Long road from carnival life to Gardnerville

Some people may consider Bil Luckey's early life unusual, but for Luckey, a Gardnerville resident, it was all he knew.

His parents had divorced when he was 2 and he was raised by his father, Jimmy West, the master of ceremonies and singer in a burlesque show called "The Girl Show," in the 1930s and 1940s on the East Coast.

"He started out rather young, out of high school, I believe," said Luckey of his father, who took a stage name other than his real name because Luckey was too "show businessy."

"He started on the West Coast and moved to a burlesque circuit on the East Coast. Every two weeks the circuit would move so you wouldn't see the same strippers all the time.

"You would start out in late April, early May. We worked our way up the coast. Come late July, early September, then you'd work your fair dates. This was all set up in advance."

Luckey worked with his father from age 12 through 14. The first year he worked the "front end" of the midway as a ball boy for the "Cat Rack," a game where you buy three baseballs for 25 cents and try to knock down three cats that sit on a rack, or five milk bottles on a short stool. The second year he was "Bally Boy" for the illusion show.

"I would be dressed in a flowing blouse-like thing with pantaloons," said Luckey. "Someone from the crowd would tie me to this cross. On a word cue from the "barker," I would untie myself and go back stage.

"It was a very simple trick. The rope had a snap on it. All I did was just go 'boom,' like this," he said snapping his raised arms, "and they would go off. Most of (the tricks) you could figure out if you really look at it. These days people are more "hep" to how things are done."

About halfway through the season the MC left the show and Luckey got the job, performing acts such as "The Floating Lady," "The Mummy's Case," "The Lady in the Coffin," that he sawed in half, and "The Lady in the Fish Bowl."

Although Luckey's father sang in the shows, Luckey didn't acquire the musical ability, he said.

"My father was a singer, a good baritone. I can't carry a note," said Luckey.

The carnivals would feature one or two girl shows - one white and one black - plus an illusion or "educational" show, said Luckey.

"They were what they call the "geek" show ... oddities," he said. "In fact, I dated the lobster."

Luckey explained that the "lobster" was a girl with a "claw" for a hand.

"It was fun," he said. "It's natural to you, you're there with your father or your folks. There's other kids there. You don't know any different."

In his younger years, Luckey didn't have much schooling.

"It was whatever my father taught me, the same as the other kids," said Luckey. "I had to learn how to count money. My father put me in Catholic school from time to time."

West and Luckey would winter in Tampa, Fla, and eventually moved to Florida, where West partnered with a comic named Nat Mercer, whose wife was a stripper.

They finally settled in New Orleans where West "worked the clubs on Bourbon Street" and Luckey began attending school regularly. His show business life was over, at least for awhile.

When he was old enough, Luckey joined the Merchant Marines, working on oil tankers as second cook and baker. He said that life on the ship was dull and monotonous, and they were rarely close enough to a town to go into the town. He recalled one time when they left the ship.

"I was in Cuba when Castro was in the hills," said Luckey. "We could hear the fighting going on up in the hills."

He was in the Merchant Marines about three years. Luckey said he had a habit of moving on after short periods of time.

"I did everything for two-year stints or three-year stints, moving from one to the other," he said.

Luckey went to Ft. Smith, Ark., in 1955, when his father died there. He saw a job in the newspaper for an announcer at a TV station and he got the job. He handled the "Kiddy Corral" children's show until he said something inappropriate, not realizing the mic was on. He also ran into a fire engine while driving in the snow while working there.

"They opened the morning show with news about my accident," Luckey laughed. "The job didn't last very long."

He went to work for a company that made "trailers" for drive-in theaters, which led to a job working for a New Orleans company that produced two TV cop shows, "NOPD" and "The Tracer" as an assistant editor. Around that time he also worked as an extra on TV and at the Gallery Circle Theatre as technical director for three years, producing shows such as "Murder in the Cathedral," "Witness for the Prosecution," "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

He had a brief career as a display director for a high-fashion ladies' department store.

What Luckey really aspired to do was to make it as an actor in California, so he moved to the West Coast.

"I'm a movie fan," said Luckey. "I thought this is the time to do it.

"I didn't realize how big the industry was and had to earn some money. I started working for construction companies, making kitchens and bathrooms for commercials."

Later, he discovered he could make even more money supplying trailers for actors to use as dressing rooms during Celebrity Challenges.

He eventually got a part as a state cop in "Eat My Dust," worked on "Death Race 2000" and "Moonshine County Express." In 1976 he started working as a property master for TV commercials.

"Show business is a fickle business," said Luckey. "People come and go ... you never know. People try to keep the good workers there. After 10 or 12 years you graduate to key grip or property master. Then you're the main man."

From 1981 on for 20 years Luckey worked as property master or assistant property master on feature films and TV series such as "Dark Mirror," "Dark Skies," "Midnight Run," "Creator," "Black Widow," "Sweet Dreams," "Crossing Jordan," "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "50/50."

While shooting the 1982 adventure film "50/50" in Malaysia, Luckey was in charge of all the armor - 150 weapons and a half-ton of ammunition. One of the people he met with was the local police chief.

"He said, 'You're responsible. If you lose one weapon, you'll go to jail,'" said Luckey. "I thought, oh boy, I could go to jail here the rest of my life. But, we didn't lose any, and everything was fine."

Luckey was married twice. He moved to Gardnerville in December to be closer to his daughter from his first marriage, Brooke Pearl, his only child.

Pearl and her husband, Tony Pearl have lived in the Gardnerville Ranchos for about eight years, according to Luckey, who also has two grandchildren, Logan and Lucaya.

He wasn't in town long before he found out about Carson Valley Community Theatre and their production, "The Odd Couple (Female Version)," that opened April 28 and 30 and will be presented again this weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the CVIC Hall in Minden. Luckey landed the part of Jesus Constanzuela.

Luckey said he wasn't actually looking into getting into acting again, until one day at Sharkey's Casino where his daughter works part time, she introduced him to people in the theater group. He says he's not really worried about doing a good job in the play.

"Since I've been in the business so long, it comes kind of natural," Luckey said. "I just hope I can remember my lines."

n Jo Rafferty can be reached at jrafferty@recordcourier.com or 782-5121, ext. 210.


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