John Leigh “Johnnie” Walters
February 24, 1933 – February 26, 2023
Lifetimes: Funny, quirky broadcaster was local TV personality
By Valerie Hill Special to the Record – Sun., March 19, 2023
In a 1980s episode of CKCO TV’s “Trivia Company” host Johnnie Walters strolls down King Street in Kitchener, posing a real stumper of a question to pedestrians: Who was the last king of Italy?
It was King Victor Emmanuel III but, not surprisingly, no one approached by the microphone-wielding Johnnie had the answer. One woman wouldn’t even get off the pay phone (remember them?) when he approached her, though she does crack jokes with Johnnie. Another woman kept stuffing her mouth with muffin as he was asking the question.
This was Johnnie’s magic, the ability to capture the funniest, quirkiest moments with people he met, largely because they felt comfortable around him, felt drawn to his sense of fun.
Johnnie died on Feb. 26, two days after his 90th birthday. And what a legacy he left.
“He was a fantastically unique individual, not your standard broadcaster,” said Don Willcox, the station’s former program manager.
“He was an exuberant and creative personality, brilliantly goofy,” added Willcox, noting that whether Johnnie was randomly phoning people from the phone book, or catching them on the streets, he made people in Waterloo Region feel they were part of the show.
Though he came across as a big personality, a real showman, in his downtime Johnnie was a quiet and humble man, said former colleague Linda Richards. He was good in the studio, but out on the street speaking to people he really shone, she said.
“He loved to be out doing pieces with people. He was so funny,” said Linda.
“Trivia Company” ran from 1984 to 1988 and won a broadcasting award each year.
Johnnie was born Feb. 24, 1933, in Beamsville to Hungarian-born Zarah Petri and German-born John Walters, one of three boys. At 17 he started working at radio stations around southwestern Ontario and in London, he met Jackie Barnes, the station’s music librarian. They married in 1958.
When he was offered jobs in the U.S., the couple left Canada, moving around as Johnnie hosted television and radio shows until settling in Cleveland, where their daughters Leigh and Aubrey were born and where Johnnie worked at WHK from 1959 to 1967.
The progressive rock station was credited with having a major role in sparking change in American popular music. Artists clamoured to be featured on the airwaves.
During his time in the U.S., Johnnie met John Lennon, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Sammy Davis Jr., and had lunch with Barbra Streisand and Bobby Kennedy. The couple were also friends of Rosemary Clooney and cuddled her nephew George when he was an infant.
Johnnie had career prospects in the U.S. and had been considered to host “The Newlywed Game” television show, said daughter Aubrey. But the couple decided to come back home to Ontario, closer to family, and moved to Waterloo, where he joined CKCO-TV.
Johnnie had pitched the idea of a new game show, “Horoscope Dollars,” to Willcox and was hired.
“I was impressed with Johnnie’s American (work) background,” said Willcox.
Fran Pappert-Shannon, who portrayed “Romper Room’s” Miss Fran, was a colleague and loved Johnnie’s sense of humour. He was a man who “came alive in front of the cameras,” she said.
“He was silly, he was fun, lots of energy,” added Aubrey, noting he was a superb father, very warm and loving.
During his two decades at CKCO, Johnnie hosted several shows: “Horoscope Dollars” from 1974-76; “The Johnnie Walters Show,” from 1976-81; “Tempo Ontario” from 1981-82; “Trivia Company” from 1983-87 and “Morning Magazine” from 1987-94.
His stories from an incredible career sparked the idea of writing his memoir. He did try, Aubrey said, but his mother’s story of immigration, perseverance and spunk dominated his thoughts. He once told a reporter, “My mother entered the stage and pushed me off.”
As he did with everything in his life, Johnnie didn’t follow any prescribed format. Autobiographies are usually written by the person whose life is being told. But Johnnie chose to write her story himself, using Zarah’s voice.
“A Very Capable Life” was published in 2010 and won a national $10,000 prize, the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.
Zarah was in her 90s when he pitched the idea, interviewing her over several months. By the time the book was done, Zarah’s mind was engulfed by Alzheimer’s. She died at 96.
Johnnie was a good writer and was working on a novel. He also painted canvases in an impressionist style. The man just oozed creativity.
He retired from CKCO in 1994 at age 61, largely to help care for the widowed Zarah. The couple moved to Kitchener 15 years ago. Jackie died in 2021. (Correction by website owner – Johnnie’s contract at CKCO-TV ended in 1990 and was not renewed. In 1992, through the help of John Bassett, he revived “Trivia Company” and aired streeters without a studio set until 1994. The shows ran on CFPL-TV in London, Ontario and CFTO-TV in Toronto, Ontario. Johnnie retired from broadcasting in 1994.)
“Family was everything to him,” said Aubrey. “He laughed a lot, and laughed loudly.”
John Leigh “Johnnie” Walters (February 24, 1933 — February 26, 2023) was a Canadian broadcaster and television personality known for his on-air improvisation and sense of humour. He is best known for his long affiliation with CKCO-TV in Kitchener, Ontario.
He was born in Beamsville, Ontario to Hungarian-born Irene Walters and German-born John Walters, and had two brothers. When he was 17, he started working at radio stations around southwestern Ontario. While working in London, Ontario, he met Jackie Barnes, the station’s music librarian, marrying in 1958.
He was offered work in the United States when the president of Metromedia’s Cleveland station was driving through Toronto and heard Walters DJing on CKEY. He was offered a job at WHK-AM and settled in Cleveland where the couple’s two daughters were born. He was a disc jockey WHK from 1959 to 1965 and also hosted a television pop music show on WEWS-TV.In 1965, he moved to Cincinnati to co-host a daily afternoon show on WLW-TV with Vivian Della Chiesa that was syndicated on several other stations until 1968 when the show was cancelled and replaced with The Phil Donahue Show.
From 1969 to 1973 he was at KTVI in St. Louis where he hosted Dialing for Dollars and The Big Money Movie. According to Harold Ramis in Dave Thomas’s book, SCTV: Behind The Scenes, the SCTV “Dialing For Dollars” spoofs were based on the show of that name hosted by Walters.
Walters was considered for hosting The Newlywed Game but the couple decided to move back to southern Ontario to be close to family.
Walters joined CKCO-TV as the host of Horoscope Dollars from 1974 to 1976, a low-budget show featuring Walters calling area residents at random with a question, the correct answer to which depended on them viewing that particular show. Some of the most entertaining moments came during the time spent dialing and waiting for numbers to connect, as he engaged in informal banter with offscreen crew and organist Pat Ludwig.
From 1976 to 1981, Walters hosted The Johnnie Walters Show, an hour-long weekday morning program featuring guests, an exercise segment, horoscopes, and a cooking segment. Later, he joined a mid-weekday news/information program with Betty Thompson (Miss Betty from CKCO’s Romper Room) and Bill Inkol (CKCO sports director).
Walters hosted Tempo Ontario from 1981 to 1982 and Trivia Company on CKCO from 1983 to 1987. This half-hour show was done in a game show format, and featured Walters taking a mobile unit on the street asking various people trivia questions for cash prizes that were often accompanied by a “Certificate of Genius”. On the latter was written a brief but grandiloquent speech, read on-air by the prize-winner, which proclaimed them “A genius, and certainly not a jerk.” Walters frequently reacted exuberantly whenever contestants indicated they might have an inkling of what the answer might be (and sometimes even when they didn’t), bellowing his catchphrase, “This guy (or lady) knows the answer!” stentoriously to draw in passersby to the spectacle in front of the camera. The show was revived in 1992 by CFPL-TV in London and CFTO-TV in Toronto and finished production in 1994.
He also hosted Morning Magazine on CKCO from 1987 to 1994. (Correction by website owner – Johnnie’s contract at CKCO-TV ended in 1990 and was not renewed so his connection with Morning Magazine ended in 1990) Walters was also an occasional fill-in weatherman on the late edition of CKCO news, becoming one of those who wore the classic CKCO red jacket.
In 2010, Walters published a memoir about his mother titled A Very Capable Life: The Autobiography of Zarah Petri, which won the 2010 Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction.