Some people remember Dave Bills as an artist who created tiny, intricate lead sculptures. Others recall him as a shy Mormon boy, always trying to be good. Still others knew him as a monster.
Gerald’s Monster, that is — a character he sometimes played opposite actor Pat McMahon on kiddie program The Wallace and Ladmo Show, Bills’ face covered in a goggle-eyed monster mask of fake-fur.
Bills died last month; he was 65. Best known for his Ladmo-inspired hand-painted miniatures, the artist was a quiet eccentric, some of his friends say — peculiar in a pleasant way.
“He would say and do funny things,” according to actor/playwright Ben Tyler. “He was a very gentle sort of guy.”
The pair ran a booth one year at the Arizona State Fair, selling Wallace and Ladmo gear to raise money for a local theater that was producing one of Tyler’s Ladmo plays.
“People would come into our little tent and were happy to see Ladmo T-shirts and buttons,” Tyler remembers. “But when they saw the figurines, they were just amazed. They would heap praise on Dave, and it was like a tonic for him.”
Bills spent a lot of time with Bill Thompson, creator and star of The Wallace and Ladmo Show. Both men were collectors of vintage toy soldiers, and spent hours together, painting the wee cast-lead military figures Bills created.
Tyler remembers being wowed by the intricate painting of the tiny figurines. “If you’ve ever looked at some of those little soldiers, I don’t know how the hell they painted those things. They must have had brushes with one hair on them.”
Holley King met Bills almost 30 years ago, when she worked for a stained-glass place in downtown Glendale, back when Bills and his father were running Condor Metals, a foundry located behind Cerreta Candy Company.
“They had these huge metal extrusion machines they fabricated themselves,” King recalls. “They were like huge, adult Play-Doh machines that made the metals used in stained glass.” There were no interior walls in the place, King recalls, and every possible inch of shelf space was covered in the tiny toys and sculptures Dave had made over the years. “I thought, Oh my god, this guy is a total artist. What the hell?”
The pair collaborated on a line of sculptures that King sold at local art shows and at Zia Records.
“We made these little dragons,” she remembers, “and hummingbirds and fairies. I remember there was a whole series of pigs with wings. Dave would make the metal bodies and I’d put stained glass wings on them. I’d come up with a little dancing bear or a magic mushroom, and he’d rework my prototype. Some of them were incense holders. I’d buy the sculptures from him and pay him a royalty and they all had ‘sculpted by David Bills’ on them, because he never got any recognition for his talents. He had a degree in engineering, but he just wanted to make his art.”
No matter how small, King says, Bills could make pretty much anything out of lead. “He made a lot of custom chess sets for people, where every piece was different. One lady wanted one that was all Basenjis. He did another one that was little, tiny bunny rabbits. The guy was a genius.”
Bills was less successful in remaining devout, King says. “His dad was very Mormon,” King recalls. “Like bishop-level Mormon. He wore the Mormon undergarments, to please his father. But with Dave, you’d never guess he came from religion until you’d hear him cuss, and then you knew something was up, because he’d make up weird curse words if he was mad, instead of saying ‘damn’ or ‘hell.’”
“I don’t think he was a practicing Mormon himself,” Tyler says. “A lot of what he said and did didn’t seem especially Mormon. I remember one day he had a cup of coffee and right before he took a sip, he looked up at the sky like he was waiting for a lightning bolt. He whispered, ‘I’m not supposed to be drinking this.’”
After his father died, King says, Bills floundered. He tried stand-up comedy and took odd jobs to make ends meet. “Toward the end, he might have been living in the back of the shop,” she believes. “He showed me the shower he made back there.”
Mentions of his name in certain circles still elicit the same response: “Oh, right. The guy who makes the little Ladmos. He was Gerald’s Monster, right?”
“He was also a loving father and just a really good guy,” King insists. “It’s great that people remember the Wallace and Ladmo connection, but Dave was so much more. I’m worried people will forget that other stuff.”