About The Artist
Bonnie Lou was a stage name for Mary Joan Kath, a native of the farm country of Central Illinois, who grew up much influenced by the yodeling cowgirls frequently heard over WLS and the National Barn Dance in Chicago. They included Patsy Montana and more especially the Girls of the Golden West-Milly and Dolly Good.
Mary Joan Kath
In 1939, she began singing on radio, first in Peoria and a year later in Bloomington. Newspaper articles found in 1939 show that she was performing or mentioned as Mary Kath, Mary Joan Kath, Mary Jo Kath or Mary Jean Kath.
She performed at the Garfield School for their Happy Hour food show in Bloomington in February 1939 as a vocalist. Other entertainers listed were Ivory Mishler, Peter and Clarence Ropp and J. D. Schertz playing harmonicas; Dorothy Miller, singing; June Anderson and Evelyn Hilton playing guitar.
In June of 1939, the Carlock High School Alumni had a dinner. Mary Jean Kath provided a two musical numbers as part of the entertainment.
The Old Fiddler's Association held their annual picnic at Funks Grove on July 16, 1939. If listening to 40 fiddlers compete was not enough entertainment, afterwards the audience would here other entertainment. Mary Jo Kath was a part of that group of performers. Another group that catches one's eye was Uncle Dave's Kentucky Wild Cats. An article the next day reporting the elections of officers shows that Bill Ballow and His Kentucky Ramblers were part of the after the contest entertainment as well. But no mention of who won the contest.
In August of 1939, a band concert (Eureka, IL?) was held with a large crowd attending. Research shows that a vocal solo by Mary Jean Kath and a duet by the Kath Sisters of Congerville provided special numbers to the band's program.
In January 1940, readers learn that she was part of a group known as the Kentucky Ramblers. It included Bill Ballow, Ted Wyatt, Joe Neaves, Ace Gerdler and Dave Crutcher.
She seemed to be a very versatile performer even at an early age. She took part in a high school operetta set in a Netherlands setting. The performers wore Dutch costumes. The stage was decorated with imitation tulips. The backdrop was a watercolor painting of a Dutch country site. The plot of the operetta was about an American university professor and his botany class visiting a Holland village in the midst of celebration of a Dutch holiday. Mary Joan Kath had a lead singing role and appears to have done a duet Lenora Gildersleeve.
After finishing high school in 1942, she accepted a singing job at KMBC at Kansas City, home of the big-time jamboree program, The Brush Creek Follies. There she used the stage name of "Sally Carson" which was owned by the station. Newspaper archives reveal she made her first appearance on the Follies show Saturday, November 6, 1943. Jim Carson told readers, "She walked out into the spotlight and the crowds went "ahhhh!" A couple minutes later she brought down the house. ... Her voice bubbles over with wim, wigor and witality." Her yodeling appeared to be the talk of the town. She was appearing on KMBC Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays during the "Dinnerbell Round-up" at noon.
In a column in November, columnist Jim Carson for KMBC told of a humorous incident (we will leave it to you to determine if it was true or not) that Sally mentioned. It may be a believe it or not story, but Jim says, if she looks at you with that twinkle in her eye, "we're ready to believe anything." Sally told Jim that a KMBC listener had bought a canary and named it "Sally Carson." But there was a problem - the bird named Sally would not sing. It appears singer Sally Carson called on the fan and her bird and "showed it the way." Sally claims that the bird has been singing ever since.
In 1945, a bigger opportunity arose with a job offer at WLW Cincinnati. Columnist Jim Carson told readers in his column that she was leaving for WLW in his October 27, 1945 column. At the same time two other performers, Kenny Carlson and Scrappy were leaving too. Since the name Sally Carson could not be used, Bill McCluskey (husband of Milly Good) needed another girl singer and hired Mary and came up with the new name "Bonnie Lou" and so she remained. Except for a brief return to Bloomington in 1947, she stayed in Cincinnati for the rest of her life.
When she first joined WLW, she teamed up with several guys that had spent time at WXYZ in Detroit, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. Their act became promoted as Bonnie Lou and the Trailblazers. Ray Sosby played fiddle; Leonard Sosby (Ray's brother) played bull fiddle and guitar; Rome Johnson played guitar; Mike Wilson was on accordion. Ray, Leonard and Rome did trio numbers. Mike Wilson got his start in 1936 with Fred Allen.
In addition to her work on the Midwestern Hayride, she was on other WLW programs such as Top o' The Morning and Boone County Caravan.
Signing with King in 1953, she soon had a pair of top ten hits "Seven Lonely Days" and "Tennessee Wigwalk." Later, she scored another hit which had a soft rockabilly flavor "Daddy-O." In 1959, she did a rockabilly duet with Rusty York.
In 1955, Bonnie Lou did a benefit performance for the Lancaster Policeman's Ball. The secretary of her fan club, Grace Garner, hosted Bonnie Lou for dinner at her home. She had did this the year before for the same event. The Ball was held inthe American Legion Hall. Rudy Hansen was also part of the entertainment. The event was the sixth annual Policeman's Ball sponsored by the Forest Rose Lodge No. 50, Fraternal Order of Police.
Meanwhile, the Hayride moved on to TV and eventually dropped the radio broadcast. The TV Midwestern Hayride terminated in 1972. Bonnie also found a career on WLWT which had several daytime TV programs on which she appeared —the shows of Ruth Lyons, Paul Dixon and Bob Braun.
She performed on various shows for WLW. She was on "Top o' The Morning" and "Boone County Neighbors" in 1945 and 1946. She went to Illinois but upon return to Cincinnati, she was on the "Paul Dixon Show" that ran from 1955 to 1974, she was a weekly singer on the Ruth Lyons "50-50 Club."
She sang two tunes on the 1958 album called "Ruth Lyons' Ten Tunes for Christmas." She did a duet number with Peter Grant, "Chistmas Is Gettin' Mighty Close." She also did a solo number, "It's Christmas-Time Again." Other members of the Ruth Lyons show also did numbers including Ruth Lyons and the Bello-Larks, Marian Spelman, Ruby Wright and Bob Braun. Cliff Lash and his Orchestra backed the vocalists.
After leaving King, she signed with Fraternity Records and had a minor rockabilly classic "Friction Heat." Later, she recorded for Todd and Wrayco.
Bonnie Lou married twice, initially to Glenn Ewins September 2, 1945 per Ancestry.com. However, the newspaper article shows that they were married on August 26, 1945. The newspaper report of the wedding indicated that the bridegroom had been discharged from the military after serviing three years in the southwest Pacific in World War II. After a reception at the home of the parents of Glenn, the couple took a trip to Peoria, then went to Cincinnati where Bonnie Lou was working at WLW. They had a daughter Constance. Glenn, born on February 12, 1920, died on January 25, 1964 per an obituary notice in the Cincinnati Enquirer. A news report stated the accident happened on Friday, the 24th, but he died early Saturday morning the 25th.
Two years later on January 2, 1966, she married Milton Okum in Nevada. Milton owned a furniture store in the suburb of Cheviot. After her retirement from daytime TV she continued to perform on occasion in the Cincinnati area and in commercials, making her last public appearance in 2006. Milton was born on April 1, 1926 and had previously married Gloria Cohan Easter on September 30, 1952.
In November 2007, the Cincinnati Enquirer described her as "the last surviving star from Channel 5's Golden Age of Television." According to a person who knew her in later years, she was an active member of the Daughters of the Nile (a Shrine related group for women).
In 2007, she need to have a pacemaker to deal with an irregular heart rhythm. She gained weight after she quit smoking.
That 2007 article also indicated the kind of life she lived in her prime at WLW. Many of the Crosley stars worked six days a week on TV and radio and often played festivals or fairs at night. The article tells readers that in 1964, she averaged five personal appearances a week.
The article also shows a bit of Bonnie Lou's personality. She credited Paul Dixon and Ruth Lyons with teaching her how to go out and talk with the audience, meet them afterwards and sign autographs. Judy Perkins was quoted in the article as stating, "She was a great singer. And she was always so friendly to people." Bonnie Lou then related how that affected her routine. "If I went to the grocery store or wherever, I'd always allow an extra hour because people would stop and visit with you. Because of television people felt like they knew you."
Readers learned some background about her early life. Her mother insisted on violin lessons at the age of 6. Five years later her father bought a guitar for $2.50 from a pawn shop. "She learned to yodel from hearing her Swiss grandmother summon cows on their farm."
Bonnie Lou died in a Cincinnati nursing home at the age of ninety-one in 2015.
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