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Engineer Bill

Many of the video clips on this page are courtesy of Harold Wright, who tells us:

Engineer Bill lives in Agoura or Calabasas (in the west SF valley) somewhere. I attempted to find him (I found a couple old phone numbers online) and I even wrote to the lady responsible for the Duarte Parade 15 months ago (in which Engineer Bill and Sheriff John appeared), asking her to forward a letter to him. I heard no response.

Eng BillA funny thing was that I heard from "Corkey" - the kid in this clip from Engineer Bill. His sister found my Web page and told him about it. He is the one that sent me the complete 1960 show. His dad worked for the station and was responsible for the kinescope tape being saved.

Hobo Kelly AKA Sally Baker lives in Boise, Idaho.

It took me 3 years of searching to get a copy of a great 1984 special called Weekday Heroes from the producer of the show. Sheriff John Rovick told me about it when I called him nearly 10 years ago, he also lives in Boise, Idaho.

- Harold Wright

Engineer Bill Do you remember/were you watching the day Engineer Bill walked off the stage during his 'Red light/Green light game?'... boy, was he mad! I was astounded when the show just sort of dropped off the air after he walked off, it was really something...

How do we say hello to Engineer Bill? Is he still around?

- Paul Forel

Engineer Bill Cartoon ExpressEnjoyed your site when someone sent me there, knowing that I'd been close to Engineer Bill "way back then".

Coupla things: Bill is living in the San Fernando Valley, yes. I just recently talked to him. He is 90 years old and tells me that he has lost much of his memory. And this is so, as he didnt remember some important things which I asked him about.

He does not have email. He did not "hate kids" as was shown on your site. But after seeing the hordes who followed him, grabbed him, etc... wouldnt you be a bit weary by evening? He had daughters of his own and was a fine father and friend.

Was interested to see that Chucko lives in Grants Pass. I have been here the past 10 years. My husband was an actor (beginning in radio) in Hollywood, my two daughters appeared on both Engineer Bill and Sheriff John's shows. :)) I was at KFI Radio for a number of years.

- Lois Culver

Kevin S. Butler writes: William Stulla, former Denver and Los Angeles based radio/TV broadcaster best known to kids as "Engineer Bill" is dead.

Mr. Stulla passed away at his Westlake Village, CA. home on Tuesday August 12, 2008 at the age of 97. A native of NYC, Mr. Stulla and his parents (his father was a printer) moved from NYC to Erie, Pa, Cleveland, Ohio and to Buffalo, N.Y. before settling in Denver, Colorado.

After graduating from high school in Denver, Bill Stulla read an ad posted on a trolley that was promoting classes in radio broadcasting techniques at the University Of Denver. He took the classes, graduated and eventually acquired his first radio job with KFEL in Denver; later he worked for NBC's Denver affiliate KOA as an announcer and a scriptwriter. He remained with KOA for five years before he moved to Southern California where he joined the NBC affiliate KFL in 1939.

Stulla's broadcasting career was interrupted by his service during WWII. Instead of fighting in the infantry he worked as a broadcaster for Armed Forces Radio where he broadcast news and entertainment for the troops in the Far East. Upon his return to the States, Stulla hosted a radio variety series Bill Stulla's Parlor Party on local radio and TV in L.A. until 1954 when KHJ (now known as KCAL) TV Channel 9 mentioned that they were holding auditions for a new kids series titled Ranger Ed, a forgettable rip off of KTTV 11's Lunch With Sheriff John.

Stulla's wife insisted that her husband audition for the show - he was interested but not as a copy of Mr. Rovick's lawman character. "I've got an idea for a better show. It's a railroad show," Mr. Stulla explained to the L.A. Times."I want to be an engineer and run trains and play cartoons ,because I knew that the station had bought some cartoons."

Accepting his concept the station execs at KHJ TV hired Stulla and in late 1954 The Cartoon Express With Engineer Bill went on the air as a weekday evening kids wraparound program set against the backdrop of a roundhouse. Each night Mr. Stulla's kindly, old train man would interview two kids, a boy and girl, who would send in their model toy trains to be exhibited on the program. He would also try to bring out the kids' personalities in his impromptu conversations with the youngsters.

Stulla would also play games with the kids in the studio, engage them in craftmaking, hobbies, train lore and interview guest performers and personalities in between the reruns of Gumby puppet films, Spunky & Tadpole, Q. T. Hush, Col. Bleep TV cartoons and Superman movie cartoons. The show even had it's own theme song "Who's that coming down the track, who's that puffing smoke so black? Who's at the throttled? It's Engineer Bill!"

Stulla was also able to instill good values in his viewers and studio audiences by having them promise to do the right thing and encourage his little train "Little Mo" to move up the hill (a model trainer was shown moving slowly up a small scale track in a pre filmed segment ala "The Little Engine That Could".
He got the kids to drink their milk via an on camera game called "Red Light/ Green Light" where the kids at home would watch "Engineer Bill" and his in studio guests drink a glass of Cow Juice, they'd drink when a superimposed image of a green signal light was seen on screen, they'd stop when a Red signal light was shown on screen.

More often than not Mr .Stulla's trainman character would interject some humor into this segment when a series of loud noisy footsteps were heard off camera he would complain about a member of his trainer crew by saying, "That man will never learn to march properly". Other times the consumption of too much milk would force poor Mr. Stulla to let out a belch and he'd say "I've been sick."

Stulla became a popular personality with Southern California kids and he was always in demand for personal appearances and he became friendly with L.A.'s other kids TV MC's including "Sheriff John" Rovick and "Skipper Tom" Hatten.

He continued to maintain Ch. 9's Roundhouse until 1966 when the station execs at KHJ TV decided to create, produce and air shows aimed at a teenage audience. Mr. Stulla tried hosting a show for teens set against the backdrop of a local soda shop but he found out that his type of programming was really meant for very young children and he left kid's TV soon after,He remained in local broadcasting until 1976 when he retired to become a stockbroker.He later moved to Westlake Village here he and his wife would remain for the rest of their lives.

Mr. Stulla made only two public appearances later in his life, the first was on a local TV tribute to L.A.'s kid's show hosts Weekday Heroes.The special which was produced by Jack and Phyllis Spear (the creative duo who helped to develop Captain Kangaroo and later hosted their own kid's TV shows Pip The Piper on ABC and NBC in the early 1960's and later The Jack & Phyllis Show in L.A.) and hosted and narrated by former Leave It To Beaver star Tony Dow. Stulla and his fellow L.A., kid's TV contemporaries Charlie Runyon "Chucko The Clown" and "Sheriff John" Rovick recalled the creation, development and the success of their local programs. It aired on KABC TV Ch.7 in 1987.

Stulla's second and last public appearance was in 1997 at a seminar honoring local L.A.,Cal. kids TV series staged at the West Coast branch of The Museum Of TV & Radio (now Known as The Paley Center For The Media) where Stulla, "Skipper Tom Hatten", "Skipper Frank" Herman and Jimmy Weldon showed clips from their TV shows and recalled their careers for a theater full of fans at the Museum.

Stulla's wife Ruth passed away in 1999, he is survived by his daughter Ms. Kathryn Stulla.

Eric Berman writes: It is with great regret that I read about the recent passing of Engineer Bill Stulla. For years, I have been looking for video copies (either VHS or DVD) of the old Cartoon Express TV shows - do you have them available? The short clip that you have on your website, is excellent. Many thanks for making it available.

I had the good fortune of meeting Bill back in 1993; the following is an account that I've posted to members of my yahoo group:
Growing up in SoCal, I watched
Cartoon Express (Channel 9, KHJ TV) from the mid-1950's until the mid-1960's (ages 4 to 16). Despite the fact that I wanted to appear on the show during the 1950's, my parents never submitted the requisite postcard request which Engineer Bill used to receive in the form of the "kicked off" mail bag from a Santa Fe streamliner run by by "Casey Jones" (you all might remember the great camera shot from a between-the-rails pit shot looking up as a passenger train powered by a war bonnet-painted F7, streaked over the camera). Those of you who watched the show will remember that you'd hear diesel air horns and EMD 567's droning in the background and then Engineer Bill would announce that Casey Jones was high-balling through to deliver the mail. At that point, an RPO mail bag would "fly" (after being tossed by a stage hand) onto the set and Engineer Bill would catch the bag (which sometimes was tossed extra hard and would knock Engineer Bill off his stool). Bill would then open the mail bag and draw out two new postcards for two lucky kids to attend a future show; early on, each kid used to receive a freight car kit which they would build at home and then bring to the show to run on the layout. As a result of poor parenting, I never got to play Red Light, Green Light in glorious B&W on kinescope. Probably what is worse, I never got the feel the chills running up and down my spine while getting rewarded by "The Real Bell for engineers who never run a red light" while Engineer Bill (with wet milk still on the bandanna encircling his neck) would get "The Lead Bell for me and those who missed".

Another great game that Engineer Bill had was, "The Big Whistle" which was a board with six (if memory serves) numbered valves, one of which was connected (out-of-direct-sight) to a real steam locomotive chime whistle while the other the other five valves were connected to a peanut whistle. The kids had to guess which numbered valve was connected to the Big Whistle with the winner(s) getting a prize. Personally, I think that "Red Light, Green Light" and/or "The Big Whistle" could be made into great reality TV shows - just imagine Ryan Seacrest spitting milk out or blowing the Big Whistle - truly instances wherein fantasy would recapitulate reality!!! <g>

The 1950's show had a catchy theme song:
Engineer Bill's Theme Song
See her rollin' down the track,
See her puffin' smoke so black---
Who's at the throttle?
(Woo-Woo) that's Engineer Bill!
See those drivers whirlin' 'round ---
See that engine cover ground,
Who's at the throttle?
(Woo-Woo) That's Engineer Bill!
From the round-house every day,
He always get the right of way,
Folks all know the whistle's cry.
Means Engineer Bill is passing by.
See her steamin' into town---
From the cab who's wavin' down,
Who's at the throttle?
(Woo-Woo) That's Engineer Bill!

When they revamped the show in the early 1960's, they changed the opening footage to include the famous chase scene from the D.W. Griffith classic: "A Girl and Her Trust", shot in 1912 on the AT&SF Redondo Harbor Line (between Inglewood and RR-east of Lairport. Lairport is still a Station w/ the old (i.e., really old, jointed rail) siding remaining in use and located about 1/2 mile west of El Segundo Blvd - if you watch the movie closely you will see station hands standing on the station platform watching the camera car running on what is now Aviation Blvd (back then, I've heard that it was called Redondo Hermosa Road). The huge open field in the back ground is now LAX). That great pacing shot is an absolute classic as is the entire movie.

I finally got an opportunity to meet Bill Stulla back in 1993, when I was supervising the construction of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Center. There was a non-profit organization set up to solicit contributions for the 2,000 seat performing arts theater; the non-profit was run by a gentlemen named Robert Johnson. One day we were shooting the beeze during lunch and Robert happened to tell me that he was formerly a Stage Manager at KHJ TV. I asked him if he ever knew Engineer Bill and he told me that Bill was a close friend and lived nearby in Westlake Village. Robert also told me some great stories about Flat Car Fred, Tank Car Ted and other behind-the-scenes personna who had worked on and contributed so much to the show.

On friday afternoons after we had shut down for the day, I would give special behind-the-scenes construction tours to potential donors to the non-profit. One friday afternoon in late August, 1993, I was taking Robert and a group of donors on the man-lift twelve-stories up to the top of the fly tower, when Robert made a comment: "Eric, we know you have a lot of engineers working on this project, but today we brought along a real Engineer to meet you!". At that point, Engineer Bill stepped out from the back of the group wearing a hickory-stripped RR-cap, bandana and bib overalls and introduced himself. I quickly sped the group through the rest of the tour and then sat down with Bill and talked for about an hour.

Bill was a very nice gentleman and was very pleased that his old fans still remembered him. After leaving television in the mid-1960's, he went into stock brokerage and did quite well. He was enjoying a very comfortable retirement. Bill confirmed that he was a terrible Red Light, Green Light player and that the scenes with him laughing and spitting milk out his nose, etc., were the result of Tank Car Ted and others playing gags and purposefully distracting him off-camera while he was trying to concentrate on the game. Bill gave me a hickory-stripped engineer's cap (gee, it only took me 39 years to get one after I first started watching the show in 1954) and we took a picture together which Robert later had framed and autographed by Bill, and then had presented to me. I still have the picture.

All in all, Bill Stulla was a very fine gentleman who loved the personna of Engineer Bill and loved entertaining kids. People like Engineer Bill, Sheriff John, Skipper Frank (Frank Herman left TV and opened up a Chicken Delight franchise in Laguna Beach; I went to school with his son Greg), Tom Hatten (in 1961, Tom opened the Scoop Deck retaurant and ice cream parlor located opposite the Hotel Laguna on Coast Hwy), Chucko, Bozo, et al, were all a huge part of the lives of those of us who were fortunate to grow up in SoCal in the 1950's-1960's.

As Engineer Bill used to say at the close of each show, "Happy High-Balling, Engineers!!"

Read about Michael Wayne Thomas here.

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Engineer Bill Cartoon Express

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