Wayne Thomas dies at 77; voice of ‘red light, green light’ for TV’s Engineer Bill

Bill Stulla sits in front of television screen showing videotape of him during his TV show, Cartoon Express with Engineer Bill that ran on channel 9 from 1954-1966.
Bill Stulla sits in front of television screen showing videotape of him during his TV show, Cartoon Express with Engineer Bill that ran on channel 9 from 1954-1966.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Wayne Thomas, who as Freight Train Wayne was the off-screen voice orchestrating the “red light, green light” milk-drinking game that was a highlight of the children’s TV show hosted by Engineer Bill, has died. He was 77.

Thomas, who created the long-running Oscar-prediction show “Your Choice for the Oscars,” died Jan. 27 of complications related to pneumonia at Huntington Silverado Senior Living facility in Alhambra, said his niece, Laura Latt.

From 1954 to 1966, “Cartoon Express” with William “Engineer Bill” Stulla was a weekday evening fixture on Channel 9, then known as KHJ-TV, where Thomas was an announcer.


With milk glasses at the ready, Stulla, his two young studio guests -- and the home audience -- would listen for the “green light” cry, usually delivered by Thomas, that signaled the drinking should begin.

When Thomas yelled “red light,” it meant the drinking should stop. The goal was to finish the glass of milk without drinking on the “red light,” which was not as simple as it sounds. Thomas would try to confuse the contestants by substituting phrases such as “green eyes” or “green grass” for “green light” and “red car” or “red pants” for “red light.”

“The kids didn’t goof very often. I was the one who always lost,” Stulla once said. He died in August at age 97.

In 1965, Thomas targeted an older audience when he created a program that turned into something of an Oscar-eve tradition.

Originally called “Your Choice for the Oscars,” the show forecast winners of the Academy Awards competition.

The results, tallied at first from ballots published in magazines, often mirrored the outcome of the Oscars.


After the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences filed suit in 1982 to block both the use of the name “Oscar” and the official list of nominees, the syndicated show was renamed “Your Choice for the Film Awards.”

Film critics were then asked to compile the list of nominees in six categories.

“The average viewer sitting at home with his pretzels and beer will see exactly the same format and, for the most part, the same nominees,” Thomas, who produced the show for about 20 years, told The Times in 1983.

“Over half the show is clips and . . . that, more than anything else, is why people like the show.”

He was born Michael Wayne Thomas on Aug. 13, 1931, in Oakland, the eldest of two children of research chemist James Albert Thomas and the former Dorothy Friend.

As a teenager, Thomas worked as a puppeteer and magician.

He started out as an announcer at San Francisco-area radio stations, then moved to Los Angeles with a friend who had gotten a job in Hollywood.

After graduating from the Pasadena Playhouse school of theater arts, Thomas joined KHJ-TV as a studio announcer in 1959 and stayed for 27 years.


For more than 25 years, he was the voice of “The Million Dollar Movie,” as it was known when KHJ canceled the feature in 1983.

Thomas once calculated that he had introduced the program about 7,550 times.

Since at least the 1970s, he had lived in a 15-room home high in the Hollywood Hills that overflowed with memorabilia, including a player piano once owned by entertainer Jimmy Durante.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved to collect unusual things,” Thomas said in 1978 in The Times.

He owned a fleet of classic cars that he rented to Hollywood productions and lighted his pool area with four old-fashioned street lamps that once stood along Sunset Boulevard.

In addition to his niece, Thomas is survived by a nephew, Carl Troxa.