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Thursday, May 20, 2004 04:49 am

When Lulubelle and Scotty ruled the airwaves

At the 1936 Illinois State Fair, WLS Barn Dance stars Lulubelle and Scotty prepare for their performance

The decade of the 1930s marked the halcyon days of radio. Television was still a novelty, while radio technology had progressed to a high level of sophistication, allowing for not only both live and taped news and entertainment programming to originate from the studios but from remote locations as well. One of the most popular radio shows of that era, or any era since, was the "WLS Barn Dance," a five-hour, country-themed cavalcade of music, comedy, and variety entertainment that was broadcast from the old 8th Street Theater in Chicago's South Loop every Saturday night. It was the Grand Ol' Opry before there was such a thing and the star performers, such as Gene Autry, Patsy Montana, and Red Foley, achieved stratospheric heights of popularity.

Radio station WLS (World's Largest Store) had been started by Sears & Roebuck in 1924 primarily as a marketing tool aimed at the vast rural population of pre-World War II America with which the retailer did a huge catalog mail-order business. Indeed, you could even get a house via Sears back then (you need only visit Downers Grove or Carlinville's Standard Addition if you want proof). Their slogan became "Bringing the World to Your Farm." In 1929, Sears & Roebuck decided to get out of the radio business, but because it wanted WLS's format to remain farm-oriented, the retailer sold the station to Prairie Farmer magazine. Although the Barn Dance began in 1924 under Sears, it was under the new ownership when the show reached the full flower of its huge popularity. Because Prairie Farmer was in publishing, many new fan magazines were created and they only served to increase an already wide fan base.

During the week, the 8th Street Theater looked much like any other theater, but on Saturday nights, stagehands placed bales of straw around the stage with wagon wheels and other such accouterments to lend an authentic "barn dance" ambience to the performance (for 75 cents you could watch it live). The cast numbered about 75, but among them, there were the "stars" -- and none were bigger than the two pictured here today, Lulubelle and Scotty. In fact, at the time the accompanying photograph was taken -- Aug. 15, 1936, at their opening-night performance at the Illinois State Fair --Lulubelle had just been voted National Radio Queen by listeners from all across America. The whole cast and crew had traveled to Springfield and the five-hour show was broadcast in its entirety from the grandstand. It marked only the second time that the Barn Dance had been broadcast from a venue other than the 8th Street Theater. The first had been the 1935 Illinois State Fair.

Lulubelle (real name Myrtle Eleanor Cooper) and Scott Wiseman both hailed from North Carolina and their music helped bridge the gap between traditional mountain music and early commercial country music. Lulubelle began on the Barn Dance as a 19-year-old in 1932. She always dressed in little girl mountain-style regalia, wore a huge bow in her hair, and chewed gum constantly. When she sang, she stuck the gum to her guitar until the song ended. Originally she was teamed with Red Foley, but his wife became jealous and so she was paired with "Skyland" Scotty Wiseman. Together, they sang a varied and immensely popular repertoire -- mountain ballads, love songs, gospel, and novelty songs. They were wonderful together and engaged in cleverly-written repartee between songs which audiences loved. They married in 1934.

It was an eventful opening day for the 1936 State Fair. Aug. 15, dubbed "Thrill Day" by fair officials because of the afternoon program of aeronautical derring-do, marked the 20th day that the thermometer topped 100 degrees. (Springfield's hottest summer in recorded history was in 1936.) The Journal reported that "the unusual sultriness added to the discomfort of the citizenry and visitors to the fair from out of town." That afternoon, the "world's tallest man," 18-year-old Robert Wadlow of Alton, was the subject of a WTAX radio interview at the intersection of Fifth and Washington Streets. A crowd estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000 stopped traffic so thoroughly that it took 10 policemen more than an hour to properly restore the flow of vehicles to the roadway.

That night, Mother Nature turned "Thrill Day" into "Thrill Night" for thousands of fairgoers. At 9:30 p.m., a severe storm struck with little warning. The rain, which fell in torrents, was accompanied by winds clocked at more than 50 miles an hour that destroyed several implement, livestock, and concession tents. Three hundred people were trapped under a collapsed beer tent and many were treated for injuries. Huge old trees were felled and city streets became rivers, but the temperature dropped to 72 degrees (at 9:50 p.m.) and the people of Springfield, who had been sleeping on porches and lawns and even in parks all summer long, welcomed the cool change.

Scotty Wiseman penned a popular song "Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?", among countless others.*



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