Above: Bill Tush, who garnered cult figure status on Ted Turner’s fledgling local TV station in the 1970s, is now a manager at Springs Cinema & Taphouse. Photo by Dyana Bagby
Bill Tush became one of Atlanta’s beloved cult personalities in the 1970s with a late-night newscast that became the prototype for such shows as “The Daily Show” and launched the careers of such comedy stars as Jan Hooks.
Tush (the name rhymes with “rush”) now is a manager at Springs Cinema & Taphouse in Sandy Springs, where he helped usher in a complete transformation of the former Lefont art house theater. Luxury, heated recliners have replaced beaten up and stained traditional movie seating. A full bar with a wide selection of craft beer and menu items including chicken fingers have replaced a lonely hot dog warmer. The popcorn, candy and sodas remain, although with a wider variety.
Working at a movie theater is a natural choice for employment in his “twilight years,” he says. His love of movies dates back to his childhood when he would charge neighborhood kids to watch 8mm films in the backyard of his Pittsburgh home, even serving up popcorn.
“I think I watched too much ‘Little Rascals.’ They were always trying to start a business,” he says.
The changes made by Brandt Gully, who purchased the theater from George Lefont, are perhaps life-changing for people who want to go out for a movie experience but retain the comfort sitting in their living rooms, Tush says. “You can’t just show a movie anymore,” he said.
Cult figure status
Before there was an art house theater, though, there was WTCG Channel 17, a local station purchased by Ted Turner. Tush got a job in the 1970s at the new station, where he became a jack-of-all-trades and Turner’s “yes man” and loyal “pal.”
Turner filled his new station’s airwaves in the mid-1970s with Atlanta Braves ballgames and old sitcoms like “Gilligan’s Island” and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
During the weekends on Channel 17, Tush’s love for movies was put to use as the host for film broadcasts ranging from Academy Award-winners like “Giant” starring James Dean and Rock Hudson to Hollywood classics like 1935’s comedy “Ruggles of Red Gap” starring Charles Laughten, who went on to star as Quasimodo in 1939’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“We ran the gamut … it’s like what TCM [Turner Classic Movies] does now,” Tush says.
Tush also started hosting a 3 a.m. newscast on Channel 17, where he and a few crew members incorporated silly skits into a regular reading of events of the day.
There was the episode where Tush was literally dragged off the set by a “kidnapper” as part of a sketch highlighting news of diplomats being kidnapped around the globe, he said. “There was fake panic from the crew,” Tush remembers as he actually screamed while being forcefully removed from behind his news desk.
Then there was the addition of a new, award-winning weatherman from Cleveland, Ohio. Tush and his crew promoted his start date for a week.
On the day the new weatherman started, Tush said, he grabbed an older announcer who worked elsewhere in the station, positioned him in front of a weather map, and gave him his cue that he was on the air. The star weatherman introduced himself, then grabbed his chest as part of the gag and died on air, creating another fake panic on set.
“That was the joke!” Tush laughed. Nothing was written down other than the weatherman would die on air after a week of anticipation, he said.
Late-night viewers were instantly amused and Tush achieved a cult following of fans captivated by this new niche entertainment. The success led him to becoming a face of Turner’s media empire during its fledgling years. He still receives an invitation to Turner’s birthday bash every year.
Tush’s 1970s newscasts are considered by many TV pundits as a pioneer in late-night TV. In 2002, renowned Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore wrote of Channel 17 and Tush’s brand of humor, “Here, a quarter-century ago, was Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show’ stripped down to raw abandon, on zero bucks.”
“People always say it was ‘The Daily Show’ before ‘The Daily Show.’ But it wasn’t,” says Tush with a headshake. “It was a crazy, all ad-libbed, [a] whatever goes, goes show. There were no writers, no scripts.”
Tush says he still writes jokes and humorous musings on one of his six typewriters in his Atlanta apartment. He keeps the pages and pages of ideas, with nowhere yet to go, in boxes of stationery paper he finds at Goodwill stores.
The success of his newscasts led Turner to give Tush his own one-hour sketch comedy show aptly named, “Tush.”
The one-hour show aired from 1980-81 on what is now the multichannel TBS network. The show helped launch Hooks’ career, as well as the careers of writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, who went on to create such massive hit sitcoms as “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “That ’70s Show.”
Hooks was a master of many personalities, Tush says. On “Tush,” her character Tammy Jean pleaded in a sugary sweet Southern accent for viewers to donate money to save humanity from the evils of hang gliders. She sang the song “I’m Commercial,” a satire of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” with the chorus, “I’m inane, I’m an imbecile, I’m commercial.” She played Tootsie Plunkette, the diva of the popular “Captain Space” skit, where Tush and others wore weight loss sauna suits as uniforms and oversized water bottles as helmets.
Sometimes Tammy Jean was so convincing, people would send in $4 or $5, he said. Back then, that was enough for a lunch.
“She was the star of the show,” Tush said of Hooks.
During a recent afternoon in the Springs Cinema lobby, Tush, 70, took out his cellphone and nervously played the last message Hooks left him, the date stamp showing March 2014. Hooks died Oct. 9, 2014, at age 57, of throat cancer.
“I’m deathly afraid of erasing this darned thing,” Tush said, visibly frustrated as he taps his phone’s screen.
After a few seconds, “Biiiilllll!” in Hooks’ familiar voice, although a bit scratchy, finally played.
“It’s Jan. You’re probably away across the ocean, but, um, I haven’t talked to you in a while and I just wanted to check in … and I’ve been thinking about you,” she says. “I hope all is well. OK. Bye.”
“I don’t know what to do with this,” he says of the message, which came when he was working in Nigeria as a consultant for a new TV network. “When I came back, she was already dead … and I had this message.”
When “Tush” was axed after one season, Turner landed Tush a job as host of a new entertainment show, “People Now,” on CNN.
The new gig meant packing up and moving from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Tush and Hooks were roommates along with a former “Tush” writer; all three decided to take their chances and head to Hollywood together.
“She’s out there, doing her thing, getting nowhere. Then [“People Now”] is canceled, and I’m left drifting,” he says. “She’s struggling. And she’d call me and say, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’m calling you to tell you I’m killing myself.
“I’d say, don’t do it! And meet me at Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel,” he says of what became a tradition for the duo.
The two would meet at the small restaurant where Hale, the skipper from “Gilligan’s Island,” would come out every night at 6 p.m. and make an appearance.
“And we’d go there and drink and laugh,” Tush says with a smile. “And a week later, I’d call Jan and say the same thing, and we’d meet again.”
Tush then got a gig at CNN’s “Showbiz Today” in New York City and Hooks called a few months later to say she was coming to New York to do “Saturday Night Live.” She also went on to do “Designing Women” and also “3rd Rock from the Sun,” a show created by former “Tush” writers Bonnie and Terry Turner.
“So, we went from Atlanta to L.A. to New York together. We were always together,” he says. “We’d call each other four times a week to talk about stupid things. And then I go to Nigeria and she gets sick.”
Hooks was a heavy smoker and Tush said he later learned she smoked right up to the end, removing her oxygen mask to take a drag and to drink her wine.
“We always had this running gag where she’d go, ‘Biiiillllll!’ he said. “We had so many crazy fun times together.”
A few months ago, another close friend and “Tush” alum, Bob Gillies, died. Gillies had starred in “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In” in 1967 before becoming teaming up with Tush and Hooks.
Gillies is now in an urn on a shelf in Tush’s apartment. Tush said he’s not sure what he’s going to do with him. Sneaking his ashes on an upcoming trip to London on the Queen Mary luxury cruise ship and dumping them into the ocean may be a good idea, he says.
“He’d like that,” Tush says. “He’s got nowhere to go. Like me, I’ve got nowhere to go. Throw me over the side.”