Billie Armstrong Brosch Hayes, a Du Quoin native best known for her portrayal of the eccentric Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo on the children's TV series H.R. Pufnstuf, but who also had a long career in musical theater and nightclubs, died in Los Angeles on April 29, 2021, at age 96.
Tributes have been pouring in from the show business community since her death was belatedly announced on Tuesday of this week.
"My dear wonderful Billie Hayes has died," posted Australian-American actor Tristan Rogers, best known for his decadeslong portrayal of Robert Scorpio on the soap opera General Hospital. "Sadly I only got to work with her on GH but it was a magical relationship. Right away Gloria Monty (the late executive producer of GH) saw something unique and ran with it. I cannot tell you how her passing saddens me." Named for her great-uncle Bill Armstrong, Billie Armstrong Brosch was born Aug. 5, 1924, in Du Quoin, the youngest child of Charles and Marie (Armstrong) Brosch. The family lived at 520 W. Main St., where both parents were strong role models: Her mother was a caseworker and investigator in the Perry County General Assistance Office, where she was in charge of relief distribution to the underprivileged and impoverished. Her father was a coal miner and head of the United Mine Workers local, who achieved national prominence as a union leader, fighting for the rights and benefits of miners and for widow's pensions.
Billie's career as an entertainer began at the age of 9, when she started performing professionally as an acrobatic dancer at Elks Club events and at local restaurants.
She was extremely close to her mother, who Billie said encouraged her, but didn't push her, to pursue show business. But Marie didn't drive, so by age 12, friends say, Billie was piling up pillows on the driver's seat of the car so she could see over the wheel, and taking the two of them to her dancing lessons with Willie Smith in Murphysboro.
In her young teens she was playing local nightclubs and during high school she joined the 14-piece Vince Genovese Orchestra. Genovese was from Murphysboro and his band played at The Rendezvous and other local clubs, then in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.
Lifelong Du Quoin resident Fred Huff Sr. was not a friend of Billie's, but he remembers her and her best friend, Bernella Appuhn, riding bicycles around town. They were both so pretty, he recalls, people would stop and stare. Bernella, who later married and became Bernella Stocks, died in 2009.
"I never heard anyone say a bad word about her (Billie)," Huff said Thursday. "And she had one of the damnedest careers I've ever seen."
After her sophomore year at Du Quoin High School, Billie spent the summer in Omaha with her older sister Marie, and Marie's husband. She stayed on that fall to attend an Omaha high school for her junior year. After she returned home to Du Quoin, though, show business beckoned and she took off for the professional life in Chicago, and never graduated.
It was in Chicago in the early 1940s that an agent told her "Brosch" was not a good stage name and offered her a few alternatives. They settled on Hayes (a name Billie was familiar with in Du Quoin, but she would make it clear she was no relation to the Hayes family of Du Quoin State Fair fame). But while she would get famous as Billie Hayes, in her private life she preferred to be Billie Brosch of Du Quoin.
During the war she toured with the USO, entertaining servicemen. After the war she returned to nightclubs, going cross-country.
At a chance encounter in New York, Billie was urged to go to an audition, not knowing who or what she was auditioning for. Already a seasoned nightclub performer, she danced and sang routines she had choreographed herself. In the dark and otherwise empty theater there were only a few people seated. Billie first heard a chuckle, and then laughter. It was the legendary J.J. Shubert. He would go on to cast her in principle roles in three of his renowned road operettas: "The Student Prince," "The Merry Widow" and "Blossom Time."
Soon after, she was in the New York revue of "What's New" with Paul Lynde, which played from Boston's Copley Plaza to the fabled Shamrock Hotel in Houston. Billie's first Broadway appearance was in Leonard Sillman's "New Faces of 1956."
She joined the Broadway cast of "Li'l Abner" as Mammy Yokum, later reprising the role in the Paramount film. Playing the role of Minnie Fay, Billie toured with the national company of "Hello, Dolly!" starring Betty Grable.
After moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Billie started working in television. In 1969 she landed the role that made her famous with children all over America: the bumbling, cackling Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo in the Sid and Marty Krofft series, H.R. Pufnstuf. She reprised the role for the 1970 feature film adaptation of Pufnstuf; and in the Pufnstuf TV spinoff Lidsville, where she played both Witchiepoo and Weenie the Genie; in a Paul Lynde Halloween Special; and in the final season of The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.
In 1981 she debuted the role of street-wise international spy Brighton O'Reilly on General Hospital. She had guest spots on The Monroes and The Monkees; did voice roles for several animated series and Disney, and even dabbled in a few commercials.
In 2019, Tristan Rogers told Soap Opera Digest, "The character I wish had stayed on the show (General Hospital) longer was Billie Hayes, who played O'Reilly. She was only meant to be on the show for a day, and we managed to stretch that out for about three or four weeks. The pairing was so unusual and we got along so great together."
Billie didn't like to fly, and when she needed to travel it was almost always by train. Du Quoin residents don't recall any trips she made back here after her father died in November 1970. Before he died, she liked to visit when she could, and would stay at Francie's Bed & Breakfast, friends recalled. Her mother, Marie, died in June 1952.
It was during Li'l Abner that Billie adopted the love of her life, Tina, one of a litter of boxer/Great Dane puppies being sheltered in the basement of the St. James Theatre. Her love for animals led her to rescue stray and abandoned pets for the rest of her life, and to lead the Los Angeles-based Pet Hope organization. She also became a vegetarian.
Billie is survived by her niece Nancy (Steve) Powers; nephews Tom (Beverly) Brosch, Louie (Debbie) Brosch and Guy Brosch; several great-nieces and nephews; her Chicago family, Joanni, Michael and Stefanie Kric; treasured friends and beloved pets.
Thoughts may be left on the memorial page of her site, BillieHayes.com.
Donations in Billie's name are suggested to Pet Hope, P.O. Box 69493, West Hollywood, California, 90046.