Chilly Billy: Mummies, Scorpions, and Understanding Pittsburgh
Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, the beloved Pittsburgh T.V. and radio icon, enjoyed a successful career as the host of Chiller Theater for two decades. Ahmed Ragheb explores his lasting impact and what outsiders stand to learn about the city through his story.
We’re in an empty, dark, stuffy castle room. A dimly lit table is seen in the foreground. On it can be made out a candelabra, a human skull, a hammer, a decanter and two glasses of red liquid – possibly blood, possibly tomato juice. A male figure holding a single candle stumbles in off stage right. “Oh my oh my,” the man says, “I hope Norman or Stephen paid Duquesne Light. My goodness it’s so dark in here we can’t get enough power from the castle substation.” He calls out for his two female companions, who emerge from the darkness, startling him into a babbling panic. One of the women snaps her fingers and the lights instantly come on, revealing a man in a tan tuxedo. He turns to the woman. “I thought you didn’t pay the bill, I didn’t know you were trick-or-treating – Jeez.” He blows out his candle. “My goodness gracious – I hate things that go bump in the night,” he says. “Well, sometimes.” This is Chilly Billy.
* * *
I recently hired an electrician to replace the extractor fan in my new place – after nearly two years in Pittsburgh I decided to move into a new apartment. The electrician, a man of about 60, showed up on time with a new fan in hand and got to work immediately. As he worked, he explained how the city’s regulatory agencies were making his job more difficult lately, how a creeping bureaucracy had slowly grown around the simplest of tasks. He had even moved further and further out of the city as the years wore on. With his head disappearing into my bathroom ceiling, he explained to me how the city had changed since he was younger. From what I could hear through his mask and the ceiling, the changes were both positive and negative – I’d gathered as much during my time in the city.
“What’s your name again?” he asked as he reappeared to get a screwdriver.
“Ahmed,” I told him.
“Hmm.... You got a nickname?”
I shook my head.
He thought for a moment. “How ‘bout I call you ‘A’ instead?”
He asked where I was from and I told him I had moved from Cairo, Egypt.
Once again he ascended into the ceiling and the lights flickered a little. When he reappeared he asked if there were many scorpions in Egypt. I said I wasn’t really sure.
“How about snakes?”
Before I could answer he let out a deep friendly laugh and apologized for the line of questioning. “I bet you get stupid questions like that all time,” he said. I shrugged.
“All I know about Egypt is from the movies.” He ripped the old fan from the ceiling and threw it into my tub. It looked absolutely ancient, covered in old plaster and spiderwebs. A cloud of dust billowed upward. “You know Chilly Billy?”
As he installed my new fan, he told me all about Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille’s weekly TV special and proudly claimed that it fended off Saturday Night Live for four years in the Pittsburgh area. He remembered the show fondly, lamented its cancellation and blamed it exclusively for his understanding of Egypt. “All desert, scorpions, mummies, and curses.”
After he’d left I decided to do a little research into Chilly Billy myself and, if I could, watch those depictions of Egypt that had so colored my new friend’s impression of my home.
Bill Cardille, I would discover, is as much a part of Pittsburgh as its bridges or its skyline. Cardille hosted WIIC Channel 11’s Chiller Theatre from 1963 to 1984. It played every Saturday at 11pm and featured two films, both sci-fi or horror.
Chilly Billy, as Cardille often introduced himself, would open the show and perform skits before, between, and even during the films. I’m not totally unfamiliar with creature feature television programming. I know the drill – the host, playing as his or her corny signature character (a mad scientist, the vampiric Count Something or Other, a gravedigger), would introduce the films from their signature corny location (a laboratory, a cobwebbed castle, a misty graveyard). I was pleasantly surprised then when I was able to finally track down a few clips online of Chilly Billy’s Chiller Theatre. There was the selection of corny films, there was the corny set (they went with the cobwebbed castle) but missing was the corny persona. I had expected a phony thick “foreign” accent and a false mustache. I had expected fake blood and bad ghost stories. I had not expected Chilly Billy to be so much of himself. Yes, there were costume changes and skits abound but the show revolved around the personality of Cardille, not cheap scares, cheap films, or cheap jokes. The movies that the show presented seemed almost like an afterthought, something you tolerated until they’d be interrupted by the beating heart at the center of Chiller Theatre.
Cardille played himself and his skits with the cool and self-assuredness of a star in total control of his dominion, in this case the Chiller Castle or occasionally the abandoned tunnels of the Pittsburgh Subway System (Pittsburgh did not have a subway system). In one skit with Agent 99 of Get Smart (played by Barbra Feldon), while describing himself, he quips, “The only thing that’s chaos about him is his program – it usually ends up that way...He doesn’t like anyone else doing his show, he thinks he’s a star.” The whole production has the feeling of a beloved inside joke that tells itself on repeat, which can be a little frustrating for an outsider but, hey, its local programming after all – it’s not made for an outsider. It’s that exact feeling, I suspect, that created the incredibly loyal fanbase that Chiller Theatre enjoyed for just over two decades. As my electrician had accurately reported, Chiller Theatre did indeed keep Saturday Night Live off the air for four years in Pittsburgh. It was not until NBC, which owned Channel 11, threatened to pull all of its programming that Chiller was pushed back to a 1 am time slot to make room for SNL. The show had to reduce its program to one film. Some years later WIIC began to run Entertainment Tonight after SNL, effectively dwindling down Chiller’s audience to people willing to stay up until 2 am to watch. The show aired its last episode on New Year’s Eve, 1983. The national scene had forced its way into Pittsburgh’s local programming and killed the inside joke.
I had originally intended to watch the films that I thought my electrician was referencing (I found a website that catalogued every film that was ever played on Chiller) – titles such as The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb and The Pharaoh’s Curse, but instead I discovered a valuable window into not only Pittsburgh’s history but into a story that seemed essential to Pittsburgh. It is a story about a beloved local program, tailor-made for its region and its audience, being pushed out piecemeal by larger trends that it was, despite its popularity, unable to buck. Not an unfamiliar story in Pittsburgh by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, there’s a similar story on almost every city block. In many ways Chilly Billy, his attitude and charisma, the friendly and protective nature of his humor, the end of his show and the way it ended are absolutely essential to understanding the city – and understanding the city’s understanding of the world. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!