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.