Still The Bird Man

Karla Wall Thursday, March 5, 2020 Comments Off on Still The Bird Man
Still The Bird Man

Bruce Hamilton Brings Pet Playhouse Back For A New Generation Of Kids

Story by Karla Wall • Photos by Jason Carroll, Epic Image

Bruce Hamilton can boast of many accomplishments in his life. He’s been a successful business owner and a much-sought-after motivational speaker. But he’s best known for something else.

“Everywhere I go, I’m still the bird man,” he says.

Bruce Hamilton with Larry Bird, his original Pet Playhouse sidekick
Photos by Jason Carroll, Epic Image

That’s because one of Hamilton’s major accomplishments was hosting Fox 29’s Pet Playhouse, a weekly live audience show that aired from 1989 to 1999 and put kids and their pets center stage. Hamilton would go on stage wearing a bright Hawaiian style shirt and with a cockatiel perched on his shoulder.

And now he’s donning the shirt to entertain a new generation of kids — and their parents and grandparents. 

When I first heard that Hamilton was bringing the show back, some quick online research led me to a short blog on the Gator 95 radio station website breaking the news that re-runs of the original Pet Playhouse had begun airing on the local CBS channel. The blogger described hearing the news that the show was being re-aired: “Trust me when I say this 36-year-old man jumped up and down like it was Christmas!”

Hamilton estimates 25,000 kids were fans of the show. 

It was the love and loyalty of that original fan base, as well as their desire to share the show with their kids, that led Hamilton to bring the show back.

The idea came about, Hamilton says, when he walked into a local store and, of course, saw a friend (you don’t talk to Hamilton for more than a few seconds without realizing that he’s the type of person who runs into friends no matter where he goes — and if he doesn’t, he makes some new ones while he’s there). This particular friend happened to be with the local CBS station. As they talked, the conversation inevitably turned to the show.

“Pretty soon, we were saying, ‘Why don’t we take the idea of re-airing the show for a test drive?’” Hamilton recalls.

The biggest obstacle, of course, was that Pet Playhouse aired in the pre-digital age, meaning all of the old tapes would have to be converted to modern technology.

“We finally found a place in Indiana that would convert it,” Hamilton says, and with the support of Ryan Navarre (Billy Navarre had been the show’s original sponsor, along with McDonald’s and Mr. Gatti’s), re-runs began airing on CBS on Sundays at 7:30 am.

The response was instantaneous — and very enthusiastic.

“As soon as the first episode aired, my phone started ringing,” Hamilton says. “People wanted to know where they could get the videos of the old shows.”

More than that, they wanted the experience of being in that audience again, this time with their kids and grandkids.

“I said, ‘Let’s see where this could go,’” Hamilton says.

A Can-Do Attitude

That attitude has been the driving force behind Hamilton’s professional career.

In 1978, as he was getting close to wrapping up his degree in marketing at McNeese, he was looking for a job and happened to wander into Birds Pets N Things, a local pet store owned by Rick and Barbara Bird. He mentioned he was looking for a job, and they told him they were looking for someone to head up their fish department. Bruce accepted the job — then hustled to the nearest bookstore to buy a book on fish, as he “knew absolutely nothing about them.” His on-the-job training and his reading paid off. He not only successfully headed up the fish dept., but ended up buying the business.

As the business grew, Hamilton began to do shows for local school classes and civic groups. “I did shows in every school in Calcasieu and Beauregard Parishes,” he says. He also did pet therapy work in area nursing homes and hospitals, using his birds and animals to entertain, educate and comfort.

It was as he was doing some of those very early pet visits that he was approached with the idea of doing a live TV show. 

“The Fox station manager asked me, ‘Can you stand up and talk for 30 minutes?’ I said, ‘Try and stop me,’” says Hamilton, who with the encouragement of his high school speech teacher developed, not only a knack for, but a love of, speaking to audiences. And Pet Playhouse was born, with the help of original sponsors Billy Navarre Chevrolet, McDonald’s and Mr. Gatti’s.

Kids And Animals

Hamilton says his favorite part of doing the show was interacting with the kids. 

“Kids will say amazing things,” he says. “You never know what they’re going to do. They say on live TV there are two things you never want to work with … animals and kids. I got both.”

Hamilton says the kids in his audiences continually amazed him. “I was always surprised at how brilliantly they trained their animals, and what they were able to do with them,” he says.

And there was a wide variety of animals. “I’ve held snakes and hedgehogs, and fed cockatoos,” Hamilton says.

But it was always the interaction between Hamilton and the kids that was the focus of the show.

“It’s always been about the kids,” he says. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to show off the pets that they were so proud of.”

In fact, so dedicated is Hamilton to those kids that he once did a show in which he used sign language as he was hosting the show.

A man whose daughter was hearing impaired and used sign language approached Hamilton and asked about the possibility of Hamilton using sign language in a future show. In typical fashion, Hamilton didn’t just hire a sign language specialist to translate. He took classes in sign language, eventually growing proficient enough in it to teach it. End result: He spent one of his live TV shows signing while talking to the kids, something he says was one of the most difficult things he ever had to do on the show.

“After the show, I went to the back and threw up,” he quips.

Hamilton says his goal for the show was to educate kids about pets and instill a love and respect for animals. 

“We had a Madagascar lovebird on the show,” Hamilton says. “I would put the bird in a tree on the set to show how camouflage worked and explain why the bird was green,” he says. “We’d talk about how a reptile senses and feels vibrations.”

And he didn’t ignore the parents in the audience. “I’d quote Monty Python for the parents,” he recalls. “The kids, of course, didn’t understand it, but the parents loved it. And it sounded funny enough that the kids enjoyed it anyway.”

The show became so popular that it was eventually syndicated. “It ran in 107 stations across the U.S.,” says Hamilton. In fact, he says, in Laredo, Texas, the show reached No. 1 among the 18 to 49 demographic.

No Bad Days

Hamilton’s not only a natural public speaker, but is also a determinedly positive person, so it was perhaps inevitable that he become a motivational speaker. He’s been presenting his No Bad Days program, geared to motivate people to look at “what is going right, not what is going wrong; what you can do, not what you can’t do,” since the early 1990s. He’s addressed groups all over the U.S. as well as in Canada and Mexico.

And the program’s message isn’t just something Hamilton says. It’s how he lives. It’s how he overcame the odds to create a hugely popular television show with nothing more than kids and their pets. It’s how he built the success of his No Bad Days program. 

And it’s how he overcame the odds yet again and fought his way back to health after a severe stroke in 2002. He was coming home from a speaking engagement in Arkansas and stopped in Dallas for the night. He suffered a stroke and was left lying on the floor of his hotel room for 13 hours waiting for help to arrive. He says he could hear and think, but couldn’t move, and he was totally blind. 

After 21 days in the hospital, he recovered to the point that there were no visible signs of the event. He says his vision is still impaired, but there are no other outward signs of the stroke. And, he says, when he was released from the hospital, the doctor told him that his recovery was due to his attitude. 

“No Bad Days is who I am,” he says. “It all comes from my heart. It’s what I believe.”

Hamilton’s also written two books in which he describes his philosophy and shares his story — No Bad Days and No Bad Days: The 90/20 Rule. 

The New Show

Hamilton says the new show will air on Saturdays at 9 am and will be much like the original shows.

“I wanted the new show to be a lot of what the old show was,” he says. But he does have some new plans for it.

“I’d like to do a one-hour special,” he says. “I’d also like to coordinate with area animal rescue organizations and have a show featuring adoptable dogs and cats. 

But, basically, it will be the Pet Playhouse so many grew up watching — and one they can share with their own children.

As full as Hamilton’s plate is, he doesn’t see himself slowing down at all. 

And he plans to continue hosting Pet Playhouse and giving his No Bad Days presentations until he’s “75 or hopefully 80 years old.”

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