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Donald N. Walls, film and theater critic, dies

Donald N. Walls, a retired film and theater critic who appeared on radio and television for nearly three decades, died of dementia complications Feb. 19 at Storey Oaks Memory Care in Oklahoma City. The former Northeast Baltimore and Bel Air resident was 82.

“For more than 20 years, Don Walls brought a wonderful sense of irreverence and provocative criticism to his movie reviews when he appeared regularly on Maryland Public Television's “The Critics' Place” from 1974 to 1984 and WBAL radio from 1971 to 1999,” said a 2007 article in The Sun.

Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Charles Albert Walls, a grocer, and his wife, Leona Zink. In a memoir, Mr. Walls recalled being raised by family friends, the Twilleys on Baker Street in West Baltimore. He was a graduate of St. Edward’s School and Mount Saint Joseph High School. He studied journalism at New York University.

Mr. Walls recalled that one Sunday during his high school years, after attending Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption, an aunt took him to a late breakfast at the Bickford lunchroom and a matinee at the Stanley Theatre on North Howard Street. He noticed a help-wanted sign for an usher — called attaches by the management — at the large theater. He got the job.

“Standing before the mirror, [he] saw himself handsomely attired in maroon trousers, a gray double-breasted jacket with gold buttons and maroon cuffs and collar,” Mr. Walls wrote in his memoir. “A celluloid bib with a winged collar snapped around the neck and a maroon bow tie was fixed under the wing tip collar. Maroon shoes, highly polished, and white cotton gloves completed the image.”

Mr. Walls met his future wife, Bernadette Mannion, who worked at the Stanley’s candy and popcorn stand. He wrote that while she trusted him to restock her counter, he was terrible at making change. In their subsequent marriage, she handled all the finances.

He showed movie patrons to their seats and at times stood on the Howard Street sidewalk attired in a military style cap and cape, and called out, “Immediate seating in the balcony.”

He was fascinated by the glamour of films and was struck by the publicity photos of the Warner Bros. stars whose productions played the Stanley.

One day, the theater’s manager asked him to run an errand around the corner to the Vagabond Players, a community theater group then performing in the basement of the Congress Hotel on West Franklin Street. He became fascinated by live performance — he went on to have a few small roles — and ingratiate himself to the local acting community.

He remained interested in film and put together money to make a documentary about the life of St. Cabrini, a Roman Catholic nun who worked among immigrants. The film, “Cabrini,” premiered at the old Catholic Daughters of America Hall and was reviewed by The Sun in 1957. He used St. Vincent’s Church, Pier 3 Pratt Street and Clifton Mansion for location shots.

A year later, a friend from the Vagabonds got him work as an extra on the film “The Goddess,” starring Kim Stanley. The movie was shot, in part, in Ellicott City.

“It was was quite a day and on the return trip to Baltimore in the taxi … [I] savored the day and thought of a future in which [I] might be included in the exciting world of filmmaking. [I] was amazed that [I] had been paid one hundred dollars for a few hours working in the film, which was three times more than [I] made working sixty hours a week as an attaché in the Stanley Theatre,” he wrote.

In 1962 he wrote a musical comedy based on the silent movie serial “The Perils of Pauline.” The live performance premiered at the Strawhat Theater in Owings Mills.

“Elane Stein used to say to listeners, ‘Don Walls is the only guy who gets dressed up for radio,' and was always making cracks about my purple shoes, whether I was wearing them or not," he said in the 2007 interview.

Mr. Walls became public relations assistant at the old State Road commission before he was an editor at The Daily Record, which published legal and business news from an office on Saratoga Street. He wrote theater and film reviews for The Daily Record. He later worked for the Baltimore Property Owners Association and retired from the Baltimore City school system, where he was an analyst.

His daughter, Valerie LaPaglia of Edmund, Okla., said her father was a hard worker and took on a second job so she and her sister could attend college debt-free. “My father worked a second job at night in a parking garage,” she said.

After his wife’s 2003 death, he moved from Sherwood Avenue in Northeast Baltimore to a Bel Air condominium, where he had a mini-film theater constructed.

“Don loved entertainment. It was his life. He kept a hallway full of stars’ pictures and film posters,” said his son-in-law and caregiver, Peter LaPaglia. “You could ask any question about a movie. He had a fabulous long-term memory. He loved musicals — and Bette Davis, but not Joan Crawford.”

“I don’t go to movies anymore because the audiences are rude and noisy,” Mr. Walls said in the 2007 Sun article. “And the films are so loud because of surround sound. People used to be refined when they went to the movies, but no more, " he said.

Services are private.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include another daughter, DiAnna Walls of Allentown, Pa.; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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