Final bow: Bill Riley, a morale-building maestro for Iowa youth, to retire as Talent Search host at the State Fair
Bill Riley Jr. will tell you he has no talent.
He can’t sing. He can’t dance. He can’t play an instrument.
Sure, he’ll crack a few jokes while hosting the annual Bill Riley Talent Search, an Iowa State Fair tradition, but comedy? No, he waves off, he’s no comedian. He’s not a magician either. Not a juggler. Not a DJ, a slam poet or an artist of any kind, really.
But Riley Jr. is selling himself short.
For years, he spent his summers traveling to various fairs and festivals across the state, putting some 5,000 miles on his car yearly for the honor of hosting talented young Iowans in the more than 100 Bill Riley preliminary contests. During the two weeks of the Iowa State Fair — wearing a suit in the August heat, no less — he introduces 40-some acts a day, on his feet and at the mic nearly the entire time as 400 performers are whittled down to 15 final acts and one winner.
Whenever he has a break, he pulls kids aside, ensuring they understand that they have something special to share. That what’s inside them is worth listening to, worth watching. Feel that tickle of pride, he tells them, let that applause wash over you. Breathe it in. Remember it.
Yes, Riley Jr. — like his father, show founder and former host Bill Riley Sr. — has a gift, just not one that would make a good act in their talent show. He’s a confidant. A cornerman. A cheerleader who doesn’t wield pom-poms but motivates with gentle nudges, hugs, high-fives and a few kind words whispered backstage.
After 25 years, the maestro of morale-boosting is taking his final bow. Next year’s Iowa State Fair will be Riley Jr.’s last as host of the Bill Riley Talent Search, marking the end of a more than 60-year run of Rileys helming the stalwart series.
What's next for the Bill Riley Talent Search is unknown, Riley Jr. said. He hopes the Iowa State Fair will have interest in continuing the show, but hasn't had any specific conversations yet.
"There are too many things up in the air right now that I really don't know what is going to happen," Riley Jr. said. "I am hopeful we can find a pathway to continue to offer the opportunity for young people to perform."
Considering the Riley shows have “most seats filled every day,” Fair CEO Gary Slater said having the talent show continue is in the Fair’s “best interest.”
Riley Jr., 63, resolved to “turn the page,” as he says, for three good reasons: the two grandbabies he already has and the one on the way. His summer circuit of fairs and festivals is also smackdab in the middle of family vacation season.
And he’s tired. You wouldn’t think talking is a young man’s game, but doing it 10 hours a day for 11 days straight has grown harder as the years pass.
But most importantly, he’s stepping back for the good of the performers, all the “fireplugs” and “rockets” he’s grown to love over the decades.
He wants to infuse new energy into the emcee role, bring on new faces with fresh perspectives. Make it a little less golf and a little more NASCAR, he offers with a laugh.
“I promised myself that I'm not going to be on stage in my 70s,” he said. “The voice starts to go. My knees are already going. I mean, it’s time. This is a celebration.”
But deciding to retire hasn’t been easy, Riley Jr. tells me. Behind the mic, he unlocked a passion he never knew he had.
And in the presence of all those fearless kids taking their place at center stage, he not only discovered his life’s mission, but he found himself.
Growing up with a famous dad
Riley Jr. used to get in trouble for smacking the family TV.
As a 4- or 5-year-old, he couldn’t understand why his dad — host of a popular local TV show — wasn’t answering his many questions. The tot was too young to realize his father wasn’t actually in the room, but was in an auditorium across town hosting thousands of children for a taping of his live show, “Hey Bob.”
Riley Sr., who was raised by a single mother in the wake of the Depression, lost his father when he was months old. He and his brother had to mature quickly, Riley Jr. said. They were taught to jump up after a fall and wipe themselves off as they keep moving forward. There was simply no time to look back.
After serving in the Army during World War II, Riley Sr. went into radio and then started “Hey Bob” — a “safety program,” Riley Jr. said, that taught kids to “stay on the straight and narrow.”
“From that, came the talent show, because he always found some youngster or youngsters that could sing, dance or play,” he said. “And he just kept working it.”
After a few years on TV, the talent show finals transitioned to the State Fair in 1960.
As a teen, Riley became a wheelman for his dad’s fair circuit. As soon as he got his driver’s permit, he was on the road, carting dad from Le Mars to Camanche and everywhere in between. On the road, the pair talked about life and about what the future could hold, and the younger Riley kept his eyes forward.
“We all drove him on talent shows whether we wanted to or not. We were like indentured servants,” Riley Jr. says with a laugh. “I remember driving him all over the place, and it was not just the summer, it was during the winter.”
Somewhere along the way, the elder Riley transitioned from “dad” to BILL RILEY FAMOUS DAD.
The younger Riley ran away from his dad’s spotlight. A “knuckleheaded high school kid,” he didn’t realize the opportunity before him, he said.
A couple of decades later, his dad surprised him with a question out of the blue: Would he consider taking over?
A new Bill takes the stage
Riley Jr. was shaking.
“Literally,” he tells me, stressing the word. The page in his hand was vibrating so much he could barely read the contestants' names. It was July Fourth 1996 in Iowa Falls, a preliminary round for the Bill Riley Talent Search, and Riley Jr. was hosting his first show. His dad was just offstage, watching, gaze locked on his son.
A few weeks earlier, his dad proposed he become host after the 1996 Iowa State Fair. Riley Sr. had been taking his foot off the gas slowly, going to fewer and fewer summer events and then only to the Fair.
But Riley Jr., who owned a construction company then, never figured he was next in line. And at first, he told his dad he had three answers: no, no and no.
“Think about it,” his dad said, suggesting Riley Jr. try it out.
Riley Jr. had never been on radio, never really held a microphone, and he wasn’t a public speaker. His deep-seated fear of failure roared in his gut, and his brain told him a young man with a family didn’t have time for this sort of commitment.
“It wasn't something to dabble in,” Riley Jr. said. “I knew that if I jumped in, it would be with both feet.”
But standing on that Iowa Falls stage, something shook open, Riley Jr says. He had been bitten by the performance bug, and it awoke a long-dormant passion.
Over the years, Riley Jr. added his own touches to the show.
Using his construction background, he gussied up the staging, putting in false walls to hide the sound system’s messy wires. He went on the road to build up a network of local coordinators and hosts, all of whom he’ll lean on as he steps back.
But Riley Jr.’s most proud of the high level of adjudication he brought to the search. His dad was a bit lax with judging, often not involving true performance experts until the last rounds. But now, professionals with performing arts masters or doctorates judge the contest for all 11 days of the State Fair.
Someone on the panel should know a specific dance move doesn’t feature that turnout, he said, or a pianist missed the middle chunk of that Tchaikovsky number.
“We've built up quite a show from when Dad handed it over to me, and it was in good shape then,” he said.
As far as hosting, he’s a little rougher around the edges than his dad. More “meat and potatoes” than radio professional, he says.
But, still, he hears his dad’s words ringing in his head. Make each child feel like family, and Don’t ever turn your back on the act.
So he stands just offstage, gaze locked on the performer, ready to catch the wayward juggling ball or help a dancer find a lost shoe.
And when they take their bow, Riley Jr. all but rushes the stage. He tries to get behind them to make sure they feel the applause.
He already knew they had something special inside, but in that moment, Iowa does, too.
The ones who come back
Riley Jr. ticks through his favorite acts, favorite moments, like he’s turning the pages of a mental yearbook — though he won’t use names for fear of leaving someone out.
There’s the girl who struck her opening pose at center stage before turning to him and announcing she had to go to the bathroom right then. And once he heard a piano backstage just before a show and discovered that day’s performers — dancers, cellists, vocalists, what have you — singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
There was that show in a barn in Leon. Rain came down in buckets, mud everywhere. Lights were dim. The sound system wasn’t great, but kids stood 12 deep waiting for their chance to perform.
Or the girl from Waterloo — and this one gets him emotional — who was so nervous. Riley Jr. gave her all the tips he could muster, but she was shook. If she had this much self-doubt, he thought, how had she made it to the final round?
Out she came and belted a gospel tune that left everyone’s jaws on the ground. She just “let it rip,” Riley Jr. says.
When she got a standing ovation, her smile was as bright as the afternoon sun.
But — like his father used to say — Riley Jr.’s favorite acts are the ones who come back. The ones who follow the Riley mantra: Jump up after a fall and wipe yourself off as you keep moving forward. No time to look back.
“They're driving home with mom and dad in the car, they're discouraged, a little down,” Riley says. “And then the next morning, they wake up, get back after it. They go to another show, another county fair, another festival somewhere and they win.”
One final Riley Jr story: A few years ago, a high school guitarist out of Northwest Iowa made it to the semi-finals. He was self-taught, but a master in the making. His mom pulled Riley Jr. aside. She didn’t know how he learned to play, and this felt like it was moving a bit too fast.
“I'll always remember talking to her and just saying, ‘You know, when he's with us, he's gonna be well taken care of. That's all I can assure you of today,’” Riley remembered.
“As far as where it came from and where it's going, I said I don't know,” he added. “But I'll tell you what, that kid can flat play guitar.”
A confidant. A cornerman. A cheerleader.
Now, that’s talent.