Former 'Chiller Theater'' host's career has endured decades

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PAULA A. SMITH
Correspondent

William Robert “Bill” Cardille is renowned in broadcasting, revered in halls of fame and forever staked in the hearts of many as Chilly Billy in “Chiller Theater.” Count Dracula might say, “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you’re a wise man, Bill Cardille.”

With 62 years in broadcasting, the Pittsburgh legend is the best of the best. 

His familiar voice is heard weekdays on The Bill Cardille Show at WJAS-AM 1320 radio where he has been playing music for the past 19 years from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and ad-libbing comments to listeners such as, “The songs sound pretty good to me and I hope they sound good to you” and “Riding into the sunset right with you.” 

Alan Serena worked with Cardille on the radio at WIXZ-AM 1360 in East McKeesport in 1978. He calls him “a very humble man” who achieved so much in Pittsburgh since 1957.

  “He’s the regular guy next door,” said Serena, vice president of operations and general manager of Renda Broadcasting Pittsburgh. “He’s everyone’s grandfather, brother or neighbor. I grew up with Bill. As Pittsburghers, we all grew up with Bill on Channel 11 watching the weather, wrestling and “Chiller Theater.” He had opportunities to leave Pittsburgh many times, but he liked this town of ours and wanted to raise his family here. People love him. Listeners love him, and we certainly love him. We love having him on WJAS every day.”

His daughter, Lori Rogal, says her dad has a strong work ethic, but he simply says, “I love what I do” — and it’s not for the money. It’s his work, and he has no plans to retire and chill or leave the ‘Burgh. He is staying right here with his wife and kids.

Although he considers McCandless Township home, Cardille was born in Farrell and grew up in Sharon. The third of nine children, “the oldest of the boys,” he adds, his parents were William and Frances (Hess) Cardille, and they lived at 37 Watson Street. 

“Everybody was poor,” he said. We went barefoot all summer — we only had one pair of shoes.”

Descended from German and English ancestry, his mother was the glue that held the family together, and his dad was the talker.

The family worshiped at St. Joseph Church together every Sunday. He and his four sisters and four brothers attended St. Joseph School and were taught by the Benedictine Sisters. Their oldest sister, Rose, and youngest brother, Steve, have since died.

His paternal grandparents emigrated from Naples, Italy. He remembers his grandfather gardening. 

“My father worked for Westinghouse, but he always wanted to act. He was a natural,” he said with a warm smile. “He liked to sing and founded a barber shop quartet in Sharon. My grandparents were from the old country and wouldn’t let him go to New York City.” 

 Kids in the neighborhood knew he had the same dream — he wanted to be on stage. At age 9, with friends he named, “Beans,” “Pork” and “Bacon,” they hung a sheet and charged 1 cent admission to see the “Lone Ranger.” When he appeared in a mask the children sighed, “Oh, that’s Billy Cardille.” 

At 13, he went from selling 20 to 400 newspapers in front of St. Joseph Church for half a cent each after the noon Mass. His mother helped place inserts in the papers, count the money and told him, “You save your money.” He deposited it in a savings account at the bank the next day. A few years later, he earned 50 cents preparing cookie mixes at a local bakery.

 In high school, he created a dancing act. Attired in a tuxedo, he performed with Gladys (Sorg) Coates for three years. He also composed a song played by a 17-piece band at Buhl Park Pavilion in Sharon. 

During World War II, he and his father performed minstrel shows with a cast of 40 men sponsored by Westinghouse.  

“It was the biggest thing in the valley in Sharon and Farrell,” he reminisced. 

Following graduation from Sharon High School in the late 1940s, Cardille went on singing and dancing tours with his father, a vaudeville entertainer, who played piano. 

In spring 1951, while attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania on an athletic scholarship, he broadcast his first radio show, “Cardille’s Capers” at WDAD AM, a local CBS station in Indiana. 

“I didn’t get paid, but I got experience,” he said. That summer, while emceeing and bartending for $30 at the Cowshed Night Club in Conneaut Lake, a man in the bar suggested he come up to Erie and audition for television. 

“God acts in strange ways,” he reflected. 

Despite his parents’ disappointment, he left college and headed to Erie to start working as an announcer for WICU-TV Channel 12, on Jan. 20, 1952. The timing was good — it was after World War II when television was coming into focus and many Americans could afford to purchase a set. His job included hosting a highly popular children’s program as Uncle Bill called, “Merry Go Round Time” and as the Atlantic Weatherman.

It was in Erie that he met the love of his life, Louise Maras, his wife of 60 years. They were married at St. John the Baptist Church in Erie on Oct. 3, 1953. 

“My wife has been great,” he said. “She’s the boss and is well-grounded — a good mother. Her life revolves around our children and grandchildren because she’s a family person. I couldn’t have asked for a better life, and I give thanks for it. I’m not an angel.” 

They have three children, Lori Rogal (Jim), 58; Billy, 55; and Marea Johnson (Clark), 49. Their four grandchildren are: Kate Rogal, an actress in New York City; Jake Rogal, Emmy winner for a documentary; Charlie Johnson, a University of Pittsburgh pre-medical student and athlete; and Cooper Johnson, an honor student and athlete at North Allegheny High School.

Five years later, Cardille left Erie to work at WIIC-TV, Channel 11, in Pittsburgh. On Sept. 1, 1957, he first signed the station on the air at 5 p.m. as one of six original broadcasters. By Williams was one of the program directors working that day and recalled, “Bill was a true professional as well as a beautiful person.”

A memorable highlight for Cardille was being designated, “The Voice of Wrestling” as broadcaster for “Studio Wrestling” for 15 years. He also announced western Pennsylvania high school sports for WQED-TV, morning radio shows on Pittsburgh station WWSW-AM and was the weatherman on WIIC. 

But his greatest legacy is hosting “Chiller Theater” with the Chiller family: Steve Luncinski (Stefan the castle prankster), Donna Rae (Terminal Stare), Bonnie Sue Barney (Georgette the fudgemaker), Joyce Sterling (Sister Susie) and Norman Elder (castle servant), from Sept. 19, 1964, to Dec. 31, 1983.         

Sportscaster Red Donley’s son came up with the moniker, “Chilly Billy” and it worked. Initially, Bob Willis, promotion manager, wrote “Chiller” with Cardille’s lines, and then Cardille started to write, produce and hire staff for the show. His favorite ending was, “Good night. Sleep warm.” He also played a reporter in George Romero’s film “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. 

“Chiller’s” countless fans in the tri-state area kept the show on television four years despite NBC affiliate pressure for “Saturday Night Live.” Chiller was eventually placed in two later time slots and ended within a year. After cancellation, Cardille remained at WPXI as chief booth announcer and weatherman for 12 years until retiring from television in 1996. He stayed on air until 1998. 

One of his longest running roles is with the Muscular Dystrophy Association local telethon. Son, Billy, sees his dad’s kindness in 42 years of hosting telecasts. They are best friends, and he says the person on TV is the same one they see at home. For Cardille, it’s easy to get attached to the kids because “they are remarkable.” Through his annual volunteer efforts, more than 15 million has been raised.

 “Bill did many, many things at the TV station during his tenure here, and he continues hosting the MDA telethon,” noted Mark Barash, director of programming at WPXI and station manager of Pittsburgh Cable News Channel. 

“He’s worked as a weatherman, newscaster, kids show host, wrestling announcer, and of course, the host of “Chiller Theater.” His versatility is amazing over the years. His talent is extraordinary … and he’s one of those really nice guys.”

Throughout his distinguished career, he received numerous awards including: 

• The Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. 

• National vice president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. 

• Local president of AFTRA.

• AFTRA’S Hall of Fame.

• Variety Club Man of the Year.

• Radio – Television Club Man of the Year.

• Enshrined in New York Radio and Television Museum for Chiller Theater.

• Wrestling Magazine National Announcer of the year.

While building a successful career he encountered health issues. At 19, he lost a kidney when kicked playing basketball. Following heart attacks, he underwent open heart surgeries and is a cancer survivor. 

“He’s like Frankenstein,” said Lori. “He has been put together by the doctors of Pittsburgh. What kept my dad alive is his goodness and attitude. He loves life. He loves people and he appreciates all the kindness he’s received from the people of Pittsburgh.”

“I’ve had a great life,” Cardille said. “I’d like to do it all over again.”

 He and his wife are parishioners at St. Teresa of Avila in Perrysville since 1959. He previously served as a lector and is a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus.