Looking back at the Ozark Jubilee

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The Ozark Jubilee, pictured circa 1955.
(Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)


The Ozark Jubilee may have looked like a television show — but really, it was a cultural phenomenon that started right in Springfield.

The program, which aired weekly from 1954 to 1960, drew around 25 million viewers. It helped make Springfield the third leading producer of network television in the entire country behind New York City and Los Angeles. Some of the biggest names in country music made their debut on the show’s stage. It even likely helped pave the way for the development of Branson as a tourist destination.

“Today, country music has become big business and Springfield has become the recognized center of the country music world,” printed The Everyday Magazine, a section of the St Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, in 1956. “In fact, it’s generally agreed in televising, recording and radio circles that Springfield, now a city of 90,000, has shaken Nashville, Tenn., home of the Grand Ole Opry and long-time mecca of hillbilly musicians, to its very foundations.”

And it’s a period remembered fondly by those who celebrated the show firsthand.

“For me, it was one of the most exciting times in my life,” says John Harlin, a member of the show’s crew. “It was really an experience, and I enjoyed every bit of it.”

Before the show

An early view of the KWTO building. (Courtesy of the Ralph Foster Museum)

The Ozark Jubilee didn’t simply come to be. Years were spent laying the groundwork — albeit unintentionally — for the show’s success through radio king KWTO.

“KWTO was ‘the’ station for everyone in the Ozarks,” says Harlin, who grew up in Gainesville, and today is chairman of the board at Century Bank of the Ozarks. “I wasn’t a country music fan, but I woke up hearing it on the radio every morning when I woke up for high school.”

Affectionately known as Keep Watching The Ozarks, the Springfield station was launched in the early 1930s by local businessman Lester E. Cox and radio pioneer Ralph Foster. Foster wasn’t new to radio: He brought station KGBX to Springfield from St. Joseph in 1932, six years after establishing it there in the back of his family’s tire shop.

After moving to the Ozarks, Foster launched KWTO as a sister operation on Christmas Day 1933. “The new station was designed, in the words of a KWTO publicity man, ‘to reach every deer lick, rabbit warren and ‘hawg waller’ in the Ozarks,” noted Broadcasting Telecasting magazine in January 1955.

KWTO quickly developed a reputation for news, weather and a commitment to local talent, which was plentiful both because of the time and place.

“The hills in these parts were alive with people of all ages who fiddled and strummed and knew a great variety of hillbilly songs,” wrote the Post-Dispatch. “As a result, radio listeners got it around the clock. Hillbilly music became a drug on the market, which just goes to show how times can change.”

“The Little Crossroads Store,” formerly known as “Ozarkanna Corners,” was a KWTO show in the 1930s filled with rural life and philosophy. (Courtesy of KWTO/The Library Center; Ralph Foster Museum)

As time passed, syndicated content became a much bigger deal to the station. To support such shows, KWTO leadership launched a separate company — named Radiozark Enterprises, Inc. — in the 1940s.

“We had four hundred stations around the country (carrying the radio shows),” said producer Si Siman in the book “Remembering the Ozark Jubilee,” published in 1993. “And we had programs like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Red Foley, Smiley Burnette and the Whippoorwills, the Carter Family, Chet Atkins, the Bill Ring Show and the George Morgan (Candy Kisses Wrapped in Paper) Radio Show. Those were all syndicated shows.”

A sign promoting Korn’s-A-Krackin’, a radio predecessor to Ozark Jubilee. (Courtesy of the Ralph Foster Museum)

Another show — Korn’s-a-Krackin’ — was added to the list in the early 1940s. The vaudeville-inspired program ultimately served as a forerunner for the Ozark Jubilee.

“We originated the show from the Shrine Mosque,” recounted Siman. “But we traveled with it around the country to fairs and livestock shows … wherever anybody would want us. We’d go do a network origination wherever we were invited.”

Ultimately, it proved that audiences were extremely interested in watching — and attending — that type of country music-variety show.

Korn’s-A-Krackin’ drew great crowds, including to Springfield’s Shrine Mosque. (Courtesy of KWTO/Ralph Foster Museum)


Don Richardson, the show’s writer, is pictured in a Springfield newspaper in the late 1950s. (Courtesy of Springfield Newspapers/John Richardson)

By that time, several folks had joined KWTO who would become integral elements of the Ozark Jubilee. There were names like Siman, John Mahaffey, Joe Slattery — and Don Richardson, who joined KWTO as a writer in the early 1950s.

According to “Remembering the Ozark Jubilee,” Richardson heard about what was happening in Springfield from neighbor Smiley Burnette — a well-known musician who worked with KWTO — in Grand Rapids, Mi., and wanted to be part of the excitement.

“I wrote Si and said, ‘I always heard that when you want to learn something, you go straight to the horse’s mouth,” said Richardson in the book. “And I started the letter with, ‘Dear Horse’s Mouth.'”

The letter worked — and became immortalized.

Even years later, “Si would get the letter out and read it to people because it cracked him up,” recounts John Richardson, the writer’s son. “Si said, ‘Write an episode.’ And he did, he wrote multiple episodes and sent them to them. They even, I’m told, used some of the content out of what he’d written to apply for the job.

“And then Si contacted him and said, ‘How quickly can you get down here?’”

Starting the show

Around the same time, Radiozark folks began preparing for a transition to television. Four KWTO leaders — the aforementioned Cox, Foster, early-30s Siman and late-20s John Mahaffey — formed Crossroads Television Productions, Inc., with thoughts of breaking into the new industry.

One of their initial ideas was a new country music show, broadcast weekly from Springfield. They knew that they needed a top-name star to headline it — and one that came to mind was Red Foley.

He fit the role: Although he was one of the biggest names in country music, Foley came from humble Kentucky beginnings and, in a way, could pass for an Ozarker. His background was recounted by the short-lived Springfield news magazine Bias in September 1954:

The lad practically used a guitar for a teething ring, as did all the other kids of the neighborhood, and by the time he was in high school, studying sign painting, he was a popular entertainer at community ice cream socials and pie suppers. In 1930, while he painted signs for a living, his bright red hair illuminated the office of many an agent as he sought to break into show business, but it wasn’t until 1932, when he signed on at Chicago’s Radio WLS, that he made the grade.

Eventually, he landed on the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville, a network radio show which is unquestionably No. 1 in the country music field, and which has made Nashville the Mecca of country musicians of the world. He stayed there eight years and, as his fame grew, so did his record sales.”

Foley, in a souvenir booklet. (Courtesy of Ozark Jubilee/John Richardson)

Siman went to Nashville  to recruit Foley, and after 11 months of negotiations, sealed the deal.

“Many of his friends thought that he was making a mistake but Red felt that in aligning himself with Crossroads T-V, the Springfield group who produces the show, that he was joining forces with men whose forward thinking would be a tremendous asset in producing the types of country music show that he felt Americans would take to their hearts,” printed an early souvenir booklet about the show.

Convincing Foley to move to Springfield was something Wayne Glenn, a radio personality and historian who grew up watching the show, says was crucial to the Ozark Jubilee’s success.

“The show was always built around Red Foley,” says Glenn. “They put all their eggs in that basket of him being the star.”


With Foley on board, the show’s originators leased a space. Foster, on behalf of the organization Top Talent, Inc. — another local company formed to manage bookings for celebrities — chose the dark Jewell Theater, located at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and McDaniel Street in downtown Springfield.

“(Ralph) Foster, who is president of Radiozark and radio station KWTO, said that the theater will be used on Saturday night as the site for an elaborate country music show, starring Red Foley,” reported the Springfield Leader & Press in June 1954. “The on-the-stage recording of the radio show will be viewed by an audience in the 1100-seat theater.”

That decision, however, was one some thought was odd.

“When Foster contracted to spend $100,000 fixing up the Jewell theater stage, including a maze of TV electronics, his friends frankly told him he was losing his good judgment,” printed The Kansas City Star in January 1956. “And his ideas about making Springfield a national television center were wild.”

Those “national television” notions were a bit premature — but not by much. The Crossroads folks began dabbling in TV in 1953, when a few shows were broadcast locally from then-new KYTV’s studios.

But initially, radio still reigned supreme: When Ozark Jubilee officially began in July 1954, its shows were broadcast on radio to standing-room crowds.

“It was an instantaneous hit on the air and within two weeks, the American Broadcasting Co. had picked up the show and put it on a national hookup,” noted the Post-Dispatch.

Much bigger news was soon to come. Crossroads folks found out that the ABC-TV was interested in broadcasting the show beginning in January 1955. Technical issues, however, soon arose.

An episode of the radio version of Ozark Jubilee in 1954. (Courtesy of Bias/The Library Center)


It was quickly discovered that, despite ABC’s interest, it wouldn’t be possible to do the show because because the leased telephone lines that connected Springfield to the network at the time allowed programs to be received locally but not transmitted out.

“‘What you’re saying, then, is that we can suck but we can’t blow,'” noted Siman in “Remembering the Ozark Jubilee” of his conversation with network executives. “Well, we’re not going to let that stop us, ’cause you made a deal and on January 25th we’re going to be on your network.'”

Thankfully, Lester Cox’s connection with television station KOMU-TV in Columbia saved the day: For the first several weeks of the televised Jubilee — while AT&T reversed polarity and installed necessary equipment at the Jewell — the shows were created in Columbia.

“Every Saturday morning a crew of 60 people, including performers and technicians, got on a chartered bus at 5 a.m., and took off for Columbia,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “They arrived around noon, rehearsed all afternoon, put on a show at night, and then drove back to Springfield, arriving some time before dawn. They did that for 14 weeks, and they were very happy when Springfield got a micro-wave hook-up with the network.”

Showing in Springfield

The Ozark Jubilee, in a souvenir booklet from the show. (Courtesy of Ozark Jubilee/John Richardson)


The day finally came when the show was live in black and white from Springfield. “Even in ’55, probably a million people saw the first show when it was on network,” says Glenn. “We don’t reach those people today.”

The show quickly became a “Who’s Who” for country music stars, many of who knew Foley personally. “When word of Mr. Foley’s new affiliation hit the trade press, more than a dozen other major-label recording artists followed the talented troubadour to the new Ozarkian mecca,” reported Broadcasting Telecasting magazine. “And Radiozark Enterprises Inc., began to take on the aspects of a snowball.”

Less than a year after it began being televised, some were already proclaiming Springfield a rival to Nashville, which had long been considered the country music capital.

Some of the famous names to star the stage included Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Gene Autry, Porter Wagoner, Speedy Haworth, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Rex Allen, Minnie Pearl, Chet Atkins and many more. Although they were paid less than some might expect, it was worth their time to be on the show.

“The way they made a living was selling records and personal appearances,” says Gary Ellison, who later founded Gary Ellison Productions, Inc., in Springfield. He was the caller for the Wagon Wheelers, a group of square-dancing high schoolers, who regularly appeared on the show. “And for that, you had to have exposure and they got that on the Jubilee. It was the first time a nationwide audience could see these people live on a weekly basis.”

But despite their fame, local entertainers recall that no one really seemed stuck up.

“They treated us like we were just as important as anybody else on the show,” says Ellison of the celebrities. “I remember standing backstage, getting ready to go on, and standing there talking to Patsy Cline. As I say, these people were just as nice to us kids as you could believe.”

And, as it turned out, some of those performers actually moved to the Ozarks.

“More than 100 people who are big names in country music now make their homes in Springfield, fan mail is delivered to the studio in bushel baskets, and Springfieldians are getting accustomed to seeing guitar players in high-heeled boots driving Cadillacs,” recorded the Post-Dispatch.

Personal memories

Harlin, the crew member from Gainesville, wasn’t at the show in the very beginning, but he recalls the excitement of those early days as if they were yesterday. He was a teenager at the time, one who had moved to Springfield for college and was fascinated by the concept of television.

“Every day I went (to KYTV), asking for a job,” says Harlin, noting that the day finally came. “‘We still don’t have an opening at the station,’ he recalls the news director telling him. “‘But we have an opening on the Ozark Jubilee.'”

Harlin was hired as a microphone man, and it was his responsibility to ensure the device — which was attached to a pole and held over the cast members — didn’t dip in front of the cameras. “We had to keep the mic close enough to who was singing and not get it in the picture. You’d just learn,” he says. “I don’t think I got it in the picture — at least on air.”

But in those days, everyone was learning TV together. “Nobody knew any more than anyone else did,” he says. “Everybody was the same at that time, and even had the same equipment.”

That fact — combined with a general love of television — provided a heady environment for the young man. “I just couldn’t wait for Saturday night to come around,” he says. It’s a sentiment echoed by Keith Keltner, who sang on the show as a member of the Pitch Hikers and Jubalaires.

“I was just having fun. 20 years old, having the time of my life,” Keltner recalls, who lives in Nixa and grew up to have a career in real estate development and family enterprises. “I didn’t know it (at the time). I look back now and know it was one of the best times of my life. In fact, I’d go through that portion of it again.”


Both Keltner and Harlin fondly recall the Saturday performances, which would begin long before the show started.

Harlin remembers arriving at the theater each week around 7:30 a.m., after which the cast and crew did a talk-through of the show, and then a walk-through. “After noon, around 2 p.m., we’d go through it like it’d be at night,” he says. “Everybody knew what they were going to do.”

And hopefully they remembered once the show started. “When the camera went on, you didn’t make any mistakes. If you did, it was saved for posterity,” laughs Keltner. “There it was.”

People from across the country would crowd the theater for each show. It also worked well that the show ran during Route 66’s heyday and was only half a block from the historic thoroughfare on St. Louis Street. Frequently faced with surplus crowds, the show’s organizers innovated a solution.

“During the summer, they would get the television audience out of the theater, and then bring another group in,” says Ellison. “They’d roll the cameras back, and we’d do the show one more time, just as a stage show.”

Red Foley sings during an Ozark Jubilee show circa 1955. (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)


Many of those people, however, were likely from outside the Ozarks.

“It attracted a lot of out-of-town people,” Kelter. “I don’t think there was a whole of Springfield people that really knew what was going on there. People’d come in with their signs: ‘We’re from Decatur, Georgia,’ and whoop and holler.”

Some local sentiment, however, went past simple ambivalence. At the time, Glenn notes, there were local leaders who felt that the “hillbilly” image wasn’t in the best interest of Springfield.

“It’s very normal (that those) nearest to the event appreciate it the least,” he says. “They thought it was a hillbilly show that showed the Ozarks off in a negative light instead of a positive light.”

Maybe some of those folks had a connection with Time magazine, which described the show’s cast a little less than complimentary in 1956: “While other radio stations were scratching out pop music on wax, Springfield’s KWTO gave its listeners live, howling hillbillies.”

At least those hillbillies were friendly.

“There were a few times that we would go out together after the show,” says Keltner. “A popular spot in Springfield then was the Shady Inn. We used to go over there to the bar room, and have a late evening dinner and have a few drinks and gather around the piano and sing and just have fun.”

Changes for Jubilee

Massey-Ferguson, one of the show’s main sponsors, hosted a tractor display at one of the shows. Note the show’s name change. (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)


As the end of the 1950s rolled around, things began to change for the Jubilee — beginning with its name. In 1957, the Leader & Press announced that the word Ozark would drop from the show’s name, which became Country Jubilee before switching to Jubilee U.S.A.

But other things were going on behind the scenes, too, especially regarding its talent. In the late 1950s, writer Richardson was let go from his longtime role. The exact reason is a mystery: His son says his father didn’t tell him, and likely destroyed diaries from that time period out of bitterness.

Around that same time, Foley was dealing with issues of his own.

Despite his generous, kindhearted nature, Foley faced charges of tax evasion — which he was later cleared of — and battled severe alcoholism. The latter was something especially obvious to many on the show.

Keltner mentions the Rendezvous, a lounge inside the Colonial Hotel, that was across Jefferson Avenue from the theater and a bit too handy for Foley. “During rehearsal and what have you, he’d step across the street and go to the Rendezvous,” says Keltner. “…He’d be so out of it that sometimes they had to slow the show down so they could get Red straightened out. It was really too bad.”

But while those times remain, they aren’t what Keltner says most remember Foley for. “When they talk about Red Foley, they want to remember all the good things,” he says. “That’s what I’d like to remember, too. I don’t dwell on the fact that he was an alcoholic.”

Even though historian Glenn wasn’t involved with the show firsthand, he knows the stories tarnished Foley’s image locally.

“A lot of the things weren’t in the paper,” says Glenn. “His tax problems were. But these other ‘personal’ things were widely known even though they weren’t well-published.”

They were things, according to Glenn, that distressed the tight-knit, conservative Ozarks.

“Being as close as they were, they saw the negative elements,” says Glenn. “And those elements were embarrassing to many Christian-type people — that Red Foley sang the gospel songs and really had a lot of problems.”

Ellison says, however, that the demise of Jubilee was ultimately Foley’s contract. “The federal government had brought him to trial over the income tax (charges), and it was time to sign the contract for the next year of the Jubilee, and he couldn’t sign it because he didn’t know if he was going to be available,” says Ellison. As a result, the Saturday time slot was given to boxing matches that had previously aired on Fridays.

The last show — after nearly 300 — was held on September 24, 1960.

“There are millions who will mourn its passage. There are probably as many others who couldn’t care less. And there are some who predict (or warn, according to individual tastes) that it may rise again soon,” noted the Sunday News and Leader in a September 1960 article entitled “The death of TV’s Jubilee.”

Five-Star Jubilee

Stars of the Five-Star Jubilee pose outside the Landers Theatre. (Courtesy of History Museum on the Square)

Turns out, the newspaper was right.

In March 1961, a spin-off entitled Five-Star Jubilee made its debut at the Landers Theatre. The show, which was broadcast by NBC, was still filled with country music. Instead of a single host, however, five different music industry names — Snooky Lanson, Tex Ritter, Rex Allen, Jimmy Wakely and Carl Smith — took the stage on a rotating basis.

The show, which was broadcast in color, lasted only 29 episodes before leaving the air.

“NBC just had one color unit, and it came October and it was time for the World Series,” says Ellison. “They unplugged the cameras and took them out and that as the end of that.”

The last episode concluded a legacy that made an undeniable impression on Springfield and the surrounding area.

“It is beyond history,” says Glenn of the show’s legacy. “It is a feeling, and you’d like to be able to try to transfer that feeling of the … pride that we had, and the importance of it. You like to try to pass that on to another generation.”

Lasting impact

Even though the Jubilee has been off the air for more than 55 years, its presence has left a lasting impact on Ozarks tourism.

“Not every week, but most every week, they would say, ‘Come and see us. Come and see the Ozarks,’” recounts Glenn. “…The fact is, that I think it was monumental. Mind recognition. Word recognition. Name recognition. Regional recognition. ‘Come to the Ozarks.’ And this was appealing to people who didn’t have any idea about what the Ozarks were like. But by watching that show, they found out.”

The end of the Jubilee tied in with the beginning of Branson’s music boom — the first professional shows began around that time — and the start of Silver Dollar City. The theme park, then just a start-up, was where Don Richardson went to work after his end at the Jubilee.

“My mom always said that dad came in and said, ‘Well, I need to make a decision. I can go to Nashville and I can work for record companies and write liner notes and do PR there. Or there’s this little attraction down here in the hills called Marvel Cave Park that wants to open an attraction on top of their cave to give people something to do,'” recounts John Richardson of his father.

Richardson began as a freelance publicist with Silver Dollar City — a role that led him to even name the park, and suggest the gimmick of giving silver dollars in change for free publicity — but soon moved to full-time, and undoubtedly played a role in its monumental growth and success.

But he did something else: He brought Andy Miller, the Jubilee’s set designer, to the park.

“Andy created the look and feel of Silver Dollar City, and that’s directly related to the look and feel of the set of the Jubilee,” says the younger Richardson, who also notes that national contacts from the Jubilee also supported Silver Dollar City.

“There’s a direct link there,” he says. “Then a lot of the talent that came to Silver Dollar City … at different times was because of the connection to the television business.”


In the physical sense, little today remains from the various iterations of the Jubilee. The Jewell Theater was torn down shortly after the Jubilee’s conclusion there. An enduring link was Aunt Martha’s Pancake House, which was opened in 1959 by Martha Haworth, a performer on the Jubilee. It saw many performers through its doors — including Willie Nelson, who is rumored to have washed dishes there — but ultimately shuttered in 2015. Even folks who performed on the show are fast disappearing.

“The old timers that have survived, most of them are at least 80, even if they were a kid (on the show),” says Glenn.

Knowing such a time would come, Glenn organized a reunion of performers in the late 1980s. It included the dedication of a historic marker at the Jewell site, which is now known as Ozark Jubilee Park.

But even though numbers are dwindling, there are others who want to remember the show. Recently, The Mystery Hour, Springfield’s local late-night show, modeled one of its episodes after the Jubilee. And soon, hopefully a visual reminder will come through several of the show’s actual episodes.

Thanks to efforts led by Missouri State University Libraries, 60 kinescope episodes will eventually be digitized and made available to the public on a dedicated YouTube channel. At $2,500 per episode, it’s a pricey project and one that will evolve as money is raised.

But costs don’t make remembering any less important.

“I think from a history standpoint, it’s terribly important (to remember). Nobody else did what these people did in those days,” says Jerry Redfern, today a Springfield attorney, who appeared on the Jubilee as a square-dancing Promenader. “Things can be done in a small area, small town, if the people have enough courage to try it.”

Want to learn more?

The first digitized episode of the Ozark Jubilee will be shown on Thursday, March 23, at University Plaza Convention Center as part of the Missouri Conference on History. Admission is free, but registration is required. A panel discussion with Tom Peters (dean of Library Scienes at Missouri State University), Wayne Glenn (radio personality and Ozark Jubilee historian) and Kaitlyn McConnell (ozarksalive.com) will conclude the evening.

For ongoing research, visit the Ralph Foster Museum at College of the Ozarks. The Si Siman music room features regional subjects, including the Ozark Jubilee.

Another great resource is “Remembering the Ozark Jubilee,” a book chock-full of interviews with the show’s main names. Its author, Reta Spears-Stewart, also authored a biography of Red Foley — “Troubles, Faith and Peace in the Valley” — that was published in 2011.

Resources

“The death of TV’s Jubilee,” Sunday News and Leader, Sept. 18, 1960

“Hillbilly music center,” Dickson Terry, The Everyday Magazine, Feb. 5, 1956

“Jewell leased by Top Talent,” June 16, 1954, Springfield Leader & Press

“Jubilee ends stage shows,” Springfield Leader & Press, Sept. 23, 1960

“Jubilee near end of line?” Springfield Leader & Press, Aug. 1, 1960

“Jubilee TV show will drop word ‘Ozark’ out of name,” Springfield Leader & Press, June 17, 1957

“Local media personalities helped shape community,” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, July 26, 1999

“New Jubilee has 5 stars,” Springfield Daily News, March 10, 1961

“Ozarks folk tunes and comedy make Springfield a TV center,” Howard Turtle, The Kansas City Star, Jan. 29, 1956

“Ozark Jubilee,” promotional booklet, first edition

“Ozarks studios produce national radio programs,” Don Richardson, Ozarks Mountaineer, 1953

“Radiozark Enterprises,” KWTO Dial, January 1951

“Remembering the Ozark Jubilee,” Reta Spears-Stewart, 1993

“Springfield of the Ozarks,” Harry and Phyllis Dark, 1983

“There’s gold in them thar songs!” Jim Billings, Bias, September

“They love mountain music,” Time, May 1956

“Tin Pan Alley in the Ozarks,” Broadcasting Telecasting, Jan. 3, 1955