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Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Really "Big" Show

It was almost like seeing Santa Claus. To see Big Wilson, all 320 pounds of him, laughing merrily in his red jacket could make anyone a believer. The WIOD disc jockey and WCIX late-night movie host did his one-man show from behind his keyboard, night after night, from our humble Channel 6 studio. It was camp. It was corny. It was addictive.

I was one of two people whose first day at WCIX was March 24, 1980. The other was Carlos Lima, who became Big’s camera operator. My shift lasted until 2AM, so if I wrapped up my work a little early, I would sometimes go into that 4th floor studio where Big and Carlos did their thing night after night. On nights when Big was showing “Ride The Wild Surf” or one of our many rock ‘n roll themed films, I would sometimes help him come up with trivia questions. But mostly, I just enjoyed sitting and talking to the veteran broadcaster, whose radio career had brought him from upstate New York, to Philadelphia, Cleveland, to New York City, and finally to Miami. (Click here to listen to a short excerpt of the Big Wilson Show on WNBC in New York, from March 1974.)

Big moved on to WIOD in Miami, and a few years later was hired to host Night Owl Movies on WCIX. The tinkling piano, the stuffed owls, and the hokey commercials for Franco’s Pizza, The Pink Pussycat, and Malibu Grand Prix all became synonymous with Channel 6 overnights. It was only natural that those of us who produced segments for the annual Christmas skit reels would enlist the help of this gentle giant. Big taped a segment for my 1983 K-Tel album spoof, The Brickell Hillbillies. He and his Night Owl Movies cohorts, Sonny Fox and Chuck Zink, lampooned themselves in several other memorable Christmas reel skits, including “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, which was produced by Robin Plitt in 1983.

(For additional Christmas reel spoofs featuring Big Wilson and his Channel 6 colleagues, check out the SAY SIX! group on Facebook.)

Celebrities would sometimes pop in to visit Big. Grammy winner Henry Mancini (“The Pink Panther”, “Moon River”, “Peter Gunn”, “Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet”) stopped by one night, for a chat about some of his classic movie themes. Another time comedian Gallagher made himself at home, smashing watermelons and making an incredible mess in the studio. Big apparently didn’t know what he was in for that night, and was not very amused by the celebrity’s shenanigans!

In 1984, Big moved on to WDZL Channel 39, where he hosted the slightly retooled “Big Big Movie”. (Big exchanged his owls for teddy bears, more proof WDZL was just a cheap imitation of Channel 6!) You’ll see a lot of former WCIX staffers in this cheesy but fun video for “Club 39”, which aired during the Big Big Movie.

Big lost both his radio and TV jobs in 1987. He moved on to Channel 33, but the station ran out of money, and Big was out of a job once again. On August 15, 1989, he and his wife Jody sold their home in Miami, and left for a trip across the United States. Two weeks later, his health began to fail, and the couple briefly leased a home in North Carolina. The Wilsons wanted to return to Miami, but never made it. While staying overnight at a hotel in Salem, North Carolina, Big Wilson suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was 65.

Younger viewers don’t remember Malcolm John Wilson Jr. But those who loved B-movies, or who craved a Franco’s Pizza at 4 in the morning, will never forget the big man and his piano. Neither will I.

Big Wilson hosting Night Owl Movies:


Doug said...

I along with thousands of others have tried to hunt down video for years of Night Owl Movies. There are tons of us who remember him..I am 34 years old and remember being a kid and being sick or some late drama in the family would be going on...you're right. Big Al was like Santa on TV for us up late. The cool thing was it was always LIVE.

Today...they would just tape shows weeks in advance and put them in the can.

Thanks so much for the great stories...share more when you have time.

evel steve said...

Say, does anyone have any complete tapes of his show? My mother used to so housework, for two lawyers, that were married, and they actually had one tape of Big, hosting an episode that had the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," on it. That was the last time I ever saw a complete show. Thanks for the memories!

Nigel Thomas said...

I live in California but I was born and raised in Miami. I was maybe 12 years old. My brother and I would stay up and watch Big Wilson every night. We would fall asleep with it on . On the weekends we would love to see the Godzilla and (I think his name is) Starman vs the Salamander Men Marathons. We actually met Big Wilson at the mall called Northside. He was surprised we watched his show; he encouraged us to watch only on Friday and get rest at night on the week days. I can still hear that theme music like a lullaby heralding bedtime. Love him and his show. Thanks for the blog and thanks for the memories.

Joseph Spear said...

I remember Big Wilson when he hosted 6 O'Clock Adventure in Cleveland in the mid-1950's. It was an hour show with two half-hour segments of Sheena Queen of the Jungle, Soldiers of Fortune, Ramar of the Jungle, Willie, and some others that I can't remember. He was a funny, pleasant man with a good voice. Years later I happened to be up at mid-night with the tv going. I heard the introduction to Star Hustler and immediately recognized his voice.