On Nov. 29, 1930, area residents got to see many of their favorite radio stars up close and in person, including the likes of “Mountain Boy” Bradley Kincaid with the “houn’ dog” guitar, someone called the “Arkansas Woodchopper,” and Hiram and Henry, “The Barnyard Songsters from Kansas.”
The occasion was an appearance of the WLS-AM National Barn Dance show, broadcast live from the old Coliseum in downtown Bloomington, 8 p.m. to midnight. The popular Saturday evening program, which normally aired from its home base in Chicago, featured mountain string bands, cowboy crooners, square dance callers, folk balladeers, yodelers, novelty songs, comedy sketches and enough old-time fiddlin’ to outlast a full jug of corn whiskey. The WLS Barn Dance helped popularize “Americana” music, and its success spawned similar radio programs, most famously the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.
WLS was a downstate favorite known for its coverage of agricultural issues, especially when the station was bought by Prairie Farmer magazine in 1928. At night the WLS clear channel signal could be picked up across much of North America, and the Barn Dance enjoyed a loyal audience numbering in the millions. Beginning in 1931 it was aired from the 1,200-seat Eighth Street Theatre in Chicago’s Loop, playing to packed audiences week after week. Not long afterward NBC Radio and its network of stations picked up Barn Dance, giving the down-home variety show its first truly national audience.
The Barn Dance and its colorful cast of characters, known as the “Hayloft Gang,” were back in Bloomington for three days over the 1932 Thanksgiving holiday. There were multiple shows each day, Tuesday through Thursday, though these were not aired on WLS or the NBC network. This time the show was staged from the Majestic Theatre, located at the corner of East and Washington streets (the current location of the Government Center). The Arkansas Woodchopper and Hiram (sans Henry) were back, joined by the Hoosier Sod Busters, Rube Tronson and His Texas Cowboys, the Three Little Maids and others.
The Arkansas Woodchopper was the stage name for Luther W. Ossenbrink, a versatile musician who grew up in west-central Missouri. Known for his cowboy and “hillbilly” songs, “Arkie” could play lead fiddle or banjo and call square dances. Many of his songs were comic, though others, such as “The Cowboy’s Dream,” could be rather melancholic.
Less than four years later, on Oct. 20, 1936, the Hayloft Gang was back for another show at the Majestic, though much like 1932, this one was not broadcast to a larger audience. The main attractions this time were Myrtle Cooper and Scott Wiseman, better known by their stage names Lulu Belle and Scotty, “The Sweethearts of Country Music” (see accompanying photograph). Lulu Belle was an established Hayloft regular when Scotty first appeared on the show in 1933. The two were married the following year — though unlike some Barn Dance stars they were spared the indignity of tying the knot on air! Joining the couple in Bloomington were Sunshine Sue, the Rock Creek Rangers, Olaf the Swede and others.
During World War II the Barn Dance program traveled to several downstate cities to boost scrap drives. On June 27, 1942, two shows (7:30 and 10 p.m.) were held on the Illinois State Normal University campus, the first at McCormick Gymnasium and the second in an area known as “Sherwood Forest” on the south end of the quadrangle (roughly where the Center for Performing Arts stands today).
Admission was 100 pounds of scrap metal and 50 pounds of rubber, with all proceeds going to the USO. The cast included the Arkansas Woodchopper, Lulu Belle and Scotty, the Hoosier Hotshots, the Prairie Ramblers, the WLS Rangers and Joe Kelly, the latter known as “the chief cowbell ringer in the Old Hayloft.” There was also “Little Genevieve,” a temperamental infant clad in pinafores and bonnets prone to crying fits and played by heavyset (and hirsute) adult Ted Morse.
The more than 7,000 fans who attended the two shows (or “went hillbillying,” in the words of The Pantagraph) donated around 623,000 pounds of scrap to the war effort. “This thing certainly got out of hand!” said Dan Carmody, McLean County USO drive chairman. “We expected a good response but nothing like this.”
Seven months later the Barn Dance and Lulu Belle and Scotty were back at ISNU’s McCormick Gymnasium, this time for an infantile paralysis (polio) benefit. There were two shows on Jan. 25, 1943, with the supporting cast including harmonica player Jimmy James and the blind singing pair Mac and Bob.
The last local appearance of the Hayloft Gang might’ve come in 1948. On Jan. 27, there were two shows at Bloomington High School (then located on East Washington Street), and two days later, two shows at Saybrook High School in far eastern McLean County. Jimmy James and “Arkie” the Woodchopper were joined by the Sackett Sisters, “mistresses of golden sweet harmony and yodeling,” Renard & Arden, known for their “rube” dance routines, and accordionist Marie Renaldo.
In the 1950s the popularity of the National Barn Dance declined (think Elvis Presley), and live shows ended in 1957. In its final years the program aired on WGN-AM out of Chicago, with cancellation coming in 1968.