Simon Estes and I have one thing in common–we were two of Bill Riley’s “talent scout kids.”
A farmer’s daughter in the early 1960s, I’d watched the State Fair Talent Search on KRNT-TV nearly every Sunday evening with my parents and sister. Each week a winner was chosen to compete at the Iowa State Fair, where the top prize included money for college.
Bill Riley’s State Fair Talent Search began during my high school years. Because our farm was in Madison County, when the Dexter school underwent reorganization, my sister and I climbed on an Earlham school bus every morning.
Jazz saxophonist Jack Oatts was Earlham’s energetic band director who immediately recruited us Dexter kids for the band. In no time he had us playing in the marching band, concert band, state band, Dixieland bands, and combos.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Oatts also had the school involved in Bill Riley’s statewide talent sweep, which began in 1959.
He even talked some of us into trying out for a Talent Search, to be held in the auditorium of the Earlham school on January 29, 1962. Mrs. Oatts helped get performers ready, but when the night arrived, the dapper Bill Riley emceed the whole program and made a real show out of it–our very own Ed Sullivan that night. He enthusiastically introduced us like we were real entertainers and exhorted applause for each performance.
I played piano in a combo, a Dixieland band, and duet with my sister Gloria (“Deep Purple”); played organ in a combo and as a solo (“Take the A Train”); and sang with Gloria, sisters Judy and Jane in the Neal cousins’ quartet (“Me and My Shadow”).
Three of these acts were chosen for the next level of competition–to be on Bill Riley’s TV show. That meant getting to go to Des Moines at night. At the KRNT-TV studio we got to watch what happened behind the scenes where Channel 8’s famous locals did their shows. Encouraged even more directly by Bill Riley’s optimism, we nervously taped each program straight through in front of the hot lights and camera.
At the end of the evening, we knew whether or not the judges had chosen us to go on to the next level–the Iowa State Fair.
Either way, afterwards we stopped at Noah’s Ark for the new fad food we’d heard about–pizza. To us rural high schoolers, pizza looked and smelled so exotic. And eating its oddly stringy cheese gracefully was a challenge. Our parents, who did the driving, weren’t as excited about the pizza, but we teenagers were hooked.
Active in 4-H, we were Iowa State Fair regulars, but Bill Riley’s Talent Search gave the fair another exciting dimension for us. Though not as quite as talented as Simon Estes, I still got to perform among singers, baton twirlers, accordion players, and spangled tap dancers.
Indeed being part of the Bill Riley Talent Search gave this rural teenager new experiences, built confidence, and made great memories.
Thanks to Bill Riley–affectionately known as “Mr. State Fair”–for all the years of excellence and encouragement to Iowa’s students.
When Bill Riley retired in 1996, the Plaza State was renamed the Anne and Bill Riley Stage. Since then, his son, Bill Riley, Jr.–who has been named to the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2019–took over the Talent Search.
Commemorative bricks could be purchased as a fundraiser in the plaza north of the stage.
One of three notes I’d received from Mr. Riley through the years.
Books: On Stage: Bill Riley and Tales of the Talent Search (2004)
Bill Riley on the air and at the Iowa State Fair (2016)
Also: 1962 Earlham High School Yearbook
Simon Estes: We got to hear him in concert in a Des Moines church several years ago. Recently he’s moved back to Iowa. My sister and I last spotted him when the new T.J. Maxx opened in Ames–shopping.