Ralph Warren Hills, a top production manager at a Baltimore television station who helped shape what thousands of people viewed over four decades, from children's programming to live sporting events, died from complications of Parkinson's disease Thursday at Gilchrist Hospice in Towson. He was 73.
Hills, better known as Warren or "Hillsy" to his friends, was born and raised in Baltimore and worked in local television for most of his life before retiring 12 years ago from WBAL-TV.
His father was a doctor and his mother a homemaker and civic activist. Hills attended the Gilman School, where he made close, lifelong friends and was known for his talent in the technical aspects of theater productions, managing lighting, sound and other tasks.
"Even in high school, his technical abilities shown through in theater productions at Gilman," said George Barker, a close friend who knew Hills since preschool. "He was a very creative person."
Hills attended Princeton University, though he did not graduate. He did a six-month stint in the Army and then decided to pursue a career in television, his family said.
In the early 1960s, Hills worked for Bert Claster Productions on "Romper Room," a successful children's show produced in Baltimore and distributed to local television stations across the country.
In those days, Claster Productions aired close to 20 live productions each week on Baltimore channels, with daily "Romper Room" shows, daytime and weekend bowling shows, and a game show called "It's in the Name," said Samuel "Mac" McLanahan, a friend of Hills from Claster.
"It was a busy time with so many local shows," McLanahan said. "He was a really smart guy. When it came to technical things and figuring things out, he had a great engineering mind."
In the mid-1960s, Hills left Claster for WBAL-TV, where he stayed for the rest of his television career, working as a producer and director. He mentored many younger employees, including Brent "Bucky" Gunts, who now leads production of the Olympic Games for NBC.
"He pretty much taught me how to be a director," Gunts said. "He took me under his wing and taught me how to direct. … He was extremely meticulous. He was a real stickler for detail, and he was so technically knowledgeable for a director."
Hills produced the station's live events, including sports and telethons. He handled the graphics and electronics for the station's live coverage of elections and also made commercials for the station's advertisers.
Greg Novick, owner of Greg's Bagels in North Baltimore, remembers working closely with Hills in the 1970s, when Novick was head of advertising at Hutzler's department store. He said they would go out to dinner frequently to plan commercials, and then spend late nights producing them in the studio.
"We had fun; we laughed a lot," Novick said. "But he was a guy who did not suffer fools, and he was a perfectionist. If the client's ideas [stunk], Warren would find a way to say, 'Hey, we can find a way to make this better.' Several times he kicked me out of my own sessions."
Don Horner, who worked for Hills at the station and succeeded him upon Hills' retirement, noted that Hills worked in television when there were many more locally produced programs than there are today.
"There was a lot more going on and that's when he shined," said Horner, WBAL-TV's senior producer and director. "If you were working on a project, you wanted Warren involved in it because you knew it would be done right.
"If he's in heaven, television in heaven just got a lot better because of him," Horner said.
Hills met his future wife, Leslie Wehberg, at the station in the mid-1970s while directing the half-hour Maryland State Lottery show. Wehberg was an assistant producer on the program and later became the "Lottery Girl," spinning the wheels that revealed the lottery numbers.
They were married for nearly 30 years.
Leslie Hills left the television station and went to work for American Airlines, which enabled the couple to travel all over the world, she said.
But what her husband loved best was the theater, and the couple were regulars at productions in Baltimore and New York.
"His favorite thing in the whole world was musical theater," Hills said. "We'd go up to New York every couple months to hit a show. That's what we liked to do."
Hills is survived by his wife and his brother, J. Dixon Hills, of Baltimore. The funeral service is private. Donations in Hills' memory can be made to the Gilman School or Gilchrist Hospice.