Growing Up MonsterMad with Pittsburgh's
(Originally published in MonsterMad # 1, July 1997)
For those of us growing up in the late sixties in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or northern West Virginia, one name was virtually synonymous with late-night horror: "Chilly Billy" Cardille and his program Chiller Theater.
Chiller began in 1963 when Cardille, Pittsburgh TV station WIIC's wrestling announcer and host of the
kiddie show Tip Top Time,
was approached to host Channel 11's new afternoon horror movie showcase, called Chiller Theater
from the beginning.
The films Cardille had to choose from were the great bumper crop from Univeral's heyday — Screen Gems'
Shock Theater package —
plus a few select classics from the Atom Age fifties.
The program finally came into its own after a time change to 11:30 p.m. in the mid-sixties.
Each show opened to the spooky strains of guitarist Al Caiola's raunchy arrangement of an unforgettable tune called "Experiment in Terror," from a film score by Pittsburgh's own Henry Mancini — a haunting melody loaded with sax appeal.
Cardille, usually clad in a dress suit, a tux or a turtleneck sweater, was a rather restrained host at first. However, as the show's notoriety peaked in the early seventies, he attacked his role with gusto, adding skits, paranormal bits and large doses of good humor.
"Chilly Billy," as Cardille came to be known, also brought along a bizarre continuing cast of supporting characters: "Norman the Castle Keeper" (Norman Elder), "Stephen the Castle Prankster" (Steven Luncinski), statuesque zombie "Terminal Stare" (Donna Rae), and "Georgette the Fudge Maker" (Bonnie Sue Barney) — not to mention "Skeets Skeltino the Pizza Man," "Sister Suzie" (Joyce Sterling), "Beauregard C. Beauregard" (Ted James), and occasional celebrity guests like Phyllis Diller, Barbara (Get Smart) Feldon, and wrestler Bruno Sammartino.
During the glory days of the show, Cardille would sometimes show three or more films each show night, challenging the viewer to stay up ever later with the genial host and his friends. Between films he would predict the future, tell horoscopes, and even hawk his own line of tuxedoes!
The final stamp of approval came when Cardille was invited to play himself in Pittsburgh filmmaker George Romero's groundbreaking horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). In a very effective (but unusually serious) performance, he appears in the film as Channel 11 reporter Bill Cardille, conducting an on-the-spot interview with Chief of Police McClelland about the progress of the zombie hunt (see sidebar).
I can still remember being about 8 or 9 years old and watching WIIC's afternoon wrestling show on Saturdays, just to see "Chilly Billy" announce the films that would be shown on Chiller Theater later than night. Sometimes he would even show a clip of the Mummy, the Wolf Man, or the Frankenstein Monster.
My own personal initiation into horror fandom was a double-feature of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein on Chiller Theater To this day, these are still my favorite horror films.
With the advent of Saturday Night Live in the late seventies, Chiller was moved to a later time slot — 1:00 a.m. Still, Bill and his cast soldiered on. During the late seventies and early eighties, Cardille showed several Hammer pictures, independant chillers like Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, and even foreign horrors like Paul Naschy films.
It wasn't until 1983 that the "host" format was dropped and the cast departed. Chiller Theater was replaced for a while by a good syndicated horror movie package called Haunted Hollywood. An off-camera voice-over by the great John Carradine instructed the viewer to "turn down the sound...but don't touch that dial!" It lasted another five years.
The cast of Chiller Theater occasionally reunites for special appearances,
notably for a televised show reunion in the early '90's, and at the 1993 "Zombie Jamboree"
in Pittsburgh celebrating the 25th anniversary of
Night of the Living Dead.
Bill Cardille still displays a genuine fondness and no condescension for the program which has given him
beloved status among all monster fans in the broadcast area.
He currently works as the the morning weatherman for WPXI in Pittsburgh.
The influence of Chiller Theater on its legion of fans is incalculable, and Pittsburgh is quite the haven for East Coast monster fandom. Director/makeup artist/actor Tom Savini and fellow makeup man Joe Blasco both started out as young fans of Chiller, often appearing on the show in their own homegrown monster makeups.
Sometimes I catch myself popping one of the old Universal films in the VCR, trying to recreate that initial feeling of terror and dread I felt many years ago, when Chilly Billy introduced me to poor, tormented Lawrence Talbot and the naive, well-meaning scientist who just couldn't resist seeing Frankenstein's monster restored to its full power...
Read a terrific Chilly Billy Interview
Paul Riggie co-conducted for Santo Scene, "The MexicanMonsterMovieMag"!
CHILLER THEATER CAST (l-r):
CHILLY NIGHT of the LIVING DEAD
Chilly Billy plays himself,
Chief... Chief McClelland -- how's everything going?