My friend Bill Stevens passed away today. I have known many people who like to have fun - but Bill was the best at it. He had a personality that was so bursting with joy he seemed to have a mandate that everyone he made contact with must share in his delight. He changed the course of my life. Without Bill Stevens, there would be no Paper Bag as we know it..
I met Bill in 1976 when he hired the band Cutaway to replace the New Day Band on Thursday and Friday nights at Chelseas Square Pub in Huntington (now the location of the Nag’s Head Inn). The New Day Band had taken a better offer and moved around the corner to Hungry Bear. I had only known Bill a few short weeks when, during a casual conversation he asked if my bike was on the road (naturally he had a motorcycle as well). When I said I didn’t have enough money for insurance he reached into his pocket, handed me the money, and told me to pay him when I could. I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he said “Man, you gotta have your bike on the road.” That’s the kind of guy he was.
Chelseas had booths at the front of the bar and on band nights Bill would bring sheets of plywood up from the basement, take out the tables and lay the plywood across the booth seats. It was really springy and the part of the booth that you lean your back on stuck up in the middle. In addition, above the stage on the left side there was a light fixture made out of a wagon wheel that was so low I was the only guy in the band short enough to stand under it. It was at Bill Steven’s insistance that a quirky song, The Paper Bag, expand to become a mini-event, each with a theme, during Cutaway gigs at Chelsea. You know where it went from there.
Our 5 piece band made $125 a night, but it was steady work, every Thursday and Friday (Saturday was date night at Chelseas). In 1978 Bill built a proper stage and installed a PA system. I became the house sound engineer, a post I held for the next 15 years. As Bill’s designated “tech” guy, I was charged with bringing many of his schemes to reality. He was far ahead of his time. A true mad professor.
When personal, battery operated music players that could be carried in your pocket were still years from being sold, Bill had me rig a small cassette player with tiny car stereo speakers. Reason: he was going to hike down into the Grand Canyon, and thought having music playing would add to the enjoyment for all. This little rig was recycled years later, during his Gold Star Video years, with the speakers attached to the antlers of a large moose head that he would wear. Ahh … the video years. In the early 80’s he purchased a pair of the first video cameras, Panasonic with a camera as big as a shoe box plugged into a recorder slung over your shoulder that held the videotape. He then purchased a video editing unit that allowed us to edit different tapes into one and add effects and titles. He was off and running. We built a video editing room in the basement at the bar. We filmed a series of commercials for Chelsea Pub. He had us in the woods with me leaping around in the leaves … wearing the moose costume of course. He had us in Eddie’s Pizza advertising that you could order pies that would be delivered to Chelseas. We made commercials for his campaign for president (yes … of the United States). Bill filmed me getting a shave from Sam the Barber, next door to Chelseas. It's on YouTube (click here to see the video). You can hear Bill yelling “cut!” (he loved to yell “cut!” … he was a riot as a director). You can hear him laughing and urging me on as I chug a cold one. At Chelseas, he had small tv’s hung from the ceiling and a screen that, using a pulley system, dropped out of the ceiling for a projector tv. These things are common today, but in 1978 …
My favorite Bill Stevens story must be told. It is a microcosm of the Bill Stevens experience. He was always ahead-of-the-curve-especially-when-it-comes-to-fun-stuff. He reads about this new thing in the Caribbean called parasailing. Pulling a parachute behind a boat. None of us had ever heard of such a thing. So Bill buys a blue parachute and stitches on the Gold Star Video and Chelseas logos. He rigs a cable to a pulley and cleat on his boat (of course he had a boat). About 5 of us go out in Northport Harbor to try this baby out and it works perfectly! Someone sits in the sling seat of the parachute, the boat takes off, we pay out cable as the the parachute and occupant rises up about 100 feet above the harbor. Works great! Beautiful day, blue sky, people all over the harbor watching. We all take turns.
Then, the light bulb in Bill's head goes on. If this is fun for one person, it is twice as much fun for two! So … we now rig up a trapeze type thing that clips onto the bottom of the parachute sling seat. One person will sit in the seat, and another will hang onto the trapeze below. Brilliant!
Naturally, Bill was the test pilot. Billy Perks was driving the boat. I forget who was in the parachute seat and Bill is hanging onto that trapeze. My job was to watch the guys up in the air, like watching a water skier. Prior to adding the trapeze, every time someone had gone up they stood in shallow water wearing the harness, the driver gunned the boat and up they went. So … Bill is now standing behind the harness wearer … Perks guns the motor on the boat … the parachute rises just like before … but when it tries to lift Bill (a tall and well muscled man) … instead of rising higher, it pulls him forward through the water face first. Bill hangs on like a pit bull, flat out horizontal. The motor is not quite powerful enough to lift that much weight. Suddenly he pops up out of the water and rises quickly. He is now hanging about 10 feet underneath the guy in the parachute, and about 80 feet above the harbor hanging onto a trapeze. But when he popped out of the water, his bathing suit came off. We are now parading him around Northport harbor … stark naked 80 feet up hanging onto a bar, screaming at us to let him down, boats blowing their air horns all over the place. After 2 laps around the harbor, Billy Perks slowed down to where Bill was only 20 feet above the water and Bill let go. Oh did we laugh … and so did he.
Bill Stevens was, plain and simple, a great guy. Funny, creative, motivated, generous, smart. He was a great boss and a great friend. He did things for me and with me that I will never forget. There was never a single time I spent with him that I did not have fun. He gave me a job that was interesting and fun at a time in my life when I was virtually unemployable. Then he found things for me to do – so that everyone would have more fun. Bill Stevens was larger than life and will live in our laughter forever.