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Mr. Show Biz Lights Up the Sky for Billions

October 20, 1985|PATRICK MOTT

You want Tommy Walker's office to look like Versailles, but it doesn't. You want him to come swinging into the room on a jib halyard like Errol Flynn and be dressed like Liberace, but he isn't.

You think he ought to be able to strike sparks off a shag carpet in his slippers or genie up lightning with his bare hands or out-swashbuckle Zorro.

But he doesn't.

What he does, dressed in conservative clothes, speaking softly and working out of an obscure Newport Beach office the size of a small apartment, is make people gasp. Millions of people, sometimes billions. All at once.

Walker deals in oohs and ahs. He gets paid to make people's jaws drop. He assembles entertainment spectaculars for a living, and the tools of his trade are balloons and pigeons, fireworks and bands, singers and dancers, rocket men and space ships and lasers, all fueled by a fertile imagination.

He probably is the best-known practitioner of his trade in the world, his handiwork having been seen during the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games by a television audience estimated at more than 2 billion. Walker directed both shows.

A partial list of Walker's credits could make P.T. Barnum weak in the knees. He has produced spectaculars for world's fairs at New York, Spokane, Knoxville and New Orleans, the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, half-time shows for three Super Bowls and 10 Pro Bowls, inaugurals for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Fourth of July shows at stadiums in seven U.S. cities, the finale to the film "The Music Man" and the opening ceremonies for Disneyland in 1955.

His office wall is lined with autographed photos and congratulatory letters from presidents and celebrities and includes one telling item, a reproduction of the front page of a newspaper published the day after the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The banner headline on the page, referring to an accompanying story about the opening ceremonies, consists of a single gigantic word: WOW!

Contained in that word is Walker's goal--and his reward.

"That's the real payoff," he said. "You feel very good when you can do something that's meaningful, something that will get people turned on. That's one of the happiest moments you can have."

Although Walker, 62, doesn't appear personally to fit the mold of a Florenz Ziegfeld or a Billy Rose, the tradition of show biz flash and dash has been a part of him since his youth. In fact, at his alma mater, USC--not a school known for turning out shrinking violets--he became, and remains, one of the university's most famous and gaudy curiosities.

In his undergraduate years as a music major in the early 1940s, Walker was known as "Tommy the Toe." The name evolved out of Walker's odd double duty on football game days: He was the Trojans' place kicker but was also the drum major of the Trojan marching band.

"I just did the pregame show with the band," he said. "I wore my drum major's uniform over my football outfit and I didn't wear any pads." When an extra-point situation materialized, he simply peeled off the band uniform, trotted on the field and kicked.

He kicked well enough to get a contract after his graduation, with the Washington Redskins. But after a short time, he said, "I looked around at all those huge guys and said, 'Hey, this is stupid.' "

A call from USC saved Walker from the terrors of behemoth professional footballers. He was asked to return to the university and direct the Trojan marching band. He accepted and held the post until 1955.

Walker was responsible for the use of two of the band's most famous musical numbers. He persuaded Hollywood composer Alfred Newman to allow the band to use an excerpt from Newman's score to the film "Captain From Castille" at games. The song is known today as "Conquest." Also, during his undergraduate years as "Tommy the Toe," he wrote a six-note fanfare--actually more of a bugle call--that is known in every sports stadium in America today as a prompt for the crowd to yell "charge!"

In 1955, after Walker had assembled the band's half-time show for the Rose Bowl game, he received a telephone call from Walt Disney. Over lunch, Disney asked Walker if he would be interested in producing the opening ceremonies for his new theme park in Anaheim. Walker ended up staying with Disney for 12 years as Disneyland's director of entertainment and customer relations.

While at Disneyland, Walker helped design the Disney cartoon character costumes now so often in evidence at the park and used them extensively in other shows around the country featuring Disney themes, such as a Fourth of July celebration in Evanston, Ill., in 1956.

It was at that show that Walker used a synchronized fireworks display for the first time--fireworks timed to music and narration. That innovation still is used today at Disneyland on every summer night.

In 1967, Walker left Disney to begin his own production company.

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