In Memoriam–Flo Ayres, Media Maven

The author and Flo Ayres at one of Flo’s frequent, impromptu get-togethers on her back porch.

My husband and I moved to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, from our Mount Washington neighborhood in Baltimore in the late summer of 2017. We treasured our friendship with our across-the-street neighbor, Flo Ayres and kept in touch by telephone and email, albeit sporadically. She’d always end our conversations with, “When are you coming to visit, Babe?”

The pandemic foiled our travel plans again and again–until finally, a few weeks ago, we had a trip scheduled to our son’s and daughter-in-law’s baby shower in Ocean City. We figured we would stop in to see Flo–maybe play a game of Rummikub, maybe order a pizza from Pepe’s.

We dialed her cell number. Disconnected.

We dialed her home number. Disconnected.

With dread, I Googled her name, as I had done hundreds of times while researching the piece I’m publishing on my blog today. Flo Ayres passed away in January of 2022, from complications of COVID-19, at age 98. Both my husband and I cried. We loved her. Like so many people loved her.

Flo with my husband, Rich, at Flo’s favorite local Greek restaurant.

So I thought about how she gifted me with an in-depth interview about her life before I moved. I drafted the piece in a rented condo down here while my husband and I looked for a place to live. I called Flo frequently for fact-checks, going back to reference scans of early articles about her in all manner of publications.

Although “real” journalists don’t have to share their finished profiles with their subjects, I called Flo to read it to her before submitting it to a local editor of a Baltimore publication, to whom I had pitched the idea and prearranged publication. Flo was highly complimentary, she said I got it right. She said a dozen other kind things, so kind I had tears in my eyes at the end of the call. I told her I would call her back after arranging the photo shoot at her home with the editor.

I think Flo enjoyed the shoot, even though it broke her hard and fast rule about no visitors before 10 AM. Shortly after the shoot, the editor called me and told me that due to space constraints, I–or she–would have to cut the profile piece by more than half.

I honestly don’t think it was my ego–I just wasn’t happy telling a “text” version of her story–so abbreviated in my view that it no longer rang true, conveying the depth of her character and influence. I asked Flo what she thought, and she said, “Janet, do what you think is right. Pull it.”

I told her I would for sure keep looking for a suitable place for my piece about her. And it turns out the place is here, on my home page, in my heart.

Thank you for reading about my remarkable friend.

Flo Ayres, Media Maven

Abruptly, Flo Ayres shifts forward on her couch, placing both hands forcefully on her knees and commanding even more of my attention if that’s possible. I’ve been interviewing her for more than 40 minutes now, and just at this moment I no longer see my 94-year-old neighbor and friend, but the tremendously influential on-air star she was in the Baltimore recording industry for more than sixty years.

We’re on the subject of her professional relationship with her longtime radio partner, Walt Teas—a creative and comedic collaboration as a radio team that just clicked and propelled them both to a place where they could make it as actors, working together for the next fifty years.

Her brown eyes bore into mine. I stop taking notes. The room crackles with the current of suspense that only voltaic storytellers can summon. She’s about to reveal something critical about her professional trajectory–about the time she knew she could finally quit her full-time job and support herself as a character actress in Baltimore—and I had better get it right, because she is trusting me to tell her story.

 “Have you ever met a person that you were so tuned into that they could almost finish your sentences?”

I write this down. I know this is an important quote, because it’s precisely how I felt when I met Flo Ayres for the first time in the spring of 2014.

            I recall it was the day after I moved in—Flo yoo-hooed me as I got out of my car on the way home from work. I walked over to her house across the street, and she introduced herself and invited me in, presenting me with a two-page typed note of all the important stuff you’d ever want to know about a new place. The best dry cleaners. The closest grocery store. A decent pizza. When I met my next-door neighbor later in the week, I mentioned I had met Flo and she had given me the scoop on everything in Mount Washington.

“She’s our Mayor,” he said simply.

Flo grew up the fourth of four children in East Baltimore. In 1924, when she was just one year old, her Mother became a single parent. Things were difficult, but Flo doesn’t focus on that—she simply speaks about the tools that helped her survive. For one, her tremendous and vivid imagination, which provided a mental avenue for temporary escape. This, combined with a sense of humor and a creative determination as wide as Roland Avenue “took me out of that element totally,” she says.

 “You say to yourself, ‘this isn’t going to happen to me,’” she says.

As a child, Flo discovered she had a strange and largely unappreciated gift: the ability to mimic family members, neighbors and complete strangers. In junior high school, Flo’s Home economics teacher told her if she spent at least the same energy in class as she did in the school drama club, she’d be an excellent student. Of Home Economics, of course, which didn’t interest young Flo in the least.

The many faces of Flo…

But what did happen in junior high was a field trip to a local radio station—WFBR in Baltimore, where she got her first taste of the microphone.

“That was my undoing,” Flo deadpans. “I just went nuts over that microphone. I was bonkers over it.”

So started her lifelong love affair with radio as a character actress.

After high school, and to the great dismay of her Mother, Flo studied with a small Baltimore theatre—the Ramsey Street School of Drama—on 25th Street. William Ramsey Street eradicated all traces of Flo’s Baltimore accent (which she later used in her career to great acclaim)—and put Flo in small productions every other month.

Flo knew she was a character actress because Street “just kept throwing characters at me, and I was doing them.”

“Some of my best characters came from people around me,” she says. Flo would stand in line at the bank and take in the conversations in front and behind her, and incorporate those little vocal mannerisms in her characters.

After three years, however, there was still no money for college. Flo simply says, “I knew I had to have a career.”

She got herself a job at a real estate office, but told her employer she would need time off now and then for auditions. To this day, Flo remembers his kindness, and speaks of this job with a lilt of gratitude. In the evenings, Flo would overhear her Mother whining on the telephone to relatives.

“I just don’t know what’s going to become of her,” she’d say. “She could get herself a steady job as a receptionist, but she keeps doing this…this…auditioning.”

“I always had a job while I was working on making a living as an actress,” Flo says, smiling broadly and directly at me. I know she means to be encouraging.

My mind wanders briefly to all the full-time jobs I’ve had that clearly did not play to my strengths. Sure, I can whip up an email faster and better than most as a writer—but I’ve worked long days in insurance, academia, and now government—staying up nights and spending weekends polishing freelance pieces so that I can feel that honest sweat and suspension of time that happens when you are doing what you love to do. Twenty-seven years Flo’s junior, and still I dream of saying bye-bye to nine-to-five.

Working five days a week, auditioning, and constantly setting your sights on the career you want is an exhausting, yet powerfully motivating way to live.

“This is going to sound like a movie,” Flo says of her first real break into the business.

“I was listening to the radio one day, it was a Sunday afternoon, and there was a Baltimore department store called Schleisner’s that sponsored this full program, a drama, with actors. And I sat there thinking, ‘I have got to get on this program.’”

At the close of the show, the announcer listed the Director, Donald Spatz. Flo did a little research, and found out where they rehearsed above a theatre downtown. Naturally, she showed up at the next rehearsal.

“I went up there like I belonged there, and sat in the corner of the room while the cast was getting together, thinking, what the hell is going to happen next?”

Turns out the lead actress—Ann Marr, who had her own show on channel two in Baltimore at the time—couldn’t make it that day—her children were sick.

The show’s sponsor was becoming agitated, pacing back and forth. He strode over to where Flo sat and grumbled a gruff “Who are you?”

“I’m an actress,” Flo said.

“You’re an actress?” he said. “Give me a script.”

Someone ran him a script, which he promptly thrust at Ayres. “

“Read the part that says ‘Ann Marr,’” he demanded. Flo read.

And that was that. Flo was on that series for as long as it lasted.

Steady work for an actor is the portfolio-builder that allows your name to be known in a town like Baltimore. But Flo Ayres was not always Flo Ayres—in fact, her stage name was born a few years earlier, on the initial airing of the first real show she had featuring her alone: a loosely-produced children’s program out of the Leon Golnick Advertising Agency called “Song and Story.”

“My cousin worked at the agency and got me this job,” Flo says.

Flo walked into the studio and met the producer, Norman Gladney. They were about to go on the air, and Gladney turns to her and says, “What’s your name?” and Flo replies, “Florence Aronson.”

            “No,” he says, “I mean your professional name.”
            “I don’t have one,” she said.

            “You don’t have one?” he said, “We’re going on the air in a few minutes—you can’t go on the air with that name!”

            At the time, Flo recalls, Semitic names were unheard of in the industry. Basically, you wouldn’t get work with a last name like Aronson.

            “You’re Flo Ayres,” Gladney said.

            “Flo Ayres,” Flo repeated. And that was her name for her whole career.

            Did she feel something lost, a sense of identity removed at that session?
            “Not at all,” Flo says confidently. “I thought, I’m a real professional now. I’m Flo Ayres.”

I think of Flo at that moment in that recording session when she was handed a new identity, and I am inspired. The ability to face change in all its forms—be it abrupt and traumatic or evolutionary and gradual—is a sorely underrated survival mechanism, in my view. Though Flo and I have not spoken of it, we share this offbeat perspective that allows us to view almost anything that happens to us as a necessary gift on our path to personal growth. On the commute to my first full-time job after 22 years as a stay-at-home Mom and freelance writer, I remember singing the theme song to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” out loud in the car. “Who can turn the world on with her smile? /Who can take a nothing day, and certainly make it all seem worthwhile?”

Flo’s real love was commercials because she could do a lot of characters. Also, commercials were often syndicated, and as a union member (Flo has been a member of AFTRA/SAG for 67 years) you would get paid for not just the one-time recording session, but the period of time that the commercial ran or aired.

When Flo met Walt Teas by chance in the early 1960s, he was the “morning man” on a station called WFBR in Baltimore. He shared Flo’s love of character acting.

“We recognized immediately that we were absolutely tuned into each other, and we started talking about doing projects together,” she says.

It was a gutsy, nervy plan, but Ayres and Teas picked out some of the flattest, most monotonous, tiresome commercials on the air and noted their advertising agencies. They’d go into the studio, rewrite the spots, and then make an appointment with the agency’s producer.

“It’s a wonder they didn’t throw our behinds out of there,” Flo says.

They’d march boldly into the meeting and play the original spot—and then perform their own side-splitting version.

“I hesitate to say this, but ours was always better,” Flo says. “Their spots were straight—we did accents, we did humor. We’d have the producers rolling on the floor.”

Work started coming in, and they both were able to join the union. They weren’t making a fortune, but they were working a lot—and producers were knocking on their doors. Teas and Ayres became known as the premier Baltimore man-woman team for successful commercial spots. The Washington, DC markets opened up, and they were getting considerable work there, too.

The big break happened when Leon Golnick had the brainchild to syndicate automotive commercials. Dealerships in rural areas all over the nation couldn’t afford advertising with a jingle and professional announcers; they were stuck with the on-air announcer reading their commercials. Golnick decided to package pre-produced commercials featuring Ayres and Teas, simply inserting the local dealership name into the spot at prearranged positions. It was genius at the time.

Flo and Walt loved it best when they were the writers—very often producers would give them the essence of the sales message and simply let them do their thing.

“It’s your purpose to make the message so good that they buy the product,” Flo says.

And buy the product they did. But that didn’t mean it was all smooth sailing for Flo Ayres. In fact, she talks about a time when she noticed that she was writing but getting less on-air time than the men in an automotive commercial.

“I walked into the boss’s office and said, listen, we [women] kick the tires as well as men. And we have a lot of the power behind the purchase of a car.”

Ayres instincts were right—and still are. She convinced the boss to let her write a couple of spots featuring women car buyers, and produce one or two.

Sure enough, they hit the mark all over the nation.

With her own blend of confidence and humor, Ayres blazed a path for working women in the recording industry in Baltimore and Washington, DC, making it a priority to educate others along the way. In fact, Ayres and Teas worked on a weekly radio show for the Associated Press and National Public Radio satellites in 1986 called “Tuning In To Life,” created by the Women’s Initiative at AARP.  The show’s goal was to provide concrete financial information on preparing for the costs and challenges of women’s longer lives. It ended up winning two awards from the National Commission on Working Women—and was sent by request to more than 350 radio stations.

Ayres whole life is marked by a passion for learning and sharing her knowledge.

“Here I am, not a college graduate, and I’ve taught at Johns Hopkins University, at Towson University, and at Goucher College,” she says.

That sparkle in her eyes isn’t an applied glow from Maybelline or Cover Girl—it’s the real beauty of a keen and indefatigable intellect.

Flo loved hearing about my night classes in the nonfiction writing program at Johns Hopkins University. “What are you going to do when you graduate?” she’d ask. “I’d like to interview you one day,” I said, “if you don’t mind.”

Ayres, with her longtime friend, mentor, and producer Louis R. Mills Jr., taught a number of radio acting and recording classes in the 1970s and ‘80s, bringing students from local universities to Top Flite Studio in Baltimore for practical, hands-on instruction.

Classes covered everything from the fundamentals of working in a recording studio—be prompt, always have a pencil and stopwatch—to the nuanced areas of taking direction and working with a script you’ve seen only for a minute or two.

And she did this for more than a decade while still keeping up her commercial schedule.

“You have to pay it forward,” Flo says, simply. “I wish all actors would do that.”

            Flo Ayres paid it forward with me, allowing me to interview her before I moved from Baltimore in the fall of 2017. Over the course of her career, dozens of writers have articulated her achievements, but I got to play Rummikub with her and my husband on Friday nights.

How I miss my friend. Love you, Babe.