Bill Willingham was born in the wagon of a traveling show. His momma used to dance for the money they’d throw. No – wait a minute. That can’t be right. Let’s back up and try again. Bill Willingham was born in December of 1956, in the US Army hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to Master Sergeant Thomas and Mrs. Hazel Willingham. He was a few days earlier than expected, after starting labor on the steps of Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial – his parents and older siblings were taking in the sights.
After his birth the Willingham family returned briefly to Alaska, where Bill’s father was stationed at the time. Then they were stationed in Fort Ord, California for a few years, where briefly in the late 50’s Bill’s father was Johnny Weissmuller’s (of Tarzan movie fame) golf partner at the Pebble Beach Golf Club – a team-up which had something to do with the arcana of similar handicaps – or has the official golf term been changed to “differently abled” now too? It’s sort of a cute story, and this is how Bill tells it:
“When I was still a wee tyke, my dad bundles us all into the family station wagon and tells us we’re going to meet Tarzan. I had no idea at the time who Tarzan was supposed to be, but I guess he was someone important, because everyone was pretty excited. On the way, mom told us that Tarzan used to swing through the jungle, with lions and monkeys, but now he’s retired and mostly plays golf a lot with dad. I’m not sure what I expected, but when we got to the golf course, I saw this old man with Bible hair, which scared the hell out of me, and so I promptly pitched a wild, screaming fit.
“Okay, I’d better explain the ‘Bible hair’ comment. You see, back then, stories-from-the-Bible movies were all the rage, and we saw lots of movies, because my dad also moonlighted as the projectionist at the post theater. And those guys in those Bible movies all had long, or at least longish, hair. Now, in those days no guy – man or boy – wore hair longer than a crew cut, except the guys in Bible movies, and this old fellow on the golf course. With me so far?
“Now I didn’t know much about the Bible, except that there were ghosts in there. I knew that because they said it every Sunday in Bible school, in the litany, which always closed with, ‘ – praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’ I didn’t know what ‘holy’ meant, but I sure knew what ghosts were. So the Bible guys were scary, because they had something to do with ghosts, and this long-haired guy on the golf course was clearly a Bible guy. Get it now? Good. “Who knew that silver-haired old Johnny Weissmuller had simply gotten used to wearing his hair that way, after years of keeping it that long for the Tarzan movies?
“Of course I was so young then that I don’t really have any direct memories of the incident, so much as memories of that story, which was told over and again in the Willingham household, as I was growing up.”
Shortly after that incident, but probably not because of it, the Willingham family was stationed in Germany – traveling there aboard the Queen Mary luxury liner, which doubled as needed at the time as a military transport. They were in Germany during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which wasn’t the best place to be just then, since an escalation of that incident into full-scale war with the Russkies (thought to be a near certainty at the time) would have begun in Berlin, and along the line dividing East and West Germany. Those may have been tense days for the adults over there, but Bill didn’t notice it, having too much fun at the time, growing up in a place where real castles could be visited on an afternoon’s drive.
Bill’s father retired from military life at the end of his three-year tour in Germany, quite possibly having lots to do with the nuclear war near-miss. The family sailed back to America, but this time on a gray Navy transport ship, called the USS Buckner, rather than another luxury liner. Darn.
One more funny story, then we’ll close out this part of his biography:
“On the way back from Germany, my folks told us we’d be landing in New York City, and that we’d be able to see lots and lots of skyscrapers – more skyscrapers than in any other city in the world (this was in 1962). This was pretty exciting to everyone, but to me mostly, because I had no idea what skyscrapers were, but for some reason imagined they must be giants – yes, exactly like in the storybooks – who scraped rain out of the clouds, using huge squeegees. I really wanted to see these skyscrapers.
“So anyway, we land in New York, and pick up our car, which traveled back with us from Germany, but on a different ship, and piled in for the drive out of New York. And as we were driving, my mom kept saying, in her excited mom voice, ‘Do you see the skyscrapers, kids? Do you see them?’ And everyone in the car kept shouting, ‘yes, I see them!’ except me. I kept looking but couldn’t see a single one, and grew increasingly frustrated that somehow I seemed to be the only one who couldn’t. ‘I can’t see them,’ says I, ‘because all these buildings are in the way.’
“That was my first ever joke. It killed. It brought the house down. Too bad I didn’t know exactly why what I’d said was so funny, but who’s to argue with success? I never did see those giants with the big squeegees.”