Monday, June 18, 2001

'Hayride' went national 50 years ago

        As a WLW radio and TV star, Judy Perkins thought she had made the big time. Then came the night of June 16, 1951. The Midwestern Hayride, WLWT's Saturday night country music showcase, made its national TV debut as an NBC summer replacement series for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows.

        “Mail came in from all around the country,” says Ms. Perkins, who came here from Nashville in 1948, a few months after WLWT became Cincinnati's first TV station.

        “It was really exciting. Television was so new,” the Springdale resident says.

        Not everyone was excited. Walter Winchell, the nationally syndicated columnist, ripped the Hayride for being “hayseed kind of stuff,” she recalls.

        The Hayride, one of Cincinnati's first weekly series, was a local TV fixture until 1972. For the 1955-56 TV season, NBC aired a half-hour Hayride on Wednesday nights. Throughout most of the 1950s, the Hayride was a summer replacement series on NBC or ABC, giving national exposure to the homegrown or regional acts.

        Hayride stars included Bonnie Lou, Dean Richards and the Lucky Pennies, the Boyer Sisters, the Briarhoppers, Kenny Price and the Hometowners, Hugh Cherry, Willie Thall, the Geer Sisters, Charlie Gore and the Rangers, Helen and Billy Scott, Bobby Bobo, Wally Procter, Ernie Lee and the Midwesterners dancers. Even crazy Paul Dixon hosted Hayride for a while.

        The really big stars didn't play the Hayride until the late 1960s, when Avco syndicated the show to 90 stations. Tex Ritter, Waylon Jennings, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell and Willie Nelson performed in the fifth-floor Crosley Square studio on Saturday nights. The same studio was used weekdays by Ruth Lyons and Mr. Dixon.

        Cincinnati had long been a country music mecca. The Hayride evolved from WLW's Boone County Jamboree and other popular country music radio shows in the 1930s, when they called it “hillbilly music.”

        In the 1950s, WLW had dozens of staff musicians, singers and dancers performing on TV and radio, or doing live shows on the county and state fair circuits.

        “They had enough talent on staff to have three Midwestern Hayride shows out at a time doing two shows a night,” recalls singer Bonnie Lou, a Hayride and Paul Dixon Show regular.

        “We were working seven days a week,” says Ms. Perkins, who sang on morning radio shows and the Saturday Hayride before taking over Ruth Lyons' Morning Matinee TV show in 1952. “I once went three days without going to bed.”

        Ms. Perkins marveled at the TV-radio operation at Crosley Square, where WLW broadcast national radio shows in the 1940s.

        Hayride scenery was built in a sixth-floor carpentry shop. Earl Hamner and Rod Serling wrote variety shows, dramas, sitcoms and soap operas before going to Hollywood to write The Waltons and The Twilight Zone.

        “WLW was like a real network operation. It was real professional,” Ms. Perkins says.

        The Hayride “was something unique to Cincinnati,” says Bill Spiegel, a Hayride director (1961-72). Costs for the live show were spread over Crosley Broadcasting's affiliates in Dayton, Indianapolis and Columbus. Once in national syndication, country's biggest stars came to town for Hayride.

        “There weren't many shows back then for country and western artists. We had the biggest names in the world, and we'd get them for $300 to $500, to sing two or three songs,” Mr. Spiegel says.

        Hayride rode into the sunset in 1972. Nine years later, MTV was launched, followed by Country Music Television and Great American Country cable channels.

        Viewers today expect slick, expensive, movie-quality video presentations of songs. Nobody wants to see people singing in front of hand-painted barnyard scenes on seamless paper.

        The TV variety show is dead; variety is now found on 100-plus channels. Gone are the TV singers, dancers and musicians; the only live TV production today is news.

        “It was exciting and fun — and a lot of work. It was hard work,” Ms. Perkins says. “But it was a wonderful era to be in broadcasting, the beginning of television.”

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