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Willard, Bill


Las Vegas entertainment writer, producer, and critic William Norman (Bill) Willard was born April 27, 1913 in Terre Haute, Indiana. His father, James Bassett Willard was a playwright, actor, comedian and theatrical producer, which sparked Bill's interests in all aspects of entertainment and fine arts. He began art and theater studies in 1930. In 1933 he took a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Northern California as a camp newspaper editor. He went to New York in 1934 where he obtained a working scholarship at the Art Students League. He began exploring popular music in the city clubs and hotels with mentors like Thomas (Fats) Waller and bandleader Don Bedman. He also worked as a sketch artist and painted murals for the 52nd Street Downbeat Club and the new Cotton Club in midtown for 35 cents an hour. Willard worked briefly as a display artist for Lord and Taylor Department Store, and after five years in New York he moved to Southern California to work for Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. It was a new store and he was able to receive and execute his first major sculpture commission, "The Four Seasons," and also presented his first wood carvings there. This led to a period of owning his own display business and creating art items for department stores all over the United States.

Willard was drafted into the Army where he worked in the special services at Torney General Hospital in Palm Springs and Birmingham Hospital in Van Nuys, California. While there, Willard produced and wrote radio shows, emceeing and writing radio broadcasts. One of his tasks was producing and narrating the annual Christmas shows heard nationwide, and ultimately worldwide, on the Armed Forces Radio Network. He also held art classes for the patients. After his Army discharge in 1946, Willard continued writing, producing, and hosting many shows for the Armed Forces Radio in Hollywood. In 1948 he became involved in writing and producing early television pilots. His agent brought him to Las Vegas in 1949 to create a network radio show, "Honeymoon Hotel," to be broadcast from the Last Frontier Hotel and Casino. The project was abruptly aborted when his agent vanished, leaving Willard without any resources. Rather than returning to Hollywood, he stayed in Las Vegas. His first job was to write and produce a local game show. Willard also produced his own star talk show, "The Green Room," and the first request a classical recording show on early Channel 2 television, and he introduced the first jazz radio show to Las Vegas on KRAM.

In 1949 the Thunderbird Hotel and Casino became the initial site for the first Press Club "Branding Iron Revue" and Willard was given writing and directing assignments. This was the start of many successful years of association with the Press Club. In 1951 he became the director of the Community Players with many performances in the War Memorial Building, which later became City Hall. That same year, he performed in the Birdcage Theatre at the Last Frontier Village in "M'Liss," a melodrama. As a result of his success, he was contracted to write for and act with Hank Henry. This began Willard's five year association with the Silver Slipper as writer, composer, and character actor/straight man for Henry. During this period, Willard was writing a daily column for the Las Vegas Sun and became the first entertainment editor of the morning edition. In addition, he was reviewing shows and contributing articles to Down Beat magazine and columns for the Los Angeles Herald-Express.

After Willard left the Silver Slipper in 1955 he concentrated on creating a one-man art show. This effort produced a near sellout of his artwork that was displayed at the Main Las Vegas Library. In 1960 Willard produced another one-man art show with a Las Vegas theme and it moved to the Geminaire Galleries in New York City and West Galleries in Dallas. He became executive director of the newly formed Nevada State Council on the Arts.

Willard worked as commentator for the atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site and co-anchor of the nightly news on KSHO-TV. He also did voiceovers and on-camera appearances for commercial spots and contributed political commentary on KLAS-TV. From 1964 to 1967 Willard served on the Las Vegas Beautification Committee, and from 1971 to 1973 he was vice-chairman and chairman of the Las Vegas Planning Commission. During the 1970s and 1980s Willard co-starred in five plays at the Meadows Playhouse. In 1983 he joined the staff of the Las Vegas Review Journal as their entertainment, concert, and theater critic. He became a member of the Advisory Board and later in 1989, Director of the Arnold Shaw Popular Music Research Center. He initiated the "Rap with the Artist" sessions with top performers, composers, bandleaders and those affiliated with pop music resulting in over 700 taped interviews.

William Norman Willard passed away January 5, 2000.


"William 'Bill' Willard." Find A Grave. December 6, 2008. Accessed June 10, 2020.

"Longtime entertainment critic Willard dies at 89." Las Vegas Sun. January 31, 2000. Accessed June 10, 2020.