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 1971, 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.

The Conqueror

By Dylan Brown (originally published March 9, 2015)

At the Appalachian on Saturday, March 9, 1957: The Conqueror (directed by Dick Powell, US, 1956, 111 minutes).

Dick Powell—himself a well-known classical Hollywood actor—transitioned behind the camera during the 1940s and 1950s, and collaborated with John Wayne for the first time on the set of The Conqueror. The film follows the trials and loves of the notorious Genghis Khan (Wayne). The film is shrouded in controversy because the set location was close to a nuclear testing site, a location that exposed the cast and crew to radiation and gave cancer to many of them in the years to come. In addition to this tragedy, the movie was a commercial flop, often associated with the downfall of Wayne’s career.

The Conqueror moves at a slow pace and builds at the same pace, only to crescendo in two separate raids and a final battle sequence that ends all too quickly. Interestingly enough, this movie about Asian history features no Asian actors or actresses. All the performers lack authenticity, even John Wayne. This is most apparent in his iconic speech patterns and long vocal pauses, which work well in cowboy films, but not so well as Genghis Khan. Strangely enough, Wayne pined for this role and continually pressed Powell to be cast after being told numerous times that the role was not a good fit. Eventually, Powell capitulated, saying, “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”

Acting and casting choices aside, the aesthetics of the film are superb. The sets are elaborate and detailed, the costumes are elegant, and the background music is both fitting and eloquent. The attention to detail can be attributed to the film’s producer, Howard Hughes.

Howard Hughes was a rich and famous business investor and filmmaker, producing movies like Scarface (1932) and Vendetta (1950). In the medical fallout following the release of The Conqueror, Hughes felt a big responsibility for the cast and crew’s well-being, and bought up all the copies and prints of The Conqueror in circulation in an attempt to bury the film and erase its existence. Hughes also refused to let the film be re-released to the general public until the middle of the 1970s. It is rumored that The Conqueror left a mental scar on Hughes, resulting in him watching the film every evening to remind himself of the horrible things he had done and the lives he had destroyed.

For more information about The Conqueror:

Caggiano, Greg. “The Conqueror (1956): The Film that Killed John Wayne…Literally.”

Old Radio Shows, “Atomic Consequences of The Conqueror: Howard Hughes’ Big Budget Film Flop.”