June 2005

A favorite program from radio’s golden age was Lum and Abner, originating in 1931 with this opening dialog: (Three telephone rings): “By grannies, Abner, I believe that’s our ring.”… “I doggies Lum, I believe you’re right.”… “I’ll see. Hello, Jot’ Em Down Store, this is Lum and Abner.” Lum’s comment, “I believe that’s our ring,” vividly illustrates the improvements made in phone service since Alexander Graham Bell invented this unique contrivance in March 1876.

In the 1940s, my family’s telephone number was 1417J. Our family physician, Dr. Ray Mettetal, could be reached at 504, the Police Department at 57, and the Fire Department at 576. Even as late as 1953, the two lowest numbers in the city phone directory were 1J (G.D. Hardin) and 1W (G.M. Robertson). Not having rotary dials or push buttons on our phones, we simply placed the receiver to our ear until the operator (always a lady) responded with “number please.” After obtaining our number, she responded with a courteous “thank you,” that being the full extent of our “conversation.”

World War II imposed restrictions on phone usage as noted in a 1944 magazine: “When long distance lines are crowded and the operator asks you to please limit your calls to five minutes, it’s nice to hear you say, ‘I’ll be glad to.’” Phone service in the 1940s and 1950s seems antiquated by today’s standards, but was quite advanced compared to that of prior decades. Initially, telephones were beautiful wall mounted hardwood cabinets, containing a large black metal crank on the right side, and powered by large heavy batteries.


Telephone Operator Provided Valuable Service in the Early Days of Yesteryear

The shortage of cables in many areas required up to as many as nine families to share the same party line. The annoying fact was that all phones on a party line rang simultaneously, no matter who was being called. A combination of long and short rings was used to identify for which family the call was intended. A typical two-part “number” was 2512: circuit 25, one long and two short rings or 2521: circuit 25, two long and one short ring. Anybody on the party line could listen to the conversation of others. People learned to be cautious of the words uttered over the phone, lest the gossip mill start turning. A fundamental rule was to be cognizant of others’ phone needs and limit your call time. Failure to do so usually meant swift payback for the offending party.  

To call someone on another party line, people rang the “central” operator by turning the crank with the receiver still on the hook.” The caller then gave her the number so she could ring the desired circuit. Lady Central kept a list of family names, circuit numbers, and ring sequences within eyesight of her workstation. I suppose this helps explain a Science Hill High School cheer of yesteryear: “Hello central, give us a line. We can beat Kingsport any old time.” Somehow, that doesn’t fit with a cellular phone. (boblcox@bcyesteryear.com).

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Recently, I stopped at a red light in downtown Johnson City at 105 Buffalo Street, opposite the former location of the old city bus terminal. I could almost smell the tantalizing mouth-watering aroma of hot dogs wafting through the air.

Dwarfed between two large buildings (one dated 1888), this diminutive hole-in-the-wall carryout eatery was known as John’s Sandwich Shop, owned and operated by John Buda. He opened it about 1950. Previous occupants at this Buffalo Street address included W. Williams Confectioner (1923), Red “J” Taxi Company (1928), John J. Kalogeros Restaurant (1937), Alexandra Kalogeros Restaurant (1941), Joe Chester Variety Store (1944), and George’s Chili and Sandwich Shop (1948).


John and brothers, Alex and Charles, immigrated to this country from Albania after the turn of the century, each sibling pursing a career in the food services business. I personally knew this family. John and his wife, Ethel, and their two children, George and Ann, lived in the same apartment complex as my family in the 1940s, the elder Budas’ occasionally being my baby-sitters.

Buda offered his customers a variety of sandwiches, but it was his hot dogs that, even today, evoke such pleasant memories by the populace. John targeted those hungry yet busy people who preferred to take their food home or to their work site, as opposed to dining at a sit down café. For this reason, the numerous downtown restaurants offered little competition for the entrepreneur.

I cannot explain why John’s franks were so good; there appeared to be nothing secret about their preparation. Whatever the cooks did to them, it worked. After placing my order at one of the two windows, the attendant immediately plopped a steamed hot dog onto an equally steamed bun, garnished it with chili, mustard, and an abundant of finely ground onions, and topped it off with a heavy dose of salt from an oversized metal saltshaker. Finally, the delicacy was carefully wrapped in thick white paper, placed inside a brown paper bag, and dispensed through the window. The congenial restaurateur always thanked his customers in his heavy Albanian accent.

Area folks marveled how Buda could manage so much business from such a small building. It was not necessary for him to advertise; his scrumptious food effectively promoted itself. It was not unusual for a patron to order a dozen or more hot dogs at a time, perhaps feeding a business office or a family at home.

After more than ten years of continuous operation, John’s business served its last meal and closed its door and two windows, bringing much sadness to Johnson Citians. When John died in 1962, he left a huge void in the hearts and stomachs of his many faithful patrons. Gone, except in our memories, were the culinary delights from John’s Sandwich Shop, a small operation that could proudly boast of producing absolutely the best tasting hot dogs in town.

If you can provide additional information about John’s Sandwich Shop, please drop me a note. 

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Adulthood – That time of our lives when we frequently drift back into our childhood memory banks to withdraw some very pleasant and cherished reminiscences from our youth.

As adults, we have a propensity to emulate Charles Foster Kane, the powerful multimillionaire newspaper owner in the classic 1941 movie, Citizen Kane, who searched until he died for his never-to-be-forgotten prized childhood treasure… something I will only identify as “Rosebud,” so as not to be a spoiler.

Many Johnson Citians can vividly recall the pre-television era when we anxiously tuned in to our wooden or Bakelite table or floor model radios at the prescribed hour to listen to one of our favorite radio shows. A distinctive advantage of this early medium was that people could engage in other activities while simultaneously listening to their radios, absorbing every sound as it mysteriously leaped from the speaker, challenging the mind, and conjuring up idiosyncratic images of the people, places, and events being heard.

Television robbed us of that; requiring us to sit in a semi-darkened room and stare for long periods at a snowy black and white picture tube, often with sound so full of static that it was almost inaudible. TV showed us exactly what it wanted us to see, leaving very little to our imaginations and depriving us of our own self-imposed imagery. Many individuals old enough to remember when a few radio stars switched to television were astonished and perhaps a bit dismayed at seeing people like Ozzie and Harriet on TV, after hearing them on radio for several years. Somehow the Nelson family did not fit the image of our “mind’s eye.”  

Radio’s golden age produced an assortment of grown-up programming: Fibber McGee and Mollie; Lum and Abner; Henry Aldrich; Baby Snooks; Bulldog Drummond; Ma Perkins; The Shadow; Grand Central Station; Gangbusters; The Whistler; Vic and Sade; Jack Armstrong; Easy Aces; Escape; The Mysterious Traveler; and numerous others.

Not to be overlooked, the youngsters of that era had their own special fare, with such delights as Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (“On King, on you huskies”); Captain Midnight (“Capppppp-tain Midddddd-night”); The Lone Ranger (“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi Yo Silver’”); and Tarzan (“From the heart of the jungle comes a savage cry of victory…”). Others included Mark Trail (“Battling the raging elements! Fighting the savage wilderness! Striking at the enemies of man and nature!”); Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (“Stand by to raise ship! Blastoff minus 5-4-3-2-1- ZERO! We take you to the age of the conquest of space…”); and the lovely (so we were told) Princess Pet (with her weekly regulars, Brown Mule and Brown Bear).

Big Jon and Sparkie

Perhaps the most remembered and revered juvenile program of the 1950s was Big Jon and Sparkie. Children within the listening range of radio station WJHL could turn their dials to 910 AM and enjoy this unique series. The popular program would eventually be broadcasted over 275 stations, attracting an impressive twelve million listeners. Big Jon produced two different series each week — a one-hour Saturday morning version at 9:00, known as No School Today and a fifteen-minute weekday afternoon edition at 5:00, identified as The Adventures of Big Jon and Sparkie. The former was a variety program of stories, riddles, jokes, songs, and other related childhood activities. The latter used an entirely different format with a continuous story line, blending thrilling adventures with simple humor. Both efforts were aimed at  “the younger generation and the young at heart.”

Big Jon was the show’s writer and producer, supplying vocalizations for the entire cast including Sparkie, “the little elf from the land of make-believe, who wants more than anything else in the world to be a real boy.” He cleverly and effectively mixed a pinch of bleak reality with a smidgen of wholesome fantasy to the delight of his many young fans. The popular entertainer created Sparkie’s elf-like high-pitched voice by recording his own voice on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and increasing the speed on playback. This process was time-consuming, requiring precise coordinating skills between Arthur and his recorder to give the illusion of the “pair” conversing with one another and with other characters on the program.

The gentle talking Big Jon Arthur (whose real name was Jonathan Goerss) opened the weekend show with… “Hi hey hello again, here we go again. Hi kids. Hey, come in her right now because it’s time for… Biggggg Jonnnnn and Sparrrrrkie ‘cause it’s Saturday and there’s nooooo schoooool todaaaaay.” Bandleader Gil Hooley and His Leprechaun Marching Band next played the show’s familiar theme song, “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”… “If you go down in the woods today; You’re sure of a big surprise; If you go down in the woods today; You’d better go in disguise; For every bear that ever there was; Will gather there for certain because; Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic.”

Throughout its eight-year stint, Arthur paraded a variety of colorful characters across the radio stage including Mayor Plumpfront (city official), Daffodil Dilly (town widow), Ukey Betcha (cab driver), Clyde Pillroller (drugstore owner), and Mr. DaVinci (paint store proprietor). A highlight of each program was the recognition of those youngsters who had a birthday that week. A unique feature of the No School Today series was the weekly competition between the girls and boys. Using his “magic spyglass,” Arthur instructed the children to stand close to their radios so he could score each one as to his/her own personal hygiene and bedroom tidiness. He would then declare the boys or the girls the winner, depending on who had the most points.

The entertainer might say… “Bobby, I can see all those toys you tried to hide under your bed” and “Mary, your room looks especially neat and orderly this morning.” This inspection was so realistic that no self-respectable kid would dare listen to Big Jon and Sparkie if he/she was poorly groomed or had a cluttered room for fear of being “seen” by Big Jon.

The show utilized a sizable record library of stories and songs by such notables as Dennis Day (Jack Benny Program), Morey Amsterdam (Dick Van Dyke Show), Paul Wing (storyteller), Charles Laughton (British actor), Danny Kaye (actor/comedian), and Hugh “Uncle Lumpy” Brannum (Fred Waring Radio Show).

Uncle Lumpy later became the character, Mister Green Jeans (animal lover, farmer, handyman, and inventor), on the popular “Captain Kangaroo” television show. Brannum was also the voice of 46 masterfully done “Little Orley” Decca records, each being a three-minute musical adventure narrative. Orley was probably the most remembered story with subjects ranging from a parade and a cloud to a barn dance and a bull fiddle. Brannum began each record with “Well now, once upon a time…” and ended them with… “That’s all!”

Big Jon and Sparkie was one of the final children’s programs on network radio being, without a doubt, the most beloved. The talented entertainer made a brief comeback in the mid 1970s over Christian Radio before his death in 1982. The hero of millions of youngsters growing up in the 1950s may have faded into obscurity for most area residents, but to one generation of young loyal radio fans, Mr. Jonathan Goerss is firmly imbedded in their memories as a special never-to-be-forgotten … “Rosebud.”   

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