talks about his career including
The Golden Horseshoe Revue and Billy Hill and the
by Scott Wolf
For years I've been going to
Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe to see the Billy Hill and the
Hillbillies show, and I have never left without feeling energized.
There's great comedy and great music. The show features "Billy" and his
brothers Billy, Billy and Billy and I thought it would be fun to
interview the head Billy, Kirk Wall, who got his Disneyland start in the
Golden Horseshoe Revue in the '80s. Whenever I seen Kirk perform, he
never fails to bring down the house, and it was a joy to get serious and
learn about his history. Besides being a fantastic entertainer, he's
also a great guy! I'm excited to be able to share this interview with
KIRK'S START AS AN ENTERTAINER
Scott Wolf: When did you decide you wanted to be an entertainer?
Kirk Wall: I’d say about in high school, just once I got involved in choir. I started out playing the violin. Both my parents were music teachers from Texas and Oklahoma. Then we moved to New Mexico when I was in grade school and we ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
My parents were music teachers at the time, my mother ended up being a librarian, but my dad was very much a choir guy, and they wanted me to play the violin. So they started me when I was seven and I hated it. Hated it.
But I tried and kept playing and I got into the Albuquerque Youth Symphony which went to Europe. I was in the back of the second violin section. Last stand.
I had no idea at that time that I would be playing it every day (at Disneyland). No clue.
SW: Did you keep on playing from the time you were a kid?
KW: No, I begged my parents to let me stop because I got going in choir, I was doing really good, I was getting all the solos. I was Student Body President of our school and I got popular from doing the musicals. We did You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, I was Snoopy.
SW: So you sang “Suppertime”?
KW: Yeah, you bet. I was a bad Student Body President, though. I wasn’t into the parliamentary procedure thing that everybody was into. I really didn’t understand what I was doing and I didn’t know what our objectives were except to paint the trashcans. And I did paint the trashcans.
I was Student Body President the year that Nixon was resigning, so some of the guys on the student government wanted my resignation and asked me to resign.
One of the counselors got wind of it and said, “Stop doing that! There’ll be no resigning.”
It’s hilarious now but at the time it was really traumatic. I thought, “This is going to be so embarrassing- I’m de-throned from high school president.”
I got my parents to finally let me quit playing the violin in my senior year in high school. Finally! So I got a lot of attention in choir. I got scholarships to go to Eastern New Mexico University, which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was a big deal because it had a good music program.
So I got scholarships to go to that school, then the music program found out that I played the violin, and they said that they might have to revoke my scholarships if I didn’t join in the orchestra. I went, “Nooooooo!”
I was an opera student, full-on opera, but I didn’t like it much. I’d go to these fraternity and sorority parties and watch the rock ‘n’ roll bands playing and I’d go, “God, that looks fun!” because I’ve been sitting through, listening to German Lieder art songs for four hours. I thought, “I want to get in a band! I want to do that!”
What ended up happening was I ended up getting into a civic light opera production of Jesus Christ Superstar, I got the lord Jesus, and from that all the rock ‘n’ roll bands in Albuquerque wanted me to be in their bands.
SW: To sing?
KW: Yeah, to sing, and I had to play some bass and guitar a little bit, but mostly as a front man singer. I had long hair. It’s fun being a rock singer! I’m such a classical nerd that that was so exciting. I’d even sing kind of classically for a long time, I’d sing like “Smoke on the Water” and sound like (operatic singer) Mario Lanza. It took me a long time to loosen up.
So I ended up moving to L.A., not knowing what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to be in a band, I was very much involved in musical theater, and I ended up getting my equity card really fast doing a production of Grease. I ended up doing five professional productions of Grease.
SW: Were you Danny?
KW: I was Danny once and I hated it. I had a lot more fun being the sleazy Sonny LaTierri guy because he was such a character. I was Doody most of the time, and then I directed it for some high school productions of it in Albuquerque because they knew I was doing it and they thought, “Hey, come on out, and we’ll give you a few bucks to do it.” So I got my fill of Grease.
SW: What brought you to L.A.?
KW: I kind of followed my girlfriend who I was dating in Albuquerque and she went out before I did and started going to auditions and told me that I was going to just dry up in Albuquerque. I was about 21 or something, I’m not positive, so I went out and got involved in going to auditions and doing shows, doing a lot of musical theater shows. One of the roles that I was noted for was the lead in Sweet Charity, I played the role of Oscar, and as a matter of fact I played opposite (Tony Award winning actress) Donna McKechnie in the Sacramento Music Circus.
And I did a TV few roles, I did a guest star part in the last year of The Fall Guy. I played an ex-con who skipped out on his bail to go to Vegas to an Elvis impersonating contest.
SW: Had you ever impersonated Elvis before?
KW: Well, I’d done Grease and I messed around with it in the bands just for joke. We were doing the Led Zeppelin/Van Halen songs and stuff, and then to Elvis. But Doody (in Grease) sings a song called “Magic Changes” and one of the director’s says, “Hey, you’re copping a really good Elvis thing on that. Let’s go for it.” So I ended up singing that full-on Elvis.
SW: Were you an Elvis fan?
KW: Yeah, I was. Being from a father who was pretty classical, Elvis was kind of tolerable. You know how he would sing “It’s Now or Never”? He kind of went for those notes, so my parents always felt he could sing well so they would tolerate us playing Elvis. My brother and I were always trying to do Elvis, just goofing around, but I didn’t start doing it professionally until I’d done Grease, and met a bunch of musicians and getting involved in some show bands. One of them is called the Rock Around the Clock Show which was led by Bobby Cochran who played in the band Steppenwolf as their guitar player and his uncle was Eddie Cochran, the one who sang and wrote “Summertime Blues.” That group got me involved doing Elvis live with bands, and it turned out that doing Elvis helped me a lot as far as paying bills. Definitely, he was always my favorite singer.
SW: It’s amazing how many bad Elvis impersonators there are today.
KW: I’m glad that you pointed that out because if you’ve ever seen me do Elvis, I do it with tongue in cheek. I do it like I’m doing a tribute to the Elvis impersonator. I embrace the schlocky smoke machines, I go, “I need a little smoke on this,” but I don’t make fun of Elvis. I won’t knock Elvis but I always make fun of those guys that do Elvis.
I used to try to do him disgruntled, I called myself the disgruntled Elvis impersonator, and it worked a few times, but some people wouldn’t get it.
SW: You mentioned that you did some TV roles like The Fall Guy. You had a role in General Hospital, didn’t you?
KW: Yes, that was awhile back. I did some little roles but I never got into any sitcoms and I never got sent out for the right parts. I ended up getting married early, about 27, and we had our daughter and I had to make things really tie together and I couldn’t depend on a show coming through all the time, so I ended up working at Disneyland.
THE GOLDEN HORSESHOE REVUE
KW: I got involved doing the Golden Horseshoe Revue, I was Dick Hardwick’s sub.
SW: Is that the first thing you did at Disneyland?
KW: Yeah, Stan Freese hired me. I did the traveling carpetbag salesman guy (made famous by Wally Boag), and I did a front headspring every show, until one show that I did it and I landed and it hurt so bad I couldn’t believe it. The band saw my face and they said they’ve seen all the comedians who did that front headspring, they said they all saw them do their last one. They said, “We just saw your last one,” and that was my last one.
SW: Did you specifically audition for the Horseshoe?
KW: I had a friend who was doing the part, Mike Norris was doing the role subbing for Dick Hardwick, and Mike Norris got in a show with Lauren Bacall called Woman of the Year, it was a musical and he left to do that. He said they need another sub and they’re having trouble finding funny guys. They can find guys who can learn the lines but they’re not funny. There’s not really a script, though, there’s certain scripted things like, “I just got off a stagecoach from Chicago, gotta catch a steamboat to St. Lou. Have a few things I’d like to show you, well, let’s proceed with what we have to do.” And they’d say, “What have you there?” You learn to do that but then you learn to improvise around that structure. That’s what really entertained the band who was bored out of their minds doing the same thing, so they would love it when you improvise, but also the audience liked it more.
SW: I always felt that part of what made the show so good and always made it seem fresh is that it looked like you were all legitimately having fun.
KW: That is really true and I’ll tell you why. Some of it was really fun, but Fulton was really a pro at seeming like he just was giggly, like he was giddy, but he really wasn’t. I’m not saying he had a bad attitude, it’s just not the way you act all the time, you’re not like that all the time and he was putting it on, but he was truly a really positive guy. He didn’t have to work that hard. Jay Meyer, too, was like that. They both were just really liked, and Betty Taylor – all of them respected that job with everything. It wasn’t like just a little job at Disneyland, it was a theater. It was the real thing and you treated it like that. It was a certain kind of respect going on that I miss.
One time (a member of the band) came into the cafeteria, and I had all my friends around me and he goes, “You’re not funny! Not funny at all!” I was embarrassed, I couldn’t believe it, and the whole table got quiet. He was always angry. It was because he was playing the same songs over and over for year after year after year, sitting in the same chair, but he was addicted to it. He couldn’t leave it, and he told me off in the cafeteria. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there.
My next show, no kidding, everything I said and delivered and everything I got an applause. I looked at him in the face and went (an expression like, “they seem to like me”). I was so happy. What happened is I started improvising, really improvising, like I’d bring a kid up and I started just going completely off and the minute I did that I was a hero to the band, especially him, and we ended up being friends. But isn’t that funny? It was the fact that I was doing the standard lines, and we were allowed to play around with the script.
BILLY HILL AND THE HILLBILLIES
SW: That’s an amazing start at Disneyland. Right into the Golden Horseshoe?
KW: Yes, right into the Golden Horseshoe, and I did some other things for them. I played fiddle as Buffalo Bill. I did Elvis in their parade. They had an Elvis float.
SW: Was that for Blast to the Past (Disneyland’s salute to the 1950s)?
KW: It might have been, I don’t think so. I did Blast to the Past, too, with this doo wop group called the Streamliners. At the hub they had a big huge tower and they had a DJ booth in there and I also had to be a DJ up there in that booth. I’d do, “I’ve got stacks of wax, mounds of sound, platter chatter, you want it? I got it! You say, I’ll play it at Disney Radio!”
Disneyland did a show called Pigmania during State Fair, they did it two years, and I did it both years and I was the bandleader.
SW: Was that the pig races?
KW: Yes. We were the Barley Boys. They were opening up Splash Mountain and they said, “We need a comedy band for line relief,” especially because that line’s going to stop sometimes with problems and stuff, so they needed someone, like to send in the clowns real quick, and that’s what we did.
We wandered around and we played Frontierland, too, by the stockade, and we played in the middle between the Mexican restaurant and the Horseshoe, that big open area. That’s where we kind of became popular really. We’d get the biggest crowds and they’d even schedule their tour bus to be there at that moment at 2:30 or whatever time it was.
SW: The Golden Horseshoe Revue was already closed by then?
KW: Yes, the Horseshoe show was closed and they put the Jamboree show in there, that was going on. The Jamboree show was made up of a bunch of actors which is the way that goes, and actors need to get work, so they’d go to auditions, and often that Jamboree show wouldn’t go up, and so they’d see us playing out in the front and they’d say, “Hey you guys, can you cover a show for the Jamboree guys, and we went in and it went over real well. We rocked the house.
We were more L’il Abneresque. We had the Barley Boys clothes basically. They just gave us those rope belts and the tattered bottoms and the red and white polka dotted shirts and the frayed hats.
We mutated through the years. We acted more goofy, we were more like shticky clowns and stuff and we mutated into what we are now. I think what happened is we did that out of instinct of trying to figure out what really works.
Disneyland gave us the freedom to work that. Stan Freese is our official director, but he’s been able to give us the freedom to try things and the audience loves it, too. We don’t take advantage of that either. We don’t put something that’s not ready to go out there, and have some kind of thought. But just about everything that I say on stage was ad-libbed at one time and that’s how it became, was from me ad-libbing, and it still happens that way.
I think that’s how we can stay popular is that our show has the feeling of in the now, as opposed to something that was memorized and set.
SW: You do the bit with the fake teeth, did that come out of the Golden Horseshoe Revue show?
KW: The teeth came from Dick Hardwick, who got it from Jerry van Dyke.
SW: Besides Elvis, what other shows do you do outside of Disneyland?
KW: I do a character called Tony Fabulous. I’m really proud of that.
SW: That character is with The Big Shots, right?
KW: Yes, they’re a jump swing band, kind of like that Louis Prima kind of stuff, and I’m a guy whose just a huge star in my own mind. A lot of the songs are originals, written by Kenny Treseder, and they’re fun songs about “chicks digging me” and me forgetting their name or whatnot. There’s a great song called “I just can’t remember her name.”
SW: Where do you perform that?
KW: We do corporate stuff. In the ‘90s swing had a comeback, we did a lot of dances, we played a lot of dance schools, but Tony Fabulous has a lot of shtick going on and he’s always reminiscing about himself. It was a lot of improvising and I’d come out with an instamatic camera and if a couple was sitting together I’d kneel down in front of them, but I had the camera facing me and I’d take a picture and it would pull out and I’d go “fight over it.” I always had an unlit cigarette and that little thin moustache.
SW: How did you begin doing that?
KW: It was swing and we were trying to jump on that Voodoo Daddy gravy train, and ours had a humor to it. We still do it. The thing about Tony Fabulous is you don’t know how old he is because he’ll say, “I wrote this in 1942,” and the next song I’ll go, “I wrote this in 1984,” I don’t even know what date I’m going to say, but it’s fun. I love doing that.
SW: Who is Sir Wall?
KW: That’s The Knights. That’s a group that we met on our last professional production of Grease. We’ve been in each other’s weddings and we’re still best buddies, we still do gigs. We’re almost like a Sha Na Na type.
SW: Like ‘50s doo wop?
KW: Yes, ‘50s doo wop feel with a band. We have really good players, we have Brian Setzer’s bass player, we had some really hot players in that band. We have fun, we’re all best friends, so it’s a great time.
FAVORITE DISNEY MEMORY
SW: Do you have any favorite memories of working for Disney?
KW: I’m not sure which ones stand out. This is kind of funny- I met Ozzy Osbourne after my brother got really serious with me, telling me he actually is the anti-Christ. My brother was really way into that at that time, he was kind of holy rolling along. So I did the can-can show and they said, “Ozzie Osbourne is in the audience,” and I went, “(gasp) The anti-Christ!” So we did the show and they said, “Ozzie Osbourne wants to meet you.” I went, “Oh God!” So I went over and
he looked just like a normal guy, he was wearing tennis shorts. He had his boy with him who was sitting on his shoulders. He goes, “You’re bloody funny! You’re bloody funny! Billy! That was great!” and I went, “Wow, he’s not like the anti-Christ at all!”
You know, I don’t think I would be nearly as good as I am at doing what I do if Disneyland hadn’t hired me and I’ve had the opportunity to do show after show after show. It’s not a curse that I’ve been there as long as that. That’s where I got to perfect what I do, and the Hillbillies have done a lot of stuff, we’ve played with symphonies. We’ve got a lot of people interested in that group, but we don’t want to rock the boat with Disneyland. We want to be there for them because that’s where we belong.
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