Those of us who lived in Chattanooga between the late 1930’s and 1982 will never forget the personality and voice of broadcasting legend Harry Thornton.
On Saturday afternoons, the strains of Sousa’s “The Thunderer” opened Harry Thornton’s live wrestling show. Tojo Yamamoto, Saul Weingeraff, Sir Clements, Jackie Fargo, Haystack Calhoun, and Jerry Lawler drew boos or cheers (depending on their status as villain or hero that week) from the studio audience. Whenever I was visiting, my grandpa would ask me to come watch TV by saying, “they’re fightin’ on there.” Harry Thornton’s television show and obligatory “grudge match” prompted big crowds for the Saturday night main event at the Memorial Auditorium.
I also watched Harry Thornton’s Morning Show. The program was a blend of news/weather/sports and discussion of current events. A forerunner of today’s talk radio and TV, The Morning Show motivated many viewers to share (and argue) their views with Harry. There were many times when local politics revolved around what was said on The Morning Show. The show always had high ratings.
Many viewers also got to know Harry’s beloved wife, “Mrs. Tee,” from the times when she filled in as co-hostess of the Morning Show. Last year, I received an e-mail from Mrs. Tee in response to my article on the Golden Gallon Milk Jugs: “How funny that you should come out with this article now. Just last week I told my daughter that I sure could use an "Old Milk Jug."“ Delighted to hear from a person whom I had watched on television, I asked Mrs. Tee for an interview.
HOW DID YOU GET THE NICKNAME “MRS. TEE?” I ASSUME THAT MR. THORNTON GAVE IT TO YOU?
No. My name is Helen, as well as a friend of mine, Helen Richardson, and another friend named Helen – we all lived together in Brainerd. Helen Richardson’s three year-old grandchild started calling me “Mrs. Tee in 1945 as a way to tell the three of us apart.
WHAT IS YOUR FONDEST MEMORY OF LIVING IN CHATTANOOGA?
The people – they are so friendly.
I READ THAT MR. THORNTON WAS THE FIRST ANNOUNCER ON THE AIR AT WDEF RADIO. IS THIS CORRECT?
He was the first announcer on WDEF. After school in his junior and senior years, he went to WDOD and worked as a “go-fer.” Archie Campbell worked there and had a red convertible and would ask him to run errands. He got his start there doing opening and closing announcements. Joe Engel called him to help him to get WDEF started. He had already been signed up to go into the army. Luther (Masingill) was in Harry’s ROTC unit at Central High School. Art Campbell hired him as chief announcer at his new radio station, WAGC, after he returned from World War II.
HOW DID HE GET HIS NICKNAME, “THE MILK MAN,” THAT HE USED ON HIS RADIO SHOW?
He hosted the morning show at WAGC, and it started at 6:00 A.M. He said, “I used to carry milk at this time of the morning, so I’m going to call myself “The Milkman.”
When Harry was on the air, I would sometimes turn the radio up and go work in the yard.
We also had thousands of records that I liked to listen to. They had been sent to him by singers wanting to have him to play their records on the air.
HOW DID MR. THORNTON GET INVOLVED IN WRESTLING? I RECALL THAT HIS BUSINESS PARTNERS WERE NICK GULAS AND ROY WELCH.
Gulas and Welch owned the wrestling contract for the entire south. They came to Chattanooga and asked Harry to do announcing at the auditorium. He soon said, “Why don’t we do a TV show?” Harry was on Channel 3 then when it was on McCallie Avenue across from Warner Park. It was known as WRGP then. He also did all of the Golden Gloves boxing here. We traveled all over. He later moved his wrestling show to WDEF.
DID YOU EVER ATTEND WRESTLING EVENTS, AND WHO WERE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE WRESTLERS?
I hated it! My mother loved it, though. One time, I invited her to go to see wrestling. “The Hillbillies” (tag team) were on the card. My mother got them confused with “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV show, and said that she hoped that Granny would be there.
I did attend the events, though, and saw all of the damage that wrestling causes to the body. The falls? They’re real. The blood? It’s real. They wear out their bodies. My son was a wrestler, and died at age 46 from a massive heart attack.
I can say that the meanest wrestlers in the ring were actually the nicest ones on the outside.
WRESTLING GAINED INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION IN RECENT YEARS WITH THE ADVENT OF CABLE TELEVISION. WHAT DO YOU THINK THAT MR. THORNTON WOULD THINK OF TODAY’S WRESTLING SHOWS?
Actually, he was on cable television even before he died, and competed well against the WCW and WWF.
HOW DID MR. THORNTON BECOME INVOLVED WITH THE MORNING SHOW?
He had given up radio, and taken a young retirement to pursue other interests such as farming. In 1969, the station manager at WDEF called to ask him to go back on the air, and told Harry to call him back in an hour. We then went to what we called our “downtown office” at McNew Pharmacy. Harry went out to a pay phone to call the manager back. He came back in, and said, “Well, I’ve got a new job. I don’t know what it is, but he wants me to do a morning show. Tomorrow, he said that we had to find a girl to go on the air with me.” The first co-hostess was Ruth Bloyer. Others over the years were Judy Corn, Fran Day, Barbara Molloy, and Judy Corn a second time. Judy Corn was the greatest thing to happen to the show. She is like a daughter, and we e-mail each other today.
WERE YOU ASKED TO SUBSTITUTE EACH TIME THAT THERE WAS VACANCY IN THE CO-HOSTESS CHAIR? DO YOU RECALL HOW THAT YOU WERE FIRST ASKED TO CO-HOST THE SHOW, AND WHAT YOUR INITIAL REACTION WAS?
One time, Ruth Bloyer was snowed in at Chicago. That’s when I did my first fill-in. You can’t keep my mouth shut, and Harry encouraged it. We were just minutes from going on the air, and I didn’t have time to think about it. I said that I would do it as a fill-in, and that’s all.
We couldn’t go anywhere that people didn’t recognize us – even on cruises. We reached as far as Atlanta and Murphy, NC.
HOW WOULD YOU ASSESS THE IMPACT OF THE MORNING SHOW?
Any complaint at all, they would come to Harry to put it on the air. He had that much influence. We heard from folks all over the world about Harry being jailed (for refusing to reveal the identity of a caller). I would tell them, “Yes, and he’s going to stay there until he is given his rights.”
The station manager once told Harry, “I’m not expecting you to come in first (in ratings).” Harry replied, “If I can’t come in first, I’ll go off the air.” The Morning Show beat its competition – Good Morning America, The Today Show, and Luther.
Celebrities who came to town all wanted to be on the show.
WHO WERE SOME OF ITS SPONSORS?
We had sewing demonstrations from The Pro-Sew Shop. We had an organist from Jimmy’s Music Store. Quinco Kitchens built at least one of our sets. There were also Rusty’s Meat Market, Charlie’s Wieners, and Rogers Grocery.
WHEN WAS THE LAST MORNING SHOW?
Harry’s last show was on July 2, 1982. Many of his friends were on the show. Luther gave him the microphone that he had used to sign on at WDEF radio.
Harry would sometimes say, “I can’t imagine how a no-name person from Highland Park could go so far in the world.”
We had planned to travel, and did travel to Jekyll Island. He got sick, and went into the hospital. They called me at home to say that he had taken a turn for the worse. Four months after leaving the air, Harry died on November 15, 1982.
WHAT HOBBIES HAVE YOU ENJOYED IN RECENT YEARS?
I’ve always loved to sew. I have two sewing machines and a serger that I don’t use anymore. I’ve also been an artist. After Harry died, Judy O’Neal invited me to be on her cable 3 talk show to do sewing, art, and candy-making. .
In 1997, I moved in with my daughter and son-in-law in Hickory, NC. I have a large screen television with Web TV and a keyboard that I use from my electric chair. I’m a frequent reader of the Chattanoogan.com, and also use e-mail a lot.
I miss Chattanooga, though. It’s home.
(If you have memories that you would like to share with Mrs. Tee, she has asked me to pass her e-mail ID along to readers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her reply will contain her motto: “You have to give a HUG to get one.”).