It seems hard to believe now, but for 11 years, (1967-77), Chattanooga viewers watched a 20-hour annual telethon (from 11:00 p.m. Saturday to around 6:30 p.m. Sunday) for the March of Dimes. Broadcast live from first the Tivoli Theater, and later the Memorial Auditorium, the stage was filled with celebrities, and the technical gear was operated by crews from all three local TV stations. Yes, once a year, competition was put aside for a common goal: the battle against birth defects, led locally by Dr.
The March of Dimes “Telerama” was held each January, hosted by Roy Morris from 1967 through 1974. Roy was a popular TV personality who also acted and sang in Little Theater productions, so he was quite capable of filling time during a 20-hour live TV show. Channel 3 televised the event from 1967 to 1973. Roy switched to Channel 9 briefly, hosting the ’74 Telerama for that channel. Channel 9 continued the tradition for three more years, with Jackie Schulten and Wayne Hannah hosting in 1975, and the news team of Bob Johnson, Darrell Patterson and Don Welch emceeing in 1976 and 1977.
Similar March of Dimes telethons were done by stations nationwide beginning in the early 1960s, all following the same format. Local singers and bands were recruited to perform, because, well, 20 hours is a lot of time to fill. National celebrities provided some star power. With only three major networks at the time, there weren’t many stars to go around, but a surprising number spent many January weekends on the road. James Arness and Dennis Weaver from “Gunsmoke,” Fess Parker and Ed Ames from “Daniel Boone,” and Max Baer and Irene Ryan from “The Beverly Hillbillies” made the rounds from Pittsburgh, to Charlotte, to Knoxville, Seattle and beyond to help the March of Dimes. Some, like Weaver, Parker, and Ames, could sing or play a guitar on the shows. Others would simply appear on stage, joke around with the hosts, and help answer the phones. Fans who attended the shows often got autographs from the Hollywood stars. I don’t know if the stars were compensated for their efforts, but they got a lot of good publicity for their shows.
(I may have made my first TV appearance on a Telerama. The producers would ask local radio deejays (as well as TV personalities from competing stations) to man the pledge table, reading the pledges and challenges that had been phoned in. This was a thrill for me, then a teenage disc jockey. When hosts Bob, Darrell and Don took a wee-hours break, someone signaled for me to go on stage and introduce a local singing group. Sure, it was 3:30 a.m., but I was on TV! A couple of hours later, the big three re-emerged, and I slithered back into obscurity.
During all those January weekends, we welcomed some big-name talent into Chattanooga. Michael Landon, the most popular star of TV’s number-one show set the standard in 1967. “Bonanza” was riding high in the ratings, and everybody loved “Little Joe.”
Landon was on-camera frequently during those 20 hours, posing for pictures, signing autographs, and making a tearful (and effective) plea for viewers to donate.
In the years to come, we would anxiously await the announcement of the next Telerama stars. The Chattanooga producers tried to top themselves each year. In 1968, Leonard Nimoy came to town. That was a bit of a letdown after Michael Landon the year before. It sounds strange now, but “Star Trek” wasn’t that popular when it first aired, so an appearance by “Mr. Spock” didn’t create as much excitement as you would think. Sharing the bill with Nimoy that year were “The Virginian” star James Drury, “King of the Road” singer Roger Miller, and country comedian Minnie Pearl, so collectively there were plenty of stars.
In the years to come, there were more western stars (David Canary of “Bonanza” and actors from “The Virginian” and “High Chaparral”), “Hee Haw” stars Roy Clark, Gunilla Hutton, Roni Stoneman and the Hagers, then-”Laugh-In” cast member Richard Dawson, Peter Marshall of “Hollywood Squares,” Anson Williams (“Potsie” from “Happy Days”), Robert Reed from “The Brady Bunch,” and singer Crystal Gayle.
Smartly enough, the producers always booked some lesser name stars, who could fill time when necessary. People like 1950s singer Snooky Lanson and tap dancer Billy Lee came year after year, always ready with a song or two.
Few visiting stars were more popular than Elly May Clampett herself, Donna Douglas, who visited in 1974. “The Beverly Hillbillies” had ended its network run a few years earlier, but it was still popular in reruns. She happily accepted the invitation, as she had done frequently for March of Dimes telethons around the nation. Shane Hullender was two years old, and often attended the Chattanooga telethons. Later in life, he never let his disability keep him down. He was a great co-worker at Channel 3 for many years, and has since worked at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation. He is a wonderful friend, and attending his wedding to Allison Hobson in 2012 was a joyful experience. When we learned that Donna Douglas died this week at the age of 82, Shane sent this beautiful photo, which reminded me of his achievements, Donna Douglas’s warm heart, and those unforgettable Telerama days. I hope this has brought you some nice memories as well. If you have a Telerama story to tell, please share it in the comments section, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Used with permission of David Carroll’s ChattanoogaRadioTV.com