Bill Cardille, longtime Pittsburgh TV host, dies at age 87
July 21, 2016 10:23 AM
Bill Cardille gives an interview last month.
Saturday nights were always a fright for fans of Bill Cardille and Channel 11's "Chiller Theatre."
By Maria Sciullo and Anya Sostek / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bill Cardille loved Pittsburgh. And Pittsburgh loved him back.
The broadcaster known as “Chilly Billy,” who filled local airwaves for six decades as a newsman, television host, radio personality, actor and producer, died early Thursday morning at his McCandless home of pneumonia. He was 87. In the weeks before, his daughter Lori Cardille posted on Facebook that her father had been diagnosed with liver cancer and could use some cheering up in the form of cards and letters.
The response was overwhelming. “We opened up a couple thousand and we still have 2,000 cards left to open,” said his son, also named Bill Cardille. “Pittsburghers are beautiful.”
Mr. Cardille is best known for hosting “Chiller Theater” and “Studio Wrestling” on WIIC, later WPXI — the epitome of innocent weekend fun for legions of Pittsburgh-area children, their parents and Saturday night babysitters. On “Chiller Theater,” which aired from 1963 to 1984, many enjoyed Mr. Cardille’s campy introductions as much — or more — than the movies themselves.
As part of his role on “Chiller Theater,” Mr. Cardille helped raise money to fund George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” “We were upstarts trying to make a little horror film and he basically plugged us almost every week,” Mr. Romero said. “He was an incredible supporter — I really give Bill a large part of the credit for me being here at all.”
Mr. Romero remembers hanging out with Mr. Cardille and one of his best friends, wrestler Bruno Sammartino, listening to opera together in Mr. Sammartino’s house. Lori Cardille played the lead role in Mr. Romero’s film “Day of the Dead.”
Mr. Cardille began acting as a child, participating in vaudeville shows with his father in the 1940s. He graduated from Sharon High School in Sharon, Mercer County, and earned a basketball scholarship to what is now Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he started working at a local radio station.
Shortly after graduation, he began working at WICU in Erie, where part of his job involved hosting a Saturday spelling bee, then doing commercials for Erie Brewing during half-inning breaks of Cleveland Indians games.
“I don’t drink,” he recalled, “and in those days, you could drink beer on the air ... the company sent me a case a week and the engineers would drink it.”
He pretended to take a sip during the commercial “and then I’d pour mine down the sewer. They were the happiest rats in Erie.”
One day, after yet another game ended early and there was on-air time to kill, he asked if it were possible to get a camera to the station’s front sidewalk. From there, he proceeded to interview people on the street, just chatting them up.
He and his wife, Louise, returned to Pittsburgh on Labor Day weekend, 1957. He’d been offered a management position in Erie but turned it down, convinced his future was in Pittsburgh as a director and announcer.
He continued to interview fans for segments during the closing of “Studio Wrestling” and informally, for decades afterward.
Mr. Cardille’s son-in-law, Jim Rogal, would go to Pittsburgh Penguins games with him in recent years, where Mr. Cardille would be recognized and approached by “anybody who is over the age of 50 who is a Pittsburgher.” He would not only be polite and gracious, but would be genuinely interested in each encounter.
“He would come away from those conversations knowing more about the other person than they knew about him,” he said. “You’d think somebody like that, in the public eye for 60 years, would get a little jaded and Bill never did. He was the genuine article.”
In addition to his wife and his son, Bill, both of McCandless and his daughter Lori, of Squirrel Hill, he is survived by daughter Marea Johnson, of McCandless, and four grandchildren. He is also survived by five siblings: sisters Pat Porter of California and Barbara Burdette of Minnesota; and brothers Jack and Tommy Cardille of Ohio, and Ed Cardille of North Carolina.
The family will hold a Mass at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland at 10 a.m. Monday that is open to the public. The family asks that contributions be made to the Pittsburgh office of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a cause for which Mr. Cardille raised money through telethons for decades.
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