August 2006

 A familiar scene from The Wizard of Oz depicts Dorothy and her three curious cohorts being escorted in a carriage pulled by a “horse of a different color,” the stately critter changing coloring with each view. From my five years at Henry Johnson School during the early 1950s, I recall another unusual steed that “galloped” through school bookstores all across this country.

The animal was the famous Blue Horse trademark of Atlanta’s Montag Brothers' Paper Company, a 40-year enterprise established soon after the Great Depression. The corporation quickly found its niche with the younger crowd by launching a clever awards marketing promotion to boost sluggish sales.

Our Market Street school sold the Blue Horse product line and other supplies in a small store adjacent to the principal’s office near the front door. A table was positioned across the supply room door where a school employee manned the store each morning before classes began. This allowed the attendant to dispense supplies through the door without allowing student access into the room.

I was familiar with the Blue Horse notebook loose-leaf filler packs from my previous year’s attendance in the first grade at West Side School. The paper sold for a nickel a pack and contained about 25 5-hole punched sheets, allowing it to be conveniently placed in either 2 or 3 ringed binders. Each pack was enclosed in a small wrapper with the familiar Blue Horse head icon in the middle. These trademarks were then clipped, saved and later redeemed for prizes.

Literally millions of Blue Horse heads were exchanged for cash and prizes, making Montag one of the largest paper companies in the industry by 1950. An old Montage Brothers’ wrapper from the spring of 1953 shows, “50,000 Prizes For All You Lucky Boys And Girls.” Products costing 5 cents counted as one trademark, while 10-cent items yielded two. Participants were instructed to fasten the clippings in bundles of 50 or 100 before mailing them.

Students sending in 20 Blue Horse heads received a souvenir beanie cap containing the company logo; all other prizes required a minimum of 30 heads. Youngsters did not actually choose prizes; the number of heads mailed to the company determined the relative value of the reward. Contest rules required that labels be submitted by June 15 each year, making it easier for the corporation to tabulate results, award prizes and formulate plans for the next year’s campaign.

The top prize was a Horse Head brand bicycle given to the 425 students sending in the most emblems. In addition, there were 375 table model radios, 550 footballs, 550 zipper notebook cases, 1250 surprise awards, 20,000 bonus prizes and 26,850 other prizes – totaling 50,000.

A significant advantage to this unique sales promotion was that students and schools were concurrently rewarded. Cash was offered to the 167 schools whose students sent in the most trademarks. Prize money included $100 for first, $50 for second, $40 for third, $25 for fourth, and $5 for fifth. The total money dispersed nationwide by the company was $2025.

About 1970, the Montag Brothers’ once-famed azure four-legged creature was escorted on a one-way trip to a glue factory. Today, the only trace of the hoofed animal is a large Atlanta building still referred to as … The Blue Horse.   

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In 1884, there could be no mistake as to the identity of the business on the second floor at the southwest corner of Main and Spring streets.

“Jobe’s Opera House” appeared in large letters across the upper north side of the edifice, denoting Johnson City’s first public entertainment venue. Ike T. Jobe built and managed the upstairs establishment; M.E. Gump was assistant manager, being the owner of Gump Clothing Store located below it.

The successful enterprise was proclaimed by a travel agent of McElreth’s Dramatic Troop to be the “largest and best hall between Lynchburg, Virginia and Knoxville, Tennessee.” A flyer from 1888 proclaimed: “full sets scenery,” “first-class show town,” “play companies only on shares,” with an added suggestion for patrons to “Stop at Piedmont House.”

The enterprise offered cultural refinement from a variety of choices – operas, plays, lectures, humorists and music productions. Entrance to the theatre was gained by climbing doublewide stairs through two doors into the massive 900-seat auditorium. The lecture hall’s use included sporting activities and even once served as a courtroom for chancery court sessions. In its formative years, the facility was used by such notables as Johnson City’s Bob Taylor, delivering lectures as part of his highly popular “The Fiddle & the Bow” series.

According to the late Dorothy Hamill, the opera house occasionally opened its doors for high school graduations. Graduating seniors, dressed in long white frocks or black suits, marched from the Hill on Roan Street to the auditorium where they received their long awaited diplomas.

Over time, numerous first-rate productions graced the opera stage, as often reported by The Comet: “Jesse James,” 1885, a production denoting the life of the infamous outlaw, “complete in every detail.”

“Olde Folkes Concerte,” 1906,” by Mrs. L.W. McCown, with humorous dialog – “ye young men and maidens will be suffered to sit together in ye congregations, but worldie young men and women are desired not to hold conversations to ye distraction of others while ye tunes are being sung. … All ye congregation who have goode lungs may stand and singe ye last songs.”

Bertram & Willard’s Realistic American Comedy Drama, “The Midnight Fire,” 1900, an ironic title for a fundraiser aimed at helping the Johnson City Fire Department acquire new uniforms. …

Mary Prescott in “Ingomar” (1887), Louise Balfe in “Dogmar” and The Meyer Thorne Company’s presentations of “A Woman’s Divotions,” “Stricken Blind” and “Rip Van Winkle,” …

The Haworth’s Specialty Comedy Company; Bristol Colored Jubilee Company; Ralph Bingham, boy orator, humorist, and violinist; and Professor A.H. Merrill of Vanderbilt University.

The latter’s appearance was sponsored by the Longfellow Literary Circle and S.B. McElreth, a Johnson City comedian. This society was organized at the residence of Sallie Faw. Cargilles frequently sponsored such events, declaring to be “the cheapest store in existence” and claiming to “outsell every other concern in the trade.” Around the turn of the century, the opera management pioneered some brief action packed silent motion pictures using a new invention – a hand-operated projectoscope.

The new medium of motion pictures was looming on the horizon and, by about 1907, would bring to an abrupt halt the once impressive Jobe’s Opera House. 

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Youngsters who find an old record player at an antique store, auction or flea market may be puzzled to discover four turntable speeds: 16, 33.3, 45 and 78 revolutions per minute (rpm).

Older folks will recall the awful day their favorite 78-rpm record was broken. My much-played non-replaceable disc, a long forgotten cowboy singer on the Coral label, met its demise when a neighborhood friend accidentally sat on it. I was so distraught I couldn’t sleep that night, realizing that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” could not put that delicate 10-inch record together again. I was devastated.

These old records were made of shellac, a natural resin secreted by the lac insect and had the consistency of a fragile china plate – thick, heavy and highly breakable. They cracked and chipped easily. Most folks continued playing a favorite damaged record, even with its annoying pop that occurred with each revolution. Some records were played so frequently that the center hole became enlarged, causing the record to rotate on the turntable in a distorted jerky motion.

Record needles, resembling slightly refined nails, usually sold 25 to a pack for a quarter. Manufacturers suggested replacing them after about 12 plays, warning consumers that failure to do so could result in damage to their prized discs. I ignored such admonitions, opting instead to plop one in only when I detected a drop in audio quality.  

Many of the old record players had “changers” on them, allowing a stack of records to play automatically. A two-record set would have sides 1 and 4 located on the first record and 2 and 3 on the second. Side 1 would be placed on the changer spindle first, facing upward. In like fashion, side 2 would be placed on top of the first record. The unit’s stabilizing arm would then be placed over the top record. Once both records played, the listener would remove them from the changer, flip the stack over and place them back on the spindle, allowing sides 3 and 4 to play.

Radio disc jockeys “cued” a record for instant play by placing it on the turntable, rotating it by hand until sound was detected at the needle and reversing it about a quarter turn.

As record formats changed, their producers began issuing records utilizing both formats. There was a time when 78s and 45s were manufactured for the same recording and artist; the same was true for 45s and multi-selection 33.3s. Unfortunately, a few 78s ended up in carnival sideshows, where people threw balls at them to win prizes. Fortunately, many records survived by being stored in attics, basements, garages and closets.

Old records became good sources of history. Vernon Dalhart, in the early part of this century, regularly recorded tragedy songs ranging from the Titanic sinking in 1912 to Floyd Collins’ untimely death in a Kentucky coal mine in 1925. A visit to an antique store often reveals these nearly extinct tube model record players sitting idly in a corner, not having been played for decades, missing a needle, often without power and seemingly begging to perform again.

Sadly, these dusty relics of yesteryear have had their day in the big spotlight of progress. Except for a few avid collectors, their time has come and gone.  

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