who also had show business aspirations.
Rice enjoyed considerable success, with a well-received Carnegie Hall debut and long-running Broadway roles in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town.”
But in the end, love trumped show business, and the couple wed in 1954.
Walker, meanwhile, had returned to the Twin Cities in 1950 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. He supported himself as MC at Minneapolis supper clubs, including the Flame Room and the Gay 90s, then in its vaudeville heyday.
Soon he signed on as an announcer at KUOM, the U’s radio station, where he later became music director.
From 1960 until his retirement in 1990, he produced educational television programs at the university.
“He was an extraordinary man, always so warm and unassuming,” said Nancy B. Miller, a longtime friend and fellow Unitarian.
“One of the tenets of Unitarianism is respecting the dignity of everyone, and he was thoughtful and decent in his relations with everybody.”
In addition to son Adam, Walker is survived by a daughter, Anne Walker Langaard of Minneapolis.
A memorial service will be held Sept. 25 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.