ne of the most popular and longest running programs on  radio was WLS Radio's National
Barn Dance. The show blended music, comedy and down-home theatrical skits that lasted well over five decades.  The Barn Dance's influence on country and western music was second only to the  Grand Ole Opry, which got it's start on WSM in Nashville.

The National Barn Dance debuted on April 19, 1924, the first Saturday night after WLS signed on the air.  According to Edgar Bill, the first WLS station manager: "We had so much highbrow music the first week that we thought it would be a good idea to get on some of the old time music.  After we had been going about an hour, we received about 25 telegrams of enthusiastic approval.  It was this response that pushed the Barn Dance!"  Indeed, Sears-Roebuck management was aghast by this "disgraceful low-brow music" that was being broadcast on their new station.  When Bill and Agricultural Director Samuel Guard were confronted by the angry executives, they pointed to the audiences overwhelming approval.

The Barn Dance served two distinct audiences.  It targeted the rural farm audiences as well as city listeners that had come from rural communities or those whom had been told about the "good old times." 

In November 1925, WLS claimed to be the first to build an audience studio when it moved to larger quarters on the 6th floor of the Sherman Hotel in downtown Chicago.  The theatre was designed to hold 100 people as well as technical and control room facilities.

Early stars of the National Barn Dance included Tommy Dandurand, Tom Owens, Chubby Parker, Pie Plant Pete, Walter Peterson, Rube Tronson and Cecil & Ethel Ward among others.  One of the most influential artists during the early days was Bradley Kincaid.  He struck a chord with listeners and the live audience alike.  He also may have been one of the first artists to popularize dozens of unpublished mountain ballads.

Several other future stars spent a brief amount of time in front of the WLS microphones.  The first was a comedy team consisting of Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden.  The pair appeared during the late 1920's before taking their "blackface" minstrel show to WGN as "Sam & Henry."  A disagreement with the station led them to move across the dial to WMAQ, resurfacing the very next week as "Amos & Andy."  Their act became so successful that it was eventually picked up by the NBC Radio Network.  

Another comedy team debuted at WLS in 1927.  "The Smith Family" featured the husband and wife team of Jim and Marian Jordan.  Like Gosden and Correll, the couple also ended up leaving for WMAQ (along with announcer Harlow Wilcox) and gained national notoriety as "Fibber McGee & Molly," which also aired over NBC.

Despite these two major defections, WLS and The National Barn Dance continued to hold their own and in the following years, ticket requests were taking about seven months to fulfill due to the show's increasing popularity and the theatre's tiny capacity.  By the time that the Prairie Farmer Magazine purchased WLS in 1928, the Barn Dance was moved to the companies headquarters on Washington Street.  It was apparent that the production had to move to bigger facilities.  Plus, officials of WLS Artists Inc., Glenn Snyder and Earl Kutze knew that they would have to charge an admission in order to break even.

 

Longtime Barn Dance host Joe Kelly.

 


            

 

 

 

 

 

By 1931, the whole show was moved to the Eighth Street Theatre (located directly behind the Stevens Hotel, now the Hilton) on Wabash Avenue and 8th Street.  While officials at WLS and the theatre initially had no idea how well attended the shows would be, as the weeks, months and years rolled by, listeners showed up by the thousands to fill the 1200 seat theatre twice every Saturday night (7:30pm and 10:00pm).  In fact, according to WLS' own figures, nearly three million people attended the Barn Dance performances at the Eighth Street Theatre during its 26 year run there.  Every year the crowds got bigger and the lines got longer.  Shows were sold out up to eight weeks in advance and lines of people snaked down Wabash waiting to enter on Saturday evenings. Many showed up hours before showtime and carefully guarded their spots in line, despite having reserved seats inside.

In addition to airing locally on WLS' 50,000 watt signal, the National Barn Dance was picked up for regional airing on NBC's Blue Network in 1932.  By the next year, over 30 stations coast to coast were carrying the evenings second show, which was sponsored by Miles Laboratories - makers of Alka Seltzer.  In 1949, ABC-TV televised approximately 39 weekly episodes of the National Barn Dance, which by then, featured nearly 100 performers per show.

During wartime, the Barn Dance hit the road and performed at several state fairs around the Midwest.  Thousands of listeners who had never been to Chicago would pour into the fairgrounds to catch a glimpse of their "WLS friends."  The shows were also scheduled at several downstate locations where the price of admission was simply rubber or scrap metal to help the war effort.

In 1944 Paramount Pictures made a movie about the NBD, featuring a host of the WLS stars; Pat Buttram, the Hoosier Hotshots, The Dinning Sisters, Joe Kelly, Arkie the Arkansas Woodchopper and Lulu Belle and Scotty.

The story revolves around a Chicago advertising promoter who wants to put together a radio program featuring "hillbilly performers." He finds the Barn Dance gang, merrily dancing away in the barn on Saturday nights, somewhere in southern Illinois. After some prodding, he gets the troupe to agree to come back to Chicago to appear on a radio show, sponsored by Garvey Soup. After several slip ups and mishaps, the Haylofters finally perform on WLS Radio.


Mr and Mrs Garvey (played by Charles Dingle and Mabel Paige) of Garvey Soup Co, Joe Kelly, 
The Hoosier Hotshots, Pat Buttram and Lulu Belle in the 1944 film "The National Barn Dance."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shows kept selling out and the Barn Dance was a prominent part of WLS.  The performers were thought of as "family" in the listeners minds.  Burridge Butler, owner of the Prairie Farmer and WLS set down stringent rules in order to keep the atmosphere of the Barn Dance (and the rest of the station for that matter) squeaky clean and family oriented.  He always believed that the artists (his "boys and girls") should "act naturally and ring true."  Butler did not want his program to be "a showcase for hillbillies or a slick Hollywood act."  He was constantly checking to make sure that the Barn Dance represented true Midwestern culture.  Even after his death, many performers adhered to his ultra-conservative doctrines, despite the changing culture in post-war America.


Rex Allen talks about the conservative 
attitudes at WLS and the National Barn Dance.

By the late 1950's, audiences finally began to wane and the National Barn Dance stopped its live performances at the Theatre after 1957.  The show continued to air on WLS until the station was sold to ABC and switched formats to contemporary music.  At that point, the show moved over to WGN where it continued to air for several more years.

Countless numbers of performers shared their talents with the live theatre audiences and over the radio.  Many went on to become celebrities, while others were happy to get the chance to join in on the rollicking good times.

Continue to the next page to see and hear some of the more notable performers from the National Barn Dance.

 

 

 

2007 Scott Childers and Munchkin Studios