Chester Martin Remembers Chattanooga's Radio Playhouse

Sunday, June 5, 2016 - by Chester Martin

This was probably a project of radio station WDOD, as it sounds like a typical endeavor of theirs. It definitely was operational in the 1930's, because my grandmother took me there at least twice before her death in 1939. WDOD was probably trying to get a noonday program started, much as WNOX had done in Knoxville. How much past 1939 the Playhouse lasted I do not remember.

The Playhouse was located on the east side of Market Street, between 5th and 6th Streets - probably in an abandoned music hall or earlier movie theater.

They featured local talent, plus some bigger "names" who were destined to achieve national success. When the Playhouse closed, I think the building was kept on as a theater, becoming the Capitol movie theater. (This would have been a "third-run" theater, following the Tivoli (first-run),and the State (second-run). They worked some other interesting features into their programming, as well, and I remember seeing an old Will Rogers film there).

One "local" act at our Radio Playhouse was a young man, Billy Wade, whom I liked for his funny way of swishing his baggy pants around as he danced. (Remember that I was a pre-schooler at the time). Don't remember if he also sang - he most likely did - but he is remembered for his funny way of dancing. Google turned up too many Billy Wades for me to pinpoint if "ours" is one of them, or if ours ever got famous.

"Old Grandpappy" was an act out of Nashville - but I think he appeared at our Radio Playhouse every day. (The Nashville performers of the "Opry", for sure, would drive hundreds of miles just to do a 10-minute stint on any open mic). Our "Grandpappy" was the later very popular Archie Campbell who was a perennial on "Hee Haw", and who could not have been older than his early 20's at that time. "Grandpappy" always wore a white wig, sat in a rocking chair, freely gave his opinion on everything, and cracked jokes . He probably also sang, as he had a good singing voice as evidenced on Hee Haw years later,  but I do not remember the singing. Grandpappy later had his own "live" TV show on Channel 9 here locally one night each week, as did Flatt and Scruggs. (That would have been well before Hee Haw).

Another later performer of early TV was "Lonesome" George Gobel. When he got famous on national TV about 1955, the Chattanooga Times printed a photo of a poster from the Radio Playhouse days bearing George's name as a main act. This "proved" that Chattanooga had been just "one more step" to another performer's success. I think Gobel lasted for two seasons on national TV - and he wanted to continue very badly, but he had to go. I would classify his humor as being "droll", as opposed to "hilarious", and something just short of "country". On one of his Christmas shows he performed, standing, wearing his WW2 Army officer's uniform (which still fit!), and singing carols while playing a guitar. He was different, and I hated to see him go. Sorry I missed him when he was at our Radio Playhouse.

Once, in the early 1970's, Burl Ives, folk singer, and famous nowadays as "Frosty the Snowman", came to Memorial Auditorium as the main act promoting the "Johnny Horizon Anti-Litter Campaign". (It was a federal promotion to help "clean up America"). While on stage that night, Ives mentioned that he had once appeared - many years before - "down on Market Street" - and gestured, a bit pejoratively, I thought, in that direction. (Ives billed himself in his early days as, "The Wayfarin' Stranger". Perhaps he got in some kind of dispute with the Law. Dunno!) I have wondered if he might have been here for a gig at our Radio Playhouse.

When the Radio Playhouse closed is beyond me; I just know that it closed, and became another bit of nostalgic trivia which links me with the ever-receding past of Chattanooga.

"Old Grandpappy", "Lonesome" George Gobel, and Burl Ives, however, are all alive and well - and residing on YouTube!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin


John Shearer: A Few Reminders Of Old Hixson Remain

When the name Hixson is mentioned, it might conjure up images of one of the more popular suburban areas of town.   Although perhaps no longer the most desired outlying area in metro Chattanooga for new construction like maybe Ooltewah, Soddy-Daisy and North Georgia, the area northeast of downtown is still popular.   This is especially true for the un-built ... (click for more)

John Shearer: Chattanooga Reacted With Sadness To RFK Death 50 Years Ago

When the Chattanooga News-Free Press came out on June 5, 1968, it carried this giant headline at the top – “RFK critically shot.”   As most Chattanoogans knew by then, the tragedy occurred after the New York senator and Democratic presidential candidate had delivered his California Primary victory speech from a ballroom in the now-razed Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. ... (click for more)

Former City Education Commissioner John P. Franklin Dies

John Porter Franklin, long a leading figure in Chattanooga city government, has died.  He was the city's first, elected black official, post Jim Crow laws, in 1971. Mr. Franklin's father, G.W. Franklin, was a pioneer funeral home director and John Franklin continued in that line. He was first an official in Franklin-Strickland Funeral Home, then he started John P. Franklin ... (click for more)

Pedestrian Struck And Killed In Cleveland Wednesday Morning

A pedestrian was struck and killed on Paul Huff Parkway early Wednesday morning. The incident happened around 2:30 a.m. More information will follow. (click for more)

The Boss, Claude Ramsey

I try not to overuse the word great, but we lost a great man today, Claude Ramsey. I had the pleasure of serving under him as director of Commercial and Industrial Properties for 14 years while he was the Hamilton County Assessor of Property. He was probably the smartest person I have ever known. He was tough but patient, kind, caring and compassionate. He knew how to get ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: So, You’re Invisible?

Several weeks ago I was in the middle of My Morning Readings when, somehow, I came across a wonderful story written by Nichole Johnson. Her website says she is a speaker, a motivator, and an author whose gift is to “capture the inner-most feelings of women facing life's daily struggles, and it has enabled her to create a unique sense of community for people of all ages.” That’s ... (click for more)