I’ve loved him since I was five years old, yet never got to tell him. He was handsome, funny, goofy, and the brightest spot in this sad, lonely child’s life. His name was Bill Camfield and he gave laughter and fun to me and kids everywhere for years. I knew exactly what I would say if I ever got to meet him. I practiced it. “Mr. Icky, I love you, will you marry me when I grow up?”
He was born Billy Joe, and he later changed his name to William Joseph bespeaking the dreams he had.
Arriving 10 days after, and 25 years before my birthday on June 17, 1954, Bill experienced heartache and poverty after his father died when he was five, sadly the first of too many tragic events of his life. His parents had been grieving the loss of his sister, who did not make it through the 1918 flu epidemic, something I believe we can all relate to after the Covid events of 2020, still prevalent today.
A worker in the coal mines of Thurber, Joseph Camfield helped mine the one of the largest deposits of bituminous coal in Texas. But his son was destined for something far greater, dreaming of that from his Mineral Wells home. Truly, his gift for comedy, creativity and business sense, would carry him farther than even he imagined. Higher than the 128-foot smokestack which today is about all that remains of that Thurber mine. Little did he know that mine which produced electricity for the town would represent something so important in the form of a new thing called television.
With his mother, Nina, left alone and unable to support them, in 1935 she took Bill to Fort Worth where the hospitality of relatives provided a home for them through the years. Bill’s first glimmer of show business shined through in his years at Amon Carter Riverside High where he acted in plays, as master of ceremonies for a Valentines Day dance, in a play he helped write, and other projects.
Writing was always first and foremost with Bill, he wanted to be known as that and seriously remembered for his work. He had studied slapstick and comedy under the world-famous clown, Paul Jung of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. Bill had thought of joining the circus once, but his path led to marriage and TCU on a writing scholarship, where he graduated in 1957 with a creative writing degree. Again, heartache came a few years later when Jung was found robbed and murdered while staying in New York City, the violent, random act of a drug addict, during the circus’ tenure at Madison Square Garden. Another cherished soul gone from Bill’s life way too soon.
After graduating high school, Bill found a job writing ad copy for Leonard’s Department Store. Founded in 1918, the historic store now is a museum. His creativity going strong, he was quickly promoted and even did contest spots for customers getting the best bang for their buck, so to speak. He was especially good at promotions and he eventually joined KFJZ, a fledgling little station on the westside of Fort Worth, with a lot of promise, much of that due to him and his good friends, Phil Crow and Clem Candelaria, also TCU alumni.
Owned partially by Fort Worth oilman and philanthropist Sid Richardson and John Connally (39th Governor of Texas), it became known as KTVT - Channel 11. Station management approached Bill to create a program to showcase recently acquired old reels of The Three Stooges and cartoons. And voila, Slam Bang Theater was born with pie throwing and zany slapstick throughout. His Ichamore Twerpwhistle became Icky Twerp and soon in syndication, kids everywhere were delighted and entertained by him twice a day. The minute that Dixieland theme began, we knew the fun was about to start.
The more Bill worked with the show, the more he created his unforgettable and everlasting characters. As a thank-you for their new generation of fans, he was invited to L.A. to meet The Stooges, attended a barbecue at Moe Howard’s west Los Angeles home and was given the part of Wyatt Earp in their 1965 movie, “The Outlaws Is Coming!” produced and directed by Moe’s son-in-law, Norman Maurer.
His popularity steadily rising, Bill made numerous appearances at stores, shopping centers, special shows, and other businesses. Thousands would turn out to see this quirky fellow named Icky with the little hat, fuzzy black wig, black-rimmed glasses and pinstriped coat which he had worn to his high school graduation. Phil tells the story of a time at the State Fair of Texas when the fans got so frenzied they had to run from the stage and hide until the crowd could be calmed and dispersed.
With his life on track for success, in 1951, Bill had married Ela Hockaday, whose aunt pioneered the prestigious girls’ school in Dallas. They had two children, Paul and Martha. But by 1965, her fight with mental illness had become too much for Ela and she ended her life. With help not advanced nor prominent as it is today, and issues such as this remanded to silent suffering, Ela left this world on a hot August day.
And once again, tragedy came too close to home. It is said, “the show must go on” and Bill was remarkable in his ability to continue after such grief. Perhaps he found solace in his work, an escape of sorts, never letting anyone know how much he really hurt. And he had two children for whom he wanted the best.
He continued to pour life into Slam Bang Theater and his characters, the musically talented gorillas, Delphinium, Ajax, Arkadelphia, Caladium and Linoleum, and his Texas Consumer “CONsumer” Finance commercials with him as “Mortimer Moolah” and even Mortimer’s wife, Minnie, which are priceless, pun intended. Bill was a pioneer in his own right. His son, Paul, says he would have loved today’s technology, “He would have been right in there with it.” He had already been working with floppy disks on a video display terminal, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Startext, the beginning of the Internet.
Slam Bang Theater ran from 1959 until one day in 1972 when Bill decided it was time for change. He walked up and over a brushy hill by the station, suitcase in hand, shovel on his shoulder, waving goodbye to his sidekick, Machismo, to the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which was my grandmother’s favorite. I’ve often wondered how he chose it. I hope the lightheartedness didn’t belie his feelings. The saddest thing of all is when people don’t know how loved they really are. Nevertheless, he was off to the Lost Twerp Mine, to help find Uncle Ichabod’s fortune. And I was forlorn, as in four months I would be 18 and had decided I would be courageous and go meet him, hoping he wasn’t married.
The move to Denver, Colorado and job as program director for a station there seemed the thing to do. But true Texan that he was, after a couple of years, Bill returned home, working in sales for KDAF - Channel 33, the up-and-coming cable industry, and creating Business Communications, Inc., his own company, providing support and assistance for clients in broadcasting. He was happy as he could be, writing, in his element, creating.
Then another tragedy reared its ugly head, when his daughter, Martha, was killed in a car accident in 1976 at age 17. After that, it’s said he became lost in an alcoholic haze for several years. One cannot imagine the pain this man had to endure. But calling on his strength and fortitude, he became sober and closer to his son. Those years during the ‘80s were precious to both men and Paul even worked with Bill on some projects. The 1985 Icky Twerp Summer Reunion was highly popular and showcased beach-themed movies.
One of the first hosts to create the spookiest of themes, Bill was inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame in 2013. Even today, those spots would scare the socks off Svengoolie. Bill had earlier been inducted into the Ernie Kovacs Comedy Hall of Fame in 2005. His scripts typically ending with FOC, Fade On Confusion, he later told Paul, “I didn’t know what I was doing, I just wanted to help the station, make it better.” You did, Bill. You did. You made so many lives better, more than you ever knew.
In 1987, after years of others writing about him, Bill decided it was time for him to do what he did best. In an article for D Magazine, he said, “Despite these problems (of being taken seriously in other roles), I have reaped some real rewards in recent years when the former kids (now in their twenties, thirties, and forties) recall their days in front of the screen. Few say more than “I used to watch you when I was a kid,” but there is a fondness about the way they say it and the look in their eyes. I can tell that their hours with ‘Slam Bang Theatre’ are treasured in their memories as good times. They tell me, in many ways, ‘It was good that you gave us that entertainment and we remember it fondly.’ That is what I think I hear them saying, and what I want to hear them say.” I would’ve said more to him.
In 1989, a special 30th-anniversary event taped before a live audience at the Comedy Corporation in Arlington, honored Bill for his many achievements, and Icky Twerp Day was proclaimed by then-Governor Bill Clements. Dallas DJ and TV personality, Ron Chapman, hosted the event and video congratulations were shown, sent in by WBAP - Channel 5 longtime meteorologist, Harold Taft, who many Texans and “foreigners” consider to be the “greatest weatherman” of all time. Members of the Von Erich wrestling family, Joan Howard Maurer, and even Our Gang’s Spanky McFarland sent their appreciation. A polar opposite of Icky, the demure Mr. Peppermint, Dallas’ own Jerry Haynes, surprised everyone with a video visit and a maniacal laugh reminiscent of Bill’s scary character Gorgon’s. He unabashedly admitted that while his daughter watched him, his son watched Mr. Twerp. And these are celebrities who offered their praise sparingly.
A show produced in conjunction with PBS and called “Icky Twerp: The Electronic Babysitter” documents Bill’s life and success, through laughter and tears, and input from his son, friends and colleagues. Narrated by the late D/FW 40-year veteran newsman, Jack Brown, it features another famous anchor and friend, Dave Naugle, seeking desperately and hilariously to determine “who really was Icky Twerp.”
But in 1991, the last tragedy of his life was about to come. Earlier in the year, Bill was diagnosed with brain cancer. Again, he took this news with his Camfield style and grace, remaining positive and hopeful. Paul and his wife returned home to help care for his father. A remission wasn’t to be though, and he succumbed to the disease on September 30. That fall day, Texas lost a broadcast icon, a good man, father and friend. Only days earlier had we lost another beloved broadcaster, Mr. Taft, also a victim of cancer.
Now a father himself, Paul Camfield has carried on his father’s work and legacy, with presentations about his life, career and endeavors. A reminder of his father’s timelessness, there is a poignant play written by Grainger Esch and presented by the Hip Pocket Theatre currently running through Oct. 3.
Paul graciously talks with people about his dad, openly and honestly, and it is evident he takes after his Bill in handsomeness and kindness. When I reached out to him recently, he sincerely appreciated it. I wanted to let him know how much his dad’s work meant in my life albeit belatedly. And it will continue to mean something to others. Sponsored by the family, there has been a Bill Camfield Creative Writing Scholarship awarded by TCU for some time now.
For me, memories had come flooding back after a childhood friend invited me several months ago to a Slam Bang Theater Facebook group. For years I’ve told people, Icky and The Stooges were my babysitters every day and that is why I turned out so good! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Indeed, we never know whose life we may touch.
Whether I was too shy and afraid to tell Bill, afraid of what people I knew might think reading this and knowing what home was really like for me, I failed to let him know how much he meant to me when I had the chance. I, too, put on a brave face, not speaking of my childhood and walking on through the years. Those who say let someone know you care, not to wait, know whereof they speak.
So now, after the 92nd anniversary of your birth this year, this is for you, Bill, a great man, a creative genius, who kept on smiling, no matter what life tossed at him. You gave me the gift of laughter when I needed it most. I’ll see you in my dreams, and maybe somehow you’ll know. You didn’t walk alone. You will never be forgotten. And love never dies. It just goes on and on until all the cows in all the green fields in all the world come home. I think he would have liked that saying a lot. I know Billy Joe and Icky would have.
Lynda Jett Barron is 1984 graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington with a B.A. in journalism, longtime feature writer and former editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Dallas Morning News and other newspapers and magazines. She is pursuing her Juris Doctorate online and still laughs uncontrollably at The Stooges once a week on MeTV. She says the only thing missing is Bill.