Valley Press Staff Writer

The speakers shook, the room rumbled and the children came to their feet. The Retro Bill Safety and Self-esteem Show was in full stride Thursday on the stage of the multi-purpose room at Irving Branch Elementary School at Edwards Air Force Base, the audience of fourth and fifth-graders rapt with the entertainer’s antics.

For roughly 45 minutes, Retro Bill, played by Bill Russ of Beverly Hills, took the children on a roller-coaster ride of silly humor and quiet intensity. With the energy evoked by the flames that emblazoned his black clothing (even the shoes), he gamboled through a rapid- fire succession of ear-straining oral sound effects, slapstick comedy, and serious topics.

“Do your homework or you will NOT GET SMART!” he said. “Am I right?” His body language demanded a response and the children did not disappoint. “Yeah!” they yelled, but Retro Bill was already moving on, searching for his next gag among the props that littered his table. No child talked, giggled or squirmed except in response to the man on stage.

When he sat down on a folding chair and spoke earnestly, the room went quiet, every eye forward.

“Respect your teachers,” Retro Bill said. “They care about you…or they would never pick this job.”

A hundred heads turned to their teachers as if for confirmation. The teachers looked proud but a little embarrassed and told the kids to face front. When, an instant later Retro bill turned the chair into a quick sight gag to keep their attention, the children roared with laughter.

Retro Bill’s messages ranged from simple manners to the serious issues of growing up. He used a Mr. Potato Head to teach them not to stick out their tongues and to “Wear a helmet. Protect your brain!” The much advertised Hula Hoop embodied for him the message, “What goes around, comes around,” so children ought to be kind to others.

He asked them all what they wanted to be when they grow up, calling on individuals to shout out their dreams and then pantomiming their choices as encouragement. He got a special round of applause for the boy who wanted to be a school principal.

As he went, Retro Bill often quoted his grandmother as a sage of wisdom and morality, with adages such as, “Everyone has a nose on their face, so everyone ‘nose’ the difference between right and wrong. And you do too!”

A dog leash inspired another serious moment. I hate to have to talk about this,” Retro Bill said and then warned the students of the “dog leash trick,” which he said was used recently by a stranger to lure children into the man’s car by asking for help finding a lost dog.

Retro Bill won the hearts of this particular crowd with the question, “How many of you have family members in the military?” Every hand went up. “My dad was in the military,” he said. “My dad…was a drill sergeant.” He paused, listening to the muffled “whoa” from the children. The American flag was his final prop, used to represent patriotic pride and the sacrifices of the military. “Your parents deserve respect,” he said, “and you deserve to be happy and safe, and make your dreams come true. Then he ended with his signature Silly String finale.

This was the second assembly of the year for Branch Elementary, which has a special event about once per quarter. Principal Shari Zimmerman said she was very pleased with the program.

“They love to laugh out loud,” said Zimmerman of the children. She especially appreciated the way Retro Bill’s program fit into the school’s Character Education Program and with this months them of “Respect.”

“I thought, ‘Yes! Someone else is pushing this besides me,’” Principal Zimmerman said.   

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