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Bel Air's Bob Callahan receives a star on MPT's Walk of Fame

Bob Callahan had a voice for radio, but he also had a face and, most importantly, a personality for television.

The former Bel Air resident was honored Thursday for his pioneering work with Maryland Public Television, which presented him with a star on the Walk of Fame at the main entrance to the MPT headquarters in Owings Mills.

Now retired and living in Florida, Callahan, 77, and his wife, Tanna, drove to Maryland for the ceremony and to visit family in and around Harford County.

"Bel Air has a prominent place in my heart, as does the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting," he said in a phone interview a few hours prior to the ceremony. "They are two big chunks of my life."

Callahan said he was fortunate enough to be what he called "freelance talent" during a varied career that included radio, public and commercial television and advertising.

He and his sidekick James "Capt. Jim McMahan, were a popular morning duo on the "Bob and Jim Show" in the early and mid-1970s on WVOB Radio, an AM station that once served Bel Air, and later on WAMD in Aberdeen when a group headed by McMahan bought that station in 1978.

Most people who were around in its heyday remember the morning show and its two hosts, one of whom, McMahan, has been a Harford County councilman for the past eight years.

During the early '70s, public television was in its infancy, and Callahan's face became among the first associated with MPT.

'True pioneer'

"Bob was a true pioneer," said Fran Minakowski, special assistant to the president and CEO of MPT.

Callahan was host of a national public TV series called "The Old Houseworks" that was produced by the then-named Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting from 1980-1982 and which aired on 150 public TV stations in 40 states, according to MPT.

Minakowski noted that may people associated with MPT believe "The Old Houseworks" was a forerunner of popular home improvement how-to shows that came later on commercial television.

Callahan's early major on-camera gig with MPT was as host of the long-running series "Maryland Weekend" in the early 1970s, a live production in which Callahan would travel around the state, giving viewers helpful information on events near and far. He also served as the host of MPT specials devoted to the Baltimore City Fairs.

Minakowski said colleagues considered Callahan "a superb on-air host, but he was also the consummate voice-over artist."

John Davis, senior executive producer and host of MPT's long-running national series "Motorweek," recalled that he tapped Callahan for duty on broadcasts of special sporting events that MPT aired in those years.

Exciting times

"What I remember most is being there [MPT] in its infancy," Callahan recalled. "It was all about being there and finding your way and learning how talented you could be, finding that direction. It was exciting for all of us."

He also recalled "traveling all over Maryland" and shooting 16 millimeter video, "which was considered state-of-the then; now you can store a whole weeks worth of shooting on a memory card."

He said he is happy that others are being honored who were instrumental in MPT's growth. "You know," he added, "the easiest job is to be the on-air talent; you just show up and do what you're told."

MPT initiated its Walk of Fame in 2010 with the induction of Rhea Feikin, followed by Davis in 2011, Jeff Salkin and Dr. Frederick Breitenfeld in 2012 and the late Louis Rukeyser and "Miss Jean" Worthley last year. Inducted with Callahan this year were the late Lary Lewman and the late Alfie Brown.

"I think it's way overdue," said Callahan's son, Steve, who lives in Bel Air and said he appreciates the recognition his father is getting after all these years.

Steve and his brother, Sam, were adopted by Callahan when he married their mother. Bob Callahan also has a daughter, Lisa Golden, from an earlier marriage. The elder Callahans also have four grandchildren.

Steve Callahan, who owns Just Gents men's hairstyling in Bel Air, said he father has many accomplishments beyond those at MPT.

"People may not realize it, but the Orioles gave him a jersey No. 66, which they retired," after his father sat in center field at the old Memorial Stadium for 66 straight hours to publicize the team's drive to its first World Series Championship in 1966, Steve Callahan said. At the time, Bob Callahan was working for WBAL Radio.

Steve Callahan also pointed out his father hosted or co-hosted shows on commercial television – "Evening Magazine" and "Kid's Baffle" on WJZ-13, completed a 50-mile walk along on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as had the late Sen. Robert Kennedy and is the man responsible for the name "Jones Junction," the Jones family's collection of auto dealerships at Routes 1 and 147 in Fallston.

'Incredible partner'

McMahan said Callahan was "a most incredible partner" during the radio days.

"We never used a written script in over 20 years of doing the 'Bob and Jim Morning Show' together," he recalled. "There was a synergy between us that made it work. Can't tell you the number of morning we wore similar outfits.

"He joined me in Bel Air in about 1969 or 70 at WVOB," McMahan said. "We had both worked at WBAL but really did not know each other there."  

McMahan said the two cultivated a cast of regulars, among them Jimmy the Danish (Hamilton), Birdman (Todd Holden), Dr. Dick (Streett) Mayor of Churchville and Slick Greason Chief of Police of Churchville, "all characters without a script."

McMahan also said Callahan was a "master at the interview; he could put people at ease in seconds."

McMahan also said Callahan was a "giver," who emceed hundreds of banquets, fire company dinners and other community events and "never charged a dime." He said their own show was popular because it involved the community in the days before call-ins became the staple of AM radio.

"Anyone could call the station and be on the air," he said. "There were no stars, least of all Bob or Jim. The stars actually were the audience, and they were truly funny."

"No one deserves a Star on the Walk of Fame at MPTV more than my partner," he added.

Callahan said he and McMahan visited their old WAMD haunts earlier in the week, and he admits to often wondering about the evolution of the radio medium he started with in 1955 on WNAV in Annapolis.

"I just wonder how communities, particularly small communities, get their information today," he said. "We were very local, and when you had something happen like a snowstorm, it seemed like everyone would be tuned in."

Callahan also said he loved to emcee local events during his years in Harford, agreeing with McMahan that it was a way of giving back to his the community that treated him so well.

"Bel Air and Harford County were very good to us," he said. "We made a wonderful decision to settle there. It was just perfect."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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