Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Death of Bob Wilkins

I had read recently that Bob Wilkins, Oakland KTVU host of late-night horror films, "Creature Features," in the 1970s was living in Reno now and suffering the effects of Alzheimer's. In 10 January 2009 editions of the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle are accounts of his death. At my age, 72, the people I would like to advise about Bob's death are either dead themselves, or I have lost contact with them. The blog Scott Moon has maintained on Wilkins has a good slide show of the "look" of Bob Wilkins. I sent Moon these thoughts:

For my last two years at Indiana University, Bob and I were constant companions, most frequently having a beer in one Bloomington, Indiana, bar or another (sometimes in a wonderful stonecutters' bar where the music was great and the night usually ended with a drunken brawl -- where everyone was too drunk to land a real punch). I had the delight of hearing Bob's humorous take on the general population passing by wherever we were, as well as hearing about his dreams for being a professional comedian. He gave me an assortment of short stories (and I mean "short," of paragraph length) -- beautifully absurd pieces, and I sent them to him many years ago in case he had not kept copies. I hope he did further writing in that vein after he left TV, while continuing before and after as a very successful advertising man, his talents there described in the obituary articles.

It is fun, on the slide show on his website, to see Bob at the age when I knew him. Barely surviving when I first came to San Francisco, then in the Army for two years, then back to the low-paying jobs a poet takes, I did not have a television set until around age 33, so I was unaware that Bob Wilkins was in the Bay Area, and hosting horror films on TV, but I was with a group of people one night who were describing the TV host for late night horror films, and from the way they described him, fascinated with him, I said, "Is his name Bob Wilkins?!" And they were talking about Bob.

When I realized that Bob was in the Bay Area, I saw that it was unlikely that an impoverished gay poet could renew the friendship with Bob, especially as Bob never seemed to understand non-success. (In college it was the classic Lit Major/Business Major friendship -- a friendly banter). Bob knew how to make money and he was taking care of business like any grown-up, especially as he had become a family man. I recall in college how he told me that while in a sanitarium, recovering from TB, he started following the stock page, then investing in stocks, and he left the sanitarium with enough money to buy his folks a house and to put himself through college. Bob described the tedium of having to lie still for months and how that led him to the small physical exertion of watching stocks rise and fall. He told me how a man in the next room received visitors one day who brought him two or three oranges that he placed on his window sill. Perhaps my memory dramatizes when I recall Bob saying that he heard the man fall in the next room. In any case, within hours after the man's visitors left, the man was dead. Bob, himself feeling the shadow of his own possible death, said how strange it felt to see those oranges, so vibrant, almost seeming to glow in the sunlight on the man's window sill, while the man lay dead.
For me, of course, the memory is of something about Bob that I can only describe as "silky" -- the apparently thread-like texture of his blond hair, the thin hands that he moved with a sort of surgeon-like delicacy, and his thin pursed lips that delivered his incisive observations. I am not sure that I missed the accuracy of his wit as I watched him skewer people with a description -- but that is the way of a lot of comedians, I believe, almost their duty to puncture illusions.

I suppose that somewhere in my old cardboard boxes I may have accounts of times with Bob Wilkins, but I think I could not find them in time for them to be of any importance to his family. I certainly remember many incidents and moments. I wish Bob could have fulfilled his original wish to be a sort of buttoned down Bob Newhart kind of comedian -- He certainly had the talent, and people would have taken to him, I thought, as I know I found him delightful. I notice that the Oakland obituary by Pat Craig mentions Bob's "fairly jaundiced view" of his horror film presentations. Bob's view was fairly jaundiced about everything when I knew him! I will never forget our first encounter when mutual friends thought we should meet. Bob was speaking in favor of some African-American celebrity -- Nancy Wilson, I think -- I don't remember the particulars but he seemed to feel such a particular passion about the subject that I asked, "Why is this so important to you?" Without a second's hesitation, pale white Bob said, "Because I'm Black."

Although our friendship was at the end of the 1950s, I remember Bob with genuine love; he was very important in my life during my last two years in college, and I hope that he had years of happiness and that his final years were not too difficult. Peace and love to his family.

Justin Berton, Chronicle Staff Writer, "Bob Wilkins -- host of KTVU's 'Creature Features'"

Pat Craig, "Former late-night TV host dead at age 76"


Anonymous said...

Mr. Eilers
Three years after you wrote these words about my dad, Bob Wilkins, I have come upon them. As I mark the anniversary of his passing I am grateful for your remembrances.
Best to you,
Nancy Wilkins Fitzpatrick

The Blue Elephant said...

Very glad to share those memories with you, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. Bob was one of my three major friends in college; so many hours in conversation are at the roots of later adult life so that your father's sharp wit and keen observations were my selfish treat that later became entertainment for thousands. Would love to know his effect on his children! Affections, Jim E.