January 2006

“This is WBTV, Charlotte, North Carolina, signing on Channel 3 television from Charlotte, the Queen City of the South.”

With these concise words, the era of television was ushered into the East Tennessee area at 12:00 noon on Friday, July 15, 1949, from the CBS affiliate’s transmitter located nearly 200 miles away. Television sets were essentially nonexistent prior to then, attributable to lack of programming. Most area homes did not begin purchasing the new contrivance until after 1951.

WBTV became very prominent; it was reported that any television receiver capable of obtaining its signal became “rusted on Channel 3.” The Bill Wise family became the first in our Johnson Avenue block to purchase a TV; these amicable folks were eager to share the new media with their inquisitive neighbors. Several of us routinely crowded into their small darkened living room to watch a fuzzy intermittent black and white television picture with equally poor sound quality.

Clear reception required a sprawling antenna on the roof perfectly positioned to receive the signal. Someone would routinely climb a ladder to the top of the house to rotate the receiver, while another person shouted instructions from below. A typical conversation might be: “Turn it a little more, a little more, a little more, hold it. That’s good right there.”

Prior to the station’s signing on the air, they beamed a continuous visual “test pattern” accompanied by a steady monotonous hum. This image employed a series of lines and circles, resembling bulls’-eyes, to provide viewers a means for adjusting their picture quality. Numerous patterns were used over time but the one most remembered by area folks contained the image of an Indian chief ornamented in full headgear.

About three minutes prior to the commencement of the day’s late afternoon programming, the station would broadcast an American flag waving in the breeze with the National Anthem playing in the background. Surprisingly, the first network broadcast beamed from WBTV was a football game between Notre Dame and North Carolina in September 1950. 

My parents bought our first set, a 17″ RCA black and white floor model, in 1952. Like most new innovative devices, they were initially a bit pricey. A July 1953 Johnson City Press Chronicle advertisement showed a 17″ Crosley TV selling for $199.95; a 21″ model sold for $259.95. Until the new medium was fully accepted by the public, downtown merchants often placed TV sets in their store windows as an allurement to passersby.

I can still conjure up vivid images of Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks; Fred Kirby, the Carolina Cowboy; and Clyde “Cloudy” McLean, the Carolina’s first TV weatherman. Arthur Smith and his gang came on each weekday evening at eight-thirty, sponsored by Tube Rose Snuff (“If your snuff’s too strong, it's wrong”). Arthur, a fantastic guitar picker, teamed up with Don Reno, an equally talented banjo player, to entertain with country, bluegrass and gospel music over the air.

The half-hour variety show concluded with a hymn by the “Crossroads Quartet,” consisting of Arthur; his brother, Ralph; Tommy Faile  (of “The Brown Mountain Lights” fame); and Lois Atkins.

In a future column, I will describe an anemic WBTV program guide from 1953, the same year local TV station WJHL signed on the air.  

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A favorite prank of youngsters of the early 1950s was to call someone on the telephone and ask for Arthur. Ignoring their confused response, the caller would say, “When Arthur Itus (arthritis) comes in, tell him that Hattie call(ed) (Hadacol).”

This often repeated gag referred to a popular foul tasting brown-colored “tonic,” marketed under the name Hadacol and available in stores from the 1940s to the mid 1950s. I remember lying on the floor of our apartment living room listening to my favorite radio programs and routinely hearing a Hadacol commercial. I had no clue as to its significance.

This trendy “medicinal” product was marketed in a thin black eight-ounce bottle with a red and yellow label, being advertised as a dietary supplement and selling for about a dollar a bottle. The label displayed five vitamins and four minerals, blended in a mixture of honey     and … 12% alcohol, the latter being added “as a preservative.” The minimum recommended daily dosage was four tablespoons. My mom obviously understood the factual value of the product. While Castor Oil graced my lips many times during my youth, not one bottle of Hadacol ever made its way there.

The founder of this popular concoction was Dudley J. LeBlanc, a colorful Louisiana Senator and businessman. He made millions selling his “cure-all elixir to the masses.” Legend has it that when asked why he called it Hadacol, LeBlanc responded, “Well, I hadda call it something.”

Whatever ailments people had, Hadacol was presumed to cure it: high blood pressure, ulcers, strokes, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, pneumonia, anemia, cancer, epilepsy, gall stones, heart trouble and hay fever … to name a few. The company began paying people for testimonials that showed health benefits resulting from use of the product, some responses boarding on the ridiculous.

Many users were quite serious about what they were saying; others made exaggerated claims in hopes of being compensated. Such corny solicitations amused the masses, making Hadacol commercials quite popular. People began fabricating their own humorous testimonials and sharing with one another: “I used to suffer terribly from irregularity. After just two bottles of Hadacol, I now make frequent trips down that narrow path to the outhouse, even when I don’t need to do so.”

Many patrons overlooked the high alcoholic content of the product in hopes of receiving happiness in a bottle, receiving instead, a pricey placebic hoax. Northerners would call attention to the fact that people making these bizarre allegations were typically from south of the Mason and Dixon Line.

The enterprising Leblanc later formed his “Hadacol Caravan” and traveled across the south, delivering “medicine show” type entertainment and selling an abundance of Hadacol. His “caravan” included such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Dorothy Lamour, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Cagney, Harry Houdini and Carmen Miranda.

In 1949, Hadacol ironically sponsored radio’s “The Health and Happiness Show,” starring the legendary Hank Williams, Sr. The medicine shows of yesteryear have long passed from the scene, mainly due to today’s watchdog efforts of the Food and Drug Agency’s “Truth in Advertising.”

The childish telephone pranks of a half-century ago are no longer in vogue with today’s youngsters. Arthur Itus is still alive and well, but Hattie doesn’t call him anymore.  

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In 1923, Johnson City had but three commercial cleaners: Johnson City Steam Laundry (112-118 W. Market), French Dry Cleaners (N. Roan at Commerce) and Arlington Pressing Parlor (115 W. Main).

The latter boasted of “Cleaning, Pressing, Dyeing and Repairing – Ladies’ Work a Specialty.” By 1953, the Arlington was all washed up, but joining the ranks of the other two were eight new competitors: Acme Dry Cleaners (202 N. Roan), Allen Cleaners (704 Buffalo), Collie Dry Cleaners (306 Oak), Deluxe Cleaners (908 W. Market), Peoples Dry Cleaners (518 W. Market), Service Dry Cleaners (431 W. Pine), Varsity Cleaners (413 W. Walnut) and White City Laundry (221-227 W. Main).

What caused this sizable increase in cleaners over that 30-year period? The population certainly didn’t grow that much. The answer lies in the hardships people had to endure to routinely wash their garments. Home laundering was no simple task in an era of large families devoid of modern plumbing. I routinely hear stories from my family members, who once lived in an old two-story log house in the 1920s on Roscoe Fitz Road in Gray.

While Monday is generally regarded as being washday, our family extended it over two days. With twelve kids living at home, they washed white clothes on Monday and colored garments on Tuesday, which included several pairs of boy’s blue jeans. Before they could perform their wash chores, they had to make several trips to fetch water from their cistern or from a nearby creek.

While the youngsters were acquiring water, mama was busy building a fire in the fireplace to heat the water. Bed sheets were boiled in a big iron pot to keep them white. The clothes were then washed, scrubbed on a washboard, squeezed dry, rinsed in fresh water, squeezed again and placed on a long outdoor clothes line to dry. Finally, they were taken down, ironed and put into use.

While dry cleaning dates back to about 1840, it was not until the first half of the twentieth century that the commercial laundry industry seized an economic opportunity to lift some of these washday burdens, at least for urban folks. This new enterprise eventually provided for home laundry pickups and deliveries for millions of households, requiring large fleets of trucks for business owners. This was a tremendous benefit for people with limited transportation.

I vividly remember Mr. Horace Jones, a driver for Johnson City Steam Laundry, routinely picking up and dropping off laundry at our apartment in the late 1940s. Over time, he essentially became a part of our family.

For budget minded patrons, these dry cleaners offered three cleaning options: Option 1 called for bringing back clean but wet clothes in a rubber bag. Option 2 gave customer completely dry clothes. Option 3 provided full service, which included ironing and folding the laundry. Mom normally chose option 2. The dry cleaning industry began to decline substantially in the mid 1950s with the introduction of automatic washers and dryers into people’s homes and the arrival of wash friendly clothing such as “wash-n-wear.”

Today, self-service washaterias and drive-by cleaners have become the norm. The once ever-present nostalgic little dry cleaning truck is now nothing but a vanishing memory from yesteryear. 

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