Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pittsburgh's Bill Cardille (1969)

This is one of the better and more lengthy profiles of a TV wrestling host that appeared as part of a series called  "The Man Behind the Mike" in "Wrestling Revue" magazine back in the 1960s and early 1970s. 

The show featured in the April 1969 issue was called "Studio Wrestling" (you know we love that title) and was hosted by Bill Cardille on WIIC-11 TV in Pittsburgh.

Cardille was quite the character himself as you will learn in this great feature.


Chilly Billy - Nimblest Man on Camera!
Wrestling Revue - April 1969

Bruno Sammartino and Bill Cardille
Several hundred thousand calloused fans of Pittsburgh's Studio Wrestling relaxed in front of their television sets with sharp appetites, and maybe a fresh beer, for the debut of still another Masked Marvel.

If they realized that it was April First, the Marvel soon made them forget it. He brought them upright in their easy chairs the instant he strutted - arrogantly into the ring.

The Marvel was tormenting lovable Izzy Moidel, the big, easy-going referee. Izzy cowered under a slap and a kick. Then the reckless Marvel interrupted the pre-match instructions by roughing up his opponent, Ace Freeman.

Freeman is a respected veteran of countless matches and a number of Masked Marvels, and he wasn't about to take much guff from this one. After a brief flurry, he rushed the Marvel into a corner, locked him against the ropes, and yanked off his mask.

The camera darted in expectantly for a close-up. And the words "April Fool!" flashed under the famous face that exploded on thousands of TV screens.

And you could almost hear the collective, delighted groan—"Oh, no! Not that nut again!" For there, unabashed and happy with his deceit and grinning foolishly, crouched "Chilly Billy" Cardille, the commentator-host of WIIC-TV's Studio Wrestling.

Moments later, Cardille was back at his ringside microphone in a tasteful suit, a quiet tie, again darkly handsome and unruffled as a baby's brow. It was business as usual in his quiet corner of the madhouse. If he gave any hint of the recent zaniness, it was in a restrained smile.

Stunts like that one, along with his bright, knowledgeable commentary throughout the matches, have made Bill Cardille (pronounced "Car-dill") a great favorite on the Pittsburgh wrestling scene. He's helped make Studio Wrestling the top-rated local show on WIIC, Pittsburgh's NBC outlet. The show (Saturdays, 6 to 7:30 p.m.) goes into some 200,000 homes, said a recent Nielsen rating. It also plays before a packed house of some 300 at the studio, and they're not the same 300 each night. They're scramblers. There's a six-week wait for the free tickets.

Cardille and TV wrestling grew up, and down, together.

Cardille, a native of Sharon, Pa., joined an Erie station shortly after his graduation from Indiana (Pa.) State College. In the early 1950s he conducted live interviews with name touring wrestlers in Erie during intermissions of the network telecasts from Chicago's Marigold Gardens. Network wrestling died, and, in an unrelated move, Cardille joined WIIC when it opened in 1957. He was among the first announcers hired, and he was only the fill-in host shortly after TV wrestling came back to life in Pittsburgh in 1958 in the form of Studio Wrestling. In 1960 he became the regular host, and before long was Pittsburgh's "Voice of Wrestling."

When Cardille arrived at WIIC in 1957, workmen were just completing the station's building complex. He noticed the burly young carpenter who carried such huge lunches, but both he and the kid carpenter would have been amazed if their converging futures had been revealed at that moment.

Cardille  never expected to become wrestling's "Voice," and the kid carpenter probably never dreamed he was destined to become wrestling's "King."

The kid was Bruno Sammartino.

"Bruno," Cardille quipped, with more than a trace of warmth, "helped build his own throne room."

A lot of blood has flowed in the studio since then, and much to Cardille's surprise, some of it almost was his. Take the Skull Murphy incident, for example.

"For some reason," Cardille related, "Murphy didn't like me. And I sure wasn't prepared for what happened. It was during an interview. He suddenly grabbed me and pulled me nose-to-nose. I told him to stick to wrestling and I'd stick to announcing. But that didn't end it.

"The next Saturday, unprovoked again, he grabbed me and ripped my shirt. I figured that if it was my time to go, I was going to go right here on the air. I told him, "Who the hell do you think you are? Get your hands the hell off me!' He hasn't been back since, because people don't come to see me wrestle. Anyone can pick on a 190-pound weakling."

Happily for Cardille, his fans, and his wardrobe, most interviews are not nearly so flamboyant. Crusher Lisowski, a great favorite when he frequented Pittsburgh, once broke up the suave Cardille with his terse description of Pittsburgh's hilly terrain. "Pittsburgh," the Crusher croaked, "is the only town where you can jump out the basement window and commit suicide."

George Steele, the Detroiter with an appetite for mayhem, has given Cardille more than his share of attention, and not always on interviews. "It's a mutual non-admiration society," Cardille explained. "He doesn't like me and I don't like him. Although there are some animals I do like."

Steele replied in his own way. On six straight Saturdays Steele, like a man unloading sacks of potatoes, dumped his opponent into Cardille's lap. "I take the brunt," Cardille yelped, admitting what thousands had witnessed. "The table usually collapses on my legs, and as for the wrestler in my lap—I don't know whether to help him or burp him."

"Which wrestler," he was asked broadside, "would you like most to have thrown into your lap?"

"We don't have lady wrestlers here," he fired back, (They are outlawed in Pennsylvania.)

A quick wit and a deep knowledge of the action are only part of the secret to Cardille's popularity. His willingness to join the action—in his own way—is another. He once joined Mr. Kleen in an on-camera test of strength—Kleen's strength. Cardille stood stiffly upright and let Kleen lift him from the canvas, by the ankles. Another time he obligingly rested his 190-pound halfback-frame on the bulging back of Bruno Sammartino while Bruno did 25-push-ups for the TV audience.

Aside from Skull Murphy, the wrestlers rather like Cardille, partly for his competence at the mike and, beyond that requisite, for his impartiality.

But even his cultivated neutrality is violated on occasion. One of them popped up last spring. The Sicilians, the nasty, bearded tag team of Tony Altimore and Lou Albano, had just devastated a pair of unsuspecting newcomers. Cardille charged out from behind his table.

"Just a minute! he yelled. "I want to know one thing, just one thing!" The Sicilians strolled over to the mike and camera.

"You two," Cardille demanded. He poked at them with the mike. "You two could have put those two guys away 10 minutes ago. But you just kept dishing it out, dishing it out. How come?"

"This was just a warm-up," Albano sneered. "We have another match tonight."

Cracked Altimore, "If they have the guts to get into the ring with us, then they gotta have the guts to take the punishment."

"You two are just plain vicious," Cardille rasped. "You're complete sadists in the ring."

But the Sicilians were already stalking off in a huff. Altimore muttered something back over his shoulder. "Come back for the next match!" Cardille challenged. "Come back and watch the Frenchman (Carpentier) and learn something about finesse!" The haughty Sicilians turned their backs on the final insult.

Cardille schedules two unrehearsed interviews per show, and they're generally not nearly so electric.

"I usually throw out a leading question and let the wrestler take it from there," Cardille revealed. Not all wrestlers are as quick and responsive as the Crusher, but the successful don't need much urging.

"Show me a professional wrestler who can wrestle and talk," Cardille says, "and I'll show you a rich man." The reference is to fan appeal, a quality as tough to pin as Bruno. Cardille, as much as anyone in the sport or on its fringes, can attest to the importance of fan appeal.

In that area, he walks a fat tight wire between two worlds.

He's welcomed everywhere as "Chilly Billy," even when he's called on to take a ring bow at live matches in Pittsburgh's 12,000-plus-seat Civic Arena. And his fans are the stuff that cross-section polls are made of. Once at a plush Pittsburgh watering hole, the waitress came over to his table and said, "Mr. Cardille, those gentlemen would like your autograph—one for each," indicating four expensively dressed executive-types at the bar. She handed him a large paper place-mat, and then added quietly, "Sign one for me, too, Chilly."

But the nickname "Chilly Billy" has nothing to do with Studio Wrestling. It comes, instead, from Cardille's "other world," his late -Saturday night double-feature horror movie TV show, "Chiller Theater," which ranks near top-rated Studio Wrestling among WIIC's local shows.

Cardille has no difficulty moving from one world to the other. "It's really easy." he cracks. "I work with live monsters early, and the film monsters later." The two lives complement each other. They may even have rubbed off on each other.

On Chiller Theater, Cardille does, among other skits, "Captain Bad," a long-underweared character who brandishes an open umbrella to invite bad luck. Captain Bad sneaks out to golf courses and puts quicksand into the sand traps, steals Little Leaguers' bats and gloves, hires incompetent ambulance drivers for hospitals. If Captain Bad seems to resemble a wrestling villain, it's probably no mere coincidence.

On Chiller Theater, Cardille is confined to the studio all late Saturday night, but his wrestling work has spread not only out of the studio, but out of Pittsburgh as well.

Recently, TV wrestling returned to Philadelphia with the opening of an Ultra-High-Frequency (UHF) station, and Cardille was invited to go there periodically as host on shows taped for later telecasting. In the curious world of television, these are part of that odd breed, "Live, On Tape" shows.

The spread of wrestling to UHF television didn't surprise Cardille. He says he saw it coming, sees more of it coming, maybe even a mild boom of it. It may never return to network status, as in its heyday of the early 1950s, but it will find its way into more UHF local programming, he believes. It's simply a matter of economics.

"To begin with," Cardille reasons, "wrestling has already proved that it's a rating-maker and a money-maker on television. It's a sure-fire hit. Now, teleVision's Very-High-Frequency (VHF) area is just about saturated with stations, and practically all of them are network stations. If they carry wrestling at all, it is not network, but local, as it is here at WIIC.

"The UHFs can't get network television, so they have to get material such as movies and sports shows that can't get on the VHFs' prime time. That's what happened in Philadelphia. This probably will mean more TV wrestling as the country gets more UHFs, acid this in turn will make wrestling a bigger and bigger spectator sport."

Which, it would follow, means more and perhaps better wrestlers as the sport grows.

"But who is the world's greatest wrestler right now?" Cardille was asked. The question, verbally, is a body slam. How does one escape from a body slam?

Cardille manages, and gracefully, the way he doesn't pick the World's Most Monstrous Monster on Chiller Theater. One monster may be more fiendish at some things than another monster. They all have their worst points, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the rest.

Cardille simply separates his live monsters into categories, then picks the tops in each.

For his money, Sammartino is the strongest, Killer Kowalski and Crusher Lisowski the meanest, Hans Mortier and Cowboy Watts the most scientific, Carpentier the most exciting, and Gorilla Monsoon the most agile big man.

That may not answer the question precisely, but it does tell you who is the most nimble man on camera, even if he is picking hiS way out of the furniture from time to time.


Thanks to Carroll Hall at All-Star Championship Wrestling for providing us with the pages from Wrestling Revue from his collection.