WLS: THE VOICE OF THE PRAIRIE
The flagship radio station of our rural Midwest, WLS in Chicago, began in 1924. That same year WGN came into being by taking over a station that had three owners in its prior two years of existence. Neither station was the first in the Windy City. That honor probably belongs to KYW which Westinghouse established in 1921 to showcase the Chicago Opera.
Much like WGN, which was owned by the Chicago Tribune, WLS soon became the property of another quite prominent publication, The Prairie Farmer. This agrarian bulletin, which began as a newspaper in 1841, was a popular agricultural magazine in the late 1920s when it bought its radio arm, WLS. For the next quarter century, the editor of Prairie Farmer would also serve as the president of WLS.
There were few format changes to be made when The Prairie Farmer took over WLS, since the station had been emphasizing farm news, livestock reports and country music from its inception on the airwaves.
One of its earliest and most popular programs, "WLS Barn Dance", was the creation of George D. Hays in 1924. He was a Memphis announcer who was lured to Chicago as the chief announcer for WLS for what was a princely salary then: $ 75 a week. Hay called himself "The Solemn Old Judge" and blew a steamboat whistle as the announcer on "Barn Dance."
A year later, in October 1925, Hay took a job at WSM Nashville and he helped create "Grand Ole Opry" basing it upon what he'd been doing for a year at WLS on "Barn Dance." ("WLS Barn Dance" would not be renamed "National Barn Dance" until 1933 when it debuted on the NBC Blue Network.)
"WLS Barn Dance" had a depth of country music talent which rivaled that of its more well known counter-part, "Grand Old Opry." Gene Autry was one of the stars at WLS in the early 30s, as was Patsy Montana. She would become the first female country & western singer to have a million selling record, "I Want To Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." Patsy's backup group, The Prairie Ramblers, changed members occasionally, but for years consisted of Jack Taylor, Chick Hurt, Salty Holmes, and Alan Crocket.
Clyde Julian "Red" Foley was also at WLS with Gene Autry in the 30s and Red did comedy bits with "Lulu Belle" (real name: Myrtle Cooper). She later teamed with Skyland Scotty Wiseman to become that popular duo, "Lulu Belle and Scotty". Not until 1946 did Foley switch from "Barn Dance" to "Grand Ole Opry", and when he did, he took new-comer, Chet Atkins, with him.
A country musician who became rather famous as "The Arkansas Woodchopper" began on "Barn Dance" in 1929 and stayed for two decades. The Hoosier Hotshots (Gabe Ward, Frank Kettering, and the Trietsch brothers, Ken and Hezzie) divided their time between WLS and making Hollywood film appearances. One of the best banjo players in the world, Eddie Peabody, was another WLS regular.
But the "Barn Dance" was also a springboard to show-biz for many who were but minor personalities at WLS. The Williams Brothers (Bob, Dick, Andy and Don) were a well-received boys quartet from Iowa on "Barn Dance." But they never achieved the enormous fame that the youngest one, Andy Williams, achieved in the recording industry and on television.
Little Georgie Goebel joined WLS at the age of 12 and was skipping back and forth to WGN-Mutual where he was playing juvenile roles on "Tom Mix Ralston Straight-Shooters". In 1941, Goebel, then aged 21, was a veteran of "Barn Dance" and was touring the U.S. with his own western dance band. But none of this could compare to his phenomenal success on television when his variety show ran from 1954 to 1960 and most Americans were repeating his comedy trademark lines, such as "Well, I'll be a dirty bird!"
Pat Buttram, a native of Winston County, Alabama, had listeners chuckling at his humor at WLS for years, but he achieved far greater fame in the movies and on television. Even the popular singer, Curt Massey, began at WLS in a minor spot, a fiddle player in cowboy quartet called The Westerners, whose lead singer was a woman.
Conversely, many of the WLS stars on "Barn Dance" and several other daytime musical programs are now remembered only by country & western researchers and some OTR fans.
These entertainers would include: "Little Genevieve" (Ted Morse), Fred Kirby, "The Little Maid" (Eve Overstake, later to be Mrs. Red Foley), Henry Burr, "Little Miss Swiss Miss" (a girl from Holland named Christine), "Prairie Sweethearts" (Esther Martin and Kay Reinberg), "Girl With A Million Friends" (Grace Wilson), "The Hayloft Trio" (Mary Ann Brygger, Lee Donovan, and Verne Carter), Smilie Sutter, "Honey Boy" (Joe Rockhold), and "The Hoosier Sod Busters" (Rusty Gill, Howard Black and Reggie Cross).
While "Barn Dance" was the linchpin of the WLS programming, there were a variety of programs during the day which also appealed to the rural audience throughout the prairie states. Many were musical shows: "The WLS Rangers", "The Little Brown Church of the Air", "Bill O'Connor and his Irish Ballads", "The Keystone Barn Dance Party", "The Singing Milk Man" (Hal Culver), "The Murphy Barnyard Jamboree", "The Maple City Four" and "Mac and Bob".
As you might imagine, the daily schedule also included plenty of farm news. Dave Swanson and Bill Morrisey alternated airing the livestock prices, while Al Tiffany and Jim Poole gave reports directly from the Chicago Stock Yards.
F. C Bisson provided listeners with bulletins of the grain exchange, Don Turnbull reported on poultry news, and C. A. Donnel gave timely agricultural weather forecasts. In addition, George Mennard hosted "The Man on the Farm".
Then there were shows aimed at the farmers' youngsters. "Uncle Charlie" Eggleston and "Aunt Rita" Ascot read them the funny papers. Julian Bentley hosted "School Time", which brought the kiddies into the WLS studios for an easier version of "The Quiz Kids". "Auntie Grace" Wilson was the leader of K-I-D-S Club and she tried to answer riddles sent in by grade-school listeners. Juvenile musicians were featured on "Uncle Jack and His Junior Stars."
In the late 30s and early 40s, NBC had several network shows being broadcast from the WLS studios. They included: "Fame and Fortune" (with Tommy Dorsey), "Pot O Gold" (with Horace Heidt) and another musical quiz with Ben Bernie. In addition, Harry Hagan conducted the"True Or False" quiz program and Jack MacBryde was "The Old Ranger" on "Death Valley Days."
Other NBC shows that were produced at WLS were: "Pepper Young's Family" (with Curtis Arnall in the title role in the 40s), "Vic and Sade" (starring Art Van Harvey and Bernadine Flynn), and "The Quiz Kids".
This panel of juvenile experts, nick-named by Fred Allen as "Information Please in Short Pants", had an rather interesting origin. Louis Cowan was the creator of the program and in its trial period, over a dozen people were tested for the Quizmaster. Finally the job was given to the most unlikely of candidates, Joe Kelley.
Kelley, a grade-school drop-out at age 8, started as a kid singer in a traveling stock company and then, in succession, worked the minstrel circuits, led a dance band called "Kelley's Klowns", sold pianos, and finally got into radio.
At a 50 watt station in Michigan, Kelley teamed up with a theological student, Jack Holden, to do comedy skits. About 1930 Kelley and Holden borrowed some money and struck out for Chicago, where they were both hired at WLS.
Kelley got a role as "Jolly Joe", a kids' morning show where he told them about the adventures of Scampy the Billy Goat and other tales. Holden got the job of hosting "Junior Stars". Later, Holden won the title role in the "Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters" at WGN-Mutual.
By the mid-Thirties, both Kelley and Holden had major roles on "Barn Dance", with the former ringing the cow bell and telling rural jokes while the latter man was one of the main announcers.
This job would eventually cost Holden his role as the voice of "Tom Mix" in 1937 when the Ralston officials decided that kids would be confused hearing their "Tom Mix" on "WLS Barn Dance". So they fired Holden and put Russell Thorson in the saddle at the T-M Bar Ranch.
Both Kelley and Holden continued their success at WLS. "The Quiz Kids", which began in 1940, gave Kelley permanent employment for the next several years, both on radio and also public tours. The radio series ran until 1953, and from 1949 to 1953, Joe and the kids were also doing a television version for NBC. Holden stayed with "Barn Dance" and WLS into the 50s.
Of course, the influence of the "Barn Dance" program was not limited to the radio listening audience. The WLS artists bureau marketed their radio stars enthusiastically and booked them at state fairs, farming festivals, outdoor amphitheaters, and opera houses throughout the prairie states of the Midwest.
The WLS entertainers, while they may not have enjoyed all this travel, certainly appreciated the money they made. Lulu Belle and Scotty, for example, were paid $ 500 a day in the 30s for such stage appearances. Contrast that with the $5 to $10 per show they got at WLS.
In the past 75 years, the prairies of the Midwest have gone from farms, ranches, and tiny villages to bustling urban areas whose inhabitants have largely forgotten their agrarian heritage. But the memories of "WLS: The Voice of the Prairie" will always be present for many of us in the OTR community.