Despite the fact he is a bona fide member of the British Columbia Entertainment Hall of Fame, Bill Reiter is not a household name. His face, on the other hand, is more familiar. But Bill’s calling card, the distinguishing feature that is instantly recognizable to nearly everyone living in this province, is his signature voice.
“Even when I was a kid my friends used to tell me I had a great voice for radio,” he says. “One of the things I always tried to do was change the normal read and say things in a different way. I tried to grab the listeners’ ear, really make them notice the commercial.”
Bill was and is very successful at making people do just that. To date, he has appeared in over 5,000 radio and television spots and even though he is trying to retire, at the age of 68, the phone has not stopped ringing.
“I am still in the mode of being retired because I am no longer seeking work,” he says. “I am not handing my resumé to anybody. This is where I am but ironically, in the last two months, I have been getting all these phone calls to do work making commercials.”
In addition to all those ads, Bill stayed busy over the years in a number of other endeavours including, but not limited to, hosting a children’s television show, central performer in a comedic CBC radio program, radio disc jockey, stage actor, producer, writer and even guest appearances on such television shows as The Beachcombers and King of Kensington. It has been one amazing career and, in a way, it all started because of Bill’s love of music.
While spinning discs as one of CKLG-FM’s young disc jockeys, Bill started producing and hosting a radio show called Groovin’ Blue, the first all-genre black music radio show in Canada. Bill and a fellow named Bobby Garrison owned Bill & Bob’s Records, which occupied half of the narrowest store in the world, located in Chinatown. It was while selling vinyl in that eight-foot-wide (2.4-metre-wide) store that someone gave Bill’s name to the CBC as they were searching for new television talent.
“Terry David Mulligan and I went down to the audition with all these older actors who were there,” recalls Bill. “They said to team up with somebody for the next portion of the audition so I went with Terry, who was the only person I really knew. I thought we did okay because the floor producer laughed at something I said and he didn’t laugh at anyone else.”
Bill left the audition and put it out of his mind. He resumed his everyday life until one evening a few days later.
“I was enjoying dinner at the Ho Ho Restaurant with the meagre profits from the record store,” says Bill, “when the kid I had left working at the store phoned me to tell me that CBC had called to say I got the job. This was not at all what I had planned for a career, and never had been when I was growing up. It was just one of those things. I was just thinking that it would a riot to be on TV. Luck plays a very big part in it. Out of that audition, Terry and I hosted three different shows: A Second Look, Pifffle & Co. and Hey Taxi.”
Following those programs, Bill was hired to be the central performer for a BCTV kids show called Zig Zag. It was while doing that show that he got the call from CBC Radio asking him if he wanted to be part of Doctor Bundolo’s Pandemonium Medicine Show. Bill did not hesitate to say yes.
“It was the greatest thing I ever did,” he says. “That show went on for nine or 10 years and was just tremendous. We would record two shows every second Thursday at the theatre in the Students Union building at UBC, and they would be aired at a variety of days and times over the course of those years, which always seemed strange to me when it just continued to grow in popularity.”
Some of the other actors who appeared on Bundolo included Norm Grohmann, Steve Woodman, Marla Gropper, Bill Buck and Ted Stidder, but Bill believes the true secrets of the success of the show were producer Don Kowalchuk and the great writing team. Bill remembers, “We had a genius writer named Colin Yardley. Jeff Groberman was the other writer and it was he and Colin who had the original idea. Colin and I would be constantly on the phone when he would write something for the show. He would bounce all these ideas off me and I would be adding things and making suggestions. During the performances, which were live, there was some adlibbing and some changes, but mostly we stuck to the script. I still hear from people who tell me that back when Bundolo was on, it was the highlight of their week.”
One of Bill’s great successes was his role as Sasq in the Kokanee TV commercials, which started airing in the fall of 1985, and the success was due at least in part to his quick wit and creativity. While they were filming the first commercial, he realized something was missing.
“I went to Miles Ramsay, the director, and told him there had to be something better for me to say than just ‘Yo’ after my wife asked if I had brought the Kokanee. He told me to go ahead and adlib, so for the next take I said, ‘Yo, my little mugwump.’ It became a catchphrase, like ‘Where’s the Beef?’ and in the next Valentine’s Day edition of the Vancouver Province newspaper at least seven or eight of the dedications were from guys to their mugwumps. I thought this was incredible. Kokanee did very well at this time as well, moving from eight per cent of the market share to 37 per cent.”
Trying to make something good even better defines Bill’s career. He says, “I always felt being given a great line is a gift. I have always treated my profession with a lot of care. I really respect being an actor. It is such a shame when people don’t see acting as an art form. Watching two wonderful actors together is to experience them creating something marvellous.”
So after such a remarkable career, Bill Reiter is trying to call it quits. What has changed? Bill explains, “When you are a freelance entertainer and you are offered work, your heart starts to race. It’s almost like you are a fish seeing the fly and getting closer to it. You love participating in your profession so much. And then there is the monetary gain. It affects your emotions. But now my emotions are no longer affected. The only word that comes to mind is defeat. It’s a strange word but apropos because you are defeating an emotion that can really depress you.”
To stay busy in his “retirement,” Bill is spending time on a couple of new hobbies. One is an online radio program in which he takes the nom de guerre DJ Zig Zag and blogs about music. The other is his YouTube channel, where he uploads material from his halcyon days as a performer, adding to it slowly as he is still busier with work than he had intended to be.
Everything has come full circle. Bill does not make a profit on his Internet projects, and does not intend to make anything from them. He says, “There is no money in these things but when I started out making commercials and doing shows there was no money in those things either. I did it to have a riot. And I am doing the blog and the YouTube channel for the same reason. I am doing it to have a riot.”
For more information or to see Bill Reiter online, visit wagradioonline.blogspot.com and youtube.com/user/BillReiter
OCTOBER 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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