The Many Talents of Bill Collins
● By Jon Lewis
Let Me Entertain You
By Jon Lewis
Photo by Jeannine Hendrickson
Shepherd’s pie, fish and chips and other standard pub fare are rarely the stuff of song, and it’d also be fair to say they’re seldom the foundation for a comedy routine.
Bill Collins saw it a little differently, according to Lisa Murphy Collins, his wife of 22 years. “He’s just a brilliant and natural entertainer,” she says. “There’s a part of him that only comes alive when he’s in front of an audience.”
To prove her point, she recalls a Marin County pub the pair would go to with friends after rehearsing or performing in a play. The establishment had a piano player and an open microphone—always a dangerous proposition with Collins around. He was asked to sing something.
“He couldn’t pick a song so somebody gave him a menu and said, ‘Here, sing this,’ and he sang it to the tune of ‘Summertime.’ And he just brought the house down,” Lisa says. “When he’s got someone who is available to entertain, he just does it and does it brilliantly, but always in a loving, respectful, self-effacing way.”
If he isn’t making somebody laugh—a trait of his that appears to come as naturally as breathing—he’s either teaching, learning, singing, writing, recording jingles, producing, directing or acting. In between all that, he stays busy as one of the North State’s top U.S. Soccer Federation referees. And he plays the banjo.
Currently he’s directing the Riverfront Playhouse production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” The show (a comedy, naturally) closes Feb. 13.
A native of Butte, Mont., Collins was on the move early in life, with stops in Seattle and Vallejo before settling in for high school in San Francisco at Lincoln High. While a student at San Francisco City College in the early 1960s, he fell in with guitarist Bil Keane, and the two dove into the blossoming folk music scene.
With Collins on the guitar and later the 5-string banjo, the pair added bassist Ron Erickson and began performing as The Tallymen. After getting established in the Bay Area, cutting a record and making a pair of well-received trips to Los Angeles, the trio broke up when Keane and Collins were both drafted into the Army.
After a stint in the Army Reserves (and almost being called up during the Cuban missile crisis), Collins began playing with the Town Criers, a San Francisco folk quartet fronted by Marty Balin. (Balin would later go on to form the Jefferson Airplane, and he even asked Collins to join, but that was before the Airplane picked up Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady and found fame as a pioneering psychedelic rock band.)
He later found himself performing solo gigs at San Francisco’s Whisky A Go-Go, Big Al’s and the Hungry I, the latter of which put him in contact with the producer of commercial jingles. Collins’ versatile voice and ability to carry a tune served him well, and his career as a vocal pitchman was off and running. He did spots for Levi’s, credit card companies, carmakers, fast-food restaurants—Collins voiced the very first Big Mac ad for McDonald’s, complete with “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese and pickles”—and hundreds more.
Collins formed another band, Django, and opened for the (pre-fame) Doobie Brothers, “but I made my money as a jingle singer.”
Like a lot of musicians, Collins needed a day job to pay the bills, so he started with the Coast Wholesale Music company, first as a warehouseman and later as a sales rep. His sprawling district stretched from Stockton to Yreka and from Vallejo to Reno.
After a stint in Davis, Collins returned to the Bay Area, settled in Marin County and fell in love with theater. He performed in 18 plays over a three-year period in the early 1980s, and he also snagged small roles in the 1988 films “Willow” and “Tucker: The Man and his Dream.” It was in a production of “The Music Man” that he met Lisa. They married in 1993.
Their mutual love of the stage led them to form Keyhole Mystery Theatre, which has produced almost 30 interactive dinner theater musical comedies. After Collins’ sales job with an audiotape duplication company brought him to Redding in 2002, the couple staged some of their original works in Redding and adapted two of them for Riverfront Playhouse productions.
Collins, 76, also picked up the soccer bug in Marin County and he now supplements his “retirement” income by conducting classes for new soccer referees and officiating at some 300 games a year.
He has also taken his love of theater from the stage to the classroom. For the past 10 years he has taught acting and theater production at Harris Studios in Redding, and he’s frequently an instructor at public schools around the North State.
“I’m incredibly blessed to use my talents and pass on the world of acting to kids. My main goal as a drama teacher is to allow people to express themselves and not be afraid to be on the stage. I’ll be as silly as I need to be to get people to release those demons,” Collins says of people’s fear of public speaking.
“I think I was put on this earth to make people laugh.”