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

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