THE WLS NATIONAL BARN DANCE
BY: Gene Autry and Pat Buttram
As told by: Kenneth E. Baughman[i]
The WLS National Barn Dance started in 1928 when announcer Steve Cisler, and George Biggar, program director, started broadcasting from the Sherman Hotel in Chicago on Saturday nights. The first shows consisted of a bunch of guys with fiddles. They put practically anybody on the air. After those first shows, so much mail was received, that they decided to put it on the air every week. WLS was owned by Sears Roebuck and the call letters stood for “World’s Largest Store.” The station was later sold by Sears Roebuck to Prairie Farmer which at the time was managed by Burridge D. Butler. In fact, it was practically given to them. Sears had decided that they had no business being in the radio production work. The founder of the Grand Ole Opry, George D. Hay, otherwise known as “the solemn old judge,” was at WLS four years as an announcer including the Alka-Seltzer hour segment on the NBC radio network from 7:00 to 8:00 every Saturday night. He also moderated a separate show on the NBC network called "Show Boat" and blew a train whistle which became his trademark. The WLS Barn Dance went off the network in 1946 and closed down completely at the Eighth Street Theater in Chicago in 1957. Country music then had already began to shift from Chicago to Nashville.
Many have asked why Illinois lost such a valuable asset as country music to Nashville. Some would say it was caused by the Musician’s Union which was at that time headed by James Patrillo, who lived in Chicago. Nashville was located in Tennessee which was a right-to-work state and presented fewer obstacles and lower costs to producers. The barn dance was also different from the Grand Ole Opry in that it featured Polkas, lumberjack songs, different nationalities, ethnic music and Swiss yodeling. Nashville tended to feature bluegrass and honky tonk sounds that eventually took over country music, but the main reason for the shift was economics as described.
We played most of the theaters and some auditoriums and local fairs all the way from Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, Indiana, and all over Illinois and Iowa, all within range of the 50,000 clear channel voice of WLS radio. At that time they had split their airtime with WENR, which was an ABC station. We worked outside Chicago about five days a week and then came in on Saturdays to do the Barn Dance. Most performers made their money on tours as the payment from the Barn Dance and later in movies, was nominal.
The Barn Dance at the Eighth Street Theater, located at Eighth and Wabash Streets in Chicago, started at 7:00 p.m. and ended at midnight. They had two shows with the first hour of the first show being on the NBC network called the Alka-Seltzer Hour. Pat Buttram came to the show in 1934 and accompanied Gene Autry with his personal appearances. In addition to doing the one-hour network show on NBC, Pat Buttram also did a thirty-minute show on WLS for the Murphy Feed Company.
It was 1934 in Tuscola, Illinois, that Gene Autry met Smiley Burnette. He was described as a man who could communicate with kids better than any person. He became a master of sidekicks and a pattern for others to follow. At that time when Gene was playing a show in Champaign, Illinois, he lost his accordion player. Somebody suggested that there was an accordion player at WDZ radio in Tuscola. Gene went down to see him and was amazed at his versatility and the many instruments which he could play. He hired him as his accordion player and later took him to Hollywood whereby he became a legend in the movie industry as a sidekick to Gene Autry. He was a son of a Baptist minister who at that time lived in Tuscola, Illinois.
Those who were featured on the WLS National Barn Dance in the 30’s and 40’s who later went into pictures were legendary. One of the singing cowboys who originated on WLS was Eddy Dean, who with his brother, Jimmy, came to Hollywood and appeared in pictures with Gene Autry. The Maple City Quartet, who took their name after LaPort, Indiana, came to Hollywood and also appeared in pictures. Max Terhune became a big star in the “The Three Mesquiteers” and in other pictures, as did the Hoosier Hot Shots who started a series at Columbia Pictures. Max Terhune was a native of Anderson, Indiana. He appeared in a picture with Gene Autry called “Ride Ranger Ride.” At one time, the Hoosier Hot Shots were making six pictures a year for Columbia. In addition to Smiley Burnette, Patsy Montana also moved to Hollywood and made a number of pictures. Another singing cowboy was a man named Tumbleweed whose real name was Leland Weed. He later changed his name to Bob Barker and he also became one of the original singing cowboys in Hollywood pictures. Burridge Butler discovered Barker at his radio station KOY in Phoenix, Arizona, and thereafter brought him to WLS.
There was a group on WLS called the Westerners, probably the greatest western singing group featuring Louise Massey and her brothers. One of them became a big star in Hollywood, Kurt Massey, who played a beautiful violin, trumpet and piano. He could do it all.
One of the better-known stars who was featured on WLS was little Georgie Goebel. He was the biggest star next to Gene Autry to come out of the WLS Barn Dance. He was allowed to appear on the Barn Dance as a youngster and play a ukulele even though he was not a member of the union, because the union did not describe a ukulele as a musical instrument.
One of the fellows who started in Chicago is a man called Rhubarb Red. His act was a comedy and featured playing a guitar. He teamed up with two other fellas from the Barn Dance, Jimmy Atkins, (Chet Atkins brother) and a bass player named Ernie Newton. They called themselves the Les Paul Trio. He teamed up with a gal named Colleen Summers who later changed her name to Mary Ford and hence the famous duo, Les Paul and Mary Ford. They pioneered the dubbing over sound and in fact, Les Paul is attributed to having invented the electric guitar.
Probably the third most famous personality to come out of the WLS Barn Dance was Red Foley. He did a Kentucky Mountaineer’s act and had a beautiful voice. He was a friend of Gene’s and they worked closely together but lost a lot of opportunities in the early days in Chicago because he lacked ambition.
One of the featured banjo players was Eddy Peabody who traveled on tour with Gene throughout Illinois.
Another singing cowboy who was featured on WLS was Rex Allen. He got into the movie business late and missed out on many of the early opportunities. He is now featured as the announcer on Church Street Station on TNN and does advertisements for an agricultural chemical company. He was also discovered in Arizona.
One of the longest acts on WLS Barn Dance was Lulu Belle and Scotty. Lulu Belle was a clerk in a store. John Lair of the National Barn Dance discovered her and changed her name from Myrtle Cooper to Lulu Belle and dressed her up doing comedy. At first she appeared with Red Foley as his sweetheart on the Barn Dance. She finally ended up marrying a fellow from North Carolina whose name is Scotty Weissman. He was a good songwriter. He wrote the song that Gene made a big hit out of called “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.”
We should not forget those who worked behind the scenes. One of the prime agents at the WLS Barn Dance was Joe Frank. He was really the organizer behind it all. When he left WLS he went to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and booked acts down there like Ernie Ford and Roy Acuff. He started there a group called the Golden West Cowboys who featured Pee Wee King, the author of “Tennessee Waltz.” He also took Lulu Belle as a client. Joe Frank had a lot to do with the building of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in the early days.
Probably one of the greatest performers that appeared on the WLS Barn Dance, although not as well known, was Bradley Kincaid. He was the forerunner of the great folk singers. He was one of the first folk singers to come up out of Kentucky with the old folk songs like “Cindy,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “Dan Tucker.” People generally hadn’t heard of such songs as “Top of Ole Smokey” that Burl Ives later recorded and the Weavers made famous as folk singers. Burl Ives basically copied Bradley’s songs but did it with a tuxedo. He would bring these authentic folk songs up, and with John Lair, rewrites them a verse at a time, in a manner in which people would appreciate them.
There was a guitar player on the Barn Dance called Doc Hopkins. He was the first guitar player who could play the guitar with his fingers in the same manner as Chet Atkins does now. Chet Atkins and Merle Travis learned from Doc Hopkins.
Another famous singer on WLS Barn Dance was Jimmy Rodgers. He sang a different type of song than Bradley Kincaid who was a very popular hillbilly singer. Jimmy came in with all of those blues songs and yodeled. Bradley stuck strictly to country songs.
One of the longest running performers on WLS was Arkie, the Arkansas Woodchopper. He was discovered in Kansas City by George Biggar. The big thing that he did on the Barn Dance was calling square dances. He had a great voice, a great smile and a laugh in his voice that came through on the air. When he made personal appearances, he dressed up like a woodchopper. His name was Luther Osenbrink.
One of the sound effects men on the show was Tom Corwine. He was an old time farmer and made sounds of animals, dog fights, rooster crowings and train whistles. Generally the sound effects were handled by the union people.
The announcers on the Barn Dance also became famous. Among the big three were Joe Kelly, Jack Holden and Hall O’Hallohan. They would take turns. Joe Kelly moved up to a show called “The Quiz Kids” which became famous.
There was a man who presented himself on the WLS Barn Dance called Uncle Ezra, however, his most famous show was a separate program on the NBC Radio Network called Radio Station “E-Z-R-A.” He was on NBC everyday with that show. He was an old friend of Fred Allen and Jack Benny. They came up though the vaudeville circuits and brought it into radio.
There was an act called the Cumberland Ridge Runners whose members included Glenn Miller, a great fiddle player, Harland Hardy and Red Foley. Their string band consisted of guitars, fiddles, bass, and mandolin.
One of the acts which was out of the country realm was Henry Burr who was a trained concert singer and could sing songs like “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” Another group called the Hoosier Sodbusters played harmonicas and consisted of Howard Black and Reggie Cross. One of the comedians who lasted throughout the Barn Dance was Donald ‘Red’ Blanchard.
Compared to the days of the WLS Barn Dance, there are more artists performing than ever before and fads move in and out of the scene quickly. In the 30’s and 40’s you only had records or radio to get your message across. You didn’t have to deal with videotapes, television stations and big concert halls. You couldn’t find a large auditorium to hold a large performance as they do today. One of the biggest problems facing performers today is the lack of material and it has gotten so bad that many performers are starting to re-issue old songs.
The reason that the Barn Dance was so popular with farmers was that it was the only entertainment around, aside from Saturday night movies. The real competition was the big bands. Folk music came mostly from settlers in the Midwest, Sweden, Germany, England, Ireland and Scotland and places like that and much of this music had been in the family for years. The WLS Barn Dance provided a medium for the expression and recreation of much of this folk music for the first time which still continues today in many different forms.
[i] Ken Baughman is a
Monticello, Illinois, attorney and was raised on a farm in Calhoun
County, Iowa. This story was written from an interview of the authors
on July 5, 1990, at Gene Autry’s office at KTLA-TV in Hollywood,
California, located at 58 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
“It was a great honor to interview Gene Autry who I watched as a boy, his movies shown in the Manson, Iowa theater. He was every bit the gentleman and kind hearted person in real life as he was in the movies.”