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Bill Reiter dressed as Santa for a TV Week cover. (Alex Waterhouse-Hayward/ The Globe and Mail)
Bill Reiter dressed as Santa for a TV Week cover. (Alex Waterhouse-Hayward/ The Globe and Mail)

Tom Hawthorn

Bill Reiter honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award Add to ...

Bill Reiter's delivery runs the gamut from antic to zany.

He has provided a madcap soundtrack to life in British Columbia for more than 40 years as a disc jockey, comic performer and product pitchman.

His voice, immediately recognizable to so many of us, is as familiar as the Nine O'Clock Gun.

It impelled us to drive Mazdas, drink Kokanee beer, and scoff A&W Teenburgers.

It made us laugh until our bellies hurt while listening to Dr. Bundolo's Pandemonium Medicine Show.

It turned us on to the best of what he now describes as "New World African music," a Reiter passion that continues to this day as he hosts a show on an Internet radio station.

Mr. Reiter has been around so long he's receiving honours and accolades one could assume he'd been given a decade earlier.

The Union of BC Performers presented him with a lifetime achievement award the other day, following last year's ascension into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame.

He's touched by the recognition, though he remains the class cutup. On being inducted, he thanks the audience for the indictment. His buffoonery is delivered in a vaguely nasal voice capable of frenzied patter, or a devastating deadpan.

"It's a voice that borrows from all of the different people that I have heard," he said.

Mr. Reiter is not so much a mimic as someone who picks up on oddities of speech.

He was taping a beer commercial as a henpecked Sasquatch - admittedly not a physical stretch for the stout and hirsute actor - when he ad-libbed a line. "Yo, my little mugwump!" became a catchphrase.

Mr. Reiter is so natural a performer, so obvious a choice as a commercial producer, you'd think being an actor was his life's ambition, that he spent long hours in small productions waiting for his talent to be recognized.

You'd be wrong.

"It's always been happenstance," he said.

Mr. Reiter, 67, was born in Verdun, a working-class suburb of Montreal. His paternal grandfather, a German, wound up in Quebec after fleeing from the Kaiser's army. His maternal grandfather was decorated for bravery at Gallipoli. His father worked for the railroad as a pipe-fitter's helper.

One of his strongest memories as a boy was getting the autograph of Louis Armstrong at a restaurant across the street from the Montreal Forum. (He was also outside the arena, dressed as a sea cadet, on the night when the building was evacuated following the ignition of a tear-gas canister. The smart-aleck kid yelled "Down with Rocket Richard!" and, for his impudence, got punched in the shoulder by a grown man. That would have been one of the early blows in what is remembered as the Richard Riot.)

The Reiter family moved to Vancouver in the mid-1950s in search of a climate easier on the boy's asthma. He attended school in eastside Vancouver, indulging a great passion for the soul, jazz, rock, R&B and blues sounds coming from the United States.

At 16, he hopped on a southbound Greyhound bus to catch shows in Seattle by the likes of James Brown and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, whose ribald stage show remains a strong memory more than half-century later.

He dropped out of school, got a job driving a forklift (until the day he punctured a container of liquid soap), and eventually opened a record shop in a building so narrow it made both Ripley's and Guinness. Asked to be a sponsor for a new radio show, he so impressed the manager of CKLG-FM that he was invited to become host.

In October, 1967, he launched Groovin' Blue, featuring black music and interviews with the likes of Joe Tex, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. He played whatever he liked by whomever he liked, a freedom unknown in today's formatted world and one he continues to this day as DJZigZag on the Internet radio station WAGR 180.2 FM (1802 AM).

He became a "boss jock" on AM radio and worked as "Bill Reiter, the All-Niter." His television debut came as co-host with Terry David Mulligan of A Second Look, a half-hour comedy series that debuted in 1969.

Soon after, he was performing with the brilliant ensemble performing "Dr. Bundolo" before raucous audiences at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Bundolo's lone long-playing album was titled Volume 3, a typically simple, clever and perplexing bit of wit.

By the mid-1970s, he was a familiar presence on television, once appearing on an episode of the Rene Simard Show with Playboy centrefold and country singer Barbi Benton, as well as hockey stars Phil Esposito and Rogie Vachon.

Mr. Reiter also released a 45-rpm record of his own, called Injun Jim's Blues, which was a tribute to Jim Thorpe, the great aboriginal athlete who lost an Olympic gold medal for having played semiprofessional baseball. Billboard Magazine noted the single was "receiving strong regional play."

He's been the sombre host of Nightfall, a horror series, as well as the voice of "Harold, the Planetarium Star Projector" at the planetarium in Vancouver. Mr. Reiter also subverted the minds of a generation of children who watched Zig Zag, for which he played Biff of "Biff and Bart" (described as a Bob and Doug McKenzie for kids), as well as such characters as Bill E. Glitter of K-Smell Records.

Millions know his voice from more than 4,500 commercial productions, some of which are comedic masterpieces.

He opens a record shop and becomes a disc jockey. The DJ then became a comedy performer. The comedy performer became a commercial spokesman. None of it planned.

The distinctiveness of his voice, the vaguely nasal quality? Well, that, too, was an accident.

He got smacked in the nose by a baseball as a kid. Lucky guy.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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