84-year-old crooner hopes to have ‘Dixie’s Got Talent’ on a string

Photo still from Bill Cunningham's music video for "I've Got the World on a String," St. George, Utah circa 2018 | Photo courtesy of Bill Cunningham, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Twenty of Southern Utah’s most talented groups and individuals will take the stage at Dixie State University’s Cox Performing Arts Center Thursday as they vie for top honors in the “Dixie’s Got Talent 2020 Finale.” Among them, one of the oldest competitors to ever take the stage in the annual competition.

But age is just a number for Bill Cunningham, who not only shows off his chops as a singer but has been crowned Mr. Universe three times and holds hundreds of bodybuilding titles.

Cunningham has already lived a storied life, having immigrated from Belfast, Ireland to Canada in 1956 where he said, life was really, really rough.

“I had no money, I had no car, I had no food,” he said.

Dixie’s Got Talent promotional photo featuring contestant Bill Cunningham, St. George, Utah, circa Dec. 2019 | Photo courtesy of Dixie’s Got Talent, St. George News

After five years of living as a pauper, Cunningham made his way to California where he took on as many jobs as he could. He said he counted about 48 different jobs before he landed in Hollywood as a stuntman and trainer to the stars.

Cunningham said he trained or did stunt work for Hollywood legends such as Steve McQueen, Frankie Avalon, Roger Moore, Rock Hudson, Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, Ricky Nelson, Joey Bishop, Candice Bergen and Nikki Six of Motley Crew.

He was featured on the cover of “Muscle Beach Party” with Annette Funicello and Peter Lupus, among other celebrity appearances and meetings.

Still, bodybuilding is only one aspect of his colorful life. Cunningham is also a singer who has loved to perform since he was a teenager.

An old school crooner in the vein of Frank Sinatra, Cunningham has released a couple of music videos in his golden years and recorded several classic songs from the American Songbook that can be found on his website.

L-R: Bill Cunningham and Regis Philbin on the “Regis Philbin Show,” Hollywood, California, circa 1965 | Photo courtesy of Bill Cunningham, St. George News

Now he is set to showcase his voice and charisma on the Dixie’s Got Talent stage. But there were some road blocks to getting to finals.

Cunningham went through the open audition and was invited for a call back, but when it came time for his second audition, he didn’t show up.

The morning of Cunningham’s call back, his wife fainted due to a medication issue and he had taken her to the hospital. While waiting for the doctor to come in, Cunningham got a call from Dixie’s Got Talent asking him where he was.

“How that played out was they gave him a call and said, you know, ‘where are you,'” Cunningham’s daughter Lorraine Hersh said. “And (my dad) was like ‘I’m so sorry I just can’t make it but I appreciate the opportunity, maybe next year.'”

Hersh said they kind of left it at that and worked toward trying to figure out her mom’s medication. About four days later, Cunningham got the call that he would be able to participate in the finale after all.

“They gave me a second chance at the bloody thing,” Cunningham said in his Irish-tinged accent.

Cunningham said that he feels going into the competition like he is already a winner by virtue of just making it to the finale. He was quick to compliment the talented contestants and looks forward to working with “all those young people,” he said.

“I just look upon it as great fun,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to be part of the show.”

Cunningham will be singing “I’ve Got the World on a String,” famously sung by Frank Sinatra and more recently by Michael Bublé.

Cunningham’s family is no stranger to the Dixie’s Got Talent stage. His granddaughter Gem Hersh, along with her ballroom dance partner Sam Payton, won the finale in the youth division in 2017. Cunningham was in the audience when his granddaughter won and his granddaughter will be there Thursday cheering him on.

From L-R: Bill Cunningham, Annette Funicello and Peter Lupus on the album cover of “Muscle Beach Party,” Los Angeles, California, circa 1964 | Photo courtesy of Bill Cunningham, St. George News

“I’m excited to say that my dad’s in it,” Hersh said.

Dixie’s Got Talent is produced by the Dixie State University Alumni Association and proceeds from the event go toward needs-based scholarships.

This year’s finale will mark the contest’s 10th year, and over the course of the past nine years, the program has raised tens of thousands of dollars for students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college, a previous St. George News story said.

Cunningham said he received his education “on the street,” and is grateful for the life and lessons he had, but he is excited to be able to be part of something that will provide others the opportunity to further their education.

The Dixie’s Got Talent 2020 Finale will take place Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the DSU Cox Performing Arts Center. Tickets start at $12 and vary by seating section. Students and faculty of DSU are eligible for a discount with valid identification.

Event details

  • What: Dixie’s Got Talent 2020 Finale.
  • When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: DSU Cox Performing Arts Center, 385 S. 700 East, St. George.
  • Cost: $12-$22. Tickets vary by seating section.
  • Get tickets: Online or at the DSU box office located in the Cox Auditorium. Box office hours are Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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