We Were Entertained
Every day we watched Steve’s show (see the television page). The fortunate ones got to go to the studio, the rest watched. I never knew anybody who didn't do one or the other. If you wanted to go visit a friend after school or on Saturday you didn't have to ask if you could watch Steve's Show. It was on. Period.
We had AM radio stations. I don't remember ever being in my car or anyone elses when the radio wasn't on. At various time there were: KARK (920), KLRA (1010), KTHS (1090), KGHI (1250) which later became KAJI and then KALO, KXLR (1150) which was originally KNLR 1450 until about 1952, KDXE (1380), and the all-black KOKY (1440). There may have been FM stations in Little Rock, but car radios only picked up AM. Car Radios also only had five buttons, which was enough.
KTHS (the call letters meant “Come To Hot Springs”) began in Hot Springs in 1928 (at 1040 kHz), moved to Little Rock in 1954, and became Clear Channel KAAY in 1962. In addition to Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and others, KOKY, "Rhythm and News, Gospel and Blues", played a lot of doo-wop and other music that was never to be heard on the other stations. KLRA began life as KLBN in 1926. A longtime country station, KLRA left the air in the 1980s.
If you ever visited relatives in Dallas, you might have gotten a chance to listen to KLIF/FM. FM in the fifties was very different from today. To begin with, there were no commercials, just music. It was great. You might recall a Saturday Night Live skit sometime in the 1970s in which Dan Akroyd played a DJ working both AM and FM on the same shift. At the AM mike he was spastic and obnoxious, and at the FM mike he was calm and sophisticated. He pretty much nailed the difference.
By the way, until 1965, when the electronics industry world wide adopted the term "Hertz", we used "cycles". So a radio station like KGHI was referred to as "1440 kilocycles", not "1440 kiloHertz".
"You're listening to XERF, Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, and Del RIO, Texas!" Late at night after the local stations signed off at midnight (none were 24-hour in the 1950s) we could pick up station XERF in Del Rio, Texas, 1570 on your radio dial. Wolfman Jack moved from Shreveport, Louisiana station KCIJ and made XERF his home from 1962 to 1964. XERF was the successor to XERA which was the successor to XER which was built by goat-gland doctor John Brinkley. The station was one of dozens of "border blasters" that operated until a 1972 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico regulated them. XERF had a 250,000-watt transmitter, and it was rumored to sometimes go as high as 1,000,000 watts. 50,000 watts was the legal limit in the U.S, but XERF’s transmitter was across the border in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, out of reach of the FCC. Late Saturday nights, when evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong came on XERF with his “World Tomorrow” show, we knew it was time to go home.
To read about the origin of radio station XERF, go to the Doctor Brinkley page HERE.
Some stations didn't even make midnight, but signed off at sundown. In fact, KBBA in Benton played great music during the day but signed off at sundown with the slogan, "The station that runs down at sundown to give the others a chance to catch up."
In the summer of 1959, Dewey Phillips moved to Little Rock. Dewey Mills Phillips was the legendary Memphis DJ credited with first playing Elvis Presley on the air -- "That's All Right, Mama", July 10, 1954. In the summer of 1959 Dewey was fired from station WHBQ in Memphis for (he said) locking himself in the control room and playing the same record continuously for 24 hours to force the owners to give him a raise. He showed up in Little Rock at station KTHS. If you’ve never heard Dewey, his show was absolute mayhem. He never shut up. He played pieces of songs, played the same song on two or three turntables simultaneously, played songs backwards, talked over the music, played fake commercials for non-existent products, and interrupted everything with snippets of sound effects such as the roadrunner’s “beep, beep” or some of the car-wreck sounds from the song "Transfusion." In 1959, April Stevens recorded “Teach Me Tiger” and it was so suggestive it was banned all over the south. Dewey played pieces of it, especially the “wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah” part. We couldn’t get enough. We stopped at pay phones to call him and went to the radio station to beg him to play the whole thing, but he told us he only had a partial tape. The reality was he didn’t want to run afoul of the station’s management. But Little Rock was too slow for Dewey so after only a few months he returned to Memphis, and the airwaves in central Arkansas were relatively quiet for the remainder of 1959. Addicted to painkillers as the result of an automobile accident, Dewey died in his sleep in September, 1968, at the age of 42. (Elvis died nine years later in August, 1977, also at the age of 42, and probably from the same addiction.)
Brother Hal on KLRA. Just as you could never find anyone who would admit they voted for Nixon, you could never find anyone our age who would admit they listened to “Brother Hal” Webber. But he had the number one morning show for two generations. Harold L. Webber died Friday, February 11, 2005. You can hear a 20 minute, commercial-free excerpt from Brother Hal's daily radio show in 1989 on THIS PAGE HERE. You should listen to this and note the country's problems he's complaining about. They'll sound familiar.
Benny Craig, the Colonial Bread Man, did the 6 o'clock sports on KTHV. He also called the Arkansas Traveler baseball games on radio station KXLR. But he didn't call them from the field. He sat in the picture window of the Colonial Bakery at 201 North Cross Street in downtown Little Rock wearing his Colonial Bakery uniform with the goofy hat that looked like a police officer's except that where the badge should be there was a Colonial Bread logo. He read the plays off of the ticker, which you could hear clicking in the background, and rang a bell every time the Travelers got a hit. Benny Craig's signoff was always the same, "This is Benny Craig, the old bread man, signing off, and remember no one ever stood as straight as the one who stoops to help a child."
Ever hear of a reverberator? It fit in the trunk of your car and drove the rear speaker and made the music echo. The effect was awesome. Closest thing we had to car stereo. I only knew a few guys who had one because they cost 20 bucks, and 20 bucks in 1960 was the same as $129.86 in 2005, and that was more than the value of my car.
We had mostly 45 RPM records, the ones with the big hole. Player of choice was an RCA model 45J2, or in the later 1950s a 45J6. Stack ‘em 10 high, take off your shoes, and dance for hours. An RCA model 45EY3 was the expensive model with a cover.
If you wanted to listen to an LP, say Brother Dave Gardener, you needed a different player than the one that played the 45s. A real hi-fi setup. If you knew someone who had such equipment, you spent a lot of time at his/her house. Late at night, after their parents went to bed, you might hear Rusty Warren’s “Knocker’s Up” or maybe Redd Foxx, though never in mixed company.
When we went to the movies, we saw newsreels and cartoons before the feature. And the movies showed continuously and we could sit and watch it all as many times as we wanted until the theater closed. One more thing. Talk out loud or otherwise disturb the people around you during a movie and the ushers threw you out. Every theater had regulars, and if you got a reputation as a troublemaker in your neighborhood theater you’d be banned. I knew a couple of guys who were banned from the Heights Theater.
3D movies were expected to save the movie industry from the onslaught of television. Bwana Devil was the first, and it had its Arkansas premier at the Center Theater at 407 Main Street in 1952. Everybody wore the goofy paper glasses. Before the feature, a man came on the big screen to explain 3D using a steel tape measure. First he showed width, then height, then to show depth he pointed the tape at the audience and everybody jumped and all the girls screamed. The movie, however, was lousy.
The Center Theater on Main began life as the Royal and was later remodeled and reincarnated into the Center. The Royal sign went to Benton and replaced the Imp Theater. The Royal is on the National Register Of Historic Places, and the Center was razed to ground level in the summer of 2009.
Arkansas Theater at 516 S. Louisiana Street. Elvis’ Arkansas premier of “Love Me Tender” was there in 1956. I had to sit way in the back of the balcony. The place was SRO and it was hot from all the body heat. All the girls screamed when Elvis made his movie debut, walking in a field behind a horse and plow far in the distance.
Remember Smell-O-Vision? It was a system that released odors during the showing of a film so that the viewer could "smell" what was happening in the movie. It premiered in New York in 1960 in the film "Scent of Mystery". It had technical problems so the process didn't work very well. It was compounded by the fact that all the teenagers in the audience tried to pass gas during the movie. As far as I can remember, it failed before it could make it to Arkansas.
Capitol Theater at Capitol and Spring. Moved from 600 Main and took over the former Pulaski Theater building which was larger than the one on Main. “The Robe” showed there in 1953. "The Robe" was the first wide-screen (AKA Cinemascope) movie, and so the Capitol was the first theater in Arkansas to install the new "diamond face" screen, two and a half times wider than the older screen, and new projectors equipped with anamorphic projection lenses to accomodate the new technology. Walt Disney cashed in at the Capitol with "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" in 1954. You can see the Capitol Theater sign in the distance at the bottom of the downtown Little Rock page HERE.
The Capitol was also the only Little Rock theater to screen Cinerama. It used three projectors instead of one and the screen was wider and more curved. But because the three projectors and their respective three films were never matched you could always see the dividing lines between the three sections, and the three sections were usually each a different brightness and focus. It was unnerving because you couldn't pretend the divisions weren't there. The first, "This Is Cinerama", featuring a roller coaster ride, showed at the Capitol in 1952, but by the time the last, "How The West Was Won", was released in 1963 the Capitol was out of the Cinerama business so when it finally played in Little Rock it was the 35mm version.
Heights Theater at 5600 Kavanaugh Blvd. Ushers prowled the aisles with flashlights to keep petting to a minimum. Or maybe just to watch.
Nabor Theater at 1717 Wright Avenue. Ten-cent Saturday afternoon serials. Rocket Man. Sky King. Darkest Africa, later released as Bat Men of Africa. In Darkest Africa, the batmen did the dirty work for the villian, and they were summoned by the batmen chieftan who rang a huge gong that could be heard all over the jungle. I always wanted to ring that gong.
Main Theater at 106 Main St.
New Theater at 112 Main St. Changed names several times. When Bill Thomas and I played hooky in the ninth grade we went there because it was never a mainstream theater and that lessened our chance of being discovered. As downtown theaters began to loose their appeal, the New, or its successor, and the Main next door were the first to begin the slide toward porn.
Lee Theater at 3819 W. 13th St., across from Lee school. In the late 1940s, showed westerns on Saturdays. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Bob Steele, Hopalong Cassidy. These would all be recycled a little further down the line on Western Theater on KATV Channel 7, daily after school at 4:00.
Pines Drive In Movie on Mississippi, Razorback Drive In Movie (Started out at 21st and Barber, later moved to 2800 Cantrell), Scenic Drive In Movie in North Little Rock. Big Four Drive In in Benton.
Asher Drive In Movie. Sometimes fun just to park on the back row and watch the trunks open and see how many kids piled out. We got seven in the trunk of my ’54 Chevy once, and the tailpipe drug the ground. Ticket taker either had to be major apathetic or a complete zero not to figure that one out. In 1959, the Asher showed “the actual birth of a baby, on our screen, for the first time anywhere.” The place was packed. The clip lasted about five seconds and was done at such an extreme close-up you couldn’t tell what was going on. When it was over we all looked at each other and said, “Whaaaaaaaa?”
About the Asher. The rumor, unsubstantiated at this writing in 2005, is that UALR is preparing to field a football team. They will most likely play their games at War Memorial Stadium, but they have acquired the Asher Drive-In property for construction of their football practice facilities.
Prospect Theater on Beechwood Street a half block south of Kavanaugh in Hillcrest. “The Thing” showed there in 1951. I was nine, and that movie scared the hell out of me. I saw it in the evening and it was dark when it was over. I ran the entire .91 miles (Mapquest) to 700 N. Taylor flat out.
When the Prospect Theater closed in 1953 (see the "lifestyle" page) and became KRTV Television, you could go there and sit in the audience to see live shows. Audiences were seldom filled and they begged for people to come and applaude the acts (but only when the "APPLAUSE" sign lit up). I used to go and see a game show where contestants won a bag of groceries from the Kroger store around the corner on Kavanaugh.
I also went to KRTV to see Slim Rhodes and his Mountaineers, a local country band that never really made it big anywhere, even in Little Rock. Slim's brothers Dusty and Gilbert, called "Speck" (seen at the right), were in the band and Speck was the "Stringbean" knock-off comedian. Meyer's Bread came in a gingham wrapper, and so did Speck. That is, he wore a gingham suit (I believe his was green gingham, Meyer's was blue). Speck's two upper front teeth were missing--not blacked out, but really missing--and he liked to smile and stick his tongue through the void to let you know they were gone. Speck was as bad a comedian as his brothers were singers and he told lousy, tired, worn out jokes that we in the audience, being good audience members, struggled to laugh at. The Rhodes brothers made it to Nashville and continued their TV program with fleeting success, but never had a hit record. When they disbanded, Speck, who was an accomplished upright bass player, joined Porter Waggoner and made many appearances with the Wagonmasters. Porter was able, somehow, to laugh at Speck's jokes.
Speck's grave is on the Find-A-Grave website HERE.
Roxy Theater at 205 Main, "Two big features every day".
The hula hoop was introduced in 1957. Wham-O sold 25 million hula hoops in two months in the U.S. alone, and another 100 million internationally in the following months. Suppliers ran out of garden hoses because so many people (like my dad) made their own. Wham-O hit it big again in the 1960s with the Frisbee.
The State Fair and Rodeo warrants its own page. You can read about it HERE.
Bowling at Pleasure Lanes on Asher. Pleasure Lanes was the newest bowling alley in town, and always had automatic pinsetters.
Pla-Mor Bowling Lanes started out at 408 Spring Street and later took over several buildings at 907 West Seventh Street so they could install more lanes. Early on, Pla-Mor had pin boys. I was a pin boy there. At Pla-Mor, they also paid off on the five-in-line pinball machines, also known as Bally Bingo Pinballs. There was one fellow who used to come in every friday and put his entire paycheck into the pinball machine, trying to hit five in a line. He came in right after work, before the Friday night bowlers showed up, so the pinboys all crowded around and watched him blow his paycheck. Just like Las Vegas, he might put in 90 bucks to win five, and I never saw him leave with more money than he came in with.
Putt-Putt Miniature Golf on Asher just west of University. Also had baseball batting cages. There was also a miniature golf course on Leander Drive just south of 12th Street (Kanis Road, to you). The course was about a block off of 12th, laid out along Rock Creek. Leander also happened to be one of the entrances to Boyle Park. Entered on the northwest side by the softball fields.
Boyle Park was great for picnics, eating watermelon, playing softball, Shetland pony rides, and catching crawdads in Rock Creek. Mister Grant, the Boyle Park caretaker, would reserve you a pavilion for a birthday party.
On the southwest corner of Asher and University, which later became a K-Mart, there was once a big slide. Not a water slide, just a big slide. They gave you burlap bags (AKA gunny sacks, AKA toe sacks) to slide down on. Before that, the biggest slide in Little Rock was at a city playground just north of War Memorial Stadium, at the intersection of Markham and Monroe Streets (just east of where the tennis courts are now, and the tennis courts were there then). It had a stainless steel slide that would burn your butt in the summertime. And it was tall. Lots of kids climbed to the top and froze and sat there and cried until an adult came up and got them.
The Fair Park Arcade (fish with a magnetic pole, throw softballs at bottles that wouldn't fall when you hit them) and rides (Tilt-A-Whirl, Dodgem bumper cars, and the Ferris wheel), and Laughing Sally, the laughing fat lady in the glass box in front of the Merry Go Round. There was also once a skating rink next to the bumper cars. And for a very brief time a local man whose hobby was trains had a real live miniature steam train ride at the very end of the arcade across from the zoo.
You can buy Laughing Sally merchandise HERE.
When you were a kid you had to ride the kiddie rides in the Fair Park arcade, such as the Rocket Ship ride like the one shown HERE. You couldn't wait to graduate across the street to the "real" rides, like the Ferris wheel and the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Swimming at Fair Park Pool. Three levels of diving boards and two levels of platforms. What was the name of the old guy who was both the manager and the lifeguard and kicked you (me) out if you (I) misbehaved? You can see an old postcard view of the Swimming Pool by clicking HERE.
Pickup basketball at Fair Park Pool. Girls/guys tanning at Fair Park Pool. The aroma of cocoa butter hit your nose a half mile away. Fair Park Pool was one of the few places you could meet girls/guys from other schools who didn't make it to the late night hangouts.
Fair Park Zoo, built by the WPA, which Mr. Coleman said meant “We Piddle Around”. It wasn't so much a zoo as it was a prison for animals. Huge lions, tigers, and a gorilla had to spend their lives in 20-foot by 20-foot cells. When the keepers weren't around, which was most of the time, we went outside and picked Johnson grass to feed the monkeys. The monkeys would kill for a stalk of Johnson grass. They needn't worry, because there was plenty of Johnson grass at the zoo.
Eating birthday cake on Ruth the elephant's birthday at the zoo. The keepers gave her a big chunk, too. Dang, she could put away some birthday cake.
You could feed peanuts to Ruth. If you were a neophyte, you showed her a peanut and she held out her trunk and you put a peanut in it and she blew it into her mouth and you thought you had done something spectacular. If you were a hip Ruth-feeder, you knew a secret that few other people were in on. You held the peanut up in the air and she raised her trunk and opened her mouth and you threw the peanut in there and you knew you had done something spectacular.
The annual Easter Egg Hunt on Easter Sunday at the zoo. If you found a candy egg all you had was a candy egg, but if you found a real dyed egg you won a cash prize. We arrived early and ran around the perimeter fence to see where the attendants were hiding eggs. Armed with this vital information, as soon as the gates opened we scrambled for trees and bushes where we had seen the attendants hanging out. But it was always some lucky kid that found the prize eggs. Years later, I found out that the attendants were on to us, so they hid the prize eggs the night before and Sunday morning merely walked around sticking candy eggs in the bushes for us to watch. Not Fair.
From 1957 on, we went to the annual turkey day Hall vs. Central football game at Quigley Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. People from all over were at the game, not just Hall and Central. They came from Mabelvale, Bryant, Joe T. Robinson, dogtown, even Jacksonville.
Roller skating at Troy's Roller Drome on Asher.
Lake Nixon. Coach Don Nixon’s family owned Lake Nixon. Some church group owns it now. Their website's on our Links page.
Willow Springs. Seven miles out Arch Street Pike. Still there. Their website's on our Links page.
We went swimming in Blue Hole and Post Hole bauxite pits at Bauxite. The rumor persisted that there was a car full of teenagers at the bottom of Blue Hole but they couldn’t get them out because it was so deep that when the divers went down they never found the bottom, and the water was so acid that when they sent down hooks to try and snag the car the hooks came back up all eaten away to nothing, and since the water was so cold the bodies were preserved and would never float to the surface. I'll bet they're still down there. If they are, they might have company. In 1982, serial killer Tommy Lee Sells told authorities he raped and murdered a woman and threw her body into Blue Hole.
Climbing Pinnacle Mountain. Getting caught in the rain at the top of Pinnacle Mountain. Having to go to the bathroom and realizing you're at the top of the highest mountain in central Arkansas.
New Benton Speedbowl (it’s now the I-30 Speedway) on Saturday night and the Little Rock Drag Strip (long since gone) Sunday afternoon, both on the New Benton Highway.
War Memorial Stadium at Fair Park for Razorback football games. When we were kids, we never paid to get in for an event. Find out how we did it HERE. In the fifties, there was nothing to stop kids from going down to the field. The Chicago Bears played an exhibition game at War Memorial Stadium once. My gang got in through the men’s room windows as usual. One of the Chicago players, John Hoffman, lived in Little Rock and went to our church. Check his trading card HERE. I went up to him when he was sitting on the bench and I said “HI” to him and he said “HI” back. My friends were freaked out that I knew a Chicago Bear.
In the War Memorial Stadium parking lot guys went to fly model airplanes. But we preceded radio control, so the airplanes were the kind known as control line models. In the mostly unpaved parking lot there were two large asphalt circles. The flyer stood in the center of one of the circles and flew his plane, which was attached by long wires, round and round and round and round and round and round, until it ran out of gas. The most he could do other than that was a loop. Occasionally, two guys flew combat. They tied paper tails to their planes and both got in the center of the circle and tried to stay out of each other's way while each tried to cut the paper tail off of their opponent's plane. Radio control is better.
War memorial golf course at Fair Park. Used to caddy there. Also used to shag balls there. No such thing as a driving range then. We preceded the tractor with the rolling ball picker-upper. We stood at about the point where we figured the guy would hit the ball, dodged it, and went and picked it up. We never lost a ball, because if we did we didn’t get paid our thirty cents.
Those who enjoy Riverside Park today would not recognize it in our day. We used to take our .22 rifles there to shoot rats in the dumping grounds along the banks. Huge pipes dumped raw sewage and stuff you don't want to know about directly into the river. And you couldn't (or didn't dare) drive all the way to the end of Riverside Drive. You parked your car and walked about a half mile down the Rock Island Railroad tracks and balance-beamed on a sewage pipe that crossed the swamp to the river. When you emerged from the swamp, you stayed alert, because the rats there were as big as muskrats.
Maybe we’d park at the Little Rock Waterworks. What a view. You admired the view for a few minutes (foresee?) and made obligatory small talk (foretalk?) and then sunk into the seats. Almost as good, the view from South Lookout.
Hanging out. Best hang out places were the shopping center parking lot at Geyer Springs Road and Mabelvale Pike (next to Roach’s) and the Kroger parking lot across from Sweden Crème on South Main. At Kroger, every hot car would give you a look at least once a night, maybe several times. There was more rubber on the street just beyond the Kroger parking lot exit than there was at the Porky Davis Tire Company on Asher.
Cruising. Up and down Baseline Road, or up and down Geyer Springs Road, or Baseline to Chicot to Mabelvale Cut-off to Geyer Springs Road and back to Baseline. Or on to downtown. Downtown we'd cruise Snappy’s, Sweden Cream, the Blue Goose, Little Rock Inn, and Band Box, hoping to run across a potential drag race. Or drive out to "the levee" behind the airport and sit and wait for a pair of cars to show. Usually didn’t have to wait long.
Once we were cruising downtown in Weasel's pickup. Not a lot going on, so we went out behind the airport checking for action. Nothing. On the way back, we passed a field of watermelons so we stopped and loaded up the truck. We smashed them all in the parking lot at Snappy's. The guys with hot cars loved it. They could rev their pipes and spin their tires without going anywhere. But the manager came out and we got lost. Last thing I remember seeing was some poor fry cook shoveling watermelon out of the parking lot into the alley.
May 16, 1956 was a Wednesday, and school was not yet out for the summer, otherwise more of us might have been able to go see Elvis perform at Robinson Memorial Auditorium despite the fact that it was a sellout. If you missed it and want to hear the concert, pick up a Compact Disk entitled "Elvis Rocks Little Rock" and listen all you want. Elvis had already done two shows at Robinson Auditorium on Sunday, February 20, 1955 and another on Wednesday, August 3, 1955, but those were before the January 27, 1956 release of "Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One". After that, Elvis sold out everywhere. The 1955 concerts were with some Louisiana Hayride stars, but by the time of the May 16, 1956 concert, he was headlining, and we were fighting with our parents to let our hair grow longer.