Robert Lloyd on Engineer Bill: An appreciation
William Stulla, a man I only ever knew as "Engineer Bill," died Tuesday at the estimable age of 97. Some of my first memories of television, which is to say, some of my first memories of life, are of his show, which KHJ (now KCAL) ran weeknights at dinner time from 1954 to 1966. Perhaps because of his age, which was relatively advanced even then, or perhaps just because of his horn-rimmed glasses, he seemed the most eminent of the local kids-show hosts, the boss in my mind of a complement that also included Chucko the Birthday Clown (Charles M. Runyon), Sheriff John (John Rovick) and Tom Hatten, who played "Popeye" cartoons in a nautical setting. Later there were Hobo Kelly (Sally Baker), little person Billy Barty, and Gene Moss and his jelly-bean-eating puppet pal, "Shrimpenstein," though none with quite his gravitas, to slightly overstate his effect.
Every city with its own television station had their counterparts, some Cowboy This or Captain That, famous within broadcasting range and completely unknown outside of it. On a national level there was "Captain Kangaroo" and eventually "Mr. Rogers," with their higher budgets and perhaps loftier ambitions, but they came from somewhere else. It was clear to me that Engineer Bill lived in my town, and not some imaginary Neighborhood, and that there was the real possibility that I could get him to read my name on the air, or even invite me onto his show, were I to do the necessary groundwork -– there were always a couple of live tykes on board for Stulla to play off. I was never going to do that groundwork -– you had to write a letter, at least -– but I saw him once, at a supermarket personal appearance.
Anyone who remembers Engineer Bill remembers Red Light/Green Light -- or Green Light/Red Light -- a play-along-at-home milk-drinking game that was his show's main gift to Southern California culture and parents. I have a clear image of myself participating in this bit of nutritional behavioral psychology -- though past the milk and the model trains, and the image of Bill himself in his stripey overalls and cap, it all begins to blur. He played cartoons -– the name of the program was "Engineer Bill's Cartoon Express" –- but everybody played cartoons.
There was nothing particularly brilliant about any of these shows or these performers, apart from the way they were available to their audience. Not to get all cracker-barrel about it, but the fact that we won't see their loose, modest like again doesn't strike me as progress. The loss is symptomatic of a greater loss: We have entered an age of remote consolidation, of absentee landlords, of the online marketplace that kills the corner store. (Perhaps it's time for a local media movement to mirror the local foods movement –- to frame it as the environmental issue it actually is.) The new matrix promises a "deeper" experience of its perfected products by throwing them at you from different angles and on different platforms. But the human touch gets lost.
Stulla returned briefly as one of the hosts of KHJ's afternoon programming block, "Nine Island." (I remember him in a spaceship, although I can't find anything to corroborate that.) Then he disappeared into broadcast history. His epitaph writes itself: Red Light.
Photo credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times