Serving Canyon Country, Newhall, Saugus, Stevenson Ranch, Valencia, Castaic and Agua Dulce

Sunday, December 02, 2001

Retro Bill is a Blast

From the Past

Valencia resident brings safety Message to children nationwide.

By Margie Anne Clark

Staff Features Writer

    The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students of Valencia Valley Elementary School took a blast from the past as Retro Bill, aka Bill Russ, the star of the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program’s latest safety video, paid a visit to the school.  The recently released video is part of a national campaign to keep kids safe while staying free of alcohol and drugs.  The visit was part of a national “Back to School” tour, to kick off the nationwide fall release of the new “D.A.R.E. Safety Tips Videos, starring Retro Bill.”

Photos By Renah Agha/The Signal
In videos and in school assemblies Bill Russ (Retro Bill) encourages children to avoid unsafe situations and alcohol and drugs. Russ is a Valencia resident.

    In a tour de force of 1950s style fun, Valencia resident and writer, director and producer for film and television, Russ delivered a powerful, yet entertaining presentation which stressed the importance of personal safety.  The program also drove home the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.  Sporting his signature jet-black mile-high “Elvis” style pompadour hairdo, along with his 1950s attire, Russ captivated the students with a variety of colorful props and illustrations, while encouraging their participation and interaction in the show.  The presentation highlighted a few of the scenes from his video.

    The new video series, which covers 20 of the most essential safety tips for children, was produced by Bill Russ Productions, Inc., and donated to D.A.R.E. by Russ.  “The passing of my heroes Walt Disney, Jim Henson and the recent retiring of Mr. Rogers ignited my life-long passion to inspire people with my creativity and personality,” said Russ, who recently won an award for his safety tips video at the Burbank International Children’s Film Festival on Nov. 3.

    Russ recently appeared on a special Los Angeles-area broadcast news segment and has plans to appear on Oprah and in the Hollywood Christmas Parade.  A new “Retro Bill” television show is currently in the works and will star Russ.

Retro Bill entertains students at Valencia Valley Elementary School.

    “For children, Retro Bill is a breath of fresh air – he’s unlike anything they have seen before – although his style may be from the 50s, he’s completely new to children,” Russ said of the universal appeal of the characters he created.  He discovered his own talent for bringing out the best in people as a young film student.  He was encouraged by Steven Spielberg, who immediately recognized the talent in Russ and awarded him with a scholarship to attend film school.  For Russ, whose inspiration for his character came from watching the film, “American Graffiti,” the scholarship was just the boost he needed to begin his career.  Russ has since gone on to become one of America’s top grossing television commercial directors of all time.  In addition to his film and television projects, Russ tours the country spreading the message of safety in the persona of Retro Bill.

    The Retro Bill safety videos have received praise from celebrities such as Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, Larry King and Jay Leno.  Glenn Levant, president and co-founder of D.A.R.E. America said the video is an effective teaching tool.  “The new safety videos deliver very important safety lessons to children of an age when they are most vulnerable,” Levant said.  “The videos will boost the classroom effectiveness of D.A.R.E. and the organization will also benefit financially,” he said.  Asa Hutchinson, the new director of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agreed.  “Retro Bill has the right message for our young people,” he said.

    During the presentation at Valencia Valley Elementary School, Russ stressed the importance of such everyday subjects as following directions, not taking rides with strangers, the importance of maintaining a good attitude and who to call in an emergency.  Russ has also appeared at Canyon Springs Elementary School in Canyon Country, where he put on a similar program in October.

    “How many of you have ever found yourself in a bad mood and wearing a sour face,” Russ asked the students, who laughed as they saw themselves in Russ’ character.  “When ever you find yourself in a grumpy mood, put a smile on your face and that will help you to have a good start to your day,” said Russ, as his face to an equally animated happy face.  “Right on – Cool!” Russ added in his signature Elvis-style voice as the students joined in.

Valencia Valley Elementary fourth graders enjoy Retro Bill's presentation.

    Russ also talked about the importance of good nutrition and starting the day out right with a balanced breakfast.  The children broke into laughter as Russ performed make-believe scenario of a student with a growling tummy trying to be inconspicuous about the fact that he forgot to eat breakfast. “Dude, you need to get something to eat,” joked Russ.  Other objects Russ discussed ranged from the importance of “brushing your teeth.” to “saying you’re sorry when you’ve hurt someone’s feelings,” as well as the importance of accepting apologies by saying “no problem.”

    American pride was another subject Russ discussed.  “Raise your hands if you’re proud to be an American,” said Russ as dozens of hands flew into the air.  “This is the land of the free and the home of the brave and you can grow up to be what you want to be- we are all different, but we are all Americans,” Russ said.

    Listening to parents and knowing what to do when approached by a stranger were other topics Russ discussed in a way that was both entertaining, yet serious.  “Never take a ride from a stranger – if they ask you to help them find their dog, say no, and never take gifts, candy or money from strangers,” Russ said.  He reminded students that if they need to call 911, they can do so for free from a phone booth.  “Use 911 in emergencies only, and never use it to play a joke on someone,” he said.

    In closing his presentation, Russ reminded the students of the importance of avoiding harmful substances.  In a powerful demonstration, Russ pulled a can of beer, chewing tobacco, cigarettes, and a bottle of wine out of a garbage can.  Using a blender, he mixed the contents of the can of beer, a package of chewing tobacco, and a few cigarettes into a frothy concoction.  “This represents your body,” explained Russ, amid the “ewes,” of the students.  “Would you drink this?” he asked, as the students answered a resounding no.  “Don’t put garbage into your body,” reiterated.  “You don’t have to give into following the crowd- don’t be afraid to stand up for what’s right- you’ll respect yourself and gain the respect of your friends in the long run,” he said.

   Fifth-grade teacher Larry Sweeny said his students enjoyed the presentation.  “It was an awesome and powerful show.  We were very happy to have Retro Bill come to the school, and the kids responded very well.  Safety and self-esteem are very important issues for this age group, and he did a great job of presenting some very serious ideas in a way that kids could relate to,” he said.

    Valencia Valley sixth grader, Angelica Velasco, 11, said she learned a lot from Russ.  “He sets a good example for us, but makes it fun,” she said.  Fifth grader Matthew McGeehan, 10, agreed.  “it was cool, and he let us be part of the show,” he said.  Fourth grader, Jasmine Carr, 9, said she liked Retro Bill’s advice.

    Fifth grader, Taylor Arangio said the blender demonstration caught his attention.  “I liked the part where Retro Bill added the beer, cigarettes and chewing tobacco to the blender- I didn’t know it looked like that,” Arangio said.  Lindsey Davenport, 10, said she enjoyed learning more about the D.A.R.E. program.  “It’s nice that he is willing to help kids understand the importance of staying off of drugs.  I especially liked when he kept saying, ‘right on,’ and ‘cool,” she said.  Fellow fifth grader, Joel Maonteleone said he enjoyed the funny props and the fun way Russ presented some very serious subjects.  “What I liked best about Retro Bill, was his funny, creative mind,” he said.

Copyright The Signal 2001

RETRO BILL™ is a registered trademark of
Bill Russ Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved.

D.A.R.E. is a registered trademark of D.A.R.E. America.
All rights reserved.