Doc Watson on the Appalachian Theatre Stage, September to November 1943

Advertisement from the September 11, 1943, issue of the Watauga Democrat, listing Doc Watson as one of the performers in the Hillbilly Jamboree at the Appalachian Theatre. [Highlighting added]

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):

First advertisement for the Hillbilly Jamboree, from the August 12, 1943, issue of the Watauga Democrat.

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):

Advertisement for the Hillbilly Jamboree from the September 9, 1943, issue of the Watauga Democrat.

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):

Advertisement for the Hillbilly Jamboree and Quiz Show from the October 7, 1943, issue of the Watauga Democrat.

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):

Details of Dacus’s arrest from Broadcast, a radio trade periodical, November 1, 1943.

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.

Flatt and Scruggs on the Appalachian Theatre Stage, 1948

By Dr. Gary Boye

The big news around Boone in November 1948 involved one of the most exciting presidential races in history: President Harry S. Truman, despite being given little chance of victory by the national press, had stunned the Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. The headlines of the local newspaper that week shouted: "TRUMAN WINNER / Truman Elected In Face Hostile Press, And Polls" (Watauga Democrat, November 4, 1948, p. 1). Truman and the Democrats carried North Carolina and much of Watauga County as well.

Two weeks later the front page still carried a photograph of celebrations at the Truman house in Missouri, but politics were not the only cause of excitement in town. The yearly opening of the burley tobacco market was being planned for the end of the month, as was the official kickoff of the Christmas season. In that twilight period between the end of World War II and the escalation of the Cold War, Boone residents enjoyed a bit of excess: they decorated King Street with multi-colored lights and evergreens, called on the high school band to lead the Santa Claus parade of more than a dozen floats, and planned for dances and parties surrounding the tobacco festival season. In football, the Appalachian State team was 8-0-1, North State conference champions, and heading to the Burley Bowl in Johnson City (where, unfortunately, they would lose to the team from West Chester University in Pennsylvania).

On page 5 (Watauga Democrat, November 18, 1948), the following ad showcased a busy week at the Appalachian Theatre with six feature films, a variety of shorts, and live entertainment for the coming Wednesday:

Interestingly, the group we now know primarily by their leaders, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, went solely by the band name, the Foggy Mountain Boys, in 1948, their first year of existence. The film that night, Village Barn Dance (1940), included locals Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman.

For the members of the Foggy Mountain Boys, this was not their first trip to Boone. Flatt and Scruggs, as they would generally become known, had played in a tent show as part of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in June 1946. The tent was pitched in what was called the Hardin Show Grounds, near the current New Market shopping center east of Boone. After leaving Monroe and forming the Foggy Mountain Boys, they played the Pastime Theatre on June 9, 1948; publicity that they were from a Bristol radio station confirmed their identity (Watauga Democrat, June 3, 1948, p. 5). Flatt and Scruggs played on WCYB in Bristol from late spring 1948 into 1949. Using Bristol as a base, they performed in schools, theaters, and other venues between radio shows. The Pastime Theatre performance also featured fiddler Jim Shumate (incorrectly listed in the ad as Jim Shoemaker), from Wilkes County, North Carolina. Apparently, the group was so successful at the smaller theater that they were invited back for the November show in the larger Appalachian Theatre advertised above.

Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys

Lester Flatt (1914-1979), from Sparta, Tennessee, sang lead and played guitar; his partner, Earl Scruggs (1924-2012), from Flint Hill (near Shelby), North Carolina, played banjo and sang occasional baritone harmony in trios and quartets. Other members of the group that night in Boone would most likely have included Jim Shumate on fiddle and Howard Watts (aka "Cedric Rainwater") on bass. Mac Wiseman was also in the band around this time as harmony vocalist and rhythm guitarist, although the ad fails to mention any specific band members. Note that the early Foggy Mountain Boy ensemble lacked the mandolin, the instrument closely associated with their former boss, Bill Monroe. Through the years, the group's makeup changed and eventually stabilized, but the early band included only two real lead instruments and thus heavy doses of fiddle and banjo.

The sound of Scruggs-style banjo is today so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to appreciate the impact it had on audiences back in the early days. Scruggs hit the big time with Bill Monroe on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1945. Live recordings from that year feature "Bill and Earl," who brought down the house with fast breakdowns and fiddle tunes. For the next few years, Flatt and Scruggs played and recorded as members of the Blue Grass Boys throughout the Southeast and to national radio audiences. By early 1948, it was only natural that the two would head their own band, featuring Earl's new banjo style.

Unlike most five-string banjo pickers who used only the thumb and index finger, Earl plucked the banjo with his thumb and two fingers (the middle as well as the index). He wasn't the first to do this—and never claimed he was—but it wasn't just that he used an extra finger that set him apart anyway. What distinguished the Scruggs-style from the more typical two-finger styles was a driving cascade of notes, something that was to be called a "roll." He could play as fast as any fiddler with each note clear and clean. He could also, at slower speeds, add a bit of jazz syncopation and blues. Aside from the instrumentals, some of his best work came accompanying Lester's singing or a fiddle break.

Was it bluegrass? Well, no one would have called it that way back in 1948. Both Flatt and Scruggs had been Blue Grass Boys with Bill Monroe and, no doubt, absorbed some of his style and repertoire—in fact, they wrote a goodly portion of it and reinvigorated Monroe's music in the mid-1940s. And once Earl left the band, Monroe went in search of the growing number of banjo players who were listening to and imitating the Scruggs style—the Blue Grass Boys would rarely be without someone playing banjo like Earl for the rest of their existence, into the 1990s.

But the influence clearly went in both directions. Even at this early stage, Flatt and Scruggs had clearly learned from and absorbed the styles of not just Bill Monroe, but also his brother Charlie, with whom Lester had played years earlier. Charlie's easy-going stage presence and banter carried over into Lester's emcee style, as did his thumb-and-finger guitar strumming—ironically and confusingly, Lester Flatt did not use a flat pick. And Lester's voice, while thoroughly country, was deeper and more resonant than the older Monroe brother’s piercing style, appealing to a newer generation who grew up with singers like Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. Bill Monroe's high-speed mandolin pyrotechnics were not lost on Earl Scruggs either, who realized that a good instrumental breakdown could have them literally dancing in the aisles. In short, some came to hear Lester sing and some to hear Earl pick, but they came—and in reliable numbers. Years later, Lester was to say that they could always count on a good audience when they headed into the Carolinas and especially into the mountains; the group would return to Boone several times into the 1960s.

Tunes played on that night in November 1948 would have certainly included the band's theme song and Scruggs' best-known instrumental, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." There would have been plenty of singing as well, with many of the tunes featured on current and later Mercury records. And just as in their mentor's band, the former Blue Grass Boys would always include a bit of comedy (via Watts aka Cedric Rainwater) and some gospel tunes to complete the show.

A couple of examples will illustrate the early Flatt and Scruggs sound. The first is the 1949 version of "Down the Road," which displays Lester in full voice and lots of Earl's banjo throughout:

Note that Earl has absorbed not just the folk music tradition, but a healthy dose of big band swing as well. I sometimes jokingly refer to this tune as "banjo music with singing."

The original "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" recording is from the same year:

Although re-recorded many times through the years, there is an excitement and energy to this original version that made this one of their most popular early numbers.

After their November 1948 show, Flatt and Scruggs returned to the Appalachian Theatre stage in August 1961. At that point, they were playing increasingly for Folk Revival audiences and just a few months away from recording a song that would forever change their careers: the theme for a new TV show to be entitled The Beverly Hillbillies (1962). Amazingly, the show became one of the biggest hits in television history, twice ranking as the number one show in the nation. Even though Flatt's voice is missing in the TV version of the song—studio musician Jerry Scoggins sang lead and did commercial voiceover work for the show in place of Lester—the duo was now suddenly a household name throughout the country. And their version of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" garnered them their only number one country hit. The magic continued late in the decade, culminating in 1969 when Earl's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was revived for Arthur Penn's groundbreaking film, Bonnie and Clyde. The duo went their separate ways after this, Lester to form his own band that carried on in a more traditional vein while Earl formed what was basically a rock band with his sons, the Earl Scruggs Revue.

There was some acrimony in the breakup, and the duo never played together again, but Scruggs was able to visit Flatt and work things out before Lester's death in 1979. Earl lived on well into our own century and became a living legend in the bluegrass music world, so much so that it is difficult now to appreciate what seeing a young, 24-year-old Earl Scruggs would have been like. He was taking the banjo to new levels, completely beyond what contemporaries had managed to do, and he made it all sound so natural we couldn't imagine it never having been there. Perhaps those who saw a young Bela Fleck in the 1980s would have experienced something similar. And it was Scruggs who inspired Fleck and a new generation of banjo players into the present day. So, the Appalachian Theatre audience was witness to the start of something bigger than anyone could have imagined when the Foggy Mountain Boys took the stage that cold November night in 1948.

Minnie Pearl on the Appalachian Theatre Stage, August 1945

Advertisement from Watauga Democrat, August 2, 1945, page 7.

By Dr. Gary Boye

The Watauga Democrat from August 2nd, 1945 gives a glimpse of a small town easing back towards normalcy in the final days of the Second World War. Half the front page is dedicated to the war and international news, half to local news. Germany had been defeated earlier in the year, and now the "Big Three" of Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Harry S. Truman were outlining the world's future at the Potsdam Conference. In the Pacific, the war was turning strongly against the Empire of Japan, but no immediate end appeared in sight. An ominous headline stated that "12 Japanese Cities Are Warned of Destruction"—six had already been destroyed in conventional bombing raids by long-range Allied aircraft. More such raids were promised in leaflets dropped by air, although there is some disagreement now as to exactly which cities were warned and which weren't.

In local news, citizens were beginning to plan for a future free of rationing and manpower shortages. Local farmers were bringing lambs to the market; victory gardeners harvested green beans for canning at a local school. There were plans for a new tobacco warehouse—Boone's third—to be built across from the bus terminal (on the current site of ASU's Walker Hall). The entertainment world was awakening as well: opera notables Anna Kaskas and William Hain were planning a concert at Rumple Presbyterian in Blowing Rock. It was announced that football and other intercollegiate sports would return to Appalachian State Teachers College that fall, after a two-year hiatus. And there was big news on page 7, where a live show of Grand Ole Opry performers was advertised at the Appalachian Theatre.

Surrounding the live show on August 6 was the film, One Mysterious Night, another in the "Boston Blackie" series, starring Chester Morris and his pencil-thin mustache. The live show featured accordionist and bandleader Pee Wee King and country comedian Minnie Pearl, as well as the usual mix of dancing and country-style entertainment.

Advertisement from the Watauga Democrat, August 2, 1945, page 5.

The radio had brought these stars into homes every Saturday night for years, as it had news of battles where loved ones and friends fought in far-off corners of the globe in places unheard of just a few years before. And August 6, 1945 would go down in history not for a country music show in a local theater, but for a single bomb exploded above the city of Hiroshima. In local time, the atomic bomb was dropped around 7:15 p.m. on August 5. No press releases were made available until hours after the planes returned from their target—roughly around noon on August 6, just a few hours before the scheduled show.

Of course the show went on as planned that night. It is doubtful that many locals grasped the full implications of a single bomb that could destroy a city. Even the following week's paper, issued on the day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki (Watauga Democrat 8/9/1945) but too early to bring any notice of it, seemed to imply that life and war were continuing as before in small town America. And it was a slice of small-town America that local theatergoers would see that night, forgetting the war and the dawn of the Atomic Age for a few hours at least.

Minnie Pearl, circa 1965. Public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon (1912-1996)

Born in Centerville, Tennessee, a town of about 1,000 just outside of Nashville, Sarah Ophelia Colley was a natural entertainer from the start. She majored in theater and dance at what is now Belmont University in Nashville. In the late 1930s, Colley toured the Southeast producing amateur plays and musicals for civic organizations in small towns. It was in one of these small towns in Alabama that she met a local mountain woman who inspired the character that would come to dominate her stage life: Cousin Minnie Pearl. Initially, as Cousin Minnie, Colley was able to appeal to local sponsors in a down-to-earth, self-effacing manner that proved irresistible in person and, perhaps, even more so on the radio when she became a regular on WSM's Grand Ole Opry in November 1940.

Colley crafted the Minnie Pearl persona carefully: a delicate balance of well-meaning rube and nobody's fool, of a spinster who was seemingly always the bridesmaid and never the bride and a surprisingly aggressive and independent woman, always on the lookout for a "catch" of a husband. Boone audiences would have seen a character they knew well from radio come to life on stage, telling stories about her fictional hometown of Grinder's Switch, Tennessee—which had obvious similarities to real-life Centerville—and a host of characters they had heard her describe so many times before: Uncle Nabob, Miss Lizzie Tinkum, her unnamed Brother, and a host of other stereotypes familiar to all small-town Southerners. All with a gauche $1.98 price tag hanging from her long-out-of-style hat.

The main musical act that evening was band leader Pee Wee King, still a year away from recording the monumental first recording of "Tennessee Waltz," the song that would propel him to national stardom. Born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski (1914-2000) in Wisconsin, King and his lead singer Redd Stewart would craft the song in imitation of Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz" and begin a craze for similar state waltzes. Still lacking a recording contract in 1945, King and His Golden West Cowboys played a new sound only starting to reach Nashville and the Opry at the time: Western Swing. Developed by Texans Milton Brown and Bob Wills in the 1930s, the big band style combined Western music and jazz swing. True to his Wisconsin polka origins, King thought of the band first and foremost as a dance band. So on that uneasy August night in 1945, the Appalachian Theatre audience witnessed an odd combination of old and new: old-time, pre-war humor mixed with up-to-date, swing-influenced ensemble music complete with fiddles, electric guitars, a drum set…and an accordion.

A 1947 recording of "I Hear You Knockin'" gives a good sample of King's complex style:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-c-O7-34TA

A later video of Cousin Minnie with Carl Smith on a Grand Ole Opry TV show from the 1950s gives an idea of the character's wit and energy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ksjWJDAYzk

The transition to television was an easy one for Minnie, where she remained an Opry mainstay until the early 1990s. Colley kept her private life firmly separate from the Minnie Pearl character, marrying Henry R. Cannon, an Army Air Corps veteran, in 1947. Mr. Cannon ran an air charter service out of Nashville, catering to the biggest stars of the day, no doubt with help from his well-connected wife. As a cancer survivor, Sarah—as Sarah Ophelia Cannon, not as Minnie Pearl—became an active advocate for breast cancer research. Although the Cannons never had children, Sarah mentored many of the younger Opry stars and was a steadying influence on their careers and personal lives. Through the years, she would come to think of Minnie Pearl not as a character so much as an old friend—someone who remained unscathed in a time of change and turmoil.

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on the Appalachian Theatre Stage, 1941

Dr. Gary Boye

It was Tuesday, May 20, 1941. The Watauga Democrat from the previous week carried news of the war in Europe a world away from the quiet town of Boone. France was occupied and German forces were massing on the Russian border, but the Democrat focused instead on minor allied good news: the Royal Air Force was bombing the Germans in occupied France and Belgium, as well as several industrial cities inside Germany itself. The capture of Nazi Rudolf Hess and his odd and apparently unsponsored peace mission to Britain garnered a few notes on the front page as well. Although Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II was still more than six months away, the draft had begun the previous fall, and the country was preparing for war. Some men waited for the call, while others volunteered. Local civic leaders organized a "rousing send-off" for the latest Watauga County quota of six draftees and four volunteers.

Newspapers and the Selective Service might have been bringing the war to Boone, but around town that week the big news was the annual Dollar Days, a week-long sales event at local stores. At Belk's you could buy a nice pair of Lee overalls for $1.29 in the basement or head upstairs for Turkish towels at five cents a piece or an alarm clock for a dollar. Qualls Furniture offered a dollar off all dressers; at Farmer's Hardware, that same dollar could buy 25 pounds of nails or twelve trout flies. At the Appalachian Theatre, the 20 cents would purchase a ticket to a matinee show or 33 cents for an evening show. Films that week included the Westerns The Lady from Cheyenne (1941) with Loretta Young and The Range Busters (1940) with Ray "Crash" Corrigan. The Saturday serial was Adventures of Red Ryder (1940) with Red Barry. Newsreels were, no doubt, a further reminder of the growing war clouds in Europe. But by Tuesday the mood was lighter: the matinee and evening show featured the film, Grand Ole Opry (1940), Hollywood's fictional account of the Nashville radio show, and a live performance by a current member of that show: Bill Monroe.

Locals would have known all about Bill from radio—he had been a star of the Opry since October 1939—or from his records. In addition, he and his brother Charlie had played the courthouse in Boone just a few years before in March 1936. The duo was so well liked that they invited them back for another show that Fourth of July. The Monroe Brothers had split up and formed their own bands by 1939, both choosing band names that reflected their native Kentucky.

William Smith Monroe (1911-1996)

The youngest of eight children, Bill Monroe was born near Rosine, Kentucky, on September 13, 1911. Older brothers Charlie and Birch played the guitar and fiddle, respectively, so Bill took up the smaller mandolin to join his family's informal string band. Although tall and strapping like his brothers, Bill was shy and reserved, in large part because of his being cross-eyed. Some say his appearance, if not his actual ability to see, was improved by an operation in the early 1930s before going on stage with his brother Charlie in 1933. But eyesight would always be a problem for Bill—in later years he would choose to go without glasses so often that people would think he was ignoring them or was unfriendly. In fact, he just couldn't see them. He rarely appeared on stage or in photos with the glasses he really needed to function.

Joining the many brother duets of the time, Bill sang high harmony to his brother's baritone and played a clean, searing mandolin that immediately set them apart from other mandolin-guitar duos. From 1934 to 1938, the Monroe Brothers were one of the most popular acts in the burgeoning field of what was becoming known as Country or Country and Western music. Charlie and Bill were stationed primarily from the WLS Barn Dance radio program in Chicago, but played throughout the South and Midwest.

By the late 1930s, the brother duet fad was on the wane, and the Monroes, beginning to fight verbally and physically as to exactly who was in charge, went their separate ways in June 1938. Both immediately updated their styles by forming a string band. Charlie's Kentucky Partners were enormously popular, playing throughout the South and selling large amounts of records. Bill's new band, on the other hand, would change country music history.

From Blue Grass Boys to Bluegrass Music

When Bill Monroe took out an ad in an Atlanta newspaper in 1939 to find members for his new band, there was no indication that he was looking for anything other than the typical "hillbilly" band common in that era. In fact, both brothers seemed to be recreating bands with a core of the same duet harmony sound that they had left: Bill looking for someone who could sing lead and play guitar, Charlie for another high harmony singer and mandolin player. Bill added several musicians through 1939 and 1940, but by 1941, Bill's band at the Appalachian Theatre would have included Art Wooten (1906-1986), a fiddler from nearby Sparta, NC, guitarist Clyde Moody (1915-1989), a smooth lead singer and guitarist from Cherokee, NC, and Bill "Cousin Wilbur" Wesbrooks (1911-1984) playing the upright bass and adding some comic relief.

While this band, the Blue Grass Boys, was later credited with a new type of string band playing that was called "bluegrass music," there is general disagreement as to exactly when this new style is evident. Monroe insisted—not without his own self-interest at heart—that the sound was born when he stepped onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in October of 1939 with his first band. Through the years, many others have come to regard the "classic" band formed in 1945, four years after his first appearance at the Appalachian, as the real birth of bluegrass. That band included North Carolinian Earl Scruggs and a driving, syncopated banjo style without which bluegrass today is almost unthinkable.

So the Blue Grass Boys that played the AT in May 1941 may not have been quite the bluegrass band that most fans think of at present, yet it was still a band with most of the essential elements of the style. No doubt Bill would have sung his hit, "Muleskinner Blues," a Jimmie Rodgers song, as mentioned in the ad in the Watauga Democrat (5/15/1941, p.

Bill Monroe.jpg

Bill switched off to the guitar for this particular song. His bluesy intro and acrobatic high yodeling can be best heard on the 1940 recording, but there are many later versions. One characteristic of Monroe's music and bluegrass in general is evident immediately: a driving rhythm, often compared to a train. Even without the banjo, Monroe's band had that drive.

Art Wooten's fiddling can be heard especially on the 1941 recordings of "Orange Blossom Special" and "Back Up and Push," instrumental numbers the band would have likely played that night. Wooten also performed as a "one man band" on a contraption that combined an organ, guitar, and banjo. According to band member Cleo Davis, who played guitar for Monroe before Clyde Moody joined: "He picked it with one foot and chorded with the other while, at the same time, playing the fiddle." (Tom Ewing, The Bill Monroe Reader, p. 132). He also played fiddle and harmonica at the same time, with a holder around his neck. Versatility was always a plus for a Blue Grass Boy, and the Sparta connection would have added to the applause in the theater that evening.

Guitarist Clyde Moody can be heard on the 1940 recording of "Six White Horses," which demonstrates the important mixture of blues added to what would become the bluegrass style. And when Bill played guitar for "Muleskinner Blues," Clyde switched off to mandolin, becoming one of the very few Blue Grass Boys to play mandolin on stage—obviously, that instrument was Bill's territory. Moody chopped chords in rhythm and stayed safely in the background.

It wouldn't have been all blues and fast breakdowns that night on the Appalachian stage 78 years ago, however. Nearly every concert Bill Monroe did included at least a few gospel tunes, often in a vocal quartet with pared down instrumentation of just a guitar (often played by Monroe himself) or guitar and mandolin. Songs such as "Crying Holy Unto the Lord" and "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" would have been possibilities for that night. Finally, although banjoist Dave "Stringbean" Akeman recorded with Bill around this time, there is no evidence he appeared on stage for that particular show. It appears to have been only a quartet of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and string bass.

The Hatch Show Print files indicate an incredibly busy spring for the Blue Grass Boys that year, beginning in Alabama and circling around through Tennessee and Virginia and down into North Carolina, returning to Nashville for the Saturday radio show. The week they played Boone included shows at the Liberty Theatre in North Wilkesboro on Monday, the Appalachian in Boone on Tuesday, the Haysi Theatre in Haysi, Virginia near the Kentucky line on Wednesday, the Palace Theatre in Evarts, Kentucky on Thursday, and going all the way back down to Hickory, North Carolina to play the St. Stephens School on Friday night before heading back to Nashville to play the Opry on live, coast-to-coast radio Saturday night. This is nearly an 800-mile trip on modern roads, but it was just another week in the lives of hard-working musicians in 1941. A few years later, Bill sang of this grueling schedule in his classic "Heavy Traffic Ahead" (1949), which includes a verse about returning to the Opry:

We do our work with a good will

On Friday night we head for Nashville

Heavy traffic ahead, heavy traffic ahead

We got to ramble, ramble, there's heavy traffic ahead

By 1949 the classic band with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt had come together for nearly three years and disbanded, forever changing the Blue Grass Boys' sound. So, a very different group of Blue Grass Boys returned to the Appalachian Theatre in 1952 for Monroe's next show in Boone. I'll save that story for a future post.

Uncle Dave Macon on the Appalachian Theatre Stage, 1939

Dr. Gary Boye

The day was Thursday, June 1, 1939, in Boone, North Carolina. The local newspaper, the Watauga Democrat, featured front-page stories about the placing of a cornerstone for the new post office on King Street. The State Highway Commission was buying up land along the Yonahlossee Trail that would one day be used for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Appalachian State Teachers College was beginning its summer term for over 1,000 teachers. Ads for the Appalachian Soda Shop, located in the front of the theater building, promised a special fruit salad sundae for just 15 cents . . . .

At the Appalachian Theatre, for twice the price of a sundae at 30 cents, the film that night would be Frontiers of '49 (1939) with Bill Elliott, who had been starring in Westerns since the silent era. In addition to the feature film, Elliott's 15-part serial, The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (1938), had begun playing at the Appalachian on April 1 of that year and was still running each Saturday. But the ad for that week indicates that "Wild Bill," as he was now known, had some competition that night (Watauga Democrat 6/1/1939 p. 5):

Right at the top of the ad was the featured live performer of the evening, Uncle Dave Macon, seen here in a close-up of the ad above and the contemporary stage shot from which it was taken:

The film seems a bit of an afterthought. One suspects that many, perhaps a majority, of the fans in attendance that night were there to see Uncle Dave on the stage, rather than Wild Bill on the screen.

This was not Uncle Dave's first trip to Boone. He played at a Boone fiddlers convention at the courthouse in 1935, along with another Grand Ole Opry act, the Delmore Brothers. He returned to the same venue in 1936. Perhaps he liked Boone, perhaps he liked the mountains; local legend says that he liked the moonshine hereabouts. Whatever the case for his return, one suspects that Wild Bill was upstaged that night. Uncle Dave Macon, the "Dixie Dewdrop," was at the height of his fame and entertainment powers. He was a major star on radio and records, although neither medium did full justice to his act, where he sang and played the banjo, twirled it about and played tricks with it, told jokes and stories, danced, and put on a show. In every early cast photo of the Grand Ole Opry, Uncle Dave is sitting front and center, right by the microphone, often kicking up one of his heels in a classic pose. He was the Grand Ole Man of the Grand Ole Opry . . . .


David Harrison Macon (1870-1952)

Before there was radio, before motion pictures, before the alleged "Big Bang" of country music at Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927—there was Uncle Dave. Before people worried about whether it should be called country or Country & Western or old-time or hillbilly or folk or whatever, Uncle Dave was playing it. Professionally known as "Uncle Dave Macon," he was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry radio program from station WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, that became the widely acknowledged Home of Country Music. Like several other country music personalities—Willie Nelson and our own Doc Watson, to name a couple—he came to fame late in life. Uncle Dave was 51 when he started touring on the Loew's Theatre circuit in 1921.

He had already had enough experiences for a full lifetime: as a child, his family ran a Nashville boarding house that catered to vaudeville and circus acts traveling through the city. He learned to play the banjo—and no doubt learned many other things—from the show folk surrounding his daily life. As an adult and family man in the early twentieth century, he founded the Macon Midway Mule and Mitchell Wagon Transportation Company, farming and driving wagons around Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Reminiscent of a later generation's truck drivers, Uncle Dave spent long hours on the road with occasional breaks for singing, banjo playing, buck dancing, and pondering over the merits of still-legal homemade alcohol.

This all ended in 1920, largely because of the automobile. One of Dave's most famous songs, "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel," contains the lines:

I don't know but I believe I'm right, the autos ruined the country,
Let's go back to the horse and buggy and try to save some money.

Later in the same song, he sings a line that would have shocked the more conservative audience members of the time but fetched a wry smile from the majority of them: "Henry Ford's shaken more hell out of folks than all the evangelists do." Macon never did learn to drive, but the modern world gave two things to his life that changed it forever: a new career and the technology with which to broadcast it.

Although still an unknown as he started the Loew's circuit in 1921, all of the seeds of what would become country music were there: the working class background, the nostalgia of a lost time and cause, the conservatism mixed with an odd fascination for the modern world—Saturday night laughter and Sunday morning regrets. All of this was to come out in his music once his professional career began. And the stereotype of the stone-faced folk song performer was lost on Uncle Dave: he not only played the banjo, he played the banjo under his leg and behind his back, twirled it around and juggled it, stood up and danced around it while fanning it with his plug hat and shouting "Glory Hallelujah!" He once good-naturedly joked with the young Earl Scruggs that "You pick a good banjo, Earl, but you ain't a damn bit funny, are you?" (Macon was wrong there; Earl actually had a great sense of humor, but it was low key and rarely seen on stage.) As if driving an old wagon with an older team of mules down a city street with Model T's and racing coupes, Uncle Dave threw the brakes on the technological revolution, at least for awhile, reminding older fans of a long-lost era and informing younger ones about some of the things that they had missed. Macon played on radio in its earliest days, made over 170 recordings, stole the show in a Hollywood film (Grand Ole Opry, 1940) and influenced generations of future performers.

By 1939 Macon was 58 years old, but still on the road for a grueling tour of the Carolinas and Virginia. Hatch Show Print files indicate he played Fayetteville, North Carolina, the previous Monday, hightailed it to Sumter, South Carolina, the next night, then to Marion, North Carolina on Wednesday, and up to Boone that Thursday. After leaving Boone, he headed to Mooresville and then Statesville, North Carolina. The files also showed that he ordered "50 Window Cards & 25 1 Sheets" for the Appalachian Theatre performance. He was no doubt accompanied that night on guitar by his son Dorris. A photo of a similar performance on the same tour at a theater in Asheboro, North Carolina, shows Macon, Dorris, and additional guitar player Glenn Stagner.

No reviews have been found for that night or that tour, although there are many similar ads to the one from the Watauga Democrat above. Macon's repertoire was so vast it is hard to imagine him sticking to a set program and not following the whims of the moment. No doubt fans would have wanted to hear some of the songs they had heard him singing on 78 rpm records or on the radio. He certainly would have done a few sacred numbers, a staple of his act despite all of the high jinks and good-time songs. It is possible that a 16-year-old Arthel Watson, future Doc Watson, was in the audience that night, although there is no mention found of it in Doc's interviews. Doc certainly knew Uncle Dave's work, occasionally playing "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" (1924), one of Uncle Dave's most famous songs, and more commonly performing "Hold the Woodpile Down" (1927), although Doc wisely updated some of the lyrics for a modern audience. There is an energy and a sense of humor and storytelling in Doc's version of the song that shows a clear influence of Uncle Dave, whether solely from the radio and records or from any of his performances in Boone that the young Doc might have attended.

There is one single video clip of Uncle Dave performing, from the Grand Ole Opry film released a year after his performance in Boone. The song is "Take Me Back to My Old Carolina Home," quite likely one he did that night at the Appalachian because of its local appeal. Studio sound reproduction created its own set of problems, so it appears that Uncle Dave is at times merely mimicking playing the banjo while a tape overlay fills out the accompanying soundtrack. Even still, it shows several of his stage mannerisms, as well as recording the live voices of both Dave and his son Dorris—we're lucky to have it, despite its flaws. There are also many audio clips of him available online. I would recommend listening to his original performances of "Way Down the Old Plank Road," "Rock About My Saro Jane," and "Sail Away Ladies" to get a taste of his style, as well as his most well-known sacred song, "I Intend To Make Heaven My Home."

Nine years later, Macon returned to the stage of the Appalachian, on April 20, 1948. By then he was 77 years old and nearing the end of his life, which came in 1952. He toured right up till the end. Was Uncle Dave the best banjo player around, even in his day? Well, probably not, but he played in a variety of styles seldom heard elsewhere that placed him firmly in the lost traditions of the 19th century. He was certainly not the best singer or songwriter, either. But as a showman and a living link to country music's origins, a man who could hold both rural and urban audiences in the palm of his hand, there was no one who could touch him.

Live Shows at the Appalachian Theatre, 1938-1962: An Introduction

Dr. Gary Boye

From its beginnings, the film theater was a place of live shows as well as movies. In the silent era, films demanded some type of live musical accompaniment. Between films, musical performances, and vaudeville acts were an occasional feature as well. Even into the era of talking pictures with their own sound tracks, the stages in movie theaters were used for live entertainment between shows.

There were over 100 live shows at the Appalachian from 1938-1962, with the bulk of the shows occurring before 1955. These shows included local groups from Appalachian State University (or, as it was called prior to 1967, Appalachian State Teachers College) and charity organizations such as the Lions Club. Talent shows and beauty contests were held on occasion; traveling professional shows were booked several times a year, especially before and during World War II.

Some of these shows used the standard pop music of the day, but over half of the live shows at the Appalachian featured what would now be called "country" music. The live shows at the Appalachian can be broken down as follows:

The "other" category includes a few plays, swing band shows, one amateur gymnastics show, and an organ concert. Most live shows were not connected to the film, but spook shows typically combined live performances and gimmicks with an accompanying horror film. Sometimes the stars from the motion picture shown on the screen would come to promote their own films. For example, Bill Elliott came to the Appalachian on July 18, 1942, to promote his new film, North of the Rockies.

There were two short-lived weekly stage shows involving country music: ByGosh and His Country Store in 1940 and the Hill Billy Jamboree and Barn Dance in 1943. These shows ran for several weeks at a time, with a variety of local performers as well as skits and audience participation.

The number of live performances per year is telling, with peaks in the years before the American entry into World War II: 15 shows in 1940. After a drop in shows with the beginning of rationing, the War Bond rallies of 1943 reached 20 live shows, the all-time high. After the War, the Appalachian approached one show a month in 1948/1949:

Note that the Cinemascope wide screen was installed in January 1954, making live performances rare afterwards—there just wasn't enough room on stage for anything more than a small ensemble. No doubt, competition from television also contributed to the steep drop in live shows in the mid 1950s and afterwards. The last advertised live show at the Appalachian was a "Big Twist Contest" on May 4, 1962. There was apparently enough room left on stage to at least do the twist, or perhaps audience members twisted in the aisles or at their seats!

In its heyday, the Appalachian Theatre stage featured some historic acts, including major figures of the Grand Ole Opry radio program from WSM in Nashville like Uncle Dave Macon, Minnie Pearl, Cowboy Copas, Lonzo and Oscar, and Pee Wee King. Fans of bluegrass music will note that the man whose band named the style, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, appeared twice on stage here, in 1941 and 1952. The triumvirate of bluegrass founders is completed by three performance of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys and a late 1961 performance by the Stanley Brothers, Ralph and Carter. To cap it all off, the local experimental radio station, WDRS, held a Hill Billy Jamboree and Barn Dance on the stage of the Theatre in 1943. A certain 20-year-old local guitarist from Deep Gap played as a part of that program. Hint: There is a statue of him in downtown Boone at King and Depot!

This blog will feature some of these performers and their performances, beginning with the man who may be the most important early country music personality ever to play in Boone: Uncle Dave Macon . . . .


Appalachian Theatre Hires First Executive Director

Charlotte Native Laura Kratt Brings Decades of Experience to Boone

Laura Kratt.image.jpg

BOONE, NC — The Appalachian Theatre of the High Country, Inc. (ATHC) announced today that arts management professional Laura Kratt of Charlotte has been hired as the organization’s first Executive Director. She will begin her tenure in this newly-created, full-time position on July 16, 2018.

When introducing Kratt to the ATHC Board of Trustees at their meeting on June 27, Chair John Cooper said, “It was truly a national search with finalists from California, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas, but we found the perfect candidate right here in North Carolina, just 100 miles away in Charlotte.” Cooper was pleased that Kratt was the unanimous choice of the search committee, a decision that met with the complete endorsement of the executive committee. “All the pieces are in place to begin the final stage of construction that will restore this jewel in the cultural crown of the High Country to its former glory.”

A native Charlottean, Kratt has over 20 years of experience managing the visual and performing arts. Prior to coming to the Appalachian Theatre, she managed National Historic Landmark theaters in New York and Georgia as well as university presenting programs at Washington University, Wingate University and the University of Cincinnati. Classically trained in piano and voice, Laura is a graduate of Wake Forest University and pursued Master’s degree studies in Arts Administration at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music. Most recently, Kratt served as Wingate University’s Director of Cultural Events and was responsible for the artistic and operational management of three theaters serving 90,000+ visitors annually. Prior to her tenure at Wingate, she managed the programs and preservation of two 19th century National Historic Landmark theaters – the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in New York and the State Theatre of Georgia, the Springer Opera House. At the Springer, Ms. Kratt managed the $11 million renovation and expansion of that historic theater complex. Among her accomplishments, Kratt has served as a Peer Consultant for the League of Historic American Theatres, founding member of the Georgia League of Historic Theatres, Grant Panelist for the North Carolina Arts Council, SouthArts, and the New York State Council on the Arts, and board member and officer of the North Carolina Presenters Consortium.

The executive director search committee was chaired by Denise Ringler, Director of Arts Engagement and Cultural Resources at Appalachian State University, and included board and community leaders John Cooper, Jim Deal, Gail Hearn, Jane Lonon, Keith Martin, Frank Mohler, Bob Neill, and Dave Robertson.

"Laura Kratt's wealth of experience as a seasoned arts presenter made her the unanimous choice of our committee, following a national search," noted Ringler. "Her knowledge and skills in the areas of non-profit management, arts programming, theater operations, events management, and fundraising, combined with her interest in the preservation of historic venues, make her a tremendous asset to the Appalachian Theatre as we head toward our opening and inaugural year."

Jane Lonon, Executive Director of Ashe County Arts Council, served on the regionally diverse search committee. She said, “The Appalachian Theatre will be in good hands with the leadership of Laura Kratt. She brings a wealth of experience in administration, programming, and connecting with the community. I have had the privilege of working with Laura on the Executive Board of the North Carolina Presenter’s Consortium for four years, and the High Country is fortunate to have Laura join our team!”

In accepting the job offer, Kratt remarked, “It is a real pleasure to work alongside these dedicated volunteers and Trustees who have worked so diligently to reopen this historic theater. I know we all want to make it a vital contributor to the cultural landscape and economic development of downtown Boone and the High Country.” Kratt told trustees that she was anxious to get started, and wanted local arts supporters to know that “while the theater doors may be closed during construction, you can rest assured we’ll be working hard getting ready to put our best foot forward for the curtain raising in the summer of 2019! Make sure you’re on our mailing/email list.”

The mission of the Appalachian Theatre of the High Country is “to provide a quality venue for a variety of artistic genres; to contribute to the region by promoting and strengthening the area’s unique cultural identity and creative history; to enhance business in downtown Boone and the High Country; to provide a cultural hub for the area; and to find new life for a historic building while maintaining its financial sustainability and maximizing its economic impact.”

Additional information about the Appalachian Theatre and their ongoing capital campaign may be found on the theater’s new website, https://www.apptheatre.org.

The Comedy of Terrors

By Will Vogler (originally published March 9, 2015)

At the Appalachian on Tuesday, March 10, 1964: The Comedy of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur, 1963, 105 minutes).

Like his father, renowned director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur was a film director with (according to Felicia Feaster) a special talent for subtlety, sustained moods, and mystery and fantasy. Tourneur’s atmospheric style can be seen in two of his most famous movies, Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and are also on display in The Comedy of Terrors (1963).

The Comedy of Terrors begins at a funeral site. The solemn music, mixed with the slow movement of the camera, sets us up for a tearjerker, but as soon as the funeral is over and the mourners leave, the main characters Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) and Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) dump the body from the casket, bury it, and return to their funeral parlor with casket in hand. This scene establishes the film’s black-humor tone and also begins to set up the plot.

Trumbull, a stubborn, hypocritical, drunk, owns a funeral home service, along with his wife’s father, Amos Hinchley (Boris Karloff). And Felix Gillie, the lovable, child-like, ex-convict, is Trumbull’s downtrodden pack mule. The funeral home is running low on business (hence the keeping of the “one good casket”) so Trumbull must find a way to make some money. His plan consists of killing people so he may jump to the families’ rescue and relieve them of the burden of burying the loved one. Things begin to go awry though, when one of the victims, his landlord Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone), just won’t die.

Price and Lorre, although an unlikely comedic team, do a spectacular job of making lighthearted jokes about a pretty macabre situation. The two talented actors seem to compliment and contradict each other at the same time. The Comedy of Terrors (the title of which is based off of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors) is also not their first rodeo: prior to Terrors, the two (along with Rathbone) had starred together in Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). Tourneur directed the 1963 films and Richard Matheson wrote the screenplays for all three of them. These talented people could almost be thought of as the Rat Pack of comedy horror films.

During the making of Terrors, Basil Rathbone was actually meant to play the part of Trumbull’s elderly father-in-law and business partner, Amos Hinchley, instead of the landlord Mr. Black. Coincidentally, Mr. Black was originally to be played by Boris Karloff. While filming, they soon found that Karloff could not perform the strenuous slapstick that was to be portrayed by his character, so he and Rathbone switched roles. And speaking of strenuous slapstick, Peter Lorre’s character had to perform multiple trips and falls throughout the movie. This called for a stunt double, of course, who ended up having to wear a Lorre mask, complete with his signature bulgy eyes.

For more information about The Comedy of Terrors, see Felicia Feaster's “Jacques Tourneur Profile” on the Turner Classic Movies website.