Chugging along in my old, beat up Chevrolet van, I was ringing wet on that hot July afternoon in 1975. All my musical equipment was packed away with me and I was making a rendezvous with destiny-----I hoped.
"You can't just up and leave everything you have here in Florida." That's what most people were telling me when I announced my plans in June. What they thought was a perfect situation of security and convenience didn't suit my ever changing mind. You see, I had accomplished all I could for my career in Florida. Now the next step had to be taken or....Just close the book on "Old Bill"!!! I felt the answer was on the West Coast, so I packed my bags and set out for California.
Remember, everyone thought I was crazy....everyone but Pam! After being married me for 10 years, she'd seen this spell come over me before. She knew I was never satisfied unless I tried one more step up the ladder. Even if it meant total destruction of our resources, she was willing to help start over, because she believed in me. Whenever I got those itchy feelings, distempered attitudes and unbearable complexes, Pam could tell there was going to be a change on the horizon.
However, this time we had two little girls, a house, a car and many extra responsibilities to risk. But most of all, we had a guy who was about to have a nervous breakdown. So, being the loving and understanding woman she'd always been, she said, " Please go and find your rainbow, because we can't go on like this."
With not one little spark of tangible hope to
head towards, I pulled out of the driveway. All the while not
knowing where or if I would find the answer. I'd reached the end
of my rope and I had to do this or give up that dream of being
more successful in my profession. everything had been budgeted so
Pam could last at least two months financially. Afterwards, we
would be in trouble.
Determined not to spend any more money than I had to on my trip, I finally decided to check into a cheap motel in Orange, Texas on my second night headed west. After seeing the sharp lightning and summer flash floodlike rainstorms all the way through Louisiana, all I could think of was how much that Texas border resembled a welcome mat for a weary traveler like me. It was a smart move to rest, because I was able to regain my strength after some sack time. By morning I was fired up and ready to go full steam ahead.
Now Texas is a long state and my tail lights were happy to blink "Adios!" when I reached New Mexico's welcome sign. Those mountains are probably beautiful if you are in a Stingray. But somehow when you're driving a loaded down Chevrolet van that doesn't run all that well to start with, you know you're in for a slow boat to China. When you finally get through New Mexico and Arizona, you come to good old Boulder Dam. That grade is extra steep for even a passenger car, but my gears just weren't ready. So I stopped and waited until night to cross over that stretch. At least then my first gear drag race wouldn't slow down the rest of the world.
Can I tell you! When I came over those mountains and saw the Las Vegas Valley glowing with lights, I was a revived man! Five years had passed since I had worked in Vegas with a group and not by myself. I guess as long as I live, I'll be fascinated at the overwhelming display of lights shining from the Entertainment Capital of the World. It looked just like a private test site for King Kong's Christmas tree.
I pulled into the same motel I'd stayed at five years earlier. Dead tired and hardly able to hold my head up, I changed clothes and set out for the Strip. I must have walked through five miles of casinos that morning. But it got me inspired enough to want to stay and knock on a few doors.
Maybe I'd just hang around Vegas for a few days and then be on my way for L.A. . I checked out every place that I thought might let a single act perform. I called agents, musicians and entertainment buyers, but no one seemed to want just one guy that played music and did comedy. That's what they thought! Having almost convinced myself all doors were closed in Vegas for me, I decided I'd try one more night to get a gig before continuing my journey. I happened to walk through a new, little casino across from the Stardust and down from the Riviera. Someone had mentioned there was a guitar single act in this Silver City Casino and the joint had only been open for a couple of months. I walked past the lounge area and waited for the guitarist to take his break.
If you don't believe in fate, let me revive your confidence. In less than five minutes, the resident entertainer had related his unhappiness with his job due to personal problems and announced from the stage that he was officially giving his two week notice as of now. Are you kidding me? Well, faster than you can yell "KENO!" I had the name of who to see about an audition. Guess who slept good that night?
Early next morning I found the least wrinkled clothes in my van, packed up all my promo materials and took one more look in the mirror. Oh, no. These shoes would never pass inspection by some hotel chief executive. Let's go for broke in this gambler's Mecca.
In the 110 degree paradise, I took a twenty dollar I couldn't afford to spend and visited the exciting show department of the local Woolco Store on Charleston Boulevard. Yes, the climate called for sandals with no socks. But I chose an exclusive pair of black imitation leather zip-up desert boots. At least, I didn't have to find a piece of cardboard to cover the hole in the sole of the right shoe as I'd been doing daily for a number of weeks. And with these zip-up boots, think how much I would save on shoe laces.
It was after 11:00 AM as I stepped on the elevator of the Dunes Hotel preparing to see the secretary of the owner of Silver City. She was in charge of bookings and I knew I would make a great impression in my new twenty dollar footwear. But alas, I was told that this possessor of my future was....on vacation for the rest of the week!?! this would not do! So I asked the receptionist to see the owner, Major Riddle, who was also the top executive there at the Dunes. "Oh, I'm sorry, Sir, but that is impossible," I was told by this unofficial gatekeeper.
Now that word, "impossible", sometimes makes me angry and this was one of those times. If all that stood between me and that job on the Strip was seeing one man, then I was to see him!!! I had made a very long trip to chicken out now. What could they do if I waited until the receptionist left for lunch and then knocked on Major Riddle's door? Well, I soon found out!
There was a middle aged, white haired gentleman seated behind a desk with a phone to his ear, a pen marking a list in front of him and an array of television sets showing all the gambling going on downstairs. I thought I was in a movie. Somehow I blurted out my name, shook his hand and spread all my promotional material in front of this poor man. He looked at it and then looked up at me while speaking less than a dozen words. I was really talking fast now hoping for him to respond positively.....He did!
Major Riddle signed a paper and asked me to give it to the Silver City General Manager, Gene Lucas. the note asked for an audition and I proudly delivered it. The very next morning at 9:00 AM I was in the lounge setting up my equipment just as Mr. Lucas had instructed. All my equipment had to be ready by 11 AM for my presentation. I was dressed in my stage clothes and was waiting. And I waited some more. There was a problem in the cashier's cage and Gene Lucas was wisely helping to count the profits of the day's take. Finally, at 3:30 PM, I was at wit's end when Lucas and ten or twelve others came into the lounge. By 3:45 PM I was under way doing my comedy, music and audience involvement. Now, I'm not a clock watcher, but if I hadn't broken a string at 7:00 PM, I'd probably still be auditioning. You see, part of my success has always been my willingness to use my endurance to provide much more time on stage than required. Now Lucas and the Olympic judges had to have a conference even though the tourists and locals all had joined in the laughter and applause for over three hours. Then Lucas came up to me with a smile and told me to call back tomorrow to see what they had decided!?! Oh, No! Not another delay! But, of course, Bill. Life is not easy!
The next day I got my contract for two weeks with options for more. I called Pam in Florida and I think we both cried a lot of happy tears. Once again, my instinct to move on in my career had not steered me wrong. That "gut" feeling to do what is right, no matter what others may say, had proven itself true again.
"Las Vegas, you'd better look out, because "WILD BILL COOKSEY" is gonna take you by the horns!"
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