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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Liberty Theatre was the smallest and least pretentious motion picture theatre in Johnson City, yet the most evocative to area B-western movie fans. In the early to mid 1950s, patrons could enter the establishment at an affordable price (nine cents for children, fifteen cents for adults), consume a soft drink for a nickel, and munch on a big box of the best tasting popcorn on the planet for a dime, all the while being treated to a suspenseful cliffhanger serial, animated cartoon, newsreel, and an action-packed cowboy flick. 

Moviegoers once had five downtown theaters to satisfy their voracious big screen appetites. The Majestic (239 E. Main Street) and the Sevier (113-117 Spring Street) featured the latest contemporary upscale movies. The Tennessee (146 W. Main Street) and Liberty (221 E. Main Street) showed second-run movies, focusing heavily on budget pictures, “shorts” and serials. A fifth theatre, the Edisonia (236 E. Main Street), projected silent and early “talkie” movies, later becoming known as the Criterion and the State.

An afternoon of thrilling entertainment at the Liberty Theatre began with a newsreel, followed by previews of “coming attractions,” advertising such film celebrities as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, Sunset Carson, Wild Bill Elliott, Allan Rocky Lane, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, and “Lash” LaRue. Next, a cartoon was shown featuring the antics of such animated characters as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, Yosemite Sam, the Roadrunner, Tweetie and Sylvester, Woody Woodpecker, Droopy, and others.

Afterward, the next much-anticipated “chapter” of the featured serial was presented. This was a unique and clever film genre presenting a central plot in an episodic format of 12 to 15 installments, each about 17 minutes in duration. At the finale of each serial, the heroes appeared to die from one of an inexhaustible list of calamities: animal attacks, train wrecks, falling boulders, poisonous darts, burning buildings, airplane crashes, explosions and cave-ins. Each one concluded with such words as “To be continued… at this theatre next week.” The intent was to bring people back, no matter how busy or sick they were, at additional cost, to find out how their brave superman miraculously escaped impending death. It always worked.

The management frequently gave patrons a card with numbers that corresponded to each chapter of the current serial. The attendant would punch it with each visit, awarding free access to the theatre for those who arrived for the final chapter with a fully punched card. Area aficionados can still recall many of the 231 “talkie” serials, including “King of the Rocket Men” (Republic, 1949, 15 chapters), “Captain Video” (Columbia, 1951, 15 chapters), “Thunda, King of the Congo” (Columbia, 1952, 15 chapters), “Radar Men From the Moon” (Republic, 1952, 12 chapters), and “The Lost Planet” (Columbia, 1953, 15 chapters).

With the preliminaries out of the way, the fans were now ready to sit spellbound on the edges of their seats for about an hour of hard riding “shoot-em-up” western action. B-western movies had a recurring theme; a slick cowboy would mysteriously arrive to thwart some bad hombres from taking a fair damsel’s ranch, usually located on a proposed railroad line or containing a bed of rich deposits of oil or gold. With this western genre, the actions were quite predictable, and the final outcome was never in doubt. The good guys always triumphed over the bad ones; there were no exceptions.

A western film needed three things to be successful: an imposing hero, a faithful horse, and a funny sidekick. If a movie got too serious, the comedic sidekick was always ready to inject humor into the story line. Notable cowboys/sidekicks included Roy Rogers/”Gabby” Hayes, “Lash” LaRue/Al “Fuzzy” St. John, Gene Autry/Pat Buttram, Jimmy Wakely/Dub “Cannonball” Taylor, Charles Starrett (the Durango Kid)/“Smiley” Burnette, and Johnny Mack Brown/“Fuzzy” Knight. Western fans were equally familiar with their hero’s horses. Who could ever forget Allen’s Koko, Autry’s Champion, Cassidy’s Topper, Brown’s Rebel, Carson’s Cactus, Elliott’s Thunder, Lane’s Blackjack, Ritter’s White Flash, Rogers’ Trigger, Starrett’s Raider, and Wakely’s Sonny? A good horse not only provided its rider with reliable transportation, but also could be called upon to lend a hoof when needed in a precarious situation.


This genre displayed a slightly different flavor when singing cowboys the likes of Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Jimmy Wakely, and Rex Allen rode across the big theatre screen carrying guns and guitars, proving to their loyal fans that real men could both fight and sing. Moviegoers marveled when those serenading cowhands rode their beautiful stallions over extremely rough terrain, bouncing around in their saddles, yet singing a song so smooth and perfect it appeared to have come from a recording studio (which it did).

A cowboy would courageously fight the most loathsome villain one moment only to sing to his horse the next in the fresh air of the open prairie, thinking about that pretty cowgirl waiting for him at the end of the long winding trail. This was romanticism at its very best. A fundamental rule of B-western films was that cowboys could not kiss their favorite girls, at least on the theatre screen. That was a definite violation of the “code of juvenile expectancy.” The youthful crowd would permit their heroes to kiss their colorful horses but never their favorite ladies. At the movie’s finale, youngsters would file out of the theatre, trek back to their homes, saddle up their old broomstick broncos or living room rocking horse chairs and continue the adventure in the privacy of their own residences, receiving a bonus for the money they had spent.

Sadly, the 1950s slowly brought down the big curtain on B-western movies, caused by escalating production costs and the arrival of television into homes. The studios were reluctant to bring in a fresh crop of eager actors to replace the now aging ones. Thus, the Liberty’s final chapter was fast coming to an end. The theatre closed its doors about 1956 after twenty-seven years of operation. The modest and popular organization mounted its big golden palomino, “Popcorn,” and gracefully galloped into the sunset, never to return. Avid cowboy fans were saddened as they watched their favorite downtown establishment give way to a lady’s dress shop — the New Vogue… without so much as a cowboy hat, chaps, boots, or saddle to be found on the premises. 

The now aging B-western film fans must sit back and be content with the memories of hundreds of Saturday afternoons spent watching their favorite saddle aces, most of whom are long deceased. Watching an old western movie on television today does not afford the same exhilarating thrill once experienced when kids crowded into the small Liberty Theatre, gazing intently at the screen and cheering their favorite heroes. Will the day of the B-western ever return?… Probably not!  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Jon and Sparkie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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