Coventry & Warwickshire

One man's obsession with Sergeant Bilko

Bilko Image copyright CBS photo archive
Image caption The Phil Silvers Show originally ran between 1955 and 1959

A museum dedicated to Phil Silvers, the actor famed for playing Sergeant Bilko, has been opened in the unlikely location of Coventry by a man described as "an adopted son" of the star. So how did a British boy's love of a 1950s TV show develop into an obsession that has consumed his adult life?

It all began late one evening in the early 1980s. His parents in bed, a teenage boy switched on the television, channel-hopped the four channels then available, and casually started to watch a rerun of the Phil Silvers Show - popularly known as Sergeant Bilko.

The plot of the programme, which originally ran between 1955 and 1959 on the CBS network, centred on US army soldiers of the Fort Baxter motor pool under Master Sergeant Ernest G Bilko.

Image caption Steve Everitt has been collecting Phil Silvers memorabilia for 35 years. Items include photographs, clothing, scripts and letters. He believes if he had met the star in real life, they would have been great friends: 'He's the sort of guy you'd just want to hug', he said

Bilko, both lazy and sly, spent most of his time perpetuating get-rich-quick scams and persuading other people to do his work.

"It was like nothing I'd ever seen before," said Mr Everitt, now 50, who owns and runs a shop selling vintage TV memorabilia.

"I asked my dad all about it and it spread from there. I tried to get hold of Phil Silvers' address to write to him."

And so began a correspondence that helped to define Mr Everitt's life - which, although one-sided, was clearly important to Silvers.

Image copyright Silvers family
Image caption Silvers' daughters gave Mr Everitt an album of family photographs. 'I wouldn't have given it away,' said Mr Everitt

After his death, birthday cards, Christmas cards and letters sent by Mr Everitt - all carefully preserved in their envelopes - were discovered by the star's daughter Tracey in box files that had been kept by Silvers.

So why has an American comedy performer, who died aged 74 in 1985, continued to be such a passion for Mr Everitt?

"I've watched interviews, read books, spoken to his daughters. He was a great guy, shy. Rather than go out on the town in LA, he'd go back to his room and learn his lines.

"He was studious and gentle. The role of Bilko was an outlet for his energy," Mr Everitt said.

Image caption Letters written by Silvers are part of the display, along with photographs. Most of the exhibits were donated, some are on loan, and others were bought. The most expensive was a letter, which was purchased for £400 on eBay

"Bilko wasn't like I Love Lucy and all that - Lucy was soft and fluffy. Bilko was ugly people in the army. So vibrant.

"He could have come across as a nasty character, but he wasn't. He was just trying to get by and always helped his mates out," Mr Everitt added.

He is now friends with Tracey Silvers, who found the files of correspondence in Los Angeles when she was looking for donations for Mr Everitt's museum.

"She said that we - me and [friend and fellow-enthusiast] Mick Clews - were like Phil's adopted sons. We had a real connection."

The Phil Silvers Show

  • First aired on CBS in 1955
  • Ran for four seasons featuring 143 episodes
  • Won three Emmy awards for Best Comedy Series
  • Sometimes titled Sergeant Bilko or Bilko in reruns
  • The popular 60s cartoon Top Cat was a parody of the programme

Mr Everitt, who calls Silvers and his co-stars by their first names as if they were personal friends, not only knows the actor's scripts word for word, but knows every date Silvers visited the UK, what he said and to whom.

"He loved Camber Sands, you know. He visited in 1967. He said Britain was 'so small and ethnic and perfectly manicured'.

"He was a lovely man. But he didn't suffer fools, you know. He was also quite stubborn.

"That might be why he never really made it in Hollywood. Hollywood never harnessed his talent. He adored stage work but was frustrated in LA".

Image caption Posters are on display, along with a letter from Silvers' daughter Tracey. It reads: 'Hi guys! Hope everything is OK. Enclosed are the two jackets (both were his favourites) and two pairs of his glasses that he wore on the Bilko show (they're in the pockets)

Mr Everitt and Mr Clews were invited on to television magazine programme Pebble Mill at One shortly before Silvers died, to talk about the Phil Silvers appreciation society they had established.

To Mr Everitt's delighted astonishment, there was a surprise for the Bilko-besotted pair.

"They'd recorded an interview with Phil. They told him about our club, and Phil actually said our names. Out loud.

"It was an incredible feeling."

Image caption Silvers' glasses, worn when playing Sgt Bilko, are strong bifocals and are now quite fragile, Mr Everitt said

As well as the museum, which contains various exhibits including a pair of spectacles worn by Silvers, a velvet smoking jacket and a red waistcoat, there is another concrete connection between the unlikely pair.

Silvers did not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame until Mr Everitt campaigned for him to have one granted posthumously - which he describes as his "greatest achievement".

But did Mr Everitt ever meet Silvers?

Image caption A Sgt Bilko board game is described as 'new, hilarious and exciting'. Also on display is Silvers' membership card of the Automobile Club of Southern California

"No. And then he died in 1985. I was sad not to go to the funeral. I remember when he died. I was asleep in my room and my mum and dad were downstairs. They'd heard about it on the radio. They were troubled and didn't know how to break it to me.

"Eventually, when I came down, they just told me. Broke it to me straight."

And while some people might consider Mr Everitt's interest eccentric, that does not bother him.

Image caption Steve Everitt was on Pebble Mill at One in 1985, where a recorded interview with Silvers was played to him. The interview, on tape, is part of the museum's display. It was Silvers' last broadcast interview. Mr Everitt said: 'I've really dated, if you look at the old footage. I had hair and white socks. But Bilko never dates, it's still funny and powerful today'

"I think it's more of a healthy passion. Bilko brings people joy, it's a great tonic.

"We need more Bilko in the world."

The Sgt Bilko Museum, which is free, opens at the Sgt Bilko Emporium in the Fargo Creative Village, Coventry, on Sunday.

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