Sunday, August 17, 2008

Engineer Bill Stulla

When a beloved kid show host dies it’s like losing a member of the family. That’s the way I felt about Engineer Bill. Engineer Bill Stulla passed away last week. Yes, he was 97 and went peacefully, but I don’t care. I’m still very sad.

The Cartoon Express with Engineer Bill ran locally in Los Angeles on KHJ-TV, channel 9 from 1955-1966. Back then all kid show hosts had a schtick, played a character. We also had Skipper Frank, Sheriff John, Buffalo Bob, Captain Kangaroo, and Hobo Kelly. I guess that’s how you knew the difference between kids show hosts and grown up show hosts. If an announcer wore a sailor’s hat you knew he wasn’t reporting the news.

Bill Stulla’s theme was trains. He wore stripped engineer overalls and a cap, was surrounded by model train sets, introduced horrible cartoons (Looney Tunes, Crusader Rabbit, and Popeye were on the other stations. Channel 9 was left with “Sheepish Shamus” and that caliber of classics.), kept you company while your mom made dinner, and best of all, played “Red Light/Green Light”.

I look back at it today and it was insane but when you’re six it made perfect sense. I suppose as a way to get kids to drink their milk, Engineer Bill created this game called “Red Light/Green Light”, which became his trademark. We kids would all have a big frosty glass of milk and would play along with Engineer Bill. An announcer would say “Green Light!” and we’d all drink. He’d say “Red Light!” and we had to stop. And of course he would try to fake us out.

At least once a week I’d get caught mid-gulp and start choking. Milk would come out of my nose. It was such a great time to be a kid.

The announcer would always fake out Engineer Bill. We young home viewers would win, he would lose. And they would ring the lead bell for him. I think the moment of reaching adulthood is when we realized he had been letting us win.

Another feature was the Bad Habit Express designed to help kids break bad habits like nail biting and sibling torturing. Every Friday a little choo-choo would push a bad habit up and over the hill. There were a lot of bad habits I learned about by watching that feature.

On weekends Engineer Bill made personal appearances at supermarkets. I never got to see him. He always seemed to be in Downey or Torrance, but it could just as easily have been Rangoon or Stuttgart. If I couldn’t ride my bike to it I couldn’t get there. He used to come armed with engineer hats, toys, and prizes, and of course played “Red Light/Green Light”. I don’t know what it took to win a prize. Maybe if milk from your nose sprayed the farthest.

Anyway, those were warm happy times. Bill Stulla was also a war hero, a one time announcer for Rudy Vallee, and later a successful stockbroker. But for me he was this jolly uncle who dressed ridiculously (as did my real uncle now that I think about it), made me laugh and taught me stuff, and most important, made me feel good about myself.

A toast to Engineer Bill Stulla. Thank you for everything.

Green light!!!

36 comments:

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

He helped me discover the wonder of playing on the RR tracks near our house on Niagara Street in Burbank. Great fun.

Of course, my wife still makes me play "Red Light; Green Light", but it doesn't have anything to do with drinking milk...

Tallulah Morehead said...

I still play Red Light/Green Light, only with vodka, and I smashed the Red Light. I respected Engineer Bill myself because he never had "Heavy Drinking" dumped by the Bad Habit Express.

My amanuensis, Little Dougie, was a big Engineer Bill fan. He did meet him at a supermarket appearance, in Torrance, in 1955, the first celebrity Little Dougie ever met, which put him on the path to eventually meeting me.

A friend of Little Dougie's named Jayne, got to be on the show once when she was 5, when she accompanied her neice to the studio and the other kid scheduled didn't show up, so they slapped an Engineer's hat on her and shoved her out on camera. (They seldom used kids that young.) Owing to a quirk in Jayne's family's history, her neice was 8. This amused Engineer Bill, who called her "Aunt Jayne" all through the show.

I guess working with Rudy Vallee must have taught Bill how to deal with unruly children.

That announcer calling RL/GL was long-time KHJ staff announcer Wayne Thomas. He gave great fake-outs: "Reeeeeee- Green light!" "Grreeeeee- Yellow light!" "Yellow Light" had no game application. Later, Thomas was the staff announcer for FRIGHT NIGHT WITH SEYMOUR, a show Little Dougie was the regular writer for.

Since he begged me terribly, I gave Dougie some space on my flog to also reminisce about Bill Stulla. Those interested will find it at the end of my posting on The Olympics, "The China Thunderdrome."

97 years. Too young. Probably lead poisoning from receiving all those Lead Bells.

ALL ABOARD!

jbryant said...

Funny, I was just reminiscing last week with an old friend about all the local kids' show hosts when we were growing up in Henderson, Kentucky. They aired on the affiliates in nearby Evansville, Indiana. Uncle Dudley with his lunchbox full of little animal figurines, Clancy the Cop, Miss Peggy. I also remember a guy named Barnaby out of Cleveland. I must have seen him during the year or so we lived in Mansfield.

Found a listing on amazon for a book called "Hi There Boys and Girls: America's Local Children's TV Programs" by Tim Hollis. Looks like it covers the heyday of these folks. Surely Engineer Bill gets a mention.

N. G. Neer said...

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=GzvdlE45XEI&feature=related

Tom Quigley said...

I wonder if he might have had his own "Credo of an Engineer":

"A little song, a little dance --
A little hot coal down your pants..."

clairlnz said...

And in Seattle we had J.P. Patches and Brakeman Bill (another R.R. theme) JP was my favorite!

Larry said...

I remember all those hosts you mention, although I'd aged out of kid's programming by the time Hobo Kelly came along. Come to think of it, she might have been the signal it was time to move on to Lloyd Thaxton.

Hadn't heard about Bill's death.

My childhood TV goal was to be on Sherrif John. Never made it. When I was about six, a neighbor kid went on the Art Linkletter show. We were all awestruck. When she reported back that it was all tightly scripted it was like finding out there wasn't a Santa. Kids Say the Darndest Things You Write for Them.

maven said...

It must say something about the power of TV, but I used that "Red Light, Green Light" on my son and I hope he passes it on to my granddaughter!

Good-bye Engineer Bill and part of my youth!

willieb said...

My brother immediately e-mailed me over the weekend with the news of Engineer Bill's death. The show was a nightly ritual for the kids in my family. Once, when I was 10 or 11 and getting too old for the show, my younger sister wanted to send a post card to enter a contest on the show. My mother asked me to help her write it. After I helped her, my sister took another post card and put my name on it, and we mailed both. A week later, Engineer Bill picked MY name out of the drum and I won a toy seaplane. My sister was upset (I offered her the seaplane but she refused it) and my friends ribbed me for days (of course, they had to be watching to hear my name, didn't they?).

emily said...

Off topic, but...
Why does ABC have Colonel Blake's plane crash/death episode in the "comedy" category?

Sharone said...

I hadn't heard about his passing. It is the end of an era, isn't it? I don't remember the Bad Habit Express. But I do remember being glued to the TV, with my lunch on a TV tray and playing Red Light/Green Light. The term is definitely part of the vernacular for us L-A kids.

Paul Duca said...

Growing up in Boston, one of the favorite kids' show hosts was Major Mudd--he used the astronaut theme.
When I got to high school, I had an accounting teacher who bore a striking resemblance to the Major.
It turns out that, as Homer did for Krusty, Mr. Powers was a stand in Mudd, making personal appearance when the original had scheduling conflicts.

Michael Hagerty said...

Absolutely loved him. RIP, Engineer Bill!

D. McEwan said...

Sharone,

That must have been your dinner. Engineer Bill was on at 6 PM the whole length of his 11 year run.

Sherriff John was on at noon. In fact, his show was SHERIFF JOHN'S LUNCH BRIGADE. Sherriff John Rovick is still alive, and living, if you can call it that, in Boise, Idaho. When his now-50 year old former fans write to him in Boise, they still get autographed pictures sent back.

Tom Hatton and Chucko the Clown are also still alive, so the 1950s L. A. kid's show host tontine doesn't have a winner yet.

AlaskaRay said...

I'm so sorry to hear about Engineer Bill. He was a staple in our house, too. I did get to see him once in a supermarket appearance. I guess it was too far for you to ride from ritzy Woodland Hills to Pico and La Cieniga. He played a game called "The Big Whistle", where you pulled a lever and one of about 6 whistles blew and you could win prized (I lost, of course). Being a little kid in L.A. in the 50's was really great. Sometimes I wish I could go back.

Ray

peter said...

Kenny thanks for that. I just finished a similar blog piece over at wearesc.com, see it posted soon under one of the forums probably. I have some news for you so call me when you can. arbo

Sharone said...

Thanks d. Mc.. I stand corrected... red light!

Ref said...

Being a New Hampshire kid, I remember Major Mudd, who capered about as a maladroit astronaut. he was alleged to be Roger Mudd's uncle. We also had (out of WBZ in Boston) Rex trailer, a cowboy themed show. Rex was (and for all I know, may still be) a genial local actor businessman who made money selling tours to California. He played the pleasant, elderly doctor in the film "Mermaids." Out of WMUR in Manchester, we had Uncle Gus, actually Gus Bernier, who wrangled kids, sold ads, and did the news and weather as necessary. Gus's feature was Popeye cartoons. Rex Trailer had The Three Stooges shorts. I don't remember what Major Mudd showed.

tb said...

Well since Emily brought it up, I want to ask something about that Blake/plane crash MASH episode. I can't help but think Radar would NEVER have interrupted surgery with the bad news. It just feels wrong, dramatic though it was. You don't make people cry when they're operating on someone. Did you consider going another route at all?

D. McEwan said...

Wow, great question tb! I had open-heart surgery 10 years ago, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted my operation interrupted by someone telling my surgeon, "Oh, don't let me inturrupt you, but your dad was just killed. Well, back to work."

estiv said...

Where I grew up it was another Gus, Cap'n Gus. The theme of course was nautical, and every show started with "Ahoy, little mateys!" I think it was worse than learning about Santa Claus when I was told that his "ship" was, like me, about 150 miles from the ocean. Or finding out that the same guy, sans mustache, wig, and cap, but in top hat and cape and with yet another affected voice, was also the host of the Saturday night horror movies. SCTV's Count Floyd could have been his brother.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Poopdeck Pappy in Norfolk, VA, showed Popeye cartoons; Bungles the Clown in Norfolk showed Three Stooges shorts; Officer Joe Bolton in NYC showed Three Stooges Shorts; Chuck McCann showed whatever he could, but ran a lot of Flash Gordons with Larry "Buster" Crabbe (which he pronounced Crab-bay); and of course Soupy Sales was great at any age. Also loved Buffalo Bob, Captain Langaroo and Sandy Becker. I didn't care that much for Shari Lewis until I got older and realized what a babe she was. And if I could live my life over, I'd watch them all again.

Michael Bell said...

I spent my youth watching local TV kid hosts such as George Day, Uncle Woody, and Zippy the clown. Also Webster Webfoot originated here for a time. I tried to get on their shows every chance I got.

By the time I started working in TV, a couple of these guys were still active in local media.

It was most surreal to end up drinking the afternoon away with my childhood heroes in a bowling alley cocktail lounge.

I guess it was just as creepy for them. Or maybe not.

As long as I bought a round, I was still their little buddy.

So to speak.

Mike McCann said...

Here in New York, our local hosts included the beloved Officer Joe Bolton, Captain Jack McCarthy, Skipper Alan Swift, Uncle Fred Scott along with the versatile and brilliant Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker and Herb Sheldon. Almost all are still fondly remembered by those of use whose lives they touched 40, 50 and more years later. While our kids had Sesame Street and MisterRogers, they missed something by not having these showmen of a different era coming into their lives daily.

ChrisO said...

I thought Uncle Woody was the relative all of the nieces stayed away from at family gatherings.

Anonymous said...

Engineer Bill was my childhood hero. Thanks in part to him I now collect the same American Flyer Trains he featured on his show. Today I am an avid railroad buff and have traveled all over the U.S. and Europe by rail. I also lived a block away from from the Southern Pacific's Burbank Branch in Canoga park where I grew up. I used to watch and later ride the local train when it made its daily run.
I got to briefly see Bill's backside while playing the whistle game while making an appearance at the grand opening of the Market Basket supermarket in August of 1963.
I recall Bill telling a story in the L.A. Reader magazine that times were changing when he made an appearance in South central L.A. in the mid-1960's and some ten year old black kid stick a knife to his belly demanding a prize!
I finally got to meet Engineer Bill in person in August 1996 at the Toy Train Operating Society's National Convention in Long Beach where he was a guest of honor. I had since talked to him over the phone and had him autograph a supermarket poster promoting to get your "Official" Engineer Bill Glass.
I could go on about more details of his show but I have rambled enough for now. I am planning to attend his memorial service next week.
Happy high ball'in my friend,...I will meet you at the end of track!

"Conductor" Ken

kimvalente said...

The passing of Engineer Bill is like a death in the family. My evenings were filled with "red light green light" and thanks to my parents I was able to be on his show on my 8th birthday. I don't remember everything but one of the prizes I received was a 4 foot long pencil that was coiled and very difficult to use-ha-ha So many great local TV icons in the LA area we were able to grow up with: chucko, sheriff john, romper room, tom hatten, soupy sales, and even the Gypsy Rose Lee show! RIP Engineer Bill.

Corkie said...

I have somewhere the "Engineer Bill Magic Record" -- a 45 RPM that played 3 (count 'em, 3) different songs depending on where the needle hit when the record started. It played the theme song, the Red Light/Green Light song, and the bonus track was "The Crazy Mechanical Man" (a-whaaam-o). I still get a smile thinking about competing with my older brother and sister while playing RL/GL. Even though I was on Chucko the Clown and won a solo paddle tennis game, it didn't complete with watching Engineer Bill blow his whistle. I was more entertained by those simple shows than my kids ever were with the TV shows they grew up with.

So, here's to you Bill. May you keep rollin' along up there.

And don't forget to stop for me when my time comes.

D. McEwan said...

"kimvalente said...
So many great local TV icons in the LA area we were able to grow up with: chucko, sheriff john, romper room, tom hatten, soupy sales, and even the Gypsy Rose Lee show!"

Ah yes, Gypsy Rose Lee, the finest, and most educational children's entertainer of all time!

As a kid, I wondered if Gypsy Rose Lee and Pinky Lee were siblings, as they had the same lst name, and the same lisp. And Pinky was in the movie LADY OF BURLESQUE, which was based on a novel Gypsy wrote.

Kidding aside, I met Gypsy Rose Lee once, and a more delightful, charming and fun-loving woman never took off a glove.

Anonymous said...

For years I had a 8x10 photo of Engineer Bill. About four years ago, I mailed it off to him, hoping for his autograph. I not only got the photo autographed, but Engineer Bill included a contemporary photo of himself, sitting in his backyard on Thanksgiving Day. The icing on the cake is when he called my office to say how much he enjoyed my letter to him. Quite a few of my coworkers were L.A. babyboomers, so I put him on speaker phone and he ended up talking to us all for about a half hour.

God Bless, Engineer Bill. May the tracks ahead always have a green light.

Anonymous said...

For years I had a 8x10 photo of Engineer Bill. About four years ago, I mailed it off to him, hoping for his autograph. I not only got the photo autographed, but Engineer Bill included a contemporary photo of himself, sitting in his backyard on Thanksgiving Day. The icing on the cake is when he called my office to say how much he enjoyed my letter to him. Quite a few of my coworkers were L.A. babyboomers, so I put him on speaker phone and he ended up talking to us all for about a half hour.

God Bless, Engineer Bill. May the tracks ahead always have a green light.

Jhani Kaye said...

I was lucky enough to not only appear on Cartoon Express, but to know Engineer Bill Stulla throughout the rest of his life. The personality you saw on television was only magnified when you met him in person. What a kind, polite, and gentle man. He was the reason I sought a career in broadcasting and I shall miss him the rest of my life. Thank you, Bill, for filling a void and helping this young man grow up.

Anonymous said...

I did go to one of those supermarket openings where he made an appearance. He wound up and alarm clock and the kids lined up he'd pat each head until the alarm went off and who ever head he patted won a prize, a childhood friend was a winner. Yup the State Bros. market at Foothill and Indian Hill-even that is no longer there I think it's offices now. Oh and I went to an appearance of the local 'Miss Mary' of Romper Room at the Newberry's dime store in Pomona too, the line of kids was out the door!!!!

Mike said...

Being born in 1946, the show was very appealing to me. There was always something fun going on. Bill Stulla was a special kind of guy--always smiling and ever upbeat. I'm glad that he lived to enjoy life for so long. He's got a permanent spot in my heart. RIP

Ronnie said...

I was on His show on 3/21/56 with a
Girl named Diane Robertson. Her mom
took some pictures of us with Bill
during the show. In 2000 I sent them
to Bill and he autographed them for me. I have been looking for her to
send her the one he signed for her.
If anyone knows her let her know I
have it, and post a message here to
me. Thanks Ronnie.

Anonymous said...

The little train during the Bad Habit Express was called "Little Mo". At the end of the week, the bad habit car was pushed off the tracks.
Fond memories watching the show, then later meeting Bill at the opening of a train themed restaurant in Panorama City, CA in the early 1980s.