On Dec. 25, 1951, Bob Thomas, writer for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle posted an article in the paper titled, “Christmas Brings Film Rundown.” “Another year in Hollywood is drawing to a close,” he noted, “so it's time for me to sit down at my desk and pick the highs and lows of the year.” He went on to list his choices:

comic, zany actor and writer, best known for pioneering the 1950s live television series, “Your Show of Shows,” a 90-minute weekly production watched each week by 60 million people).

Best new television star: Red Skelton (American entertainer, movie actor, best identified for his national radio and television acts between 1937 and 1971 and as host of the syndicated television program, “The Red Skelton Show.”

Brightest new box office stars: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, known as “Martin and Lewis.” Also identified was Mario Lanza (American tenor, actor and Hollywood film star).

Biggest industry news: Louis B. Mayer's exit from MGM.

Almost the biggest industry news: Warner Brothers' offer to sell their interest, which was later retracted.

Movie stars who passed away that year were Robert Walker (American actor), Fannie Brice (American illustrated song model, comedian, singer and theater and film actress, known as the star of the top-rated radio comedy series, “The Baby Snooks Show”), Maria Montez (a Dominican motion picture actress who gained fame and popularity in the 1940s) and Leon Errol (Australian-born American comedian, and performer, who appeared in vaudeville, on Broadway and in films).

Biggest blow to the bobby sox set: Elizabeth Taylor's divorce.

Biggest blow to the dowager set: Clark Gable's divorce.

Freak news event of the year: A Vancouver hotel refused to room crooner, Bing Crosby, because he looked like a bum.

Most recurring news item: Hedy Lamarr's recurrent announcement that she'll retire.

“When I Grow Up” Was Playing at the Sevier Theatre in 1951

Most notable return to Hollywood after a lapse of several years: Rita Hayworth.

Worst public relations actor: singer Frank Sinatra (Ol' Blue Eyes).

Best musical film: “American in Paris” (a jazz-influenced symphonic film by the American composer, George Gershwin).

Best drama: “A Place in the Sun.” (starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters).

Father of the year: James Stewart (American film and stage actor, known for his distinctive drawl and down-to-earth persona) after becoming the father of twins.

Best male performances: Humphrey Bogart, “African Queen”; Marlon Brando, “Streetcar Named Desire”; Gene Kelly, “American in Paris”; Fredric March, “Death of a Salesman”; and Gregory Peck, “David and Bathsheba.”

Best female performances: Bette Davis, “Payment on Demand”; Katherine Hepburn, “African Queen”; Vivien Leigh, “Streetcar Named Desire”; Shelley Winters, “A Place in the Sun”; and Jane Wyman, “The Blue Veil.”

Most promising newcomers: Debbie Reynolds, Mitzi Gaynor, Dale Robertson, and Aldo Ray.

Yawn of the year: Shelley Winters' “Romance.”

Best low-budget picture: “The Well,” (nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing.)

And finally … Runner-up news: Arrest of actor Charles Coburn (an American film and theatre actor, best known for his work in comedies). Also incarcerated were his poker pals.

That's all folks!

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In the fall of 1900, a local newspaper noted that in some countries, a few girls were born to wear crowns, but in America all of them were born queens, but only a relatively few were selected to wear crowns. Johnson City had her quota of uncrowned queens and was called upon to select one to wear the ornamental head covering during the Carnival that had come to town. 

One young lady, Miss Gordon Henderson, was awarded the honor. The selection was of no surprise because she was one of Johnson City's most endearing and popular society young ladies and one of the prettiest girls in the state. Her being chosen reflected much credibility upon the city.

Miss Henderson then selected, as maids of honor, the following young ladies: Misses Eva Carr, Willie Cox, Sanna Biddle, Fannie Bolton, Lizzie Carr, Mae Jones and Nell Rains. These girls were popular among their peers and it was stated that the South could not produce seven more beautiful young ladies than those chosen. Their corresponding outriders were young society men: Messrs Will Johnson, Frank Miller, Andy Spencer, Will Harris, Bob Martin, Horace Miller, Sam Millard and James Summers.

Johnson City's distinguished townsman, the Honorable Alf A. Taylor, was unanimously chosen and consented to crown the Queen. The event took place in Johnson City's Public Square (renamed Fountain Square after a water fountain was installed there) at noon on Tuesday before the parade formed. On Tuesday night, there was a Carnival fancy dress masquerade ball in Jobe's Opera House on Spring Street. Admission was 50 cents and parties desiring to dance had to obtain special tickets to be admitted to the floor. All dancers were masked and no one was admitted without an identification card.

The Greeneville, Tennessee Band was contacted to furnish music for the Fair and readily accepted the request. It was described as being one of the best bands in the state, being comprised of 20 talented musicians. The band also had a superb orchestra, which furnished music for the ball.

With all the positive aspects of the event, one critic, known only as “Spinster” sent a note to the newspaper's editorial page inquiring how the Carnival queen was chosen:

“Please state in this week's paper, for the benefit of an inquiring public, how the queen of Johnson City's Carnival is chosen? If this power is vested in a committee, please publish names of members of this committee. If this is Johnson City's Carnival, should not Johnson City be interested in the choosing of her Queen.”

The newspaper responded without delay: “In reply to Spinster, we want to say that the Queen of the Carnival has been selected by a committee of young men who are to serve as outriders, or escorts, and who are to pay for the float and the decorations. The selection was made in this identical manner the prior year (the subject of a previous column) and it gave general satisfaction to all, and there seemed to be no good reason for not following that precedent this year.

“No other mode for choosing the Queen was suggested by anyone, regardless of how much interest they may have had in the event. Any suggestions would have been gladly received and carefully considered. The manner of selecting the Queen for similar occasions differ in all cities, and there is no custom to follow.

“It seemed to be absolutely fair to allow the young men who were to 'pay the fiddler' to select someone acceptable to themselves, and this has been done. The Queen and escorts have, in a like manner, selected seven maids of honor. We can assure Spinster that it has been the desire of the management of the Carnival, if such a thing exists, to please all and offend none.

“It is not Johnson City's Carnival in the sense that Johnson City pays for it, for there is no fund provided for this purpose. Each merchant or individual pays for his float or decorated vehicle in the parade and the Queen's float is provided by her escorts.”

The paper concluded with these brief words: “The newspaper is pleased to know there is so much interest in the matter and trusts the selections will be as satisfactory as they are well chosen.” 

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Today's column photo shows a WJHL advertisement for April 2, 1956. Several shows were favorites of mine. I am highlighting five of them for your enjoyment.


Mountain Music Makers

In 1953, Bonnie Lou and Buster, whose real names were Margaret Bell and Herbert Moore, came to Johnson’s City’s WJHL television with a three-day-a-week early evening music show that combined country, gospel, bluegrass and comedy into their act, along with some fine banjo work from Chuck (Henderson), the Carolina Indian. Buster performed a comedy routine during each program by donning a clown outfit and portraying a character known as “Humphammer.” The couple moved to Pigeon Forge in 1972 and opened their own show, the “Smoky Mountain Hayride,” at the Coliseum. I attended one of their shows.

The Life of Riley

The Cast of Life of Riley Carry On a Discussion in the KItchen

Oct. 4, 1949 to Aug. 22, 1958: Chester A. Riley (William Bendix), the lovable blunderer, was always getting into trouble at work and at home, but always sported a soft heart. Riley was married to Peg (Marjorie Reynolds); they had two children: Junior (Wesley Morgan) and Babs (Lugene Sanders). The series was played by Jackie Gleason for a year and a half years due to Bendix's movie contract commitments. The actor is best remembered for his oft-repeated line, “What a revoltin' development this is!” John Brown played the role of the sarcastic undertaker, “Digger O'Dell,” who showed up frequently at the Riley home. When he got ready to “depart”, he would declare, “Guess I'd better be shoveling off.” The cast began to dwindle after Babs got married in real life and Junior enrolled in college.


Oct. 9, 1953 to Oct 14, 1956: Topper (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife, Henrietta (Lee Patrick) was a situation comedy about three ghosts: Marion Kirby (Anne Jeffreys), her husband, George (Robert Sterling) and their favorite canine (Neil). After George, Marion and Neil were killed in Europe by an avalanche during a skiing expedition, they returned to America to haunt the Toppers who resided in their former home. Finding Mr. Topper extremely monotonous, the invisible ghoulish trio vowed to help him overcome his bland personality. Although only Cosmos became aware of their presence, the show was packed with floating objects. Even though the series ran only two years on CBS, its reruns resurfaced on ABC and NBC for another year.

I Married Joan

Oct. 15, 1952 to Apr. 6, 1955: Zany Joan Stevens (Joan Davis) was married to a domestic court judge, Bradley Stevens (Jim Backus). Backus is fondly remembered as the voice of the Mister Magoo cartoon character. Bradley counseled individuals who came to him with marital problems. His “ace in the hole,” was that he learned about marriage problems by dealing with his wife on a day-to-day basis. The Judge would relate stories to his patients. Just as this occurred, the television cameras would fade back to the Steven's home for a glimpse of a situation enactment between the judge and Joan. River's daughter, played the role of a college student. 

My Friend Irma

Jan. 8, 1952 to Jun. 25, 1954: This situation comedy starring Marie Wilson, who assumed the role of Irma Peterson and who became known as Hollywood's favorite dumb blond. Her role called for being friendly, enthusiastic, attractive and very wacky, with little sense of logic. Irma roomed with another lady, Jane Stacy (Kathy Lewis) who was everything that Irma was not: levelheaded, smart, logical and patient. Irma's boyfriend, Al (Sid Tomack) was an impoverished con artist. Jane's favorite fellow was Richard Rhinelander (Brooks West), her millionaire boss. The last season lead to numerous personnel changes that eventually lead to its demise.

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Occasionally, I delve back into my childhood to revisit cherished memories of yesteryear. My favorite radio show of the early-to-mid 1950s was, without question, “Big Jon & Sparkie.” The program ran from 1948 until 1958.

Big Jon and Sparkie Who Shared the Same Voice Over Radio

I faithfully listened to it over WJHL on my bakelite radio every weekday afternoon at five p.m. (one hour at the beginning of the series, later reduced to 15 minutes)  and every Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. for their “No School Today” (“Noooo Schooool Todaaaay”) program (initially two hours, eventually 60 minutes).

Two other late afternoon broadcasts that the youngsters of my generation enjoyed were ” Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” who kept the universe safe from space pirates  and “Mark Trail,” an outdoorsman, conservationist who courageously fought the enemies of man and nature. 

Big Jon was Jon Arthur (real name Jonathan Goerss) and Sparkie, “the little elf from the land of make-believe who wants more than anything else in the world to be a real boy.” Sparkie's voice was actually that of his creator that had been speeded up electronically, something a bit unique in those days. Dave Seville later did the same thing with his “Alvin and the Chipmunks” recording in 1958.

The radio show's theme song, “The Teddy Bear's Picnic,” was an organ instrumental. Initially, Big Jon had more airtime than anyone on radio. I never missed a daily episode. One story line that sticks in my memory was a boat journey from Africa back home to Cincinnati.

Of all the stories featured on the Saturday morning version of the show, my favorites were the “Little Orley” episodes. The creator and writer of them was former Marine, Hugh “Uncle Lumpy” Brannum. He later became Mister Green Jeans on television's “Captain Kangaroo,” playing the role of farmer, handyman and inventor. Each creative recording was about four minutes in length. Brannum always ended his “Little Orley” adventures with the catch phrase, “that's all.”

Around 1955, I located a Decca 78-rpm “non-breakable” record containing two “Little Orley” stories: “Little Orley and the Parade” and “Little Orley and the Cloud.” As I played them, I quickly remembered both selections.

In the spring of 1999, I came across an advertisement for the entire set of stories on several CDs. I ordered eight stories and found them to be as entertaining as they had been in 1955.

The adventures were the creation of noted bandleader, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, who hired Brannum to write and record the stories. The recordings were intended to be a part of a radio show but television was advancing rapidly on the entertainment field, pushing radio to the sidelines. Although the radio program was cancelled, the shows managed to become a part of Big Jon and Sparkie's Saturday morning programs.

My research reveals that there were a total of 45 stories in the series such as Little Orley and the… Parade, Cloud, Leprechaun, Barn Dance, Glee Club, Engine, Pancake, Snowstorm, Bull Fiddle, Cricket, Bug Band, Bookworm, Sunday School Picnic, Stranger, Love Bug and Helpful Snowman.

After almost 50 years, I found myself quoting the words, line by line, of “Little Orley and the Parade”… “Well now, once upon a time, Orley's pa said, 'hey, there's a big parade in town today. They do say as how it's gonna be quite a show, so Orley put your shoes on, come on, let's go.' Then he hitched up the team and said 'Geteup, boy' And they drove down the road while Orley jumped for joy.” I could go on, but I won't.

Little Orley must have been a country boy because he rode a team of horses to the parade. Maybe that is why I liked him so much. I conclude by taking a cue from Uncle Lumply… “That's all.”

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In the past, I wrote about several carnivals and circuses that came to Northeast Tennessee. They included the Mighty Haag Railroad Shows, Gentry Brothers, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, The Great New York and New Orleans Zoological and Equestrian Exposition, John Robinson's Circus and J.J. Page Carnival. The latter wintered in Johnson City along Love Street.

Today, I am adding another one to the list – the Rubin & Cherry Shows, known as “The Barnum & Bailey of All Carnival Shows,” came to the city on April 29, 1917.

Rubin and Cherrry Shows Advertisement from 1917

This was described as the biggest, best and most up-to-date show of its kind on the road that year. There were 18 paid attractions, 50 concession stands, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, merry widow swings and the exciting $40,000 “Whip the Whip,” referred to as the “joy ride supreme.”

The amusement company traveled on its own special train of 15-foot cars. Locals were strongly urged to meet and greet the show train as it arrived in town. It offered a grand free band concert two hours after arrival that featured 400 show musicians. A plea was made in the local newspaper for residents who had unfurnished rooms available to let them know.

There was every kind of entertainment act imaginable, from trained fleas, a plantation show, the “wild west” and numerous amusements for young and old.

Cowboys, cowgirls, Costello Post's Drum and Fife Corps, Rubin & Cherry bands, eight floats and numerous other features occupied the procession.

The ad spoke of a monopoly of the world's greatest attractions: Through the Trenches, Monkey Speedway, Underground Chinatown, Broadway Cabaret, Motordrame, Prince William, The Spider Girl, Musical Review, One Ring Circus, Joyland Fun Factory, Dixieland Minstrels, Crystal Haze, Hawaiian Village and European Flea Circus.

The superior excellence of the organization over smaller carnival shows of that era was too well-known around Johnson City to give it much competition. Suffice it to say, there was a large and well-pleased crowd each day on the big lot. Mr. Sam Arh, the advance agent of Rubin & Cherry Shows had been affiliated with the famous Robines Shows and the K.G. Barkoot Shows.

My source offered another unusual aspect of the carnival that year. At a special called meeting, city council “suspended 'verboten' (forbidden, prohibitive, banned) and granted permission to the Reuben and Cherry shows to exhibit within the corporation limits at the price of a $250 license to be collected by the city recorder.” No mention was made as to the specific showground site, but it was understood that the carnival would be seen the following week on one of the lots in the Southwest Addition.

Carnival companies often showed just outside the city limits at the end of S. Roan Street. Beyond this location, the city was the unfortunate beneficiary of all of the ills and objectionable features associated with unsavory traveling entertainment companies. The council reasoned that it would be better to allow potential undesirables to come within the city limits where, under police scrutiny, they could be watched and regulated. It was noted that outside the corporation limits, there were no restraints whatsoever. 

The Rubin & Cherry Shows stayed in Johnson City for six days before rolling to its next scheduled performance. Note in the photo that the carnival performed on Walnut Street that year opposite the Post Office, which would later became the site of the Ashe Street Courthouse after the post office relocated to E. Main Street.

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Governor “Our Bob” Taylor often commented about the John Robinson Circus that he occasionally visited. It was the first one that he ever witnessed, never forgetting the lingering memories of it. Bob speculated that he would always remain young as long as this circus would fill his memories of those special days long passed by. He was convinced that it was the best tonic old men could ingest.

An Early John Robinson Circus Parade As It Passes Model Mill on W. Walnut Street

In 1904 when Taylor was a young lad, the Robinson Circus came to town. His family lived in the Watauga Valley then and the great posters of that day created excitement when it announced its exhibition at Elizabethton. The heart of every mountain youngster beat high with eager anticipation. The circus date was more firmly embedded in the minds of area youth than that of the Declaration of Independence.

Wise old farmers seized the opportunity to receive double chores from his family with the promise of taking them to the circus. Bob's heart tingled for that special sensation again. He obtained faint symptoms of it in his aging years when a band blared out its melodies and painted clowns performed their funny magic before crowds of spectators.

“I remember one time,” Bob said, “we had the circus with us at Elizabethton. It was the first show I had been to and I was one of the gladdest lads there. The performances that day were all under one tent and the acts occurred one at a time in a single ring, not three that came later.

“An elephant would occasionally became unruly, drawing attention from the crowd. I later suspected that the circus somehow made the big pachyderm that way in order to draw attention from the thrill-seeking crowd.”

Bob explained that during the performance, word spread that an elephant had been given a “chaw terbacker” (chew of tobacco). To local mountaineers, this fabrication meant the highly-exaggerated destruction of the entire population surrounding the event. 

Shortly, the elephant was pacified and to save the legend from obscurity, a report circulated that it was not a “chaw terbacker” after all. The elephant had instead gnawed on a chinquapin (ching-K-pin) burr, a spiny nut fruit that grows in higher elevations. The reassured crowd soon meandered back to the big tent with confidence restored.

Bob noted that when he acquired enough courage to enter the exhibition area, he encountered a situation that took him all day from which to recover. It was the custom of circuses in those days to tie an elephant to a stake just inside the entrance as an mesmerizing publicity stunt.

About that time, young Bob spotted a big strapping fellow slip in under the influence of strong drink. His pants legs had been stuffed into his boots and he had just enough mountain dew in him to banish any hint of fear.

As the lad staggered past the big pachyderm, he bumped into it and lost his balance. When he got back on his feet, he wrongly surmised that the big critter had something to do with his fall. He greatly resented it and stood there a few seconds looking at the beast with a hint of revenge permeating his thoughts.

Almost immediately, word began to spread that the five-toed mammal had purposely knocked him down by his trunk. The drunk stood angrily before the creature and disgustedly uttered the words: “Lookey here you two-tailed scoundrel, if I jest knowed which end of your head contained your brain, I'd kick it out of you.”

Fortunately without further ado, the imbibed man sensibly meandered off without further incidence. Later in life, Bob would say that this amusing incident still resided firmly in his memory.

I wish to thank Alf and Martha Gene Taylor for sharing this story with me from a treasured family scrapbook.

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The recent passing of W. Hanes Lancaster, Jr. evoked my recollections and fondness of early television comedians whom I eagerly looked forward to watching every week. The following is an brief exercise to see how many of the funnymen listed below you can match with their corresponding descriptors. If you do well on it, you are likely on Social Security. 

Free Service Tire Stores Philco TV Advertisement, 1954

Here are the names: 1. Milton Berle, 2. Jackie Gleason, 3. Sid Caesar, 4. Red Skelton, 5. Bob Hope, 6. Jack Benny, 7. Jimmy Durante, 8. Ed Wynn, 9. Eddie Cantor and 10 Ernie Kovacs.

Here is the information about each one. The answers are revealed at the end.

A: Known as “Mr. Television.” Credited with boosting television sales with his brash and raucous comedy and zany guests. Hosted “The Texaco Star” program that was broadcast every Tuesday night from 1948 until 1956. 

B: Hit the big screen in 1952. Favorite expression when he became exasperated, was “Well!” Owned a Maxwell automobile. Kept his money in a heavily guarded and fortified underground vault in his basement. Good violinist but purposely played his violin poorly to incite laughs. Reportedly made provisions to sent his wife a single red rose long after his passing.

C: Evolved from the stages of vaudeville. Appeared on 1950s television on such shows as “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” “All Star Revue” and “Four Star Revue.” Acquired the nickname, “The Schnoz” because of his particularly large snout. Played piano and sang. Theme song: “Inka Dinka Doo.” Concluded each show with the expression, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”

D: Had a long and illustrious career in all aspects of show business. First became known to television audiences in 1950 on “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” Trademarks were his banjo eyes and outstretched hands. Served as host of  a TV syndicated comedy theatre that bore his name.

E: Signed on to television in 1951. Performing in several series that originated in Philadelphia. Usually seen holding a cigar. Acquired his own series in 1955. Became especially creative using cameras and other technical equipment to produce visual deception. Portrayed an exaggerated character, the lisping, half-soused poet, Percy Dovetonsils. 

F: Made folks laugh with his distinctive facial expressions. Journey to stardom included a 90-minute program titled “Your Show of Shows.” An accomplished saxophonist. He and co-star, Imogene Coca acted out skits with realism. Talented at performing on a bare stage without elaborate props or embellished costumes.

G: Successfully transferred from radio to television. Became an American institution. After starring in several shows, began offering monthly specials. Brought much attention each year by taking his Christmas program overseas to cheer lonesome servicemen. Became a pro at generating laughter with barbed comments on social and political issues. Died soon after reaching the age of 100.

H: Heavyweight who once fractured his leg during a show skit that allowed him to convert reality into comedy. Was chosen to be the first season's Chester A. Riley in the hit TV show, “The Life of Riley” (replaced by William Bendix). Began a series of highly-popular sketches known as “The Honeymooners.” Co-stars: Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph.

I: Became a television favorite after acting in two dozen Hollywood comedy and musical movies. Achieved popularity by using an array of madcap characters on his show. Brand of comedy could be characterized as more physical than verbal. Often injected a note of melancholy into his portrayals, such as a character known as Freddie the Freeloader at Christmas time dancing with a doll that briefly came to life to befriend and console him. 

J: Acquired the names, “The Fire Chief” and “The Perfect Fool.” Hosted a variety show in 1949-50. Wore bizarre costumes and displayed a high-pitched cackle. Later, became a situation-comedy actor. Switched to being a dramatic actor after a successful portrayal in a “Playhouse 90” program titled, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”    

Answers: 1A, 2H, 3F, 4I, 5G, 6B, 7C, 8J, 9D, 10E.

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It is enjoyable to explore the genealogy of old buildings in downtown Johnson City. In particular, one edifice at 236 E. Main had a long and varied subsistence. Many of us associate several businesses with that location: Wallace Shoe Store (1970-72), Jo-Ann's Shops (1950s-60s), Christiansen's Cafe (late 1940s) and Dinty Moore Cafe (early 1940s).

Edisonia (top), Criterion (middle), Edisonia

Some of our more mature Heritage page readers might also recall three theatres that operated at that address from 1909 until 1937. In 1909-11, the Edisonia Theatre appeared to offer stage shows and plays that included a variety of vaudeville performances. Although the site was empty in 1913, it reopened soon after, apparently for the purpose of showing silent black and white movies. 

“Edisonia,” a name that stirs nostalgia for many theatre devotees, sported an admission price of a jitney (nickel), becoming a landmark for popular-priced amusements in the city.

The name Edisonia became a synonym for theatre in the minds of many fans in earlier days, according to Mrs. Jessie Jones Keys, widow of George Keys, an early movie house pioneer in Johnson City. George entered the business when he bought half interest in the theatre from his brother-in-law, Loftus S. “Loaf” Jones. A document bearing the date of March 5, 1913 was in the possession of Mrs. Keys. Her residence was listed as 408 E. Unaka Avenue.

Over time, George became active in operation of the Majestic and other nearby theatres. Mrs. Keys recalled when people would say, “Let's see what's going on at the Edisonia and then go over to the other Edisonia. The “other” one referred to the Majestic Theatre, located directly across the street.

A former projectionist at the Majestic and other local theatres here, John Ralph Perkins, recalled the old days: “The Edisonia,” he noted, “was also operated by George Keys and 'Loaf.' I went to work at the Edisonia in 1924 as an operator, a position that eventually became known as a projectionist. I remember that, at the Edisonia, we showed mostly westerns and serials.”

Some of the old stars included Elmo Lincoln (billed as the strongest man in the world and who became the first Tarzan in the era of silent pictures), Pearl White, Eddie Polo and many others. Some of the western stars were William S. Hart, Bronco Billy Anderson, Wild Bill Cody, William Farnum (and his brother, Dustin Farnum), Hoot Gibson, Jack Hoxie, Buck Jones, Harry Carey, Jack Holt, Tex Ritter, Gene Autrey ('I'm Back in the Saddle Again') and Leo B. Carrillo (who became recognized as Pancho, the humorous broken-English sidekick of  The Cisco Kid).

 “Another thing about the Edisonia,” said Perkins, “is that we would pack them in on weekends at 10 and 15 cents. Since seating was limited, when the house became full, Jones would holler up to the booth and tell me to speed up the machine so could finish the picture quicker, get the old crowd out and fill the house again.”

 In the 1920s, the Edisonia was given a name change to Criterion and some modifications after the business acquired a large sign from the Criterion Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. However, the clientele remained essentially the same. Perkins noted that the sign was quite large, being the biggest upright sign displayed in Johnson City at that time.

Interior modifications included painting, eliminating the large scenic panels along the side walls, removal of electric fans in favor of a better cooling system that utilized bigger fans attached to the roof upfront and moving the piano from the left side to the a spot directly beneath the screen.

A change in theatre designation also brought forth a fresh new crop of cowpunchers that included Bob Steele, Bill Elliott, Roy Walker, Bill Boyd and numerous others, but this was still the era of silent movies so the audience could not hear them. This would change shortly with the advent of “talkies.”

The theatre basically became a western theatre with good guys, bad hombres, cow towns, ghost towns, pretty girls and stunning horses galloping across the screen. Occasionally, management would display a different genre, but soon returned to what patrons wanted –  the western format. The Criterion and its predecessor, the Edisonia, also had a goodly fare of comedies and shorts.

Harry Cook, a former employee who became traffic manager at ET&WNC Transportation Co., worked for several other theatres that including the Majestic and Criterion, beginning work in 1929 while still a student at Science Hill High School. He served as an usher, ticket collector, relief cashier and assistant manager. He left theatre work after about eight years.

About 1935, the Criterion became the State. By this time, the building needed a major overhaul to stay competitive, especially now that sound movies had been ushered to the front. Extensive remodeling was performed that included improved sound equipment, comfortable seating, a new screen, new floors and a thorough cleaning that involved removing tobacco spray from the walls. In spite of the improvements, the theatre lost its patrons, who drifted to other nearby downtown theatres such as  the Majestic, Sevier, Liberty and Deluxe (later Tennessee).

 The theatre did not survive its  new name and upgrades. It closed its doors about 1939 and was put on the market for other commercial use. The first company to display an interest in the property was Dinty Moore's Restaurant, who had just lost its lease on the opposite (north) side of Main Street and moved into the remodeled theater building.

In 1944, Henry Christianson resigned as manager of nearby Sterchi's Furniture Store and bought out Moore. He had the premises remodeled in 1947 but in early 1948, closed the business and rejoined Sterchi's Knoxville operation. 

The next retail to show interest in the property was Keyburn Restaurant, whose name was derived from the two owners, Keys and Burnham). Hugh Millard managed the restaurant for about a year and then closed it. Later, the Jo Anne Shop, a woman's apparel store, occupied the building for an extended period of time.

W.F. “Burgess” (“Shorty”) Smythe, who operated Smythe Electric Co. next door for many years, recalled attending movies at the old theatres. His firm performed the electrical work for much of the remodeling efforts during the numerous changes at the old theatre's location.

The next enterprise to acquire the location was Wallace Shoe Store, Inc. They left the large sign in place to remind customers that their establishment was linked to the old theatre's storied history with all of its amusement, glory, tumult and declines. That portion of our city's downtown entertainment history had seen its day and abruptly faded into yesteryear.  

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The recent announcement by Dolly Parton that a $300M expansion was coming to Dollywood prompted today's column. Dolly's dream park evolved over a duration of 25 years through a series of ownership and business name changes.

The earliest offering, Rebel Railroad, was built to compete with the successful Tweetsie Railroad park that was located between Boone and Blowing Rock, NC. Next came Goldrush Junction, Goldrush and Silver Dollar City, the latter being a 75-acre venture that opened in 1977 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Many people recall when Silver Dollar City was in its prime. In 1978, after the park increased in size by 33%, it announced that it needed singers, musicians, actors, actresses and dancers. It boasted of more attendance that year than most New York City Broadway shows.  

In 1980, more than 75 professional craftsmen demonstrated old-time skills during their Fourth Annual National Crafts Festival. The event brought an 80% increase in attendance from the previous year. Crafts ranged from the functional to the ornamental, with emphasis on being “one of a kind.”

A year later, the park began actively hiring senior citizens to augment the work force. These individuals were ideally qualified for making decorative crafts and working with vintage machinery. The park also began promoting “Older American Days” during the month of September; guests 55 and older were admitted at a reduced admission price.

The “City's” 1982 Sixth Annual National Crafts Festival in autumn of that year featured some of the best pioneer craftsmen in the breathtaking setting of the Smoky Mountains. This included authentic steam sawmill operation, glassblowing, grain threshing, cider making, needlepoint, wheat weaving, toile painting , doll making and more.

In 1986, Dolly Parton became a partner of the business with impressive ideas for the park. She commented that she always yearned to change the first letter on the famous “Hollywood hillside sign in California to make it “Dollywood.” The park acquired that name on May 1, 1986. Over the next quarter century, the impressive venture doubled to 150 acres with 10 secondary theme areas. 

When Parton left the hollows of the Smoky Mountains where she was born, the most exciting ride in town was the family horse. Twenty years later, East Tennessee and Dolly had changed. New attractions, included “River Rampage,” an artificial version of white-water rafting, and a steam locomotive that chugged through the surrounding park thrilling the passengers.

In a news conference at the park opening, Dolly said, “East Tennessee gave me life, enthusiasm and inspiration. And it's good if you can give something back. I was born a dreamer and I love the Smoky Mountains. I think it's a very beautiful place for someone with a creative mind.”

The singer/actress was especially pleased that her new business provided employment for the community surrounding where she was born. She said her favorite part of the site was a museum of souvenirs taken from her life, including the “coat of many colors” that she wore as a child, which inspired a song of the same name. Every time she went in the building, it was like looking back at her life.

Dolly's museum did not contain the three-room cabin where she once lived because its present owner would not  part with it. Subsequently, Dolly recreated the cabin as Parton's Back Porch Theater and used it for stage shows. The new owner said she planned to spend as much time as possible at the park during its first summer.

Tourism officials estimated that Dollywood would draw a million visitors a year, compared to a half million that Silver Dollar City park drew its last year. Dolly's influence was significant because of her drive and the fact that she spoke the same language as the people who lived there.

Dolly Parton, the local girl who hit it big, did not forget her humble roots and the fact that she was brought into this world by a mountain doctor who was paid only a bag of cornmeal for his work.

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Today's column deals with the stirring news of the grand opening in June 1926 of the Majestic Theatre's new $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ. The information was gleaned from a full-page advertisement sent to me by Jerry Honeycutt, a frequent contributor to my articles.

In the summer of 2010, I wrote a column about the purchase of the new organ, noting that it was later donated to Milligan College where Prof. Edward Lodter played it for a weekly Sunday afternoon broadcast over WJHL radio.

The complex musical instrument was constructed in 1926 in North Tonawanda, NY with two manual keyboards and 511 tubes (seven racks with each containing from 61 to 97 individual pipes). The unit arrived in the city from Cincinnati on a Southern Railway train. Company technicians placed the pipes in concrete-lined chambers that were bored into the walls of the theatre.

The pricey device provided background music in an age of silent movies to audibly supplement the action being shown on the movie screen. It produced numerous special effects: a train whistle, airplane, ocean surf, sirens, bells, horses hoofs and numerous others. When ‘talkies’ appeared in 1927, the need for the organ diminished and was relegated for patriotic sing-alongs, organ concerts and recitals.

“For Your Approval,” said the newspaper ad, “accurately defines the policy and intent of the management of the theatre in the recent installation of this mammoth organ, the latest type to be developed by Wurlitzer.”

 A Mr. Wilson, described as a noted theatre organist and composer of numerous numbers, played classical and popular music. His years of training on Wurlitzer theatre organs gave him perfect control of the hundreds of special effects which were built into the instrument, enabling him to produce virtually every sound needed to furnish perfect accompaniment to any and all theatre productions.

During “Opening Week,” the management extended to every patron an invitation to visit them at 239 E. Main and to pay particular attention to the organ preludes that preceded each program.

Patrons who visited the theatre weeks prior to the grand opening noted increased activity throughout the building that was done mostly at night to prevent disruption of programs. In addition to the new organ, work included the installation of new cozy and comfortable opera chairs that increased the enjoyment of the programs.  Thousands of dollars were invested in the upholstered chairs.

Other work included the installation of the most complete and perfect cooling system obtainable anywhere in that era. Huge blowers pumped a steady flow of fresh air into the theatre, which spread it throughout the auditorium in a scientific manner so as to prevent drafts and to maintain a steady pleasant temperature in the theatre. This, they said, made the theatre “the coolest place in town,” making it ideal for watching movies and programs.

A general renovation and redecoration of the interior of the theatre was made by adding modest touches, all aimed at increasing comfort and pleasure for customers.

The company further noted that special features, choice programs and improved services were an ongoing focus as specified in the Public Theatre policy, which had been announced some months earlier.

The movie on Monday and Tuesday that week was the Paramount production of “That's My Baby,” starring Douglas MacLean. A “short” was then shown along with their “Majestic News” feature. A newspaper ad said, “'Yes Sir, That's my baby; Doug's best and we don't mean maybe; some title, some picture, some gags, some laughs.”

The Wednesday showing was “Wild Justice,” featuring Peter the Great, the newest and best known German Shepherd dog star of 1926. Thursday and Friday brought about the featured “His People,” along with comedy, news and novelty. 

The organ's demise is not a happy one; it was sold in 1972 to an individual whose residence was afterward destroyed by fire, bringing a dramatic end to the prized relic. 

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