Friday, April 26, 2002

Bill Russ Jr., who portrays Retro Bill for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, speaks to pupils Thursday in Aurora.

Retro Bill’s message connects with kids

D.A.R.E. celebrity reaches hometown audience in Aurora

By Hal Dardick
Special to the Tribune

    Wearing his trademark neon-green dress shirt and faux cow-skin blazer, Retro Bill was perfectly coifed in a 4-inch pompadour Thursday when he returned to his hometown of Aurora to teach children some lessons on life

    Judging from the line of children at the Wheatlands Elementary School seeking Retro Bill’s autograph, the visit from the zany, upbeat star of the award-winning “D.A.R.E. Safety Tips” video was “cool. Right on,” as Retro Bill is fond of saying.

    “He’s funny,” was the assessment of Chris Hackman, 12, of Aurora, one of more than 60 5th graders who attended Retro Bill’s presentation.


‘I believe in the D.A.R.E. program…  I
believe in it big time.’
-Retro Bill

Bill Russ Jr., who enjoyed making films as a youth, produced a "Safety Tips" video that is used in classrooms across America.

    “I thought it would teach me a lot, and it really did,” said Charles Seymour, 11.  “I liked the stuff he did.  It was pretty cool.”

    During the nearly hour-long presentation, Retro Bill- portrayed by Bill Russ Jr.- encouraged pupils to pursue their dreams, to ignore the naysayers, to simply react to negative peer pressure that would sidetrack those dreams by saying, “No.”

Role models

    Explaining the importance of role models, he talked about his heroes, including Walt Disney and Jim Henson, who inspired him to his career as an actor, director, writer and producer.

    Retro Bill used the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who arrived in America with limited English skills, a duffel bag full of clothes, $20 and a dream. He recalled talking to Schwarzenegger and telling him how amazing his life story was.

    "It’s not amazing," Schwarzenegger told him. "It’s America."
   "You are free to choose right from wrong and grow up to be what you want to," Retro Bill said.

    Not surprisingly, considering that his nationwide school appearances are part of the national D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, Retro Bill also delivered a graphic lesson on drugs. 

    Mixing beer and tobacco in a blender, he poured the concoction in a glass and asked children why anyone would put that "garbage" into their body.

    "It stinks, doesn’t it?" he asked, noting that some people consume that every day.

Positive lessons

    "He certainly had a positive message," said 5th grade teacher Carol Wicks.
    "We all have goals. Are you going to get there? It’s up to you. I love that."

    She said her class also learned two key lessons from Retro Bill’s video, a kinetic, MTV-paced production that features Retro Bill explaining 20 safety tips for kindergarten through 4th-grade children.

    The first is that children and parents should have a secret code word to be used by anyone sent to pick up the children.

    The second is that if a stranger tries to get a child to get into a car, the child should turn and run the other way, making it hard for the vehicle to follow.

    Aurora Police Sgt. Patrick Rolison, who for 13 years has headed his department’s D.A.R.E. program, said Retro Bill is a great help in reinforcing the lessons 5th graders learn in the 16-week program that concentrates on personal safety and avoiding drugs.

Hollywood success

   "In Aurora, Retro Bill’s lessons really resonate with children and make them believe they can succeed," Rolison said.

    That’s because Russ grew up in the city, graduated from West Aurora High School and went on to succeed in Hollywood, writing screenplays, directing music videos and producing and directing infomercials.

    As a youngster, Russ grew up watching and admiring Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose and other children’s shows. At 12, he saw "American Graffiti" and "Jaws," movies that inspired him to pursue a career in the film industry.

    Using a Super 8mm camera, he started making movies with neighborhood friends, Sometimes pulling mattresses off beds to blunt the fall of "stuntmen" from his parents’ roof.

    At Columbia College he made award-winning student films, including "The Wooden Shoe," a 1950s-style story that caught the attention of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg helped Russ get into the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, where Russ earned his degree on a scholarship.

Safety video

    Russ spent $250,000 of his own money, his entire life savings, to produce the "Safety Tips" video, though he is paid for his nationwide school appearances, dubbed the "Retro Bill Safety Show."

    He said he decided in 2000 to make the video, which debuted in August and is estimated to be in 350,000 classrooms across the United States, partly because the D.A.R.E. program was criticized after studies concluded its anti-drug message was not effective over the long haul.

    "People ask me, ‘Why would you spend your whole life savings to make this?’ I say, ‘Because I believe in the D.A.R.E. program… I believe in it big time," Russ told pupils at The Wheatlands.

    "The D.A.R.E. program works," Russ said, adding that he knows adults who still fall back on its lessons, which he calls tools on how to resist peer pressure. "I talk to D.A.R.E. graduates every day."

Copyright Chicago Tribune 2002

RETRO BILL™ is a registered trademark of
Bill Russ Productions, Inc.
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D.A.R.E. is a registered trademark of D.A.R.E. America.
All rights reserved.