In September 1922, exciting news went out in the Johnson City Daily News that the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was coming to Johnson City’s circus ground, the big rectangular lot located between E. Main and E. Market streets where the city municipal building is now located. Seventeen tents of various sizes were erected for the “amusement of the public and convenience of the employees.”

The circus was advertised as having the “longest and most magnificent parade in amusement history shown free upon the streets.” Mr. Hagenbeck was known as “Animal King” while his business partner, Mr. Wallace, was dubbed “Circus King.” The circus became famous for its beautiful thoroughbred horses with hundreds of highly trained, blue-blooded equines.

At 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, a bugle was sounded to begin assembling the parade. The newspaper writer was amazed that with so much hustle and bustle everything was orderly with absolutely no confusion. Every worker in the vast circus machine knew what had to be done and when it was needed. Everything was there including the gorgeously clad feminine outriders, the wonderful band wagons ablaze with scarlet, gold, green and silver colors, and numerous ridiculously clad clowns in their donkey carts “fussing” with the many youngsters that surrounded them. Several highly decorated cages of animals had the sides partially removed to give the audience glimpses of the little furry creatures moving restlessly inside. This was a carefully designed ploy to arouse the curiosity of the crowd and make them want to inspect the contents of the other cages.

The elephants, positioned in their proper places, marched along with majestic stride and ponderous poise. This was in contrast to the frightened horses by their sides and the ambling camels that lagged behind them. Sitting on the numerous wagons and chariots in the parade were performers who were decked out in their brightly colored regalia somewhat oblivious to the horde of spectators.

The spotted gray horses that were drawing the wagons pranced along proudly seemingly conscious of their shining leather and gleaming brass and gold. Four bands were evenly positioned in the parade so as to produce a continuous fanfare from appreciative bystanders. Some folks were seen rubbing tears from their eyes because the spectacle was “reminiscent of the good old days.”

Next came an array of trained wild cats, upon which the fame of the show was founded; striking equestriennes in arrogant raiment; and breathtaking acrobatic groups tumbling like a cascade. At the circus grounds, numerous aerial stars kept the lofty canvas dome alive with activity along with a corps of clowns whose sole mission was to keep the crowd in stitches.

Among the many circus celebrities in the show that year were the Davenport Troupe of equestriennes; the John Helliott wild animal acts; and the Wallace troupe of performing horses, one of which was Porter, the world’s highest jumping horse and Maid of the Mist, a riderless horse that jumped for the fun of it. Others were Mesdames Alma Wood and Marion Drew, presenting a herd of trained elephants; the Stokes and Brock troupe of aerialists; the two flexible Nicholsins; and the Riding Crandals consisting of 60 Japanese jugglers and a Chinese troupe of acrobats.

And estimated crowd of 5,000 persons was in attendance at the 2:00 p.m. performance; the night show started at 8:00 p.m. The doors were open an hour before and after each show to allow attendees to leisurely tour the menagerie.

The organization was formed in 1907 when Ben Wallace purchased the Carl Hagenbeck Circus and merged it with his show to form the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Things went well until the Great Depression caused the circus to suffer financially, forcing it to close its doors in 1938. 

Read more

Tommy Church, a Johnson City resident, recalled when Homer Harris, a local cowboy star, performed at his school:

“From 1971 until 1975, I attended kindergarten through the second grade at King Springs School. I remember when he and his trick horse, Stardust, came to our school and put on a program. I later attended Happy Valley Elementary School and he also visited there but with a horse that he called Stardust, Jr. Do you know anything about this man?”

Many East Tennessee residents who lived in the area from mid-1940 through the 1970s will likely recall Homer Harris and Stardust. He became known as the “Seven-Foot Smiling Cowboy,” but admitted that the figure also included his hat and boots. He became an instant hit with the area’s youthful “buckaroos and buckarettes.”

Harris was born on May 18, 1909 in Hartford, Tennessee in Cocke County. He acquired his first guitar while still a young boy and learned to sing by listening to old breakable 78-rpm phonograph records by country and western legends such as Mother Maybelle Carter.

In 1937, Homer acquired a job singing and playing his Martin guitar over WBIX in Muskogee, Oklahoma. While there, he won first prize in a radio contest singing, “Little Brown Jug.” A year later, the emerging songster moved to California where he displayed his talent in numerous venues. He was even hired to entertain Shirley Temple at her sixth birthday in Palm Springs.

Harris accepted a job at Monogram Studios in Hollywood doing supporting roles for western movies, but his employment was short-lived; he received his draft notice. While serving in the Army from 1942 to 1945, he participated in numerous GI shows. In 1943, the crooner made a guest shot singing “Little Brown Jug” in the British documentary film, “Welcome To Britain,” starring Bob Hope and Burgess Meredith. In April 1947, he recorded the song for Nation Record Company in New York, but apparently it was never released.

After his discharge from service, Harris used his separation pay to buy a Palomino horse that reportedly was named Prima. It would be the first of several steeds that he would own during his colorful career. He conceived the idea of writing a song that he titled, “I'm Riding My Horse on the Radio.” It became such a hit with youngsters that Homer decided to include his horse in his performances.

Soon after the war, Homer relocated to East Tennessee where he joined Knoxville’s “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” over WNOX. The program was comprised of Lowell Blanchard (program director, emcee); Archie “Grandpappy” Campbell (comedian, tenor, Hee Haw fame), Bill and Cliff Carlistle, Burke Barber, Molly O’Day and Homer Harris. In 1949, Homer began appearing on Cas Walker’s radio show over WROL and later WIVK. The savvy entrepreneur and philanthropist learned the financial benefits derived from using radio and later television to sponsor singers and musicians of old-time music to promote his chain of rustic supermarkets.

A photo from 1949 shows Harris sitting on his horse Dolly beside Cas inside one of his country stores. About this time, Homer purchased a 3-year-old trick horse named Stardust from Walker that added a new dimension to his act. The educated horse eventually learned to count by striking his foot on the ground and to strum Homer’s guitar using his nose. The popular cowboy began appearing on radio with three shows a day over Knoxville’s WROL (later renamed WATE). Soon after, a noon hour show was added for WIVK.

On July 16, 1950, Homer and Stardust participated in a remote broadcast sponsored by WIVK. Two 90-minute shows were presented at the Atomic Caverns (now Cherokee Caverns) located on the Oak Ridge Highway. The first show was aired from inside the caverns. At the conclusion, Stardust amazingly climbed 69 steps from 200 feet inside the caverns to the Crystal Ballroom at ground level. The second program followed outside at the caverns’ entrance. Admission for each was 75 cents for adults and 35 cents for children. Other entertainers included Hargis Kelly (trick fiddle), Simon Kelly (guitar), Pee Wee Whaley (mandolin), Puddin’ Head Joe (comedian) and the Kelly Brothers Quartet.

Subsequently, Homer and Stardust joined Bonnie Lou and Buster on WCYB radio. When WJHL television came on the air in 1953, the four of them moved to the new station where they performed with Lloyd Bell for a three-days-a-week program. Other musicians who performed with the group were Guy “Pepe” Pealer (steel guitar), Chuck Henderson (aka the Carolina Indian, guitar, banjo) and Bennie Sims (fiddler). Later, it became a daily morning show.

Homer eventually left WJHL and began touring the south with his guitar and famed trick horse. However in due time, he migrated back to Knoxville and joined Cas Walker again, this time appearing on the grocer’s music shows over WATE and WBIR television.

During the 1960s, the cowboy and his horse were busy appearing at area grammar schools and theatres. A July 3, 1969 theatre flyer promotes a 1965 movie and a western stage show with several music stars: “Showing on Screen- 'Buffalo Bill' – Ridin', Shootin', Singing TV Stars Coming In Person – Homer Harris, 7-Foot Cowboy; Carl Story, RCA Recording Star; Trick Horse, Stardust, A Real Live Oklahoma Educated Horse; Recording Stars: The Saddle Pals, Lloyd Bell and Bobby Thompson; and Ray Myers, The Armless Musician Who Leads a Normal Life.” The ad contained a photo of Homer and Stardust doing the “camel stretch.”

When Stardust passed away in 1973 at age 29, Homer had three-year-old Stardust, Jr. trained and ready to fill his hoofs. By 1978, Homer was forced to retire due to health reasons. Even then, the aging cowpoke occasionally performed at John Rice Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia near Norris, Tennessee and at local senior citizen centers and charity shows.

The end of the winding dusty trail for the towering “Seven-Foot Smiling Cowboy” came on September 7, 1998, concluding an entertainment career that is still fondly recalled by Tommy Church and many other area residents.  

Read more

Today’s column is a nostalgic quiz covering downtown Johnson City movie theatres and favorite motion pictures that were projected on their big screens. Older residents can readily recall four movie houses that entertained the masses.

Some of these businesses later changed ownership and acquired new names.                                


Over time, 11 movie theatres occupied 5 downtown Johnson City locations: 1. Sevier (113-117 Spring), 2. Majestic (239 E. Main), 3. Tennessee (148 W. Main), 4. Liberty (221 E. Main) and 5. State (236 E. Main opposite the Majestic).


Now comes the hard part. These locations were also the site of six additional movie houses: A. Edisonia, B. Capital, C. Grand, D. Deluxe, E. Capri and F. Criterion. Test your wit by matching the numbered locations with the lettered theatre names.

The second part of the quiz deals with 10 favorite movies that I first viewed at one of the downtown establishments. Match each numbered movie title with its corresponding lettered final scene descriptor.


1. The African Queen (1951, Bogart, Hepburn).

2. Citizen Kane (1941, Wells, Cotton).

3. Gone With The Wind (1939, Leigh, Gable).

4. The Grapes of Wrath (1940, Fonda, Carradine).

5. High Noon (1952, Cooper, Kelly).

6. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, Stewart, Reed).

7. Sergeant York (1941, Cooper, Brennan).

8. Shane (1953, Ladd, Arthur, Heflin, Palance, De Wilde).

9. Singing In The Rain (1952, Kelly, Reynolds, O’Conner).

10. The Wizard Of Oz (1939, Garland, Bolger, Lahr, Haley, Morgan).

Final Scenes

A. George sees an inscription in a book that reads, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings.”

B. After being thrown into the river from an explosion, Rosie wants to know which way is the east shore. Charlie answers, “The way we’re swimming, old girl.”

C. Alvin looks out over his vast farm and utters the words, “The Lord shore does move in mysterious ways.”

D. A family determines to survive the depression years: “They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Paw, cause we’re the people.”

E. After telling a young boy goodbye, the lone rider heels his horse and gallops away to the lad’s tearful voice admonishing him to “come back, come back.”

F. A little girl arrives home from adventures in a magical land with the appreciation that “There’s no place like home.”

G. The anonymity of the word “Rosebud” goes up in smoke and forever eradicates a mystery surrounding the death of a famous newspaper publisher.

H. Two people standing at the base of a billboard look up to a picture of Don and Kathy while a background song reaches a soaring finale.

I. After a suspenseful climax, Kane opens the door, fires at Henderson, drops his badge into the dust and rides out of town with Amy.

J. The heroine boldly proclaims, “I can’t let him go. There must be some way to bring him back because, after all, tomorrow is another day.”

Answers: Part 1 Theatres: 1-(none), 2-C, 3-DBE, 4-(none) and 5-AF. Part 2 Movies: 1B, 2G, 3J, 4D, 5I, 6A, 7C, 8E, 9H and 10F.  

Read more

In 2008, I wrote two columns about “The Adventures of Princess Pet,” an early Saturday morning children’s radio program that I listened to as a child. It aired on WJHL from 1951 to 1953. I received four responses from readers who also recalled the series.

Recently, Stephen Wright sent me a surprising note that said, “Lower the drawbridge; Pet Brown Bear is alive and well.” Wright played the role of Brown Bear on the show, which occurred when he was between the ages of 14 and 16. He was the youngest cast member.

Princess Pet was the brainchild of Jane Dalton, who became known as “the first lady of radio.” She produced the series at WSPA radio in Spartanburg, S.C. The syndicated adventure show garnered a radio distribution along the Eastern seaboard. It was taped on Wednesday nights and reproduced on long playing breakable discs, similar to 78-rpm records. The characters (and actors) on the show were Princess Pet (Roberta Snow), Pet Brown Mule (Fred Myers), Pet Brown Bear (Stephen Wright), Hagar the Witch (Jane Dalton), the Wicked Duke of the Black Forest (Ed McGrath), Alowadin the Sorcerer (Al Willis) and Vashti the Sorceress (Peg Stanton). 

Stephen recalled that a young man played the studio organ for the opening and closing themes as well as background music during action scenes. A station worker added appropriate sound effects throughout the taping. The studio used what was referred to as a filter mike that gave the illusion of the dialog being deep inside a dark cave. In spite of the short quarter-hour duration of the episodes, most ended with a completed story; very few were continued to the following week. At the end of each adventure, good guys always prevailed over evil ones. Princess Pet’s faithful youthful listeners demanded it. 

No studio audience was present at the taping, unlike some shows during that period of time. Everyone read previously rehearsed scripts that were written by Dalton. Wright said that his character was constantly getting lost or in trouble on the show. He had to be rescued numerous times. Radio producers, unlike those on television, were not concerned about the age or appearance of an actor as long as his or her voice was suitable for the part.

Stephen said the show had its share of slip-ups that created moments of merriment for the cast. Examples included reading a line incorrectly; getting out of sequence in the script; producing a sound effect at the wrong time; and sneezing, hiccupping, belching or similar distraction. When that happened, Jane abruptly shouted, “cut.” The tape was stopped and the scene re-recorded. Mr. Wright said they essentially had no knowledge of the sponsor and its products. He was unaware that Brown Mules and Brown Bears were frozen treats on a stick, the mule consisting of vanilla ice cream coated with chocolate and the bear being chocolate ice cream.

The show ended in 1953, a victim of emerging television. Today, recordings of “The Adventures of Princess Pet” are rare because, according to Stephen, a fire at the WSPA studio several years ago destroyed the master tapes. The now retired Manhattan resident went on to have a stellar acting career in Little Theatre, Broadway, off Broadway, national tours and numerous TV commercials.

After almost three years of wholesome fantasy on WJHL radio, the fair princess and her devoted imaginary radio gang drifted off the syndicated airways into the frozen confectionary haven known as the “Land of the Frozen Star,” where you can still magically buy a Brown Mule or a Brown Bear treat for a nickel. 

Read more

Professor Kingfish (Bill Marrs) and Little Richard (Dick Ellis) co-hosted a highly popular weekday morning radio talk show heard over WJCW in the 1960s and 70s.

In 1979, Dave Hogan (current WJCW morning show co-host and personal friend of the Marrs family) and Red Pitcher (former WJCW news and sports director) interviewed the professor. “My life began on December 3, 1910,” said Bill, “when the stork dropped me on Pea Ridge (near Bucksnort and Skinem, Alabama) beside a stump where Ma found me.”

The Marrs family was comprised of five boys and two girls. According to Bill: “Dad was one of the greatest foxhunters that ever blew a horn. One of his dogs was named Doodle, a lemon and white hound that ran so fast we had to put weight on him to slow him down.” As Marrs grew older, he earned three dollars a week washing dishes in a local restaurant. After high school, he opened Bill’s Pie and Sandwich Shop that also sold plate lunches for a dime.

Shortly into the interview, Kingfish unleashed the first of several jokes: “An old man was fishing illegally when he spotted the game warden approaching him. He pulled his fish to the surface, looked at the officer and said, ‘I’m not fishing. I’m just teaching him how to swim.’”

During the Great Depression, the restaurateur sold his business, deposited the money in a local bank and lost it when the institution declared a “bank holiday.” He started over, working until he acquired enough money to open another business.

In 1932, Bill met and married the love of his life, Pauline “Polly” Scott, eventually having two daughters, Patsy and Sandra. Bill decided to give radio and newspaper writing a try: “I appeared on WKSR radio in Pulaski with a 15-minute afternoon program called ‘The Kingfish Column of the Air.’ In 1938, I began writing a hunting and fishing column for the Pulaski Record. Later, I wrote an outdoor feature, ‘Now You Tell One,’ for the Nashville Tennessean.”

The family moved to Johnson City in 1948 to manage College Inn located in the Foremost Dairy Plant. They immediately fell in love with the lush natural beauty of East Tennessee. Bill’s moniker changed from Kingfish to Professor Kingfish when Middle Tennessee State University made him an honorary professor. Marrs and Wade Bulla ventured into the sausage business, naming their product Mr. Sausage. It was advertised as “Whole Hog or None,” meaning it was made from ham, shoulders and tenderloin, not scraps. Bill said it was so good “it would make a tadpole smack a whale.”

The professor suffered a heart attack that rendered him inactive for about six months. He sold his share of the business to Bulla and began painting landscapes and taking photographs of the area. He became quite good at both endeavors. When Bill recovered, he went to work for K-Saver Stamps, owned by Oakwood Market in Kingsport.

A turning point of Kingfish’s life occurred when Mr. Hanes Lancaster, Sr. (WJHL radio and television owner) offered him a hunting and fishing radio program. On the first show, Eddie Cowell introduced him to his listening audience saying that Pea Ridge’s loss was Johnson City’s gain. The Skipper Shop (103 W. Market) was the sponsor. This eventually led to Bill’s hosting a live hunting and fishing television show, “Outdoors with Professor Kingfish.” He remained on television for ten years appearing on WJHL and WCYB (Bristol). 

Not long after WJHL radio was sold and the call letters changed to WJCW, Marrs met Dick Ellis: “I was struggling with my early morning 30-minute outdoors show so Dick came on the air to help me. Reeves Kinkead (Hospital Pharmacy) heard us and agreed to be our sponsor. Dick adopted the name Little Richard for the new program.”

The early morning talk show featured a diversity of subjects ranging from girdles to wigs. Bill’s role was to simply depict his naturally relaxed country boy image. The awesome twosome conjured up an assortment of real and imaginary characters and stories for their faithful fans. Listeners became acquainted with Aunt Sukie, Cousin Herbert, Uncle Zeb, Pug Ugly Adams, Cousin Floy and Uncle Isaac. The wholesome country boys used no scripts and even adlibbed commercials. On their “Dog-Gone” segment, they located lost dogs, mules and husbands.

The show became immensely popular. Because of Bill’s fragile health, the station provided a means for him to broadcast from his home in Backlash Acres (Edgehill Circle). Once during a hospital stay, he spoke over the radio from his bed. Listeners found it hard to believe that Bill was broadcasting from home and Dick from the radio station. 

The colorful Kingfish let loose another yarn in the interview: “A fisherman came by the station to tell us that he had caught a six-pound bluegill. We told him that bluegill don’t grow that large and asked him what he used for bait. The man responded, ‘a three-pound grasshopper.’”

In late summer 1973, Professor Kingfish and Little Richard began occupying a booth each year at the Appalachian District Fair. Each was decked out in overalls, blue shirt, straw hat and shoes that actually had cow manure on them. Hoards of people drifted by the booth to meet their radio celebrities.

During the interview, Bill promoted a strong faith in God, good work ethics and a love for the outdoors. He indicated that he had lived a wonderful life and was blessed with a great family and friends. Little did Dave and Red know when they concluded the interview that Kingfish would pass away just six days later. Immediately after his passing and for the next 32 years, the annual “Professor Kingfish Gospel Sing forthe American Heart Fund Association” conducted a successful gospel singing fundraiser in Gray.

Professor Kingfish has left us, but his colorful homespun legacy lives on in the memories and hearts of those who loved him. (Thanks to Dave Hogan for providing a copy of the interview and Patsy Marrs Wilson for sharing supplemental facts and photographs of her late father.) 

Read more

Ray Moore, former WSB (Atlanta) veteran radio/television broadcaster worked at radio station WETB on the Erwin Highway for two years in the early1950s. He shared memories of his early career at the station.

Ray desired to pursue a radio career at a time when television was making significant inroads into the entertainment industry. After posting and wading through “help wanted” Broadcasting Magazine ads, he finally received a telephone call from WETB inviting him to the station for an interview. He was impressed by the warm, friendly southern voice that greeted him over the phone.

According to Moore: “I arrived unceremoniously in Johnson City at my expense. The downtown district sat on a low plateau surrounded by the beautiful foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The city had a college, lots of attractive homes and many good people that I came to love and appreciate. I met McBerney “Berney” Burleson, the Program Director and Cliff Goodman, the station manager. The city’s only newspaper, the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, owned WETB. It operated at 1,000 watts of power and was licensed to operate only during daylight hours. The studio and transmitter were in the same little white concrete block building about two miles south of town. The short tower sat just outside the building.”

Burleson offered Ray a job paying $55 a week, which he accepted instantly. He began as a newscaster with emphasis on the 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. newscasts. He roomed on the west end of town, arriving at work early enough to gather and write his first newscast before 8 a.m. Not owning a car, Moore hiked downtown to the bus station, grabbed a quick breakfast at a hole-in-the-wall diner and then rode the bus south on Roan Street to work. Missing the bus meant a long fast-paced weather-exposed trek to the station. Moore rapidly learned how bone-chilling winter mornings could be in East Tennessee.

Not long after Ray’s hiring, the station experienced financial difficulties. There were five people, including Moore, on the announcing staff; two had to go. Ray was spared after he agreed to take an announcing shift. He drew the afternoon slot, which actually suited him better by his not having to arrive at work so early. The radio announcer abruptly switched from being a sonorous and dignified newscaster to that of a disc jockey on the “Hillbilly Hit Parade.” “I had the most fun with that program,” said Ray. “The songs were wonderful with great philosophical musings. I played a sad song each day such as ‘Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only Sleeping,’ ‘‘Neath a Cold Gray Tomb of Stone’ and ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ I loved the sad songs and began singing along with them.

“When school let out, we switched to big band music. In late afternoon, dignity and pomposity returned as I hosted ‘Music of the Masters,’ playing classical music that allowed me to practice the foreign pronunciations I had learned at Columbia. It was a tour de force.  “I invented a cast of characters and told stories about them over the air,” said Ray. “I became Ol’ Tex Moore; my gal was Calamity Jane; the villain was Cactus Jack; and my Horse was George.”

Ray indicated that occasionally when they were shorthanded, Berney took the mike and announced. During one memorable broadcast, he solemnly noted that Johnson City had lost one of its most prominent citizens. He meant to say that the gentlemen died of a cerebral hemorrhage; instead, he said death occurred from a cerebral hemorrhoid. That comment was not soon forgotten.

More of Ray’s story will be featured in a future column. 

Read more

An announcement in the June 8, 1914 edition of The Johnson City Staff contained an advertisement proclaiming, “Commencing Today the Grand Renamed The Majestic Theatre.”

The ad went on to say, “The Majestic Theatre will Open Its Doors Every Day at 11 a.m. and Run Without Stop until 10:30 p.m. Admission from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., 5 Cents Any Seat in the House – From 6:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., 5 and 10 Cent Seats – Coolest Spot in the City, Best Pictures, Finest Music.”

In that same edition of the newspaper, the theatre’s management defined its future operating policies aimed at attracting new business. The change was initially aimed at ladies who came downtown shopping and wanted to spend time at a good, cool place and have an opportunity to see a first class motion picture at a nominal price of five cents. The modification likewise afforded farmers and their families and anyone coming to the city from nearby towns to likewise have access to a relaxing luxury.

The strategy developed by management was to combine convenience with comfort. Popular playhouses throughout the South, including Atlanta, Augusta, Chattanooga, Asheville and Jacksonville had found this policy to be popular and believed that it would meet with identical approval in Johnson City. In a nutshell, the Majestic wanted to make its theatre a memorable stopover experience for people.

The managing team secured for the public a Lubin masterpiece, “The Lion and the Mouse,” which had proven to be a phenomenal success in all the larger cities of Europe and America and had enjoyed an extended run in New York City. The story centered on an investigation of Standard Oil with the main character being a poorly disguised John D. Rockefeller. The production was billed as “but a foretaste of the really great features that are being booked by the Majestic.”

The administration desired that the people of Johnson City always feel assured that whenever a special feature was announced at the Majestic Theatre that it would be something worthwhile for them to attend.

To contrast the old Grand with the new Majestic, just three weeks prior to the renaming of the theatre, two quality plays were offered. A newspaper ad stated, “The Grand Theatre, Johnson City, Tennessee – The Frank Lea Short Company, Management of Russell Kanney, Presenting “Pomander Walk,” (Matinee) by Louis N. Parker and “Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” (Evening) – Saturday, May 16.

According to the newspaper, “‘Pomander Walk” ran for an entire year at Wallack’s Theatre in New York and was proclaimed to be the most charming play of the generation. The 3-act comedy was said to rout its audience out of the busy day and set them in a dream world. It said, “The sun comes out on Pomander Walk, the sun goes down on Pomander Walk, the moon beams o’er Pomander Walk; the lamp is lighted sentinel-like o’er Pomander Walk. You too are in Pomander Walk, one of its happy dreamers – irresistibly lured to its ingenious dreaminess. It is a delight.”

A description of the other play claimed, “’Robin Hood and His Merrie Men’ had universal appeal of the romantic story of the nobleman outlaw and his band. Robin Hood, Maid Marion, Alan-A-Dale, the valiant High Sheriff of Nottingham, Friar Tuck and King Richard of the Lion Heart himself were placed in a stirring romantic comedy.” It was said to be “alive with laughter and action and thrills and brilliant in pageantry costuming and setting.”

On that June 8 morning of 1914, a new theatre marquee was seen on Main Street, beginning a run that would continue for 67 years. The theatre closed its doors in 1981. 

Read more

The recent college football bowl games may bring to mind an incident that occurred on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 1, 1948 while area football devotees were huddled around their radios.

Those were the days when the medium of television had not yet arrived in most households; therefore, sports enthusiasts had to rely on radio to receive play-by-play game action. Since the University of Tennessee did not receive a bowl invitation that year, WETB AM 790 was broadcasting a bowl game believed to be the Sugar Bowl, matching the sixth-ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama with the fifth-ranked Texas Longhorns.

The game site that year was Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. The (Texas-Alabama) scoring by quarter was 7-0, 0-7, 7-0 and 13-0. The Longhorns prevailed by 27-7. During the final two minutes of the contest, diehard fans still clinging to their radios were flabbergasted to hear the words:

“And as we conclude our broadcasting schedule for today, WETB, Johnson City, Tennessee, operates on 790 kilocycles with a daytime power of 1000 watts by authorization of the Federal Communication Commission. WETB is owned and operated by East Tennessee Broadcasting Company, affiliated with Johnson City Press-Chronicle. Transmitter and temporary studios are located on the Erwin Highway. We invite you to join us again tomorrow morning at 7:15 when we return to the air. Thank you for listening and a very pleasant good evening to you all.”

To the chagrin of area sports fans, the station summarily went off the air without broadcasting the final two minutes of play. This occurred because the station was strictly mandated by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to be off the air at 5:15 p.m. The fact that the game was still being played was not an issue with the FCC. The rules had to be followed or the station could lose its license.

Carl Jones, Jr., owner of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and WETB took action prior to the 1948 regular football season to prevent a recurrence of a game being cut off. He composed a carefully worded letter to FCC’s T.J. Slowie with a proposal. Jones noted that the radio station had contracted to carry all of the University of Tennessee’s 1948 football games.

“Your attention,” he said, “is respectfully called to the fact that we are broadcasting these games in response to great demand by the people in this area. “As football games normally are concluded within two hours, presently scheduled starting times of eight games at 2:30 p.m. and two games at 3:00 p.m. should enable us to compete each broadcast prior to signing off the air at 5:15 p.m. during the month of November. We request authorization from the (FCC) for an extended period not to exceed 15 minutes after regularly licensed sign-off in order to compensate for unexpected delays during games. While it may not be necessary to use the extended period whatsoever, authorization for such an extension in case of necessity will enable WETB to perform its obligations to the radio audience in this area. We are attempting to avoid a reoccurrence of the last New Year’s Day game when we were prevented from carrying the final two minutes of the event because of sign-off. Very truly yours, East Tennessee Broadcasting Company, Carl A. Jones, Jr., President.”

I conferred with Bud Kelsey, former program director of the station. Although he did not recall the specific event, he was highly skeptical that the FCC granted an extension. Although quite amusing today, missing the final moments of a major sporting event was anything but humorous 62 years ago.  

Read more

In January 1961, five young local men, ranging in age from 16 to 23, went to New York City to participate in a nationally televised program, “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour.”

Mr. Mack brought America’s talent to television audiences and invited viewers to vote for their favorite act by calling or sending postcards to the network, similar to today’s talent reality shows. The Faircloth Chevrolet Co. sponsored the quintet that initially consisted of Tony Bowman (lead singer, upright bass), Avery Blevins (high tenor, trumpet), Bill Williams (baritone), Eddie Broyles (bass) and Buddy Fox (piano).

According to Bowman: “In 1959, we formed a Southern Gospel music group known as the Crusaders and frequently sang in the nearby area. A year later, we made a 45-rpm double-sided record containing four songs: ‘Lord, I'm Coming Home,’ ‘Walk Them Golden Stairs,’ ‘Fling Wide the Gates’ and ‘Jesus Lifted Me.’ For the Ted Mack show appearance, we changed our name to the Corvairs, the name of Chevrolet’s newly introduced rear engine air-cooled automobile. Mr. Faircloth provided two Chevrolet cars and rode with us to Orlando, Florida to audition for the show. We were invited to come to New York City in January 1961 to film the show.

“We chose the song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” because we wanted to sing something befitting of the Southern Gospel music we loved. We sent a reel-to-reel tape containing our rendition of the song so the studio orchestra could practice backing us up. “Mr. Faircloth again supplied us with two Chevys to drive, but this time, he chose to fly there. Also, Eddie and Bill did not make the trip and were replaced by Mickey Crawford (bass, ukulele) and Willard Blevins (baritone, clarinet). When we arrived in Manhattan, we checked in at the Hilton Hotel and later ate at the famous Toots Schorr Restaurant near Central Park.

“Our group arrived at the 254 West 54thStreet studio wearing matching outfits, consisting of a bronze coat, black pants, white shirt and matching tie. Mr. Mack was not present when we initially arrived. Since the set musicians had received a tape of our singing, they were ready for us. During the taping of our act, we began by singing and playing, but 30 seconds into the song, the orchestra joined us, elevating the music to a much fuller sound. It was then that Mr. Mack entered the studio. While he was talking to us and asking us questions, the crew filmed the conversation. Ted Mack had a nice personality, an upbeat demeanor and showed politeness to his employees. After we left the studio, the stagehands combined the two tapes into one. Our act was ready for television.”

The show aired in March. The group’s 85-second segment began with Mr. Mack introducing them: “We have two high school students, two college students and an automobile parts salesman for the Faircloth Chevrolet Company; call themselves the Corvairs. Ok, let’s hear it.” When the performance concluded, Mack reminded viewers: “They are the Corvairs from Johnson City, Tennessee and that voting address is Box 191, Radio City Station here in New York.” The group came in second place after being edged out by a grandmother playing a trumpet.

When the young men returned home, they became known as the Crusaders again. They received coverage in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and were scheduled for 19 consecutive Sunday singing concerts. The group disbanded in the fall of 1962 when some of them went back to school.

“Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” ran from 1948 until 1970. During its 22-year span, it had the distinction of being carried by all four television networks – CBS, NBC, ABC and Dumont.  

Read more

Between 1958 and 1961, listeners tuned to WETB AM-790 on their radio dials each weekday morning from 7 to 9 were treated to two young aspiring radio announcers, Joe Goodpasture and Merrill Moore.

The young men, hosts of a program known as The “Joe and Mo Show,” grew up across the street from each other on W. Pine Street in Johnson City in the 1940s. Because of their common interest in radio, they became best friends. They often went by WJHL studios when it was located on S. Roan Street where they were given reams of Teletype copy. They took these home and practiced reading them, pretending to be news broadcasters.

Merrill rigged up a small radio station at his house. It was made out of an old phonograph oscillator and had a turntable and microphone. The boys actually transmitted from the Moore house and could be heard over a three-to-four-house radius, allowing some of their neighbors to receive them on their radios.

This action attracted neighborhood youngsters who joined them by giving sports reports and scores, reading news, airing a woman’s show that included recipes and becoming disc jockeys. Since they had only two 78-rpm records, their listeners had to endure four songs over and over: ‘Humoresque’/‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’ by Guy Lombardo and ‘Too Fat Polka’ (‘She’s Too Fat for Me’)/‘For Me and My Gal’ by Arthur Godfrey. 

The path forward that produced the “Joe and Mo Show” began to emerge when Goodpasture’s family moved to Bristol where Joe worked at WFHG and WOPI while in high school. After enrolling at East Tennessee State College, Joe was interviewed for a part-time job by Burney Burleson, Program Director of WETB. Bud Kelsey was station manager. Joe was offered a full-time job, working as a disc jockey on the morning show.

Meanwhile, Moore who had previously worked at WETB before going into the Army had returned full time to the station after his discharge from service in 1958. He was assigned the morning news broadcasts. The stage was set for the arrival of “Joe and Mo” over the airways.

Burleson originated and promoted the new show with clever newspaper ads. Since none of the shows were scripted, the team had to react spontaneously. This is what made the program uniquely interesting.

The “Joe and Mo Show” began broadcasting from 7-9 o’clock each weekday morning. Its format was a combination of talk radio and popular music from such artists as Perry Como, Hugo Winterhalter, Patti Page, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and Les and Larry Elgart. It was a carryover of the big band era.

Joe opened the station at 5:30 a.m. and served as DJ until it became time for the morning team to begin the show. Merrill had to break away from his microphone about 7:30 in order to prepare himself for giving the news at 7:45.

The show offered a variety of zany pretense. One routine involved Mo asking motorists driving by the station on the Erwin highway to honk their horns. If no one responded, Joe went to his car in the parking lot and started tooting his own horn. Then he ran over to Merrill’s car and blew his horn. Finally, he scampered over to Jeep Jones’ (station engineer) Volkswagen and honked it. Each time this was done, Mo said something like “Thanks folks for blowing your horn at us and have a great day.” 

Another hilarity from the show was the “Joe and Mo, Hoe and Row, Garden Club of the Air.” The young men decided to incorporate a garden club into their routine. They dug about a 2×4-foot flower garden in the front corner of the building near the parking lot. Both individuals routinely went outside to report to their listeners how the garden was doing, making up all sorts of problems that they were having such as locust attacks, blight and constant difficulty getting anything to grow.

Listeners often called the station to offer advice on how to address some of the growing concerns. On one occasion, two female fans of the show showed up at the station and planted flowers in the garden. They were taken back by the smallness of it. 

Another popular air spoof was the “Joe and Mo Bird Watching Society and Friends of the Feather Association. The duo walked outside and sought to locate exotic birds in the surrounding area. Many of the species they spotted did not exist, such as the Hubcap Sparrow that flew along beside cars viewing itself in the wheels’ shiny hubcaps. It required a lot of creative imagination to do a show like this.

An additional feature was giving traffic reports. One of them went out in the car to get coffee and donuts for the crew. While he was out, he reported on traffic conditions on the roads. That was usually a gag because there were essentially no traffic problems in Johnson City in the late 1950s.

Occasionally, Mr. You Knew Too, a famous Nationalist Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations, came by the station and chatted with Joe and Mo on the air. In actuality, the oriental visitor was Merrill performing the role, all the while speaking in broken English, while Joe carried out the amusing interview. There was no end to such merriment.     

The “Joe and Mo Show” made instant celebrities out of Goodpasture and Moore. They were asked to emcee two beauty contests, one being the Miss Johnson City Pageant and the other the Miss Rhododendron Festival on Roan Mountain.

Also, Burley Shoun, a Mountain City farmer, artificially inseminated a cow and it bore twin calves. He was such a fan of the two radio personalities that he named one calf Joe and the other one Mo. The Johnson City Press-Chronicle carried the story accompanied by a photo of Joe communicating with Joe and Mo fellowshipping with Mo. The caption humorously noted that Mo (the calf) was slightly fatter than his twin brother.

The popular “Joe and Mo Show” was on the air between 1958 and 1961. Its demise came when Goodpasture went into the Air Force. Shortly afterward, Moore left the station. Not surprisingly, the popular WETB disc jockeys went on to have outstanding broadcasting careers.   

Read more