I received a letter from Lynn Williams, former chief engineer at radio station WBEJ in Elizabethton, saying he fondly remembers their remote broadcasts from atop Elizabethton’s Dutch Maid Drive-In on Elk Avenue.
“As engineer,” said Lynn, “I took care of the nuts and bolts of the operation, but was not averse to donning another hat, such as the ‘Musical Penthouse’ production. This was a creation of Bill Hale, a ‘ball of fire’ program director and future station manager. In 1956, I agreed to operate the studio equipment at night during the on-location program.”
According to Lynn, WBEJ transmitted Monday through Saturday nights from 7 pm until sign-off at midnight. The engineer recalled several announcers from that era: Curley White, Jim Berry, Ed Howze, E. Lee “Leaping Lee” Brown, Larry Hinkle and Harold “Hap” Henley Ziggy Ziggy Higgenbottom. Hap was the well-liked host of “Hap’s House in Session.”
The Dutch Maid penthouse, a four-foot by six-foot enclosure above the eatery, had plate glass windows on four sides, allowing outside patrons to observe the announcer. A bright florescent light fixture was mounted on the ceiling, making the disc jockey even more visible from below. The transmitting booth contained only the necessary equipment to play records over the air.
Climbing to the broadcast penthouse was no easy task. The announcer had to unsteadily scamper up the backside of the building, while carefully hanging onto the guttering and downspouts. This dicey inconvenience was deliberate; it kept people from going up to the booth and disturbing the deejay or falling off the roof.
A gold painted galvanized water bucket was used to accumulate song requests. It was routinely lowered and raised by the announcer to collect song titles from diners. A large wooden box contained 100 45-rpm records, representing the top hits of the day. These unbreakable vinyl platters had to be returned to the studio each night lest the sun’s heat ruin them the next day.
Williams further commented: “The brightness of the penthouse attracted oodles of flying bugs, forcing the announcers to make a choice – keep the door closed to keep out bugs and endure the heat or open it and let in cooler air and bugs.
“The station scheduled a 30-minute break at precisely 10 pm. I gave the news, sports and weather from the main studios. This allowed the deejay to ‘shinny’ down the drainpipe, visit with fans and get something to eat. Occasionally, he was late returning to the booth, prompting me to segue records until he arrived back at his post. This gave the illusion to listeners that the music was coming from the Dutch Maid. I occasionally chatted over the air with the remote disc jockey, but I was incognito known only as “Prof,” preferring to remain in the background.”
Lynn occasionally invited high school students into the studio through the unlocked door to play some of the ‘break time’ records. He taught them to operate the equipment and even helped a few obtain a license to work in radio. Fifty years later, he still recalls some of their names: Jim Luther, Don Swanner, Doug Greer and Bob Coffman.
The Dutch Maid remote continued intermittently until its demise in 1964. Lynn concluded his letter by saying: “It was a great time and it is too bad that it all came to an end. Sadly, most of the people I worked with at WBEJ are no longer living.” Like so many pleasurable things in life, they so quickly and quietly slip into yesteryear never to return.