By Dr. Gary Boye
It was to be a fun weekend at the Appalachian Theatre starting on Friday, October 22, 1943. Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell starred in the feature film for the night, Ship Ahoy, an MGM musical, along with chapter 6 of the Republic serial, Secret Service in Darkest Africa, with Rod Cameron. No doubt a cartoon or two and a newsreel outlining the latest developments in the war were on the program as well. Saturday was to be even bigger, with Westerns both in the matinee and the evening shows: Thundering Trails with Bob Steele for the kiddies and Ken Maynard's Wild Horse Stampede for the late afternoon and evening. To top it all off, there was a live stage show called the Hillbilly Jamboree, featuring local performers. The Jamboree had begun the previous August and had become increasingly elaborate. A Quiz Show—in imitation of radio quiz shows popular at the time—had been added to the musical entertainment. It was even being broadcast over the local radio station, WDRS, operating out of Kermit Dacus' radio shop in the front of the theater building.
Little did the locals know that there would be other live entertainment that weekend, in the form of US marshals and deputies representing the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC agents pressed into Dacus’s studio with a warrant and took away a transmitter, various other equipment, as well as files and recordings. They even took a turntable owned by local musician Paul Weston and a microphone owned by Ray Kepler. Obviously, there would be no live broadcast that Saturday night—or ever again—from station WDRS.
Although the local newspaper was to downplay the charges as a mere "technical violation" (Watauga Democrat, October 28, 1943, p. 1), the station had actually been under surveillance for more than a week. FCC agents had made recordings of broadcasts in nearby Tennessee, proving both the the wattage restrictions for the non-commercial station license had been exceeded and that explicitly commercial advertisements and radio programs were being broadcast. No doubt, the barn dance and the quiz show only hurt Dacus's case. He was to pay a hefty fine and spend several years on probation, returning to selling radios, but never again to broadcasting radio programs.
Although the Hillbilly Jamboree aired for only a brief period of time, some important events happened in the studios of WDRS and on the Appalachian Theatre stage located in the same building that autumn of 1943. To put these events in context, I will first turn to a brief history of early radio stations in Boone, North Carolina.
Early Radio in Boone
By 1943, radio was everywhere, even in the mountains of North Carolina. No other invention had arrived on the scene in such a primitive state and had seen such a meteoric rise in popular culture. And surprisingly, the people of Boone were in on broadcast radio from the very beginning. Local phonograph salesmen David F. Greene and D. B. Bingham picked up broadcasts in 1920 with what they called the Magnavox:
Training School Items. . . . Our enterprising Edison men Messrs. Greene and Bingham, of Boone, have been entertaining their friends in town with music through the new invention, the "Magnavox," by means of which it is reported that the President spoke to 50,000 people. They are planning to use it to announce the electing news on Tuesday evening. (Watauga Democrat, November 4, 1920, p. 3)
These election results detailing President Warren G. Harding's victory are generally considered the first nationwide commercial radio broadcast. Two years later, Greene and Bingham had upgraded to the "wireless telephone" by which they could listen to four programs a day from East Pittsburgh (station KDKA), allowing visitors at the shop to listen in for free (Watauga Democrat, March 30, 1922, p. 3). While it took advanced skill in electronics to operate these early sets, by 1925 the technology had advanced enough that locals could purchase a radio at roughly the same price as a good phonograph—and without needing a continual stock of heavy, shellac, 78 rpm records.
Reception of radio programs was occurring everywhere in the nation by the mid 1920s, but actual broadcast of radio from small towns like Boone would have to wait a bit longer. In 1930, Ralph Winkler, manager of the Central Tire Company and part owner of the Pastime Theatre (and future owner of the Appalachian), received an experimental radio station permit from the FCC and installed a transmitter on the top of the tire company's building on King and Depot. Winkler stated, "While the experimental station is being established primarily for the enjoyment of its promoter, it is likely that should the venture prove successful, it may be the means later on of effectively advertising this section to the outside world." (Watauga Democrat, April 3, 1930, p. 1)
Over the next few months, Winkler appears to move towards establishing a commercial radio station in Boone, hiring radio engineer Kermit Dacus from Los Angeles, California (Watauga Democrat, September 25, 1930, p. 1). Winkler had also teamed up with Edward Hodges and stated, "It is the purpose of Messrs. Winkler and Hodges to provide radio audiences with string music by local artists, mountain folk-songs and popular vocal selections." Dacus himself continued by assuring readers "that local broadcasts will not interfere with the reception of other stations, and is of the opinion that the inception of Boone programs will afford a pleasant innovation for radio owners in this vicinity." (Watauga Democrat, September 25, 1930, p. 1). The radio station continued to broadcast through 1930, but then appears to have died out. Perhaps the commercial license was not approved; perhaps Winkler and the other businessmen involved moved on to other, more lucrative pursuits. Kermit Dacus, on the other hand, was in the radio business for the long term.
Kermit Irvin Dacus, Sr. (1908-1983)
Dacus was actually born in Mississippi, but had lived in Los Angeles before arriving in Boone and had received training in radio broadcasting from the US Government Radio School. Radio repair, if not radio broadcasting, was a lucrative career nationwide, even during the depths of the Depression, and Dacus settled down to his shop, Boone Radio Service, with ads appearing in 1933. He advertised himself as: "The only man within a radius of one hundred miles with 12 years of active experience in radio work, including diploma from US Government Radio School and Government Radio Operator's License." (Watauga Democrat, December 7, 1933, p. 4).
By 1941, no doubt remembering the experience gained with Ralph Winkler, Dacus was once again interested in broadcast radio. He must have thought himself uniquely qualified to run not just the technical end of the business, but the entire radio station. In early 1941, Dacus began broadcasting at 800 kilocycles (AM) with a program featuring "Barber Bill's well-known quartette." The technology was not the problem with operating a radio station. The problem was the daunting paperwork and restrictions imposed by the FCC, restrictions often placed into the hands of big radio station owners with a vested interest in dominating the airwaves. An unsigned article from the local paper exaggerated some of the red tape involved:
Philadelphia Lawyer Needed for Radio License
If you ever get the idea that you would like to get a license from the government to operate a radio station--don't do it--unless you are prepared to answer hundreds of questions, intimate ones and other kinds and be prepared to place on exhibit scores of confidential papers ranging from your birth certificate to when your Aunt Mamie had her last operation. The Federal Communications commission requires the applicants to fill out a 41-page questionnaire. . . . According to one writer, the questionnaire appears to have been confected by a genius with a high sense or responsibility but who was not overlooking any bets. (Watauga Democrat, April 3, 1941, p. 2)
This little article was to prove prophetic. Dacus apparently never pursued a commercial radio station license for WDRS ("Dacus Radio Service"). While the initial programming included relatively benign non-commercial programming such as the local high school glee club, religious programs, and choir sings, the station became increasingly connected to blatantly commercial sponsors.
By late summer 1943 Dacus had moved his radio shop into one of the store spaces in the Appalachian Theatre (Watauga Democrat, July 22, 1943, p. 4). Infected with the combination of radio and Hollywood, Dacus seized the opportunity of entertaining large movie crowds with live entertainment in the form of a full-fledged radio barn dance show, broadcast from the stage of the Appalachian Theatre each Saturday night. As it turned out, a Philadelphia lawyer might have saved Dacus a sizable chunk of cash
The WDRS Hillbilly Jamboree and Barn Dance
The first broadcast show was on August 14, 1943. The ads promised "Top-Flight Hill Billy Bands" but gave no specific performers (Watauga Democrat, August 12, 1943, p. 8):
Similar shows followed on August 21 and 28. The former show featured Hard Thomas, a well-known local fiddler who had been competing in fiddlers' contests as far back as 1926, as well as several other now little-known performers.
The first show in September featured a new star: "Pappy" Weber, billed as an "Eccentric Comedian." No doubt this was one of several alter egos of local photographer and organist Paul Weston, who had been involved with big-time radio at WSB in Atlanta and was a natural fit for the barn dance, even if hillbilly music was not an easy fit with his typical keyboard stylings. While locals knew him under the names of Paul Weston (photographer) and Paul Weber (organist, to differentiate himself with the more famous musician Paul Weston), almost no one knew that his real name was Harold Rudolph Pinder. Performing in New England and New York clubs in the 1920s as a Ragtime pianist under the name “Rednip,” Pinder had disappeared under mysterious circumstances up north about 1925 and had resurfaced in Boone under the Weston name about 1934. Whether his musical experiences were as much a bluff as his name(s)—he claimed to have played with jazz pioneer Paul Whiteman and other big name acts—he was clearly able to seize top billing on the local radio show, on a station that was operating on an explicitly non-commercial license.
Then, on September 11, 1943, the cast featured a new performer:
Next-to-last after the headliners, Watauga County's own Arthel "Doc" Watson—just 20 years old at the time—joined the Hillbilly Jamboree on the Appalachian Theatre stage. This was not Doc's first radio appearance. At some time just prior to this, Doc had played radio station WHKY in its Lenoir studios, where he had received his nickname from a spontaneous suggestion from a studio audience member. Doc had also competed in local fiddlers' conventions and busked on the streets of Boone and other local towns.
Doc returned for the show on the 18th, which included this eye-catching advertisement in the local paper (Watauga Democrat, September 9, 1943, p. 8):
A handbill based on this same ad exists that describes Doc as "The Blind Boy With the Million Dollar Voice," one of the few early notices of Doc that emphasizes his singing and not just his guitar playing.
The show on the 18th was the farewell show for "Granpappy" Weber, who was said to be returning to WSB Atlanta. Whether Weber/Weston/Pinder actually went anywhere or simply retired his character, his absence moved the barn dance in a different direction. For Saturday, September 25, a new Quiz Show was featured after the barn dance: "A little fun for a little 'mon.' We ask the questions, you answer them and you get the money. We expect a lot of fun with this new type of show on Saturday night. 'Variety is the spice of life,' and that is what we shall always endeavor to bring you at the Appalachian Theatre." (Watauga Democrat, September 23, 1943, p. 8).
Saturday shows, now billed as the Hillbilly Jamboree and Quiz Show, continued into October. Whether or not Doc Watson was part of the cast is not known—after Weston left, there was little or no indication about any of the performers—but it seems likely that Doc continued to appear in at least some of the shows.
The barn dance/quiz show continued for the nights of October 2, 9, and 16. By this time, it seemed like the focus was more on the quiz show and the chance to win a little cash, as well as the feature film for the night, as this ad makes clear (Watauga Democrat, October 7, 1943, p. 8):
Not explicit in this ad, but made plain by other ads from this month, the show was clearly still being broadcast. And, as noted above, the show on the 16th had an additional audience in the form of agents from the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC Comes to Boone
The first notice of the FCC raid on the Dacus Radio Shop in the Appalachian Theatre comes from the local paper, with the headline: "LOCAL RADIO STATION CLOSED BY FEDERAL MEN" (Watauga Democrat, October 28, 1943, p. 1). The apologetic and somewhat defensive article states that the station owner Dacus had committed a "technical violation" and that the "programs had often featured bond drives and other activities connected with the war effort, in addition to matters of general information and entertainment features."
Trade periodicals were more direct, and detailed the efforts of larger radio station owners as members of the FCC to crack down on such stations as WDRS (Broadcasting, November 1, 1943, p. 20):
Major Edney Ridge of WBIG had no problem moving the case through the court system. The evidence against Dacus was overwhelming: not only was he clearly involved with commercial radio shows and advertising, but he was also broadcasting on the same wavelength with legal radio stations as far away as Norfolk, Virginia, and Chicago, Illinois. In addition, some reports added that "On several occasions . . . the station had broadcast a quiz program from the stage of a Boone theater." (Asheville Citizen, November 20, 1943, p. 10)
Dacus pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years on probation and a hefty $300 fine (over $4,000 in today's money), which he paid in $10 monthly installments over the next few years. While a local ad stated that WDRS would be "temporarily off the air pending application for license of new equipment," (Watauga Democrat, December 2, 1943, p. 4) Kermit I. Dacus would sell and repair radios afterwards, not broadcast radio programs. WDRS was off the air permanently. Boone would not see a successful, commercial radio station again until WATA went on the air in September 1950.
Despite losing their radio audience, the Hillbilly Jamboree and Quiz Show soldiered on for a while as a live show, ending on Saturday, November 20, 1943. No further mention of Doc Watson occurs in the ads, although relatively few musicians are mentioned overall. One intriguing possibility remains: it seems quite possible that in recording the Boone radio station as evidence, the FCC might have captured Doc performing on stage or in the studio at WDRS. Unfortunately, once Dacus pleaded guilty, the evidence was no longer needed and was likely either destroyed or reused for other recordings. Doc Watson would have to wait another 17 years to come to national attention, continuing to play occasionally on the radio, in the streets, at square dances and parties, even at land sales—any place to help support his family. He even came close to appearing on television at least twice.
The breaks were never quite in Doc’s favor until folklorist Ralph Rinzler visited Doc in 1960 and took him away to New York City to begin his professional career. Although Doc would make his career as a folk singer, it is interesting to note that he began his career on a radio barn dance show, just like so many of the country music stars that he had idolized as a young man.