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Jewish World Review
August 22, 2008
/ 21 Menachem-Av 5768
Engineer Bill and Engineer Ollie
I suppose the passing of Bill Stulla won't mean much to anyone who wasn't a kid in the Los Angeles area during the fifties and sixties, but for those of us who were, we lost a dear friend and daily companion when "Engineer Bill" died in his sleep at the age of 97 last Tuesday. Model trains, cartoons, and milk - I developed a lifelong love of these things thanks to Engineer Bill.
The show, "Cartoon Express" was on the air daily, Engineer Bill would sit with two different guest kids each day, one boy and one girl, behind a model railroad layout. Dressed in complete railroad engineer get up, he'd chat with the kids in-between showing old cartoons. But the highlight of the show was the game called, Red Light, Green Light which was played by Engineer Bill and his two guests, and (in an early version of interactive TV) all of us kids watching at home. It went like this:
Engineer Bill and his two guests sat holding their full milk glasses poised while an off-screen announcer would cry out, "Green Light" the signal to start drinking. They'd have to keep going until the announcer would shout out, "Red Light," when they had to immediately stop drinking. The goal of the game was to finish the glass of milk without drinking on the red light. As you drank, you never knew when "Red Light" would be shouted out, and when you stopped, you never knew when "Green Light " would be announced for you to start drinking again.
Sometimes the announcer would try to fake out everybody by shouting, "Green Frog," or Green Grass," or "Red River" or "Red Ryder" or other substittute sounding names. I know this sounds like a simple kids game and it was, but I loved it.
Engineer Bill was one of several local kid show hosts that I grew up with. The others were Skipper Frank, Sherrif John, Fireman Joe, and Tom Hatten. These were the first adults, outside of my parents, that shaped my young little mind. They're ingrained in my brain. I'll never forget them or the shows. There were others too, that came a bit later. Chucko the Clown was more for my sister's age group and Hobo Kelly was my brother's period.
I'm proud to say that I grew up in the Engineer Bill and Sherriff John epoch. In addition to the wonderful old cartoons they showed, they taught good stuff to us kids. Long before Seasame Street and other public television children's "workshops" these local kid shows were on the front lines of instilling citizenship and good manners to kids.
Simple rules of life for youngsters were stressed such as look both ways before crossing the street, never talk to strangers, pick up after yourself, and be kind to your brothers and sisters. They supported good old American values and decency, things such as respect for adults, helping around around the house with chores, minding your parents, taking responsibility for your pets, and generally learning how to be good people.
I guess you might say that these local children's shows were the preschools for my generation - visiting daily with friends such as Engineer Bill you had fun, were taught life lessons and early learning concepts, and best of all you never had to leave the comfort of you own living room.
Engineer Bill was my TV pal, but I lost a real life friend recently with the passing of Ollie Johnston. Ollie too, was lucky enough to live to a ripe old age. He was 95. Ollie was one of the all time great original animators at the Walt Disny Studio. One of the famous "Nine Old Men" as Walt refered to his key team of artists, Ollie inspired generations of up and coming cartoonists such as myself.
A true "gentleman" in every sense of the word, I always found Ollie the most approachable of all the heavy hitters that were still working at the studio when I joined in 1970. He always took time to visit with me, answer questions and share his knowledge of animation and creative thinking. He was a soft-spoken man, sweet, humble and almost shy, but what an animator! Talented and kindly are two words I would use to describe Ollie.
Just as Engineer Bill influenced me as a tot, Ollie had much the same affect on me as a young artist. He encouraged me in my early animation attempts, he appreciated my sense of humor (which at times could be offbeat and a bit edgy), and he took the time to oversee my sketches and pencil tests and offer his advice and guidance. This he did on his own time, even when he had his own deadlines to contend with and work to do. He had tremendous patience and was always there to help kids like me. That was the kind of guy Ollie was.
Ollie was also an avid railroader. He built a one inch scale train set-up, a "live steamer" which he operated in the yard at his home in Flintridge. He would don his engineer's cap, and sit on the tender of his locomotive and give neighborhood kids and other friends rides. And it was because of Ollie that Walt Disney got involved and had a similar set-up at his home, too.
Ollie also ran a seven ton full-size steam locomotive on a half-mile of track on land he owned with his lifelong friend and colaborator, Frank Thomas near Julian. The train was named the Marie E. after his wife. I even had the privillage to actually drive it once myself (under Ollie's direction of course). I'll never forget that day.
Much has been written on Ollie and deservedly so - he was truly a pioneer in the art of animation. Among the many honors and awards given to him over the years, was the National Medal of Arts which was presented to him in November 2005 by President Bush in Washington. No one was ever more deserving. I just feel so fortunate to have known him personally.
As mentioned earlier, Engineer Bill helped instill in me a lifelong love of cartoons, trains, and milk. It's interesting that fifteen or so years after that, another engineer named Ollie Johnston came into my life and reenforced by a thousand fold that love for cartoons and trains in me. There's only one thing I'm not sure of … how Ollie felt about milk.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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