About The Artist
Updated: November 19, 2021
While he was known as Hank Keene to audiences, his real name was Harry Conrad Newcombee. His parents were Henry Clay and Katie (Williams) Newcombe. His parents were married in October 1906. He was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He attended grammar school in several states as the family moved — New York, Illinois, Florida and Kentucky. He graduated from the University of Kentucky High School and then went to attend Tufts College in Boston.
He started at radio station WTIC in the early 1930's. One of the earliest groups he formed was Hank Keene and His Connecticut Hillbillies. In February 1931, he had signed a contract for a series of 26 weekly radio broadcasts over radio station WTIC that were to be aired on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 pm. A newspaper article indicated they would receive thousands of fan letters due to their broadcasts. In 1931, all members of the group were form South Coventry, CT. The group even included Hank's mother and father, who had over 20 years of vaudeville experience.
At the age of 16, Hank joined Jan Garber's Victor Recording Orchestra in Hendersonville, NC. After that stint, he went on to the University of Kentucky and took on the task of conducting his own orchestra. He decided he wanted to add an 'eastern college' to his education; he enrolled at Tufts College in Boston. During his time there, he joined the "Harvardians", a Harvard orchestra.
Around this time, Hank's parents decided they wanted to be closer to their son. It was then they purchased the old Johanna Hale-Howard estate in South Coventry, Connecticut. That home was said to be originally build by Nathan Hale's sister in 1784.
Around 1937, he went on the vaudeville circuit himself. Then the lure of Broadway beckoned. He began to write music and helped produce Earl Carroll's "Flashes of Life."
Hank is said to have made is on-air debut over radio station WCK in St. Louis when he was just 11 years old (inferring that this would be about 1921 or so). At the time, WCK was owned by the department store, Stix Baer & Fuller in St. Louis.
As time went on, he created an entertainment organization of nearly 40 performers. Bob Zaiman interviewed Hank in 1953 and related a bit of how it all started and worked out. It was said his summer theater (tent shows) ranked at the most profitable of all of such efforts.
Newspaper archives contain articles promoting and covering the tent shows as they made their way from town to town. In 1934, they pitched tent so to speak on the grounds of Wahconah Park near Pittsfield, MA. A crowd of over 300 people showed up for their shows, familiar with the music they had heard over radio station WGY. Readers get a glimpse as to how the entertainment flowed. The opening number was a banjo and piano arrangement of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain." Other selections were of a 'similar vein.' Hank sang one of his original tunes, "Runaway Boy." He also did imitations of Rudy Vallee singing "A Little Kiss Each Moment," Tony Wons announcing, Bing Crosby crooning and other big names and moments on the radio.
When the revue went to Ludlow, VT in July of 1934, readers learned that the tent used was waterproof and could comfortably seat 1,400 people. The sound was amplified in such a way that everyone in the tent could hear the entertainers clearly. At that time, the show had a cast of 30 people. Articles were not yet indicating who was in the group.
For the winter of 1934, it appears that Hank and his group were to begin broadcasts over radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA.
While in Pittsburgh, a Miss McKon asked or commented to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Jake, the violin player, on Hank's radio program was "...pretty good for a mountaineer." The newspaper revealed that Leonard Excellenti was playing the role of "Jake." He was once a violinist for the San Carlo Opera Company.
Hank's Radio Gang were to setup their tents in Franklin, IN in June of 1937. The show would feature some 40 "famous stage and radio entertainers." Performers listed in addition to Hank were Elmer, Nancy, Abner, Texas Jack, Bob Atcher (The Mountain Minstrel), Buddy Key (the lad who'spicturee appeared in Ripley's Believe It or Not column earlier in the year); the Mountain Maidens, the Baines Twins and 'many others to numerous to mention.' The show was to be two and a half hours long. Audiences would be entertained by dancing, singing, music, comedy and novelties. The show in Franklin was to also include an amateur audition to be held on stage and feature local talent from surrounding communities. Readers learned that the show was '...transported on Hank Keene's big special trucks and the tent and equipment is said to be the most modern on the road this season. Special amplifiers carry the voice and music to all parts of the huge tent so that those seated in the rear may hear as well as those seated near the front.'
Also featured was a big yellow sound car, that served the community during the great flood. Over the radio air waves it was called "Hank Keene's Sound Car" and "WHAS Sound Car No. 1." Hank owned the car.
A hint of who the Mountain Maidens were appears in an article in July of 1937. Hank said, "They lived in the back hills of eastern Kentucky and until they went to Louisville to enter an amateur contest a few months ago, had never seen a railroad train.
At some point, Hank (Harry Newcombee) had parted ways with his first wife and divorced. He married the former Jean Fadden, former winner of Miss Ohio beauty contest in 1937 in the summer of 1938.
In a Massachusetts appearance in 1938, readers learned the audience heard hillbilly and swing music. Hank's mother played the role of "Ma" and was known as "Nancy", a comedienne. His new wife, Jean Fadden, had joined the group and from personal appearance ads appears to have been perhaps an acrobat. Wyoming Dotty, billed as a yodeler. Scotty Friiedel and "Bugs" Sprouse were blackface comedians in the ensemble.
In later promotional articles, readers learn that his wife, Jean, was an 'accomplished toe ballet and tap dancer.' In a promotion, ladies were to be admitted free if they were accompanied by a paid adult admission at a show at Hanover Park in Connecticut.
A 1939 promotional article reveals more names of the performers in Hank's ensemble. Lee Allen, a champion cowboy fiddler was in the show. Al Lemons was a French comedian. Then there were Nancy (his Mom), Abner, Elmer, Wyoming Dottie, May Blossom Williams (the south's sweetheart), George Broderick, Miss May Lee, Elmer Lazone Allen and others. The tent at this appearance in Pittsfield, MA was said to hold seating for 1,800.
One promotional article in June of 1940 cited a review by a critic with "Cue" magazine, Mr. Oliver Claxton. He wrote:
"The affair resolves itself into sort of a rural Hellzapoppin'. If Hank Keene's Big Tent Theater comes to your neighborhood, go and see it. You Will find it to be a theater stripped of pretence, playing straight to its audience. And you will find that audience eating it up. While the show goes on, with babies mewling and squawking and adults roaring with delight, you will find that you, too, are having a wonderful time. And when Hank Keene steps out and asks his audience how they liked the show, you will hear unabashed and hearty applause that you hear maybe once a year in a New York Theater."
Towards the end of 1941, Hank seemingly had taken another step forward in his radio career. He had a new sponsor, Velvet Pipe & Tobacco. His show, "Hank Keene In Town," was then being carried on numerous stations across the country. The sponsored show appears to have lasted until around August 1942. The war was starting to affect Hank's entertainment career. The radio show only had a cast of 12, including his wife, Jean Fadden.
Late 1942 and into 1943, promotional articles and ads were not seen. He was on the radio over WTAM out of Cleveland.
Nothing was seen of any activity by Hank Keene and his gang in 1944 and 1945, due to the war.
In early 1946, the Hank Keene show returned to the radio airwaves in Dothan, AL and was aired even in Vancouver, BC in Canada.
He had a portable 'theater' which seated about 2,000 people. The equipment used was said to be worth $60,000. He and his troupe would do 3 or 4 night stands in small towns and would draw as many as 10,000 spectators. This befuddled the big city New York theatrical critics; they were at a lost to explain such popularity and success.
During the winter season, the theater was stored. He would appear on a radio station with a smaller group, doing songs and comedy, trying to appeal to the masses. To further that effort, he wrote more than 200 hillbilly and popular tunes and published them himself. He sold them in book form to thousands of fans. Many of those books can be found on such places as eBay.
He was a rising star and seemingly success was his for the taking. But World War II came along and slowed many an entertainment career during that era. He had just started a national radio show that was sponsored by Liggett-Myers, a tobacco company. But when the war came, the company ended up going out of business because the metal for the trademarked can became unavailable. That brought an end to the radio show.
Hank went on to work as a public relations representative for the War Department. He would produce and star in shows for servicemen as well as other duties.
When the war effort ended, he went back home to Coventry and thought about starting up his summer theater and radio ventures. But he and his dad had bulldozed a road through their property and his career changed directions.
He had theatrical experience from working in vaudeville theatres and with stock companies.
In 1947, the personal appearance promotional articles and ads were gone. In their place were promotional ads for the homes he was building in Coventry, CT.
On May 2, 1948, a fire destroyed the two and a half story, 12 room home of the Hank Keene family. Damage was said to be $50,000. It took more than 75 firemen from five fire companies to put the blaze out from 4:30 pm tppmpm. Even neighbors pitched in to help fight the fire. The home was built in 1784. It had recently been remodeled. A new $900 piano had recently been delivered to the home. It was reported that insurance would only cover part of the loss. The fire started in the kitchen, but Mrs. Keene said she was not cooking at the time and was outside greeting guests. Mr. Keene said he was able to save documents pertaining to his business.
His most popular recording was "The Last Round-Up" and his most popular compositions was "The Runaway Boy". His Victor recordings took place on October 27, 1933 in New York City. His Brunswick recordings took place in New York City on February 12, 1931.
Hank Keene's Gang On The Air
In 1947, Hank and his father made a decision to bulldoze a road through their heavily wooded property of 67 acres they owned in South Coventry, CT. The thought was to make some of the land saleable and it turned Hank's career from popular hillbilly singer, comedian, songwriter and publisher into one of the larger builder of homes in the area. By fall 1953, he had constructed and sold over 50 homes on property that was bordering Coventry Lake. That road took a while; Hank went down to Florida where he did night club and theater appearances, entertaining audiences along with his wife. But sadly, while he was in Florida, his father passed away, leaving Hank to finish the development of the property.
He ended up being a developer as he found he could sell the land easy enough, but people wanted a recommendation for a builder. He didn't know any, so he put together his own group and began to build 'ranch type' homes that seemed to be popular with the public.
When he himself finally moved to Florida, he continued his efforts in the real estate arena. One of his most famous customers was a golfing friend at the time, singer Perry Como.
Mr. Como had contracted with the Hank Keene Co. to build a house for him in Tequesta on a cost plus ten percent basis in June of 1965. The total cost had come to $356,851.12; but Mr. Como was said to have not paid $53,760.11 and the Keene Co. took Mr. Como to court.
In November 1968, testimony was given in Circuit Court in front of Judge James Knott (no jury). Keene, a job foreman and a carpenter testified. Como had refused to pay the contested amount claiming that Keene had misrepresented his abilities and did not follow the architects plans. Mr. Como indicated he had already paid $153,091 over the original agreed upon price of $150,000. Keene stated there were 'hold ups' in the nearly two years of construction. But a carpenter testified that 'a lot of action' occurred on the construction only when the Comos were known to be in town to make inspections. Further, there seemed to be little supervision and many corrections had to be made. Testimony revealed they used expensive knot-free cedar lumber and about 350 feet of left over cedar hadisappeareded from the site and not used in the house. Keene also stated that there were constant changes to plans during construction that resulted in higher costs than the original $150,000 agreed upon price.
Testimoncontinueded in the days that followed and included accusations of "poor workmanship and use of low grade lumber that had to be replaced." Keen's attorney rested their case on the second day. Como's attorneys moved for a "directed verdict in favor of their client on several points." One contention was that Keene's actions were barred by the statute of limitations.
Como's attorneys called their witnesses. One testified that the foundation lines were crooked. Keene had noticed it the day before and ordered it corrected. Mention was made of poor quality cedar used for sheathing the roof. Other items of contention were the forms and construction of the beams in the home. A witness testified that it took four men at $150 per week and 17 days to remove wooden cornices and attach forms for concrete to the beam. Faulty tile and marble work was also mentioned in testimony.
The trial came to a pause on November 28 due to the fact that Perry Como had a television special in Los Angeles on that Sunday and other appearances at a later date. Como contended he was intentionally deceived by Keene into thinking the home could be built for $150,000. One architectestifieded that to at least 20 items that needed correction over the 22 months of construction. Other testimony offered was that it was the trade practice for contractors to pay for their own mistakes. But Keene's response was, "The architect wrote the music and I played the tune."
The trial was delayed several times in 1969. In August 1969, one witness noted the lack of electrical and plumbing details in the plans; he wondered "...how a building department could issue a permit with no more information than this."
After the August 30, 1969 court hearing, the trial was again delayed. Closing arguments were scheduled for December 4, 1969.
On August 5, 1971, the three year court battle ended. Como was ordered to pay Keene (Como's former golfing partner) $40,320.
On September 23, 1931, Harry Newcombe married the former Claire Barbara Anderson in Mamaroneck, NY. Not much else is known about Claire, other than her parents were Mr. and Mrs. Frank H. Anderson of South Manchester, CT. An article from September 25, 1931 indicated she was returning to St. Margaret's School in Waterbury, CT. The parents did not announce the wedding until January 1932. Mr. Anderson was the treasurer and general manager of the J. W. Hale Company, one of the largest stores in Manchester, CT. He was also the chairman of the town's centennial celebration held nine years previous. The marriage was kept secret and was not reported in the newspapers until January 1932.
Tragedy struck the Keene family in April 1965. Hank Keene, Jr. was a student at Emory University in Georgia. He was involved in an automobile accident in Gainesville, GA. His roommate was in the car, but did not suffer serious injury. Keene was taken off the critical list after an operation for the removal of a ruptured left kidney. The autopsy discovered a ruptured aorta. He graduated from Palm Beach Private School in 1961. He was to receive his bachelor of arts degree in Political Science at Emory in June. He was born on August 25, 1942 in Cleveland, OH; he died on April 22, 1965 at the age of 22.
In June of 1965, Hank Jr.'s bachelor's degree was presented posthumously to his sister, Kathijean, in the presence of parents Hank and Jean Keene. According to the acting chaplain of the university, Jack Boozer, it was the first time such an event took place.
Kathijean Keene was their daughter. Kathijean had a hearing defect, a result of an illness (mumps) when she was three years old, that left her with only ten percent hearing. It did not stop her from becoming a stage career that began when she was just ten years old. She developed an acute sense of rhythm and found that music 'got through' to her. She wanted to become a typist. But the 'bell' on the typewriters back then to let a typist know they needed to hit a carriage return could not be heard by Kathijean. Her father had a few typewriter repair and service shops to try something to no avail. Her dad came up with the idea of having a flashing light take the replace of the bell to help someone such as her in her work. Her dancing skills, led to performances on television, such as the Perry Como show and stage as well.
Kathijean wore two hearing aids. When she did her dancing performances, she would tape them because she felt they might fall off while she was "...doing a turn or tour-jete." She also pinned her hair up like ballerinas, do and the aids might show too much if she did not tape them. She also related to Alice McKee in a 1963 interview that she had learned to lip read.
She got the dancing bug when she went to a girl friend when she was seven to a dancing class. She knew then she wanted to do that. But her mom tried to tell her it was impossible, thinking it would not be possible for her to keep time to the music. But she got the ballet instructor to let her try and well, the rest is history.
Hank and Jean also had a daughter, Kathijean Keene. She was born July 25, 1951; died November 4, 2000.
His father, Henry Clay Newcombee, Hank's father, was born on April 27, 1878. He died on May 31, 1947 at the age of 69. He was buried in Storrs, Connecticut. Hank's mother was born on May 10, 1888. She died at the age of 89 on January 24, 1978. She is buried in West Palm Beach, Florida. As a point of interest, her tombstone shows her name as Katie Keene.
As Harry Conrad Newcombee, he married the former Jean Bernice Fadden on June 16, 1938 in Cuyahoga County Ohio. She was born on February 6, 1920. She died at the age of 80 on February 14, 2000. She is buried in Martin County Florida.
Hank Keene (Harry Conrad Newcombee) died on January 8, 1982. He is buried in West Palm Beach, Florida.
One might assume at some point that Mr. Newcombee had his name legally changed to Hank Keene.
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