Bill Cardille marks 50 years on Pittsburgh airwaves
William Robert Cardille — you know him as Chilly Billy — was a young man when his father whispered the words that have guided his long and storied career.
“My dad told me (when you’re) on stage, you get on and you get off. I like to keep it short and to the point. You edit yourself, and you set priorities,” Cardille said recently while doing his daily radio show on WJAS 1320-AM.
“Even in ‘Chiller (Theater),’ I was secondary. The priority was the movie. Here, the priority is the music,” Cardille said as a song by Frank Sinatra ended.
He stopped to turn to the microphone and reminisce with the audience for a minute before playing a song by The Beatles.
“I try to keep it short, a minute or so,” the vibrant septuagenarian repeated as he prepared for his next commercial break. “You get on and you get off.”
Cardille is quietly celebrating a half-century on the Pittsburgh airwaves. He was hired as one of the six original announcers at WIIC-Channel 11 (now WPXI), which went on the air at 5 p.m. Sept. 1, Labor Day 1957. Cardille hasn’t been off the air here since.
No one who comes to mind has done it longer than Cardille.
Edwin “Uncle Ed” Schaughency had a 48-year career at KDKA-1020 AM before retiring in 1980; WTAE-Channel 4’s Paul Long also had a 48-year career that began at KDKA-AM in 1946; KDKA-Channel 2’s Bill Burns had a 43-year career, beginning at KQV-1410 AM in 1946; Art Pallan spent 45 years at WWSW-970 AM (now a sports-talk station) and KDKA-AM.
Cardille, who grew up in the Shenango River Valley in Mercer County, was a veteran performer by the time he landed at Channel 11. His father, also named William, was an amateur entertainer who chose raising his family over vaudeville.
The elder Cardille and his wife, Frances, were devout Catholics who believed in hard work and sharing with the poor.
The Cardille home was a short distance from the railroad tracks in Sharon. None of the transients who periodically showed up at the door went away without food, Cardille says.
Young Cardille was a talented dancer who won numerous amateurs contests. He also appeared in minstrel shows with his father.
Many of the songs from those long-ago shows are on Cardille’s playlist at WJAS, where Cardille is behind the mic from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, offering “music, observations and memories” to an audience that enjoys his daily repertoire.
His show is sandwiched between those of two other Pittsburgh broadcasting mainstays, Jack Bogut in the morning and Mike McGann in the afternoon.
Cardille was a decent athlete and played basketball and tennis at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he hosted his first radio show. But the lure of a career in television won out over radio.
Against his parents’ advice, he quit school and began working in January 1952 at WICU in Erie, when television was in its infancy.
“I was hired as an announcer-director in Erie. We did it all. We built sets, we set up the studio, we did live shows, live commercials. I still believe in good production and no blue material. I learned that from my father,” Cardille said.
Cardille met his wife, the former Louise Maras, while in Erie. The couple, who will celebrate their 54th anniversary Oct. 3, have three children — Lori, 53; Billy, 50; and Marea, 43 — and four grandchildren. Cardille calls his wife “the glue” who kept their marriage and family together.
Cardille quickly made his mark in Erie hosting a daily children’s program as Uncle Billy and later doing daily weather forecasts as the Atlantic Weatherman.
“I still like anything live,” Cardille said. “I like to be spontaneous. I don’t like structure. If you’re creative, you have to have freedom.”
As successful as he was in Erie, Cardille longed to move on to bigger things. He jumped at the opportunity to move to Pittsburgh as WIIC prepared to become the city’s second commercial television station, after KDKA. Pittsburgh, then the nation’s eighth-largest market, got its third station in 1958, when WTAE-Channel 4 went on the air.
Cardille hosted a number of popular shows such as “Luncheon at the Ones,” “Dance Party” and “Twixt and Twelve and Twenty.” He also played Barnacle Bill on the popular “Captain Jim” children’s show.
“Bill’s versatile,” said Don Riggs, the former Bwana Don on KDKA’s “Safari” series who created the Willy the Duck puppet that appeared on several Channel 11 shows.
“When Bill 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.”
He became a household name when he was tapped to host Channel 11’s live “Studio Wrestling,” which he opened every week by telling the audience it was in store for “90 minutes of unorganized mayhem … where anything is liable to happen, probably will and usually does.”
For 13 years, from 1961-74, Cardille was the announcer for “Studio Wrestling,” a Pittsburgh institution that aired every Saturday night from WIIC’s studios and made household names out of Ringside Rosie, Izzy Moidell, Jumpin’ Johnny DeFazio and, most popular of all, Bruno Sammartino.
“Bill Cardille is a guy who, whether it was ‘Chiller Theater’ or ‘Studio Wrestilng,’ added so much to it,” said Sammartino, a two-time world champion who formed a lasting friendship with Cardille.
“He added so much to everything he does because he didn’t push himself to promote Bill Cardille; he tried to make the product the star. He was extremely well-respected,” Sammartino said. “I never knew a wrestler who didn’t like Bill. Their ring persona didn’t matter.”
But even wrestling couldn’t top “Chiller Theater,” which aired on Channel 11 from Sept. 19, 1964, to New Year’s Eve 1983. The double bill of horror movies and skits by Cardille and a regular cast was so popular that, for more than three years, Channel 11 didn’t offer the hot new comedy show from NBC — “Saturday Night Live.”
“To this day, not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t ask me about ‘Chiller Theater.’ It’s just amazing,” said Steve Luncinski, a successful Carrick businessman who was known as Stefan the Castle Prankster in Cardille’s “Chiller” family.
“People just related to Bill. He seems like the average Pittsburgher. I think people relate to Bill’s personality more than anything. He’s one of those guys you can go out and have fun with, a magnetic personality. And he’s very talented.”
The fun translated to the screen.
“Bill was always a fun sort of guy, and fun sells. Sex sells, but so does fun,” Riggs said.
Unlike others who made a name hosting horror movies on television, Cardille always maintained his own identity to open and close the show, morphing into his wacky characters — such as Captain Bad, the doer of dirt, the defender of delinquents; Maurice the Matchmaker, who gave advice to the lovelorn; and Mister Magnificent, the stargazer of the galaxies — for skits during the show.
“Chilly Billy is what I’m known for,” Cardille says. “I’ll always be Chilly Billy.”
He created a “Chiller” family in later years that included Luncinski; Donna “Terminal Stare” Rae; Bonnie Sue Barney, known as Georgettte the Fudgemaker; Joyce “Sister Suzie” Sterling; and Norman Elder, the faithful castle servant.
Elder died in 2000, one of a number of Cardille intimates — such as his youngest brother, Steve, and his oldest sister, Rose — who have died in recent years.
Also gone are his parents, good friends such as Pirates Hall of Famer Pie Traynor (who served as a genial and beloved pitchman on “Studio Wrestling”), former Channel 11 director Chuck Moyer, former WQED-Channel 13 producer Sam Francis and fellow volunteer basketball coach Dr. Tony Brungo, as well as so many of children afflicted with muscular dystrophy.
Cardille — who tonight and Monday will again host the local portion of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon on Channel 11 — still breaks down when he talks about Denise Liberty, an MDA poster child from the early ’70s who died from the disease.
“She was a beautiful little child, wrists as thick as a marshmallow, very fragile,” Cardille said, choking up. “A lot of the children, I’ve buried. You get attached to them. It’s difficult. It gets rougher as you get older, because you know the disease and you know what to expect. A lot of them don’t get out of their teens.”
Cardille has not missed a telethon since Channel 11 began airing them in 1971. MDA officials say few other local hosts have been at it that long.
The roots of Cardille’s compassion can be found in his upbringing, as well as his own brushes with death. He has survived three heart attacks, the loss of a kidney, an aortic aneurysm and colon cancer.
Early fans of “Chiller Theater” remember Cardille always had a cigarette in his hand. He quit smoking after his first heart attack in 1973. He has walked every day, weather permitting, for years and watches his diet.
“It’s very rare that someone can maintain at an older age the schedule that Bill does,” McGann says. “He does his show every day and still makes personal appearances.”
After “Chiller” went off the air, Cardille hosted a nightly bingo show and was Channel 11’s morning weatherman for 14 years. He officially retired from television in 1996 but appeared on the air regularly through December 1998.
“I haven’t missed TV. I’m real proud of my achievements,” said Cardille, who was installed in the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1997 with Long and Burns.
“I’m fulfilled. I had a great career,” said Cardille, who has rejected a number of offers to do the weather on local television. “I made peace with myself years ago.”
He returned to daily radio in 1977, when he did the morning drive on Top 40 station WPEZ-94.5 FM (now WWSW). He had morning and afternoon radio shows on the former WIXZ-1360 AM (now WPTT) throughout the ’80s and has been doing a daily show on WJAS since 1995.
“Bill is not a retiring kind of dude,” Riggs said. “If he retired, he’d wither up and drop dead. He loves what he’s doing, and he needs people to hear him on the air.”
Cardille acknowledges, “I never quit anything. I can’t quit. The only way I’ll quit is if my health fails or if they change the format and don’t want me. I still have my track shoes on.”
He enjoys watching his four grandchildren grow. The oldest, Kate Rogal, an actress who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, has appeared on television in “The Sopranos” and “The Kill Point.”
“She looks exactly like (her mother) Lori did at her age. She has her talent. I call them the twins. If the stars are aligned and with some divine intervention, she has a chance at a fantastic future.”
Cardille is realistic regarding his own future.
“Honestly, I know I’m running out of track.”
He says his fondest memory remains “getting hired (at Channel 11) and being accepted by the people. Each day ran into the next day and the next day, and now I’m (semi) retired.
“It’s been a great journey. I have no complaints.”
Bill Cardille’s broadcast history
Spring 1951 — Hosts first radio show on WDAD-AM in Indiana, Pa.
Jan. 20, 1952 — Begins television career at WICU-TV in Erie.
Sept. 1, 1957 — Starts at WIIC-TV, Channel 11, the day the station went on the air.
October 1961 — Replaces Mal Alberts as the host of Studio Wrestling.
Sept. 19, 1964 — First show as host of Chiller Theater
Labor Day 1971 — Hosts first Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon (He’ll host again tonight and Monday)
August 1974 — Studio Wrestling goes off the air
Aug. 15, 1977 — Becomes morning drive host on WPEZ-FM
April 9, 1979 — Begins WIXZ-AM
Dec. 31, 1983 — Chiller Theater signs off the air
April 1984 — Becomes morning weatherman on Channel 11.
Feb. 5, 1995 — First show on WJAS-AM (He’s still on 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday)
December 1998 — Final day at Channel 11 (now WPXI)