By John Clayton -- May 20, 1999
"New Hampshire The Way I See It ..."
Peter E. Randall, Publisher
Portsmouth, New Hampshire - 1999
The Union Leader (www.theunionleader.com). No further republication or redistribution is permitted.]
(Photo Courtesy of Bill Elliot)
In case you missed it, they're celebrating a centennial down at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom this summer but so far, all of the commemorative stories I've seen have focused on the high-powered headliners who've performed there through the years.
With the possible exception of Frank Sinatra, the Casino has played host to just about every big-time show biz luminary you can name. We're talking Duke Ellington, Harry James, Count Basie, Patti Page, Willie Nelson, Wayne Newton, Tina Turner, Roy Orbison and Ray Charles, and that's just for starters. The list spans the generations, from Sammy Kaye to Robert Cray.
If you're star struck, that list may get your juices flowing, but me? I've been waiting in vain for a story about a lesser-known but no-less-colorful seaside singer, one my parents have raved about down through the years, so I guess it's up to me to tell you about Bill Elliot.
Perhaps you know him better as "The Singing Cop."
He's not a cop anymore, but at 94, he's still an arresting presence. And he doesn't sing anymore either, but a morning in Bill's company can be as entertaining as all get out. And I got out to his house in Hampton recently.
"Oh, I guess I stopped singing about 40 years ago," he said. "I had a tumor on my vocal chords, something they call a 'singer's node'. About a year after I had it removed, I could sing again, but I just didn't sound like me, so I didn't sing in public much anymore. I can still carry a tune and I still sing in church, but that's enough."
But they couldn't get enough of Bill back in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s.
On a typical Sunday evening, Bill would be out in full police uniform directing traffic on Ocean Boulevard, right between the Casino Ballroom and the Bandstand when the conductor -- frequently Hal McDonnell -- would beckon him up to the stage. After dodging through the traffic, Bill would bound up to the microphone and wow the crowd with a tune or two before returning to his duties.
Tourists may have marveled at the notion of a cop who could sing, but locals knew they were watching a singer who just happened to be a cop. They'd known that since 1921 when Bill Elliot stepped onto that same Bandstand stage and -- using a megaphone instead of a microphone -- won the first Hampton Beach Amateur Night at age 16. After that, his legend grew and grew.
Not to belittle that Hampton Beach acclaim, but Bill's real breakthrough came in Boston in 1936. He was on stage singing a difficult aria -- for you Rossini fans, it was "Largo al factotum" from "The Barber of Seville" -- and just for good measure, he sang it in Italian. Unbeknownst to Bill, the audience included a talent scout named Ted Mack -- yes, that Ted Mack -- and the future host of the "Original Amateur Hour" promptly ushered Bill into the big time.
"They booked me onto 'Major Bowe's Amateur Radio Program' in New York," Bill said. "I know I was a little nervous because I always got a little nervous before I sang, but Major Bowes came up and told me, `I have a feeling they're really going to like you."'
Sure enough, Bill -- clad by then in the uniform of the Hampton Police Department -- stepped on stage at the CBS Theatre on Broadway for the live, coast-to-coast broadcast and sang a popular standard called "Love in Bloom." For all we know, the phones may still be ringing.
"It was the first time in the history of the program they ever asked anyone to come back and sing an encore," Bill smiled. "I don't know whether that many people really called or if he just made it up -- he really built me up big -- but he insisted I go back on, so I performed the Rossini aria again."
They should have billed him as "The Opera Cop."
The response of the home audience was exceeded only by that of the 1,500 in the studio. It probably goes without saying that Bill won that night's competition and he was asked to go on the road with one of Major Bowe's traveling shows. After a single performance at the Metropolitan Theatre in Boston, however, he decided that life on the road wasn't for him.
"Back then, I had a wife and two kids and a job," he said.
The job -- well, one of them anyway -- was right there in Boston. He had a radio program on WEEI where he was both a host a dialectician." Not only would he sing with Ruby Newman's Orchestra -- in seven languages, mind you -- but he would also take part in live, on-air skits that tested his oratorical gifts.
"On one of the skits, we would pretend to visit a different country every week and I would do the accent of the other country," he said. 'We always had an audience in the studio, and there was an Army colonel there for one show when I was doing an impression of Hitler.
When the skit, was done, the colonel came over and said, `You may be all right, but you sure sound like a kraut.' I made sure he waited for the end of the show when I sang `God Bless America.' After that, he said I must be okay."
He was better than okay. Even though he was commuting from Hampton to Boston, he still received regular overtures from national broadcasting outfits, overtures he managed to resist until 1941.
"I really thought it was my big break," he said. "I signed a contract with Procter & Gamble for a radio program. We were going to do live shows and record them on discs that would air five days a week from coast-to-coast and up into Canada."
For such a clean-cut character, it should come as no surprise that his primary underwriter was Lava Soap. It may surprise you, however, to know that early ratings for his program were matching or topping such radio institutions as "Inner Sanctum" and "Amos 'n' Andy." For a while, anyway.
"I think we had done three of the discs," Bill said. "Then the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. I don't know what it was, but there was something in Lava Soap that the Army needed, so they took it off the market. Without any Lava Soap to sell, Procter & Gamble canceled the program. Sixty other programs got canceled at the same time, so in a way, I guess I consider my show to be a casualty of war."
It says a lot about Bill Elliot that he can smile when he tells that story, but he knows he has plenty to smile about. He's still married to his wife of 72 years, the former Alzena Leavitt of the Hampton Leavitts. They've lived in the same house -- built by his father -- for all of their years together, years in which they raised their family (one that grew to include three children, all told) and years in which they devoted their lives to the town that they love.
That devotion shows up in town histories, like Peter Randall's Hampton: A Century of Town and Beach, which notes that the end of the 1937 summer season was celebrated as "Bill Elliot Week." Peter also recounts what must be the American equivalent of a command performance, when Bill sang a solo before a special session of the New Hampshire Legislature.
In this, the Casino's centennial year, it's good to acknowledge Bill's indelible tie to the old ballroom and the Hampton Beach Bandstand, but for those who saw him sing, it's the beautiful baritone and the arresting presence of "The Singing Cop" that will serve as Bill Elliot's legacy. (5/20/99)