Sunday, February 22, 2009

BILL CARDILLE: APPRECIATING A PITTSBURGH TV LEGEND

2009 "Blackened Gold" Award winning story

One of the things I really enjoy about authoring this blog is that I can pursue any topic that I feel my readers will enjoy when it comes to Pittsburgh. When I come across something that I feel is a winner, it's almost like hitting a jackpot. This occured yesterday while doing some research on another story I'm planning for you. I came across the name of a person that I thought all of you would enjoy reading about, the venerable Bill Cardille.

Above: The Pittsburgh Legend with the velvety voice, "Chilly Billy," Bill Cardille. He wasn't ever "Chilly", just cool, very cool.

This past week we lost a longtime friend of Bill Cardille's and another one of Pittsburgh's television pioneers, Don Riggs.

I came across an interview that was done with him several years ago. Riggs was the former "Bwana Don" on KDKA's "Safari" Tarzan series who also created the "Willy the Duck" puppet that appeared on several Channel 11 shows. "Bill's always been versatile," he began.

"When he started in TV, like a lot of us, he had no idea where it was going. He would do anything they wanted," Riggs said. "You want a weatherman, he'd do the weather. You want a movie host, he'd host the movies. Anything you want, Bill would do it and like it. He always had a good, positive attitude."

Cracked Cardille: "The only thing I didn't do was sing the national anthem."


Bill Cardille will always have a large place in the pantheon of Pittsburgh television. He was one of six original announcing voices ever heard on WIIC (now WPXI) and his was the very familiar face that hosted popular shows like "Studio Wrestling" and "Chiller Theater".

"Chilly Billy" was certainly among the most popular TV hosts ever in Pittsburgh and he also managed to do a pretty good weatherman imitation from time-to-time as well.

"Studio Wrestling" was quite the program. I vividly recall the cast of characters that made up that show, good guys and bad guys alike. Of course the man among boys was "Pittsburgh's Champion", Bruno Sammartino. Bruno was always good for a "W" although I remember him taking severe punishment from guys like "Killer Kowalski", Professor Tanaka, Gorilla Monsoon or "Crusher" Morzowski. There were good guys like "Ace" Freeman, Chief White Owl, "Batt Man" and Jumpin' Johnny DeFazio.
Above: Our man Bruno posing with his championship belt. Below, Bill conducts a serious interview with the champeen.
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"90 Minutes of Unorganized Mayhem"

                 --Bill Cardille
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The ring announcer in those days was a man with an exciting voice who always got dressed up in a tux for the occasion, Johnny Francona. There were also other characters like "Ringside Rosie", a female spectator who always had a front row seat and managed to get into the thick of the action by baiting various wrestlers and even hitting them with her purse when the opportunity presented itself.

The venerable Pirate Hall of Famer, Harold "Pie" Traynor was also a regular on "Studio Wrestling" doing live spots for a company called, "The American Heating Company". Pie's big line in these commercials was always, "Who can? Ameri-can. The American Heating Company".

Above: Bill looking positively natty in a double-breasted suit with Pirate baseball legend "Pie" Traynor.

The referees always seemed as though they were watching another program. Izzie Moidell was the worst of them all though. His incompetency was legendary. He always managed to miss a count, miss an illegally concealed weapon, or just plain not see a horrible infraction because he was distracted by something unimportant on another side of the ring. I don't know how this man could even look himself in the mirror.

As a young lad around eight years old, I can remember "Studio Wrestling" getting me into a good bit of trouble too. My younger brother was still a bit too little to rough up in the ring, but my sister, a wiry and feisty six-year-old, was close enough in size to be a viable combatant. We'd had some spirited matches at my Grandmother's after watching "Studio Wrestling" until one day when the inevitable happened... our match ended with a table lamp being broken as my sister fell backwards into it. As the lamp fell, it also knocked a picture of my recently- deceased grandfather to the floor, putting a large crack in the glass. Good Lord and the goose fat this was a nightmare bigger than anything I could ever imagine!
Above: An example of the type of wanton destruction I was inspired to do by "Studio Wrestling".

There are some things that you never forget about your childhood. That day was one of them for me. My sweet little 4' 8" Italian grandmother was so incensed  that she was moved to chase me with a broom! She would have hit me with it too if it wouldn't have been that she hit her dining room chandelier first and broke a globe on it! She then sat down and started crying!

Do you have any idea how bad you can make an eight-year-old feel when you first chase him with a broom because he broke a lamp and a picture of his deceased grandfather and he then sees his grandmother sitting down crying because he inadvertantly caused her to break her chandelier too? This day was what I'll call a "Bad day at black rock" and leave it at that.
So Bill Cardille caused me to get into a ton of trouble that day and I've never forgiven him for it. Well today I'm going to unburden myself. "Bill, I forgive you!" I just wonder how much other wanton destruction you caused in homes across Western Pennsylvania?!
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Studio Wrestling 1961-1974
Chiller Theater    1964-1983
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Another show that I got a real kick out of was "Chiller Theater" although I must admit that I would really get scared watching a lot of these movies. To this day I'll never understand why they took off that great show, although I'm sure that WIIC bowed to network pressure to begin carrying "Saturday Night live", a program I've never liked. "Chilly Billy" had characters like "Terminal Stare", "Steffen" and others whom he would interview between segments of a horror movie. Then, of course, he'd also do skits that were produced on about a 25 cent budget...like the Pittsburgh Subway System (noexistant at the time) otherwise know as "PSS". A typical skit would consist of Chilly standing in front of an emergency exit door and having a janitor's hamper come slowly rolling down the hallway into the picture while talking about some imaginary problem that was plaguing "PSS". Were these skits often pretty lame? Sure they were! But we loved them and we're still talking about them 35 years later!
Of course at the absolute zenith of Chilly Billy's career, he had a role in the George Romero horror classic, "Night of the Living Dead". Bill played himself as a WIIC TV reporter investigating the outbreak of zombie-like people in, I believe, Evans City or Mercer or Zelienople... one of those northern communities. That movie scared the total bejezzus out of me the first time I saw it and just went on to prove that you don't have to have the biggest budget to create the most horror. It also was another in a long line of affective black and white horror films.
On another sidenote, I consider myself very fortunate to have married into a family that has as an important member, the LEAD ZOMBIE in this very classic, one Bill Hinzman. I promise you folks that one of these days I'm going to give you an exclusive interview with this true-life zombie and give you greater insight into his playing of this role.

So revolving around the career of Bill Cardille are two of the greatest locally-produced shows of all time, "Studio Wrestling" and "Chiller Theater" as well as one of the top three horror films ever, "The Night of the Living Dead". Not too shabby "Chilly Billy".
Bill Cardille has always been a great name in Pittsburgh television and it's really a shame that all of these shows apparently are either lost or were in some cases taped over. As it is today, there are very few artifacts remaining from either of these two classic Pittsburgh television shows. But I'll always have a shattered lamp, cracked picture of my grandfather and a broken chandelier (along with the memory of my grandmother crying etched into my brain) to keep these memories vividly alive for me forever!
Above: Insert picture here of your deceased grandfather to get the full effect of this childhood mega-disaster.