Bill Skiles, the wacky half of the Skiles and Henderson comedy duo, who entertained audiences for five decades with his sound effects, mimicry and improvised musical instruments, died Monday at his home in St. Cloud, Fla. He was 79.
The cause was kidney cancer, said his wife, Arlene.
Skiles and his partner, Pete Henderson, began their collaboration in Orange County, where they grew up. Starting as an act at Disneyland in the late 1950s, they worked their way up to Las Vegas showrooms, national television and touring as the opening act for the Carpenters and the New Christy Minstrels.
"I met him when I was 15, and he had me on the floor laughing immediately," Henderson, 73, who lives in Branson, Mo., said in a phone interview Thursday. "I never thought he really needed me…. He was just an original. He saw fun where normal people wouldn't."
Most of their humor was improvised, with Henderson trying to tell a story amid Skiles' nutty distractions and digressions.
In one routine about the Pilgrims, Skiles faithfully mimicked John Wayne and a family of goats. He was a maestro of the bicycle pump, on which he played "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
The team played another standard, "The Shadow of Your Smile," with imaginary instruments: Henderson made the sound of maracas while Stiles slapped out the melody on his cheeks until, feigning dizziness, he held out his hands to his straight man, saying, "Here, let me play the maracas."
Born William Al Skiles on July 5, 1931, in San Antonio, he grew up in a musical family: His father improvised instruments for his own band, the Bob Skiles Haywire Orchestra, and put his toddler son on stage as "The World's Youngest Drummer."
Skiles graduated from Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach in 1949 and met Henderson four years later on a return visit to campus to see a former teacher. They soon formed a band, with Skiles on drums and Henderson on bass. Their comedy evolved on stage.
They tried out their routines informally at Disneyland when they had jobs as guides. Eventually they were elevated to an act and performed at the amusement park for 19 months.
In 1960 they had their professional debut at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. That launched a 50-year career that brought television appearances with Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Rowan and Martin and Bob Hope. Later they were frequently seen on shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin.
They last appeared together in 2010.
In addition to his wife of 48 years, Skiles is survived by two daughters, Shannon and Jennifer Skiles; a son, Bill Jr.; and six grandchildren.