For half a million Torontonians in the 1970s and 80s, tuning in to Wally (Crout) Crouter's morning show on CFRB radio was as integral to kick-starting their day as downing a cup of coffee. Beginning at 5:30 a.m. with his own personal jingle, Mr. Crouter's comfortable baritone rumbled through news, sports, traffic, weather and an eclectic blend of music interjected with goings-on around the city, chats with noteworthy people, and tidbits about what he'd done the night before. More often than not he'd emceed an unpaid charity event, or introduced a celebrity like Aretha Franklin at the Royal York Hotel's ballroom. Among the famous who dropped by his show were hockey legend Gordie Howe, singer Frank Sinatra and actor Hal Linden, who continued to stay in touch.
Listeners thought of Wally Crouter as a friend. He thought of them the same way, never hesitating to stop and talk if someone recognized his famous voice. Fans knew he was a golf nut because he mentioned it frequently on the air. He played with Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Bob Hope, among others, when they were in town. He had a scratch handicap, unusual for an amateur, and viewed the links as a place where connections could be made and solidified.
Listeners also knew Mr. Crouter loved his family, although he once mistakenly referred to his wife as an alcoholic. It was quickly amended to "chocoholic" after she called the station. He came across the airwaves as a compassionate, caring person who ended each broadcast at 10 a.m. with a bit of homespun advice he called his Thought for the Day. One example: "Before you put your foot down, make sure you've got a leg to stand on."
In an interview with this paper about the reason for his success, Mr. Crouter said, "I always tried to put myself in the place of the listener. … It's the most personal time of the day. The radio is on while you're doing your morning ablutions, getting dressed, having breakfast with the kids coming to the table. … I've had a surgeon write me to tell me that, when he had three serious operations to do in a day, he started off by listening to my show so he could achieve the right relaxation and focus he needed."
When he died in his sleep at Sunnybrook Hospital on March 28, at the age of 93, Mr. Crouter held the distinction of being Canada's longest-serving morning radio host. He retired on Nov. 1, 1996, 50 years to the day after he started at CFRB (now NewsTalk 1010). He was subsequently inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Hall of Fame. Son Glenn Crouter says the comment he's heard most from well-wishers since his father's death is, "I grew up with your dad."
Wally Crouter's own upbringing took place in Peterborough, Ont. He was born Wallace Clarence Crouter on Jan. 20, 1923, the eldest of five in the family of Violet and Clarence Crouter. In 1929, as the Great Depression descended on Canada, the Crouters were one of many families who struggled to survive. Clarence Crouter eventually obtained a position at Canada Packers, where he remained for the rest of his working life.
As soon as he was able, Wally helped put food on the family table by holding down three part-time jobs: paperboy, drugstore delivery boy, and shelf-stacker in a grocery store. Possessed of an excellent voice, he also sang at Peterborough's St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church. His voice was sufficiently good that it was once recorded on a 78 rpm record although the hows and whys remain a family mystery.
The advent of the Second World War put an end to high school for Wally Crouter. Not quite 17, he lied about his age to join the armed forces. When his mother found out, she marched to the enlistment office and insisted that her son was too young to be sent overseas. The army agreed, sending him across Canada instead, to promote war bonds. When he turned 18 he was dispatched to Italy, where he was injured. In a radio interview about his life, Mr. Crouter said, "I got smashed up pretty badly. I wasn't shot. I got pieces of shrapnel in me from a tank that had been hit. At the time I was in an area with an East Indian division. When I came to I saw all these people with white gowns and beards and thought: This must be heaven. I've arrived."
After Mr. Crouter spent a year recuperating in hospital, the army, aware of his singing talent, offered him the chance to join the Army Show, a variety troupe that included the comedy duo Wayne and Shuster. The show visited bases in Britain, Rome, Paris and North Africa to help build morale. During a tour of duty, he fell in love with Kathleen Fox, a fellow entertainer who came from Hamilton, Ont. The couple married around the time the war ended.
After the war, Mr. Crouter was offered a job with the BBC. He later told a radio interviewer that he missed Canadian hot dogs and hamburgers and had had enough of fish and chips. He returned home in 1946 with plans to continue a singing career. Instead, a chance meeting led to him hosting a noontime show called The Home Folks Hour on CHEX, a small radio station in his home town of Peterborough. The show was built around music requests from listeners. Mr. Crouter's friendly patter and resonant voice soon attracted the attention of stations in the United States. As he considered offers, he learned that CFRB, the oldest station in Canada, was holding auditions for an afternoon host. Up against more than 70 competitors, he didn't get the position but a couple of weeks later the station offered him a morning show. His salary jumped from $20 a week to $35. At the time no one knew what a morning show entailed, so Mr. Crouter was left to make it up. "I just about peed myself those first mornings," he recalled of his on-air jitters, when he was just 23.
As his career progressed, Mr. Crouter avoided any topic that could potentially divide an audience like sex, politics or religion. His son Glenn said it was key to his father's success, both on and off the air.
As Mr. Crouter fell in love with Toronto, his audience continued to grow, paradoxically abetted by the emerging medium of television.
"In those days, television went off the air at 10 p.m. so if you were following a story the first thing you'd do in the morning would be turn on the radio," Mr. Crouter said.
By the mid 1950s, Mr. Crouter had three children, Dale, Janice and Glenn, as well as a home in Thornhill, a Toronto suburb then considered the boonies. A great advantage of leaving for work at 4:30 a.m. was the lack of traffic. He calculated that by going 40 miles an hour he could make it to the station without encountering a single red light.
An early riser by nature, Mr. Crouter was also something of a night hawk who didn't need much sleep. According to his son Glenn, he used to say, "If you're going to live in the city you have to be part of the city, and the city doesn't go to sleep at 7 o'clock."
The demands of celebrity, his work schedule, and dedication to fundraising for causes such as Variety Village didn't leave a lot of extra time for family. Sunday nights, however, were sacrosanct, set aside for takeout Chinese food in order to give his wife a break from cooking, and for him to spend precious time with his children. The rest of the week, Mr. Crouter was all work and play.
An avid fan, and friends with many in the Toronto Argonauts and Maple Leaf organizations, Mr. Crouter felt it was part of his job to participate in his community. It was not unheard of for him to show up at work in a tuxedo, having been up all night partying. "There's nothing as sobering as turning on a microphone," he said. If he was inebriated, it was never evident on-air. The only time a listener might have wondered what was happening was in 1988 when he suffered a mini-stroke and for a few minutes his speech became garbled. He drove home but a subsequent check-up revealed his blood pressure was off the charts. On a doctor's advice, he gave up drinking. By this time, his first marriage had ended and he was married to Lynne Ryder, a younger advertising/publishing executive who loved horses and opera. The two met when she approached him, as part of her job, to help promote the jockey club and racing. As a member of the Turf Club, Mr. Crouter invited her to the track, something they both enjoyed. They married in Vienna on May 16, 1983, intent on avoiding a large Canadian wedding.
For a while, the Crouters owned a couple of thoroughbred horses, an expensive hobby they eventually relinquished after Mr. Crouter retired. "Wally never wanted to retire from work because he never considered it work," Ms. Crouter said.
At the height of his influence in the 1970s and 80s, Mr. Crouter had the highest-rated show in the city and his name was known across the country. Robert Holiday, a junior announcer at CFRB at the time, said, "When Wally walked down the halls you practically bowed. He was the chief pooh-bah."
Mr. Crouter had only to drop a hint about something needed by a charity and it would be forthcoming. He once casually mentioned the beautiful lines of a new Cadillac and one was waiting in the parking lot before his show finished, not that he would ever accept it.
Mr. Crouter could easily have moved into a major U.S. market and commanded a huge salary, but he loved Toronto. He often referred to it as the greatest city in the world. "My dad really was Mr. Toronto," Glenn Crouter said. If proof is needed, it exists in a walkway named Wally Crouter Way behind the former offices of CFRB at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue.
In 1996, on the day of Mr. Crouter's last shift, then-prime-minister Jean Chrétien and former PM Brian Mulroney participated in an on-air tribute during a special broadcast from the Westin Harbour Castle hotel. Guests included singers Gordon Lightfoot and Tony Bennett, and Maple Leafs forward Dick Duff. Mr. Crouter's folksy final words on the air offered this advice: "Forget yesterday. Think about tomorrow. But live today. Thank you. Thank you."
Mr. Crouter leaves his wife, Lynne; sons, Dale and Glenn; daughter, Janice; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.