A Tribute To Bill Cardille

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by Homer J.

It was the summer of 1974. I was between jobs and hanging out on a Saturday night over at Channel 11 with a friend who was working there. This was the summer of the first NFLPA strike, and we were watching a Steelers pre-season game, where Joe Gilliam, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth were about to run and pass all over some hapless opponent.

In the studio, they began pre-taping the inserts for Chiller Theater.

“How ‘bout those Steelers?” was Bill Cardille’s opening line.
“How ‘bout those Steelers?” was the response, shouted by someone off camera.
“Yeah, how ‘bout those Steelers?” Chilly Billy laughed.

The joke was on everybody, because the game had just started and no one knew the outcome. I’d seen a similar opening a week earlier, after another Saturday night pre-season game, and had no idea it had been pre-recorded. How ‘bout those Steelers, indeed.

Pittsburgh has had a wealth of local broadcasting legends, but nobody ever had a better ride or was more beloved than Bill Cardille.

Born in Sharon, PA, he took his first radio job while in school, then working in television at the cleverly named WICU-TV in Erie.

When WIIC-TV first went on the air in Pittsburgh in 1957, Bill was the first voice ever heard. He was the booth announcer giving the station’s call letters.

He did his share of local origination stuff and really hit the big time when Mal Alberts left and Bill took over Studio Wrestling, which he described each week as “ninety minutes of unorganized mayhem.”

Bill was, in one man’s humble opinion, the finest wrestling announcer who ever lived.

The show had great ratings, and featured all the big names, live in Channel 11’s studios atop Fineview Hill.

Crusher Lisowski once said he was exhausted from walking up the hill to the studio, complaining to Bill that, “Pittsburgh is the only city in the world where someone can commit suicide jumping out his basement window.”

Bill had his regulars, from American Heating spokesman Hall of Famer Pie Traynor to ring announcer Johnny Francona, “blind ref” Izzy Moidel, and superfan Annie Buckalew, AKA “Ringside Rosie.”

Bill not only did the blow-by-blow of the action, he was the master of the interview.

The show, at its peak, pulled in more than 200,000 local viewers in its Saturday 6pm time slot, and it was chopped up and shown in other major East Coast markets.

Years later, I mentioned Bill’s name in conversation to an ABC News anchor, whose eyes lit up and said Bill had been HUGE in Boston. It seems they taped separate interviews for each city, and, instead of Bruno saying he’d be taking on Waldo von Erich at the Civic Arena next Friday, he’d say he’d be taking him on at the Boston Garden next Saturday.

Bill was a master of the interview, looking intently at the wrestler, listening to the answer or bluster, and then glancing at the camera and giving you a deftly arched eyebrow and the hint of a smile. “This guy could do everything,” Bruno Sammartino said, “I love him like a brother.”

The Pittsburgh “promotion” was the TV engine that enabled Vince McMahon to create the WWF – now WWE – as the money maker that it is. And it was Bill Cardille who was the face and voice of the promotion long before cable.

Studio Wrestling was must watch TV in nearly every Pittsburgh household in the early to mid-60’s, and brought joy to all ages, from small children to ethnic grandparents.

If that wasn’t enough to make Bill Pittsburgh’s “Mr Saturday Night,” there was the second half of the night, Chiller Theater at 1130pm.

The double feature with all the skits was so popular that Channel 11 kept it in its slot even when the network had the hottest show on TV, Saturday Night Live. In Pittsburgh, Chilly Billy Cardilly and his cohorts were the toast of the town. John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner and the others could be seen either at 1AM or on Channel 53. Chiller Theater ran from 1963 to 1983.

During all that time, Bill was also the local host of the Muscular Dystrophy telethon, a job he graciously filled for 37 years. And he was President of the Pittsburgh local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

It was as union local President that Bill left his mark in Steeler history.

In his book, “Double Yoi,” Myron Cope recalled how he and Mildred struggled to find care for his autistic son, Danny. Myron was working at WTAE Radio and TV, and was a member of AFTRA. But the union’s medical plan listed autism as a mental illness, and not covered. The Copes faced enormous financial pressure, and Myron was looking at opportunities to work in New York. Bill Cardille went to bat for Myron, fighting his case at the highest levels in the union, repeatedly refusing to take no for an answer, and Danny was eventually covered. Because of the decency of Bill Cardille, Myron Cope was able to remain in Pittsburgh, Danny was able to enter the Allegheny Valley School, and the proceeds from the Terrible Towel have been able to better hundreds of lives.

Years later, when a writer tried to ask Cardille about his battle to get medical coverage for Danny Cope, Bill politely declined. He didn’t want any credit, and respected the privacy of the Cope family.

Bill went along with a couple of young guys – George Romero and Russ Striner – who wanted to make a movie. He ad-libbed his way into cinema history playing a television reporter in the classic “Night of the Living Dead.”

Bill worked radio in semi-retirement, and could be heard on the air until 2014. His ride in radio and TV in Western Pennsylvania lasted more than sixty years.

The quintessential “Pittsburgh guy,” Bill Cardille never let fame go to his head, and he put family and faith first. He never bragged about himself, but he was a great husband and proud papa, always willing to brag about his daughter, actress Lori Cardille, and his son, who worked with him in their travel business.

Chilly Billy gave countless hours to charity, and – like “Free Lunch Franco” – he attended those events because he believed in giving back to a community that had been so good to him. He paid it forward long before that phrase became a thing.

Bill once recalled the time he attended a Knights of Columbus event, to greet the Bishop of the Pittsburgh Archdiocese, John J. Wright. The bishop saw Bill and began walking toward him. A devout Catholic, Bill began to kneel down to kiss the Bishop’s ring. “Never mind that,” said Bishop Wright, “What about that movie last night?”

We were all fans of Chilly Billy. He enriched our lives. And he became part of the fabric of Pittsburgh. He was as much a part of Pittsburgh as our hills, or valleys, and our three mighty rivers. He made us happy.

“He was a delight,” says former colleague Ron Jaye. “He was a delight to be around.
Any time people were around him, they tended to be happy. And that’s a wonderful thing. Don’t we all wish we could walk into a room and everybody would be happy. That was Bill Cardille.”

RIP

3 comments

  • The surprise for me was discovering how long he continued to work. I didn’t know. Your description about the reach of Studio Wrestling, something else I didn’t know, speaks to the quality of talent and special inventiveness that was a regular feature of our lives. I remember sitting in my dorm room in college watching Vince McMahon’s so-so copy of the Studio Wrestling template. The world knows WWE, we know where it came from.

    Does anyone outside of Pittsburgh know where the zombie genre got its start. Chiller Theater was must see TV, that from its humble origins and cheezy style informed us about the horror film (my first exposure to Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy, as well as to dozens of movies that were, um, not as good). Its influence has been worldwide.

    In addition to Cardille, you had Cope, who with a national platform would be more than a match for Howard Cosell and others, Bill Nunn, who before the Steelers helmed the Pittsburgh Courier, the flagship of the Black press. Odd in that Pittsburgh wouldn’t be your first thought as being the focal point for such things. Yet, though the integration of baseball will forever be associated with Brooklyn, much of its impetus came via Nunn’s father and the Courier’s publishers. Just as so much of what the NFL is today has come via the collaboration of the Rooney and Nunn families.

    Pittsburgh is also a peculiar place to be the launch point of the Latin revolution in baseball, or the first major league team to field an all black and brown lineup but via Roberto Clemente that is exactly what happened. And this is just a sample.

    Growing up I don’t recall anyone thinking in such grand terms. That the rest of the world would give a thought as to what transpired in Pittsburgh or that we would have aspirations beyond just living and enjoying our lives as best we could didn’t much cross my mind. Cardille’s passing will just be a local footnote, and he probably didn’t need it to be any other way. But his actual influence was more massive.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Having never lived in Pittsburgh, I had never heard of Bill Cardille. What an interesting man. Thanks for sharing this and thanks to Ivan for adding to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  • roxannafirehall

    I grew up in Erie, PA, 120 miles north of the Burgh and home of WICU TV, where Bill got his start. I had sort of forgotten about Chilly Billy until I read Homer’s article.

    WICU carried both Studio Wrestling and Chiller Theater. Studio Wrestling was my particular favorite as a boy and for years, I rarely missed a Saturday show. Billy was a great entertainer, covering the antics of the Masked Executioner, Johnny Powers, Dominic DiNucci and former KC Chief, Ernie, “the Cat” Ladd.

    Kudos to Homer for a fine tribute to Bill Cardille.

    Like

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