R.I.P. Barbara Walters (and Her Connection to Vaudeville)

We learned the sad news about the passing of Barbara Walters (1929-2022) late last night. I would have eulogized her anyway on account of her own pathbreaking work in the television field, and my memories of her, but what seals the deal for inclusion in the Travalanche annals is that she is second generation show biz: her father worked behind the scenes in vaudeville and related areas of show business. So we start with him, for it provides good context.

Lou Walters (1898-1977) was born in London, the son of Jewish tailor named Abraham Warmwater. When Lou was a child the family moved to New York. He found work as an office boy in a vaudeville booking agency. Once he learned the ropes, he started his own booking firm and moved to Boston. (Not so crazy a move as it might seem: Boston was where B.F. Keith founded his vaudeville circuit, and where many Broadway shows opened out of town). Walters is said to have discovered major performers like Boston locals Jack Haley, Fred Allen, and Benny Rubin.

After vaudeville died in the early ’30, Walter partnered with E.M. Loew (owner of a string of theatre chains, unrelated to Marcus Loew) to start the version of The Latin Quarter nightclub in Boston in 1937. This was the age of the tony supper club with floor shows featuring top singers, comedians, singers, dance teams, chorus lines, and big bands. This club was a smash success, so Walters moved his family to Miami, purchased Earl Carroll’s Palm Island Club and rebranded it the Latin Quarter, as well. In 1942 he opened the New York branch of the Latin Quarter, right in the heart of Times Square and it ended up being the most famous iteration of the club yet, giving the Copacabana (est. 1940) a run for its money. And now that he was a success in New York, Walters branched into Broadway, producing the shows The Ziegfeld Follies of 1943, Artists and Models (1943), and Take a Bow (1944). This was his peak.

In 1956, Walters sold his interests in the Latin Quarter to Loew, and attempted to start a new chain of clubs called the Cafe de Paris in Miami in New York. In these cases, he miscalculated. The clubs were too large to make their nut, they imploded, and Walters went broke, lost everything, and was unable to pay his creditors, who sued. At this juncture, he attempted suicide. But fortunately he was able to turn his life around, and eventually got his mojo back on a more modest basis as a producer, entertainment director and hotel manager, working at places like the Hotel Deauville in Miami, the Tropicana in Las Vegas, and the Casino de Paris in Lake Tahoe. One of his coups during these years was being the first to import the Folies Bergere floor show from Paris to the United States.

Thus, a little context for all of those celebrity “gets” Barbara Walters brought to television audiences throughout her career. She grew up knowing literally everybody in show business, at least everyone who had performed live. An interview with the likes of Fred Astaire, pictured above? Television segments like that would have been among the first places I ever heard about vaudeville. Most of us of a certain age remember quite clearly when Walters catapulted to the front of the popular consciousness with a one-two-three sequence, first by being named co-host of NBC’s popular Today show in 1974, and then the first female co-anchor of the ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner in 1976 and then co-host of 20/20 with Hugh Downs in 1979.

Walters had been a familiar face before that of course. She had been on the Today show since the early ’60s, initially as one of the “Today Girls”, female personalities on the show who did lighter reporting and interviews. Unlike most of the others (Florence Henderson and Lee Meriwether among them), Walters had a good bit more journalistic substance to her. Educated at the best schools, she had worked in local television as a writer and reporter, and been a writer at Redbook magazine. From 1971 to 1976 she hosted her own talk show Not for Women Only, which was syndicated to local affiliates. She didn’t just do celebrity interviews, she rapidly expanded into substantive interviews of the most important newsmakers of the day, world leaders, politicians, and so forth, and in the end proved not just to be the equal of men in the business, but without a peer, at least for many years.

In 1997 she created The View, which some younger View-viewers (!) may not realize, as she has been off the show since around 2014, around the time she retired.

I won’t say we won’t see her like again; she’d hate to hear that, I imagine. The whole point was that she opened a door for all the other women to walk through. But, it could well be the case that we won’t hear her like again. In addition to that adorable speech impediment that Gilda Radner poked fun of on Saturday Night Live, Walters possessed that “New York posh” dialect I also associate with public figures like William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, and Jackie Kennedy, and which has now died out almost to the point of extinction. (It still exists, I most recently heard a lady speak like that in the 2020 Jeffrey Epstein doc series Filthy Rich. It’s rarer and rarer in show business though. Americans, taken as a whole, seem to have abandoned the overall goal of being classy many decades ago.) Walters wasn’t perfect of course. She once dated Roy Cohn, who helped her father out of his legal jams, and her last interview, I understand, was with Donald and Melania. What a note to go out on! I prefer to think of her as depicted in the above photo — a feminist icon, interviewing a President with actual aspirations to do good in the world.

I won’t just miss her, I’ll miss everything she represents.