WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance
"Here we are, folks,
with lard on our hair and out ears pinned back like a
From the moment listeners heard emcee Smokey Ward sign on
there was said to be not a quiet moment in
the city auditoriums in Woonsocket, or Worthington,
or wherever the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance happened
to be playing.
WNAX out of Yankton South Dakota used to sign on the air in
it's early years "...This is WNAX, the voice of the Bridge Builders."
Through the years it grew and in 1943, WNAX completed the construction
of the world's tallest radio tower - 927 feet. Somewhere in that history,
hillbilly music came to the station. Like many radio stations of that
era, a live Saturday night barn dance / jamboree type show was
created. However, WNAX did it a bit differently we find.
It was described as an all-evening long fun-fest that was unique in
that unlike other broadcasts, the audience didn't come to the studio
or the theater. The show went to the audience. Every Saturday
night in a different town or city of, Nebraska,
Minnesota, South Dakota, or Iowa, Mom and pop put on their
goin' out clothes, got a baby sitter for the kids or
decked them out, too; and piled one and all into the family
car and headed for town and the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance show.
Each Saturday night show consisted of a half-hour rip-roaring
comedy warm-up (perhaps done by Herb Howard, the producer and director),
a full-hour broadcast of music, fun and frolic over radio station
WNAX, and then, afterwards, a two to three hour dance.
An evening out on the town like that cost only $1.00 back then,
quite the bargain.
The show had other interesting twists due to its visits to
other towns for its Saturday night broadcast. Consider this
incident that was reported in National Jamboree magazine
"There wasn't a ghost of a chance for anyone in Johnstown,
Nebraska, to win a giant jackpot when WNAX'S Missouri Valley
Barn Dance brought its show to town. The city's complete
long distance phone facilitiesone linewere tied up
to broadcast the hour-long program. The good people of
Johnstown, wanted it that way-with the tacit understanding
that in case of flood, tornado or other acts of God the
show would go off the air."
The producer and director of the show was Herb Howard,
yes, the same fellow who directed WLS' National
Barn Dance for five years. Mr. Howard, was also a romantic ballad
singer in his own right, was said to be a casual fellow
whose easy-going demeanor hid the the speed with which
he got a show moving when seconds were short,
and it's Howard who gets things going with a warmup.
One singer on this show was a fellow by the name of
Billy Dean, singer, who was a real honest-to-gosh cowboy.
Billy's cousin, was Eddie Dean, also a former WNAX star,
and later was a cowboy movie star.
No one was given top billing on the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance.
But probably the biggest
show-stopper they said was little Eller, so labelled because of her
elongated 6'4" frame. They said she literally had them rolling in the
aisles just by appearing in her way-above-the-knee little girl's
dress, long white stockings, and pigtails.
Little Eller's husband was Smokey Ward, who was the emcee for
the show. He dished up his own jokes and humor aimed at the
local folks, touching on everything from crops to the rest
of the cast"all delivered in a broad hillbilly accent. (Make note
of the opening sign-on attributed to Smokey and imagine that
accent.)" Both Smokey and Little Eller were from Renfro Valley,
Kentucky, home to another infamous radio program started by John Lair,
The Renfro Valley Barn Dance, which is still going to this day.
The show tried to maintain an informal, shirt-sleeve, just-stopped-by-for-a-visit
atmosphere right from the start of the warmup, through the broadcast
and even afterwards for the "dancing-til-tired" portion of the evening.
Most of the entertainers were seen as
old friends to WNAX listeners, and many people made a special
point of coming to see the musicians that they had heard over the air
While they didn't have a headliner, perhaps they had a mainstay
of the station. It was the familiar figure of Happy Jack O'Malley,
who was playing his fiddle on the air from 1927,
when he won an old-time fiddlers' contest. Happy was said to have
had the first commercial program on WNAX. The article mentions
that in the twenties, Happy used to be a bricklayer.
He'd come up to the studio in his mortar-spattered
overalls, trade his trowel for a fiddle, and just jump right
into the swing of things whether it was a waltz or a polka and
got the toes tapping in the audience.
The WNAX Barn Dance's unique five-state coverage
Minnesota, the Dakotas,
Nebraska, and Iowagave it wide popularity even
before the show went on the air at its Saturday night stands.
In fact, folks like them so much, that when the gang got ready
to play for the dancing after the radio program broadcast,
the enterainers had to break up into two groups - one group
played the music while the other group signed autographs!
Some of the acts that were a part of the WNAX Missouri Valley
- Smokey Ward, emcee (Little Eller's husband)
- Happy Jack O'Malley, fiddler
- Little Eller
- Cousin Elmer Twirp
- Larry O'Malley
- Al's Rhythm Rangers
- The Carson Sisters, Marge and Betty
- The Novelty Boys and Cora Deane
- Ben and Jessie Norman
- Billy Dean
Ben and Jessie Norman
The Carson Sisters
Happy Jack O'Malley
Johnnie White and the Sons of the West