BILL CARDILLE: R.I.P.
– The Phantom of the Ring
The true unsung hero of televised wrestling is the announcer sitting at ringside. He is the first person we meet as youth tuning into wrestling for the first time, and the quality of his announcing will often determine the level and passion of our love as fans. One of the true greats of that art form passed away on July 21, 2016 at the age of 87 at his home of pneumonia after a long battle with cancer. He was Bill Cardille, better known to the fans in Pittsburgh as “Chilly Billy” in reference to his longtime status as host of his station’s Chiller Theater. He was a fixture on Pittsburgh’s NBC affiliate, WIIC-TV (now known as WPXI-TV), Channel 11. He did whatever the station needed, serving as a newsman, weatherman, announcer, and television host for various programs, this in an era when local stations originated most of their own programming. (In fact, it was Cardille who signed WIIC onto the air on September 1, 1957. ) He also worked as a radio personality, actor and producer. died early Thursday morning at his McCandless home of pneumonia.
When it comes to announcers, perhaps the most famous among today’s hardcore fans in Gordon Solie (Francis Jonard Labiak), who called the matches in first in Florida, and later for Georgia Championship Wrestling, broadcast nationally by TBS. After the promotion was taken over by the Crocketts he called the matches for WCW unit 1995.
Cardille wasn’t as well-traveled, confining himself to the Pittsburgh area except for a brief sojourn as the announcer for the WWWF show “Championship Wrestling” out of Philadelphia from 1969 to 1972, when WWWF owner Vincent J. McMahon replaced him with his no-talent son Vincent K. McMahon, the man who singlehandedly destroyed WAWLI (Wrestling As We Liked It). Supposedly Cardille was offered a full-time job with the WWWF but turned it down to remain in Pittsburgh with his family, but as with most unsubstantiated wrestling stories, this one is dubious, especially as Vince Jr. began plastering his face all over WWWF televised product.
Televised wrestling began in Pittsburgh back in 1959, when Toots Mondt owned the promotion. Shelton Weaver, the station ager for the newly-created WIIC, wanted to televise the matches from the studio. His first choice as host was Cardille, but Cardille was hosting a game show on the station at the time and considering his other broadcasting dudes at the station, turned the offer down. The matches were held in the northern Pittsburgh neighborhood of Fineview, and during its heyday the studio was packed with fans and Studio Wrestling, as it was called, was the top rated local show for the station, airing every Saturday night from 6 to 7:30 pm. (The reason for the early time slot was so that the wrestlers could work other nearby cards after their match was over.) The original host was either newsman Mark Schaffer or Mal Alberts, depending on which account you believe, but sometime in 1960 Cardille took over as the permanent host. He quickly established himself with the opening line, “Welcome to Studio Wrestling, 90 minutes of unorganized mayhem, where anything could happen, usually does ,and probably will. I’m your host, Bill Cardille.”
He sat at ringside at a table and was occasionally joined by a heel manager or wrestler or booker Rudy Miller. At his table was an oak nameplate that always ended up being a weapon used by a heel such as George “The Animal” Steele, Waldo von Erich, or Bill Watts.
If there was time left over, which happened often due to the boys having to make later commitments at arenas in the area, Cardille would have people come up from the crowd and announce their name and where they were from. He made a star out of an elderly lady named Anna Buckalew, who he noticed sitting ringside back week. He christened her “Ringside Rosie “ and she gained a measure of fame for such stats as getting right in a heel’s face and letting hm know what she thought of him. After awhile the station made sure a ringside seat in the same spot was reserved for her every week.
The card for Studio Wrestling consisted of standard jobber matches, with an occasional main event consisting of user echelon mid-carders. The enhancement tales was split into two groups: wrestlers who worked in the area, such as Killer Joe Abbey (Joseph Abbenante, who also wrestled as the masked Red Demon), Frank “Slip Mahoney” Durso, Ace Freeman (Zoltan Friedman, who also worked as a mid-carder), “Jumping” Johnny De Fazio (same status as Freeman), Fred “The Tiger” Geiger, Frank “Carnegie Cop” Holtz (he was a real life policeman in nearby Carnegie who later became the chief of police there), Bobby “Hurricane” Hunt, Zivko Kovacic, Tony “The Battman” Marino (who wore a full Batman outfit, taking off his cape when he wrestled), Chuck Martoni (later became mayor of Pittsburgh suburb Swissvale), Ron Mattucci, Carlo Milano, “Polish” Pat Atlas, Ron Romano, and John L. Sullivan (Thomas Sullivan, later known as “Lucious” Johnny Valiant.). The other enhancement group consisted of boys brought in from Canada, such as Bull (Ronnie) Johnson, Terry Yorkston, Al Schiller, Doc Beach, and Rujack Woods.
Ace Freeman, who also was in charge of the show, would stand out of camera range and give the boys visual cues that it was time to wrap up a match or an interview. Cardille himself did most of the interviews while standing in front of the ring, occasionally he’d jumping up on the ring apron near his broadcast table for a post-match interview, usually with a hot heel they were pushing.
During Cardille’s tenure there were several memorable angles, with the announcer himself wither planning or taking part.
In the fall of 1966, The Crusher was working a program with Bruno. He and Dr. Bill Miller were the top heels at the time and also helped position Battman as Bruno’s right-hand man with their antics. One of the best moments concerned building up a Civic Arena match between Bruno and The Crusher. Cardille was interviewing Bruno’s “manager,” Rudy Miller when Crusher burst in suggesting the reason Bruno wasn’t there to be interviewed was because he was yellow. When Rudy what back that Bruno had other commitments that preceded his being in Pittsburgh, Crusher grabbed Rudy and tore his shirt. This resulted in a which prompted a stream of profanity from Rudy, a major no-no on a live show. This caused Cardille to spend the rest of the show apologizing for Miller’s remarks.
Anther memorable TV angles was the voluntary unmasking of The Battman, whose gimmick died once the TV show left the air (His walk to the ring was accompanied by the TV show’s theme.). When he made his debut in 1966, The Battman said the only way he would unmask was if someone pinned him cleanly or made his submit.
At the September Civic Arena show, The Kentucky Butcher (John Quinn) beat Battman on a count out. Battman had bladed after The Butcher ran his head into the ring post and couldn’t return to the ring. The next night on the TV show, Battman, wearing a special mask that allowed him to show the stitches in his forehead, demanded a rematch with the Butcher. Quinn said the only way he would get that rematch was if he unmasked, reminding him that he had promised to unmask if anyone beat him. Batman replied that by that he meant a pin or submission. The angle was played out over the weeks leading to the next Civic Arena card. Batman ratcheted up the stakes by claiming in interviews with Cardille that he had meetings with both the state athletic commission and WWWF officials. Both told him there was no return match clause in the contract. Battman then said that left him with either unmasking to get the rematch or leaving the area, since h couldn’t get his revenge on The Butcher.
Finally, the week before the Civic Arena card, he announced that he would unmask, but it was to be for one match only and were was to be no film or television cameras present. on the night of the match Battman entered the ring in his complete outfit and began removing it piece by piece, gradually revealing a bodybuilder’s physique. Everything came off except the mask, which he said he’d only remove when The Butcher entered the ring. After Quinn entered and two received their instructions, Battman returned to his caner and removed the mask to reveal himself as Tony Marino. But while he worked live shows unmasked, he kept the mask when on TV.
One of the best swerves occurred on April 1st, 1967 when the show began with guest announcer Red Donley, the sports director at WIIC, in Cardille’s seat. He explained that Cardille was under the weather and he would be filing in. The first match saw Ace Freeman facing a newcomer named The Masked Marvel, who strutted arrogantly into the ring. The Marvel began tormenting beloved referee Izzy Moidel with a slap and a kick, then jumped on Freeman. After a brief flurry, he rushed the Marvel into a corner, locked him against the ropes, and yanked off his mask.
The camera moved in for a close-up. As the words “April Fool!” flashed under the famous face that exploded on thousands of TV screens, standing there with a foolish grin was none other than Bill Cardille.
He returned moments later in a suit and tie, and it was back to business as usual. The gimmick was broadcast on the station’s evening news and resulted in a pile of letters for the announcer, testifying to his popularity.
Cardille also had a knack for getting a heel over with his often sardonic style. For instance, during an interview Skull Murphy pulled Cardille one-to-nose, which prompted the announcer to tell him to suck t wrestling while he stick to announcing. The next week the repeated the gimmick, this time with Murphy tearing Cardille’s shirt. Cardille acted insults and shouted at Murphy, “Who the hell do you think you are? Get your hands the hell off me!: The angle got Murphy over the fans as a contender for Bruno’s belt.
But not every angle was so rash. Crusher Lisowski, a favorite both of Cardille’s and the Pittsburgh fans,once broke up the announcer with his description of Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain.
“Pittsburgh,” croaked the Crusher, “is the only town where you can jump out the basement window and commit suicide.”
George Steele, who Cardille nicknamed “the Animal” when he altered his gimmick by shaving his head and speaking in monotones when he returned to Philadelphia after an absence, liked to play practical jokes on the announcer, like dumping wrestlers over the top rope onto Cardille’s lap or knocking his monitor off his desk in Philly.
But not everything lasts forever. Live attendance fell, with the studio resorting to cardboard cutouts to represent fans. In 1972 WIIC-TV’s new GM David Chase did not think pro wrestling helped the station’s image and decided to cancel the show. he first moved its time slot to 4:30 pm, which caused audience falloff, specially as the station broadcast Baseball’s Game of the Week, with the game frequently running over and preempt the wrestling show. There were times when the wrestling show was reduced to only 30 minutes.
Over the years the Pittsburgh promotion changed hands from Mondt to Bruno in 1966, Bruno sold it to Geeto Mongol (Newton Tattrie) in 1970, and in 1972 Geeto sold it to NWF owner Pedro Martinez, who shotgunned the territory. When the WWF began holding cards in the area, Martinez folded the promotion.
In 1973 the show was off the Channel 11 schedule and was picked up by Channel 53 with the shows taped at the Erie County Field House in Erie, PA. Bill Cardille continued to do the commentary. but by the end of 1974, the territory was closed and Studio Wrestling went off the air permanently.
As Chiller Theater had also bought the ratings farm in 1974, Cardille made public appearances and spent 19 years as a radio host at WJAS-AM until retiring in August 2014.
What sets Bill Cardille apart from other wrestling hosts is that, while they are known for wrestling only, Cardille became a part of pop culture. Joe Flaherty, a cast member and writer for the iconic comedy show SCTV, grew up in Pittsburgh and saw Cardille do wrestling at 6 pm, the weather on the night’s newscast at 11 pm and host Chiller Theater as “Chilly Billy” at 11:30. He based his famous character, SCTV newscaster Floyd Robertson, who later that night donned a cape as “Count Floyd for “Monster Chiller Horror Theater” and tried to scare the bejesus out of the kids supposedly watching. Cardille also appeared as a field reporter in George Romero’s 1968 classic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead. Cardille invested in the film, which returned him a lot of money. His daughter, Lori, starred one of Romero’s follow-ups, Day of the Dead (1985).
Others called the matches but Bill Cardille was a pop culture force
– The Phantom of the Ring