Hillbilly-Music.comThe People. The Music. The History.
About The Artist
The Early Years
Arthur Benninger Kissinger was born on the winter day of December 16, 1918 in Fairchance, PA, as small borough in Fayette County about 65 miles south of Pittsburgh. His parents were Samuel Clark and Nannie Mae (Jane) Sowers Kissinger. Early census records show that he was working in the coal industry either in the coal yard or as a coke drawer. His obituary indicates later as a conductor on a trolley that ran through Fairchance to York. He was the leader of the Fairchance male quartet. He married Nannie May Sowers on July 3, 1902.
Samuel died on May 21, 1919. Nannie would subsequently remarry to Walter Franklin Tewell. The 1920 census shows she was the head of the household with her seven children.
Later, Arthur would become known to music fans as Benny Kissinger.
Author Dr. Wayne W. Daniel (Pickin' on Peachtree) had Benny talk about his life and career in a cassette recording. Mr. Daniel then wrote out the words of Benny from that tape. We have the benefit of having both a copy of the written words Mr. Daniel wrote and the voice recording, courtesty of the Georgia State University Archives.
Benny wrote Wayne and told him he had been crippled all of his life. When he was just six months old, he had TB of the bone in his right hip. He had no socket in the hip joint; the ball was fused onto the pelvis as a result. He walked with the aid of a cast and/or crutches until he was six years old. If the reader notices, in pictures of Benny onstage, he is either holding on to the microphone or has an arm on someone's, usually Curley Collins, shoulder to steady himself while he sings.
Benny related that he was the youngest of a family of six boys and one girl. His mother was a very religious woman; she was very active in church and sang in the choir. Benny indicated she could read music to a certain extent. He never knew his father; he died when he was six months old. He knew his father was the leader of a quartet, singing tenor. He did all the arrangements for the quartet. He was told his father had a "...beautiful tenor voice."
Benny went on to note that only he and his brother, Bud, were musically included and did anything professionally.
Benny remembers he started sining in elementary school, singing at local and social functions such as minstrel shows, political rallies. When he was in high school, he recalls he was always asked to sing at assembly.
One of his earliest memories was when he was about 12 or so. He entered a contest at a theater in Uniontown. The contest had ten weeks of preliminaries. He won one of those preliminary contests and participated in the finals with the other nine winners. He said that may have been where the 'bug' to be a stage performer hit him. He won the first prize of $50 and in those days, that was a 'big deal.' But when he got home, his mom did not believe him. She told him, "Go to bed, fool." That only made Benny feel more determined.
In December 1932, the Gallatin school in Georges township honored sixth, seventh and eighth graders for 100 percent attendance in November. To help celebrate, the students planned their own program of three original plays that they staged themselves. "Rip Van Winkle" and "Going To The Dentist" were "...two interesting playlets" written by Arthur Kissinger and coached by Loretta Hustead. Another playet was "Just One More Nickel" by Jack Kendall and coached by Ruby Wilson. The classes also did group singing, readings, clogging, vocal solos, trios. Arthur (Benny) was one of the eighth grade honorees.
Benny and his brother Bud were getting mentions in the local newspaper in articles about various social gatherings of their musical efforts. In July of 1932, they were part of an entertainment group that also included Leonard and Jack Tewell, Owen (Bud) Kissinger and Wallace Wilson that provided orchestra music for a Hopwood couple's 54th Wedding Anniversary. It was reported that "...Vocal selections by Owen and Arthur Kissinger pleased the audience exceedingly."
Benny told Mr. Daniel that when he was maybe a freshman in high school (1932 - 1933?) their congress man, J. Buell Snyder took Benny under his wing as a protege. He got Benny auditions at two radio stations - KDKA in Pittsburg and WCAE in . Another audition was arranged for WMMN Fairmont, WV. But before that audition, Benny and Bud began to team up and found that they harmonized very well. Benny and Bud teamed up for the audition at WMMN and they earned a 15 minute spot on Saturdays (no pay of course, he said, just the prestige). To help date this memory, J. Buell Snyder was first elected as the representative from the 24th District of Pennsylvania in 1932 and served from March 4, 1933 until his death in 1946. Education was in Mr. Snyder's background, graduating from Lock Haven Teachers College, serving as principal at four schools.
Benny said, "...But we were something." He recalled working all week at various odd jobs around town to get some moeny to pay someone, anybody, some gas money to take the two of them to the Fairmont station on Saturday mornings. It was about a 40 mile journey for the show. He said it was a great kick, just to be on the air; it was something back then.
Benny's recollection of the contest he won was off by a couple years. Through out his taped conversation for Mr. Daniel, he would mention he was bad with dates. But a ten week "Amateur Contest" was held at the Penn Theatre in Uniontown, supervised by F. L. (Dad) Hall. Contests were held in the previous ten weeks on Thursday nights at the Penn. Benny had won on the event held on Thursday, December 21, 1933. The Penn Theatre announced the ten winners were Bixler and Phillips; George and Anna Anderson; Arthur Kissinger and Willard Glover; Miss Freda Jeffriea; Alma Peters; Hazel and Dulcie Miller; Charles Baden and John Rhodes; and, Blue Eagle Boys. The final contest was on Thursday night, February 10, 1934 and only the weekly winners participated. The grand championship went to Arthur Kissinger (...a delightful singing and yodeling act.) He was accompanied by Willard Glover. Second prize went to George and Anna Anderson, singing with guitar accompaniment and Alma Peters, singer and dancer. Prizes were said to be $10, $5 and $3 for the final three winners.
Benny said the Congressman took him to a Postmaster's banquet, where all the postmasters of Pennsyvlania had gathered. He told his mom that he was a bit nervous as he had seen pictures of banquets and all the different utensils one had to use and she just calmly told him to just watch the person next to him. And that is what he did. The banquet itself was held shortly after the amateur contest. The main speakers were Jess Harramn of the Washington, director of the parcel post department and Congressman Snyder. The dinner featured 200 Fayette county postal employees and was held at the White Swan hotel. The toastmaster for the dinner was W. C. Storer, the postmaster at Brownsville. The dinner entertainment included a piano solo by Professor Carl Henstine; violin numbers by Miss Clara Lucas; yodeling solos by Arthur Kissinger with guitar accompaniment by Willard Glover; accordion solos by Daniel Mazocco; vocal solos by Katherine Stickle accompanied by Prof. Henstine on the piano.
During his monolog on the tape for Mr. Daniel, Benny went on to explain his musicianship after the early radio experiences. He said he was a "fluke." He learned to play the bass fiddle, but not the guitar. He noted, "I'm an expressive singer. I just found that I couldn't put the two ((sic)playing and singing) together. I couldn't do justice to my vocals and concentrate on the guitar or bass at the same time." Because of his difficulty accompanying his vocals, he was dependent on somebody to do that, such as his long time friend, Curley Collins or his brother Bud. He basically said he "...was a lazy musician; I never picked up anything but the bass fiddle."
In 1935, Owen and Arthur paired up their musical talents as part of the entertainment for men's organization meeting at the Brethern church on March 18, 1935. They were part of a quartet that included Owen and Arthur Kissinger; Wallace and Curtis Wilson. In addition, Owen and Clark also did music and songs.
In 1937, research shows the first instance of his name as "Benny Kissinger" in a report of happenings at Georges High News. He took part in the assembly and was in the quartet that consisted of Bill Decker, Todd Cole, Charles Miller and Benny Kissinger.
Cousin Emmy and Her Kinfolk
Benny recalled that he and Bud started with Cousin Emmy in the winter of 1937. He also said it was not very strange ever for him to be on stage in front of an audience; he did not feel stage fright. He recalled the talent that WWVA had back then with two in particular - Hugh Cross and Shug Fisher. Benny said that Shug was the first one to make a couple of "little old country boys" feel like they belonged in the business. They remained friends since that time; Shug always remembered him and Bud when they would run into each other.
Benny during his taped monolog to Mr. Daniel wanted to tell him what he knew about Cousin Emmy. He thought what he remembered would be 'quite authentic.' He stated her maiden name was Joy May Carver and she said she was born in a little town in Lamb, Kentucky, an unincorporated area in Monroe County.
He recalled she had two or three marriages. At one time her last name was White. When Bud and Benny joined her troupe, she was married to Johnny Creasy. He thought that Johnny and Emmy had met in Louisville and he was in the service at Fort Knox, KY. Johnny became her business manager. He was also a comedian in her act and was called "Speedy". While in Wheeling, Benny thinks she 'imported' a guy they called Uncle Bozo, but his name was Noble Carver. He was said to do homespun music, sort of back porch type stuff. He was one of her relatives.
Benny said that when Cousin Emmy was on the air in Wheeling, they sold 'picture rings'. He thinks she got a percentage of the proceeds. She paid Bud and Benny thirty dollars a week and a dollar for each personal appearance. When Emmy went to Louisville, Bud was homesick again and did not make the journey. But they were not there more than a month when Bud rejoined them. Emmy gave them a raise to thirty-five dollars a week and two dollars a show date. He thought that was top dollar in those days.
They did personal appearances all over Kentucky. They had a radio show at 5:45am each day and he said it was all they could do to get back in time from a personal appearance in the eastern part of the state in time for their show, barely able to get home ahead of time and grab a bite to eat and get dressed. Benny called them the 'good old days' and said he would like to go through and relive them again.
Cousin Emmy left Wheeling, taking her "commercial" as Benny termed it with her. However the circumstances, he understood that WWVA barred her from coming back to Wheeling.
Benny said that while they were with Emmy, they never stayed in one place very long. After Louisville, they went to Atlanta for maybe a year. He was thinking that was about 1939. Then from Atlanta, the group went to St. Louis and radio station KMOX. Cousin Emmy's program had a "commercial" there and we are surmising that meant a "sponsor." Randy Blake from WJJD in Chicago was their announcer. He thinks it was a pharmaceutical agency but could not remember the name of it. He said Fred Kirby was ont he station at the time as a solo act. Pappy Cheshire was there, too.
Benny related some of the other acts he remembered from the KMOX days. Sally Foster, a beautiful voice he said and recalls she worked at WRNL in Richmond later with a group. Skeets Yaney he said 'yodeled high and realy pretty.' Wade Ray was also at the station. Benny recalls they were also part of a Saturday night show as well, but could not remember the name of it.
Benny and Bud '...kinda had a falling out with Emmy over something.' They ended up going home and rested awhile. They decided they would next try their luck in Atlanta. There next stop would be with Pop Eckler.
Cousin Emmy was promoted as a star of the upcoming Radio Stars Jamboree put on by Larry Sunbrock in January 1938 at the Armory in Louisville. While we find Cousin Emmy and Her Kinfolk listed or mentioned, the articles do not mention the names of her group.
Benny tells of how they came to meet. Frankie More and Cousin Emmy were working out of WWVA in Wheeling, WV at the time. Frankie and Cousin Emmy's group did a personal appearance close to where Benny and Bud lived. They were invited to go up on a stage and sing a song. It was a park date he remembers. Sunday usually meant big crowds at these park performances. Cousin Emmy came around and took their name and addresses. Benny thought nothing of it at the time.
But during the winter, Frankie More and Cousin Emmy "...had a big split" and they took their own bands. One Sunday, a car pulled up in front of their house and Benny says, "My God, it was Emmy." At the time Benny says they were "just kids". He said the experience shocked the whole neighborhood in a small town and everyone saw this strange new car in town. Pretty soon, a mob had gathered in front of the Kissinger house. Benny says, that very day, Bud and he packed their clothes and went to Wheeling with Cousin Emmy. He said that was basically how they began their professional musical careers.
Benny was the younger one. But he said, he was not the one that got homesick. He said Bud kept 'leaving me' everywhere they went; he couldn't depend on him. Benny would look around and Bud was gone. But Benny knew where to find him - at home.
In August, readers were given an address to send Bud birthday greetings in Louisville. It indicated he and his brother were on the air over WHAS and part of Cousin Emmy's Kinfolks, starting at 7:30am. In December 1938, a short article in the local Uniontown newspaper told readers that Arthur "Ben" Kissinger was celebrating a birthday and provided an address in Louisville, KY for readers to send greetings. Readers learned they were being heard each morning at 7:45 over radio station WHAS in Louisville. Research of the programming for WHAS on December 16, 1938 shows that Cousin Emmy and her Kinfolk did a 15-minute program from 6:45 to 7:00am. The Early Morning Jamboree was on from 7:00 to 8:00am. This would probably have been the program the birthday article referred to.
The Kissinger Brothers were a part of Cousin Emmy and Her Kinfolk in the 1930's. A reader wrote in to Rural Radio Magazine's Family Gossip column by Peggy Stewart to let her know who was a part of Cousin Emmy's group at that time. Cousin Emmy (Joy May White) led the group and was all of 5 feet 5 inches tall. Her backup included: Alfred Creasy (B: May 16, 1913 — D: November 3, 2002 ); Owen J. (Bud) Kissinger (B: September 3, 1914 — D: September 16, 1961) and plays guitar; Bynum Googe (B: October 3, 1921 — D:) on bass and guitar; Arthur (Benny) Kissinger usually played bass and did vocals; Fred Herran (B: December 1, 1917 — D: January 9, 1992) on fiddle and bass fiddle as well; Fred was actually someone who became known as Fiddlin' Red Herron. (The research of Emmy and Creasy has proved to be a bit challenging and will be covered in Cousin Emmy's biography on this site eventually.)
As to the name Bynum Googe, internet searches reveal no results. Based on Cousin Emmy's songbook, the 1939 edition, it would appear to be a character played by "Johnny Creasy" who is shown as an announcer in front of a WHAS microphone, but searches of newspaper archives do not show the name "Johnny" except in one instance of a promotional ad in 1946 for a Cousin Emmy appearance - Johnny Creasy and his Georgia Cakewalkers. His real name may have been Albert "Tennesse" Creasy. The birth date for Alfred Creasy found in Rural Radio does match with the obituary (he had moved to Fresno, CA after World War II and worked for the Lockheed Aircraft Co.) we found in 2002 for Mr. Creasy.
Benny towards the end of his writings to Mr. Daniel mentions another show he was a part of when he was on WHAS in Louisville, KY. The show was the "Kentucky Play Party," a one-hour show on Saturday nights. On the show was Sunshine Sue and her Rock Creek Rangers (John (her husband), George and Sam Workman); The Texas Rangers (a gospel quartet); Gordon Sizemore (Asher's brother); Uncle Henry and the Kentucky Mountaineers. Foster Brooks was their emcee and WHAS staff announcer. Benny recalls he "..was a wit way back then." He said he heard Foster mention Cousin Emmy on a couple of talk shows.
Pop Eckler and his Young'uns
After Bud and Benny left Cousin Emmy, they decided to go to Atlanta and hitch-hiked the whole way. They stopped in Cartersville for a spell to be with a friend of theirs, a fiddler named Georgia Brown. From there, the next stop was Atlanta. Bud and Benny got to town the same day that the Woodruff Brothers (Curley and Ducky) were leaving Pop Eckler's group. It kind of fell into place for the two Kissinger brothers and they began to work with Pop perhaps around 1941.
Benny digressed a bit in his tape to mention that Georgia Brown's dad (R. L. Brown) ran a grocery store in Cartersville. He would tell them of the days that people like Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner etc. would all gather around in the back of his store for a little drinking session along with a jam session.
Benny recalls it was the fall season when they began to work with Pop. But the year seemingly did not end well for them. It seems that around Christmas time, Pop and the rest of the gang took off for Christmas vacation. That left Bud and Benny stranded in Atlanta and nearly penniless. That was when they left Pop.
But in the December of 1941 Benny had met Mary Grace Treadwell. It developed into a romance and they were married on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. That meant that he ended up being a brother-in-law to Curley Collins as Curley was married to Mary Grace's sister, Carolyn. They had one child together.
Benny came up with an afterthought in his last note to Mr. Daniel, a bit of trivia that happened to Bud and Benny when they were at WSB in Atlanta. Bud and Benny were from the "North" and were perhaps a bit ignorant of the racial barriers in the "South" in that era. When they were up north entertaining folks, they would sing an old Gene Autry tune, "Oh, My Pretty Quadroon." One day they were in the radio station studio singing their hearts out with that tune when one of the announcers run into the studio and tapped them on the shoulder. He told them "you're off the air. You can't sing that type of stuff down here." Later, Benny learned that the term "quadroon" meant someone of mixed race. Benny said they took that song out of their repertoire.
Before leaving Atlanta, Benny called Cousin Emmy who was still in St. Louis. She said "Come on." She ahd a spot open for them. They went to St. Louis early in 1942 and this time stayed with her about six to eight months.
In April 1942, the Scott Exposition Show was to do a week's worth of entertainment in Kingsport, TN. The entertainment was to include Pop Eckler and His Younguns from Atlanta as well as the Valentino flying (trapeze) act. Other features of the event were wrestling matches, the monkey and goat rodeo, trained dog acts and "Tarzauka" the gorilla.
But Pop Eckler returned to their lives. After they had left Emmy, they went back home to Fairchance for a time. But Benny said the 'bug' wouldn't go away. Before they went back to Atlanta to work with Pop, they had gone to Wheeling and did some bragging about Pop as to what a '...tremendous salesman and master of ceremonies he was. The WWVA folks told Bud and Benny to go to Atlanta and get him up to Wheeling.
They met up with Pop and perhaps it was good timing. Benny noted that Pop's popularity had waned a bit in Georgia by that time. They began to work their way north working with Scott's Exposition shows, kind of a carnival and their winter home was Atlanta. An article in the Uniontown newspaper in November of 1944 indicated that Benny had returned home for the winter after touring the south with the Exposition shows.
But the year was 1944. Pop, Bud and Benny had made it to Wheeling. But Benny said they never really got a chance to 'get off the ground.' World War II began to break up the bands. Benny felt that Pop would have '...tore that part of the country up'; Pop was terrific with people and a great entertainer as well. Pop was the first to get his orders. The brothers had to go back to railroading.
WWVA World's Original Jamboree
It is somewhat a challenge to research the personnel in Jack Gillette's Tennessee Ramblers group as the personnel seemed to change often. In 1945, the group consisted of Jack Gillette, Cecil Campbell (comedian and banjo), Don White (versatile on many instruments) and Roy Lear (guitar). They appear to have been working mainly out of North Carolina then. They had appeared first in a Gene Autry movie and up to June of 1945 in six movies overall.
Benny recalled how the work with Jack Gillette came about. Benny was back in Fairchance around 1945, thinking he was out of the music business and tending bar. He got a telegram from Curley Collins saying he had a job for Benny in Richmond with Jack Gillette and the Tennessee Ramblers. Benny went to join them, but Benny said in the meantime, Curley and Benny had formed a bit of a duet partnership. From Benny's notes, the Old Dominion Barn Dance was Jack Gillette's production but somehow the station managed to find a reason to fire Jack and Sunshine Sue inherited the job. Marvin decided to leave. The band wound up in Wheeling at WWVA, but the finances of the band caused it to break up. Benny had called Sue and got him and Curley a job on the Barn Dance (Bud had gone home again). Benny and Curley stayed with the Barn Dance until it folded. In addition, Benny and Curley were a team ever since that time.
Benny wrote Mr. Daniel after his tape recorder quit working. He told of a time when he was teamed up with a female singer by the names of Brown Eyes. On stage, they were introduced as "The Sunshine Twins" and he said they were quite popular over WWVA for nearly 14 months. Brown Eyes was really Mary Ann Shvelnis Rudzcki Conwell.
By September 1945, an article promoting an appearance in Sumter, SC shows they had been in 14 movies and were scheduled to do another. The group then consisted of Rusty Elders, Don White, Ray Atkinson and Happy Sam Fowler in addition to Jack.
By December 1945, the group was the subject of a fan's question in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The group included Jack (who was said to play fiddle, trumpet and 'novelty instruments'); Ray Atkins (bass fiddle); Slim Idaho (Dewey Aderhold) played steel guitar and trumpet; Marvin Taylor, guitar; Don White, Spanish and Hawaiian guitars, bass fiddle and mandolin.
In late March of 1946, Sunshine Sue was beginning a Monday through Friday show called WRVA Barn Dance. It was said to be "...a daily program of homespun and popular rhythms." The show aired at 3:15pm. Jack's group and their "Dixie Hayride" were to be on the show and he had a new singer named Jimmy Gould.
Benny Kissinger (the WWVA 20th Anniversary booklet spells his name Kessinger) was part of the 1946 cast along with other members of Jack Gillette's Tennessee Ramblers. In addition to Jack, there was Curley Collins, Bud Kissinger (also spelled Kessinger). The cast picture would probably be in the first half of 1946 as around September 1946, Sunshine Sue invited them to be a part of the WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance.
But as seen by the promotional ad, Benny had been associated with WWVA as early as 1940.
World War II had broken up the Pop Eckler group and Bud and Benny returned to Fairchance. He said a band was formed with his cousin (Willard "Pappy" Glover, B: August 21, 1916 — D: April 1, 2002). Research shows there was Pappy Glover and the Radio Neighbors in various promotions. Pappy also had his own show over radio station WMBS in Uniontown, PA. He would later be part of Pappy and Pepper (Edward Maust, B: March 9, 1920 — D: July 31, 2015).
Benny said he went with Pappy to Wheeling and WWVA with a fellow named Tommy Nelson and joined his band. Tommy also had a comedian named Willie Whistle. Pappy's World War II draft registration shows he was employed by Tommy Nelson in 1940. A booklet of Pappy and Pepper in our collection seems to show that the "Pappy and Pepper" got together in early 1941. This would seem to indicate that Benny's recollection of when he joined up with them was earlier.
WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance
Benny Kissinger and Curley Collins became lifelong friends and were a very popular act on the WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance.
Benny took on various roles during his times on the barn dance as the show would do 'themes' for its shows. A reader wrote into the Richmond News Leader on June of 1946 asking who played the new character named Beulah; she talked and sang like a child. That role was taken up by Benny Kissinger. However, research has not uncovered a picture of him as that character.
In July of 1946, readers learned who made up the "Pine Ridge Boys" on the show. The group was a trio; Benny Kissinger; Curley Collins and, Marvin Taylor.
While with the WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance, he was part of a nationwide radio broadcast of the show. CBS started a new Saturday night show called "Saturday Night — Country Style. The concept was to feature a different 'live' show each week from around the country. The barn dance was chosen to be that first broadcast. That show aired on Saturday night, November 7, 1952. The network portion was the 10:30pm to 11:00pm segment. An article promoting this show indicated that Sunshine Sue would be singing "Smiles Are Made Out of Sunshine" and "Molly Malone." Zag (Pennell), The Ozark Mountain Boy was going to sing, "Jambalaya." Benny Kissinger would be doing "The Yodeling Ranger." And Mary Klick was due to make her first appearance since returning from entertaining the trips in Korea.
Our research on the history of WRVA and the Old Dominion Barn Dance uncovered some attempts to compete with the show during Sunshine Sue's reign on the program because of the popularity. Some of the stars thought they could do something better apart from the barn dance. One was "Wacky" Red Murphy who started the Atlantic Barn Dance that used the Atlantic Rural Exposition Grounds. Some of the WRVA stars resisted working on the show out of loyalty to Sunshine Sue.
It was during his association with Gillette's group that produced recordings by Benny along with Curley. While the label shows "Jack Gillette and the Tennessee Ramblers", Bullet 628A "Nothing To Lose" shows it is a duet by Bud and Benny Kissinger. The flip side, 628B was "In the Same Old Way," a song written by Benny and the label shows "Vocal by Benny Kissinger."
Jack Gillette's career goes back a couple of decades before his inolvement with the Tennessee Ramblers. He was the subject of a cover in Billboard magazine on December 10, 1938. He had an 'orchestra' as they termed it back then, but the group played a variety of music and Jack was known to play a 'violin' and 'fiddle.'
In Benny's communications with Dr. Wayne W. Daniel he recalled a unique experience that was one of his favorite memories. While with the Old Dominion Barn Dance, the union once requested that Joe Maphis, Curley Collins and Benny be the back up band for Elton Britt on a show he was doing in Norfolk, VA. Benny said that during the matinee show that day, you could hear some folks in the audience say, "Let Benny Sing." He said the evening show, the calls for "Let Benny Sing" were more frequent and louder. Finally the emcee had him come up to the microphone. Benny did sing and got an encore of applause from the audience.
After the show, Elton commended Benny for the crowd response. Benny said he mumbled something in reply that the audience was used to hearing his singing from the Barn Dance. Benny said he was "proud as punch" to just be on the same stage with Elton. To Benny, Elton was somewhat of an idol and to share honors with him on stage was "unbelievable."
DonksIn 1980 or so, Curley Collins and Benny Kissinger began to make appearances at Virginia's Lil' Ole Opry at Donk's Theater. It was located at Route 198 at Hudgins in Mathews, VA. One such show was on April 19, 1980 when they did a repeat of their Tribute to Sunshine Sue along with the Shades of Country band.
On occasion, a country star would also come and share the stage. On August 29, 1981, Dave Dudley and his famous truck driving songs were heard by the fans. On October 24, Doyle Holly who had a hit called "Queen of the Silver Dollar" was in town. Johnny Russell made an appearance on July 9, 1983. On June 18, 1983, Jim Owen, who created a one man stage show called "The Hank Williams Story"; he was also the only country star to ever win an Emmy award up to that time. He had previously appeared there on September 18, 1982. On October 2, 1982, Ron Craddock, the brother of Billy (Crash) Craddock entertained the audience. George Hamilton IV from the Grand Ole Opry sang his hits at Donk's on May 8, 1982. Then, it would seem like a homecoming or reunion for Benny and Curley when old friends Joe Maphis and his wife, Rose Lee appeared on January 24, 1981 and again on January 16, 1982.
Donks has its history as a venue. Back in 1983, columnist Larry Aydlette wrote of the experience visiting the venue. Donks would put on a "...country show for its 500 seats with the flavor of a down-home barn dance." Back then, the shows were held twice a month. The audience saw a cramped stage with a "...painted farmhouse backdrop" and there were regular performers as one might expect along with the guest stars. It was strictly meant to be a family affair - no alcoholic drinks were sold. Everett Hudgins told Mr. Aydlette, "It's clean cut. The people that run it, everybody in the county knows them. Some of the groups they have here are exceptionally good."
A picture of the venue accompanying the article showed the seating arrangement inside the 'theater.' There were two aisles. On the left and right side are sections with just two seats per row. The center section showed rows of about 12 seats.
Back in 1983, it was a family run affair; Wickham Enterprises was the corporate name so to speak. The president and general manager was Jimmy Smith who also took on the character of Uncle Jimmy Wickham. Smith's nieces helped out as well and were part of the house band, "Shades of Country."
As one might suspect, Donk's started its life as a movie theater that was run by Wilton (Donk) Dunton. Its last movie was shown in 1970. And Mr. Smith got the idea to convert the building to house the Lil' Ole Opry.
The Opry efforts were a family affair, but they all had their daytime jobs and the Opry was their passion. Mrs. Mullis, the stage manager and a niece, said, "Country music, once it gets hold of you, it's not a pastime, it's a disease."
They felt they took country music '...out of the barrooms and back into a family-oriented atmosphere.'
Uncle Jimmy and the others admitted they were all hams and liked the stage. Uncle Jimmy says of that obsession, "I had to buy a theater to do it." Yes, they had their stories. Betsy Ripley broke out in a case of hives so nervous about backing Ernest Tubb. A horse kicked out two front teeth of Mrs. Mullis. Dave Dudley did not know how to change a flat tire. Uncle Jimmy got a hug from Dolly Parton as well. "She hugged me and that was two of the biggest things that ever happened to me." Of course he said that with a 'mischievious grin.'
In September 1979, Mrs. Mullis (Joanna Mullis) was crowned 'Queen of the Viriginia Folk Music Association.' This was an honor that was part of Dominion's Country Music Month observance to honor Sunshine Sue Workman who had died earlier in the year. She had been performing at Donk's with her band, Shades of Country, which was formed two years prior (1977?); they were the house band at Donk's. The band back then consisted of Fido Stevens, VFMA male vocalist champion in 1979; Betsy Ripley (Joanna's sister); Jeff Teller and Bart Denoy.
The rebirth of the Donks theater began in early 1975. Columnist Tom Rowe told readers the Mathews Choral Society wanted to present a musical in October of that year. But the group first invested some effort into the renovation of the theater including cleaning, repair of some plumbing, and, some reupholstering of seats. The work was going to be done by volunteers and trying to persuade local businesses to contribute materials. The use of the theater was donated by Mrs. W. C. Dunton, the owner.
A couple of months later, James (Jimmy) W. Smith through his Wickham Enterprises business signed a lease with Mrs. Mary Dunton. She was impressed by Smith's plan for "good, wholesome family entertainment." The theater was built in 1947 by Wilton C. Dunton. Mr. Smith got Rogers Norman of the King and Queen, members of the Norman Brothers band to be the master of ceremonies at the initial shows. Mr. Smith indicated the biggest expense in the renovation was to put in a new sound system that would be adequate for country shows and even serious drama presentations as well. The first country production under Mr. Smith was to be a "Country Jamboree" on June 14. Rogers Norman would emcee. Local artists scheduled to perform were Carl and Barbara Roane; Cindy Smith; the Northampton Dance Studio Troupe; Robin Slaughter, and Billy Dameron and the Country Travelers.
"Benny and Curley Sing, Nashville Picks" & Nashville
They also made one last recording in 1981. They did an album in Nashville that was called "Benny and Curley Sing, Nashville Picks." The album by the two old professionals was backed by several of Nashville's 'A' team session players. Hoot Hester was on fiddle. Lloyd Green played steel guitar; Hargus (Pig) Robbins was on piano; Jimmy Capps played guitar. Lightning Chance played upright bass; Buddy Harmon handled the drums and Ray Edenton was on rhythm guitar. In Norman Rowe's November 1981 article about the album, he noted that Ray Edenton had a connection with them - he played rhythm guitar for a time with Joe Maphis and His Korn Krackers on the old WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance.
Curley (or Curly as Mr. Rowe spelled it) said Ray told him he could do better singing if he wouldn't do any picking. But Curley said they let him play fiddle on "Black Mountain Rag." Curley told Mr. Rowe, "But when you're working with a great group like this, you get a wild urge to pick with them, and my fingers were pickin' an imaginary guitar all the time.
The other tidbit from that interview was that Benny regained his ability to yodel again. He said he had lost that ability, it disappeared. But perhaps the energy of going to Nashville and into the recording studio brought it all back.
The songs on the album also brought a few comments in the interview. Mr. Rowe asked the two of them, which cut was the best? Curley thought "Rose of Old Pawnee" and "Baby Doll" were the best and on second thought "Baby Doll" was it. Why? "It was the hottest thing we did on the Barn Dance." Benny chimed in that he thought "Roll On Kentucky Moon" was his choice. Curly composed "In the Same Old Way" long before he came to the Barn Dance (that would be 1946). He said Benny sang it just the way Sunshine Sue liked for him to do it on her show. Benny did one he wrote as well, "God's Guest." He said he wrote it 24 years prior to the interview in 1981 just after his dad died. He had always wanted to record it. Another tune they talked about (but not clear if it was on the album) was a tune Curley would sing at the Lil Ole Opry in Mathews - "Jesus and The Atheist" which always got him a standing ovation.
Speaking of ovations, Benny and Curley found that the studio musicians were "...so high on a cloud, they'll have trouble getting down to country rock again." They had a chance to do pure country.
How did the album come about? Benny says their was a 'gracious lady' (who Benny says was "our angel") who asked them why not do an album? Benny told her, well, they would like to do one in Nashville where the "sound is best and the musicians are the greatest." She told them, go do it so they would have something to tell their grandchildren.
Other Performances and Notes
In July 1974, the local Uniontown newspaper reported that Benny had underwent major surgery at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Richmond, VA
Benny would take part in the entertainment at family reunions that gained some fair amount of press coverage. One such large gathering was the reunion of desendents of Andrew and Jane Sowers who had their first reunion in September 1975 at Rainbow Park in Uniontown. Benny's mom if you recall earlier mentions was a Sower.
The second reunion occurred in August 1976 at the same park and again Benny was in attendance. No mention was made of any entertainment at these gatherings.
Marriages & Family
Benny married Mary Grace Treadwell on December 7, 1941. Their son, Clifton Kissinger was born on November 5, 1942. They later divorced. Mary was born on April 22, 1921; she died on January 14, 2001. She apparently remarried and her name was Mary Grace Treadwell Daniell at the time of her death.
He married Elsie Patrica Rawes on September 12, 1949 in Elizabeth City, NC. They divorced on August 20, 1969 in Virginia. They had four children, Arthur B. Kissinger, Jr., Joanna Kissinger Elgin, Owen Keith Kissinger, and, Laura Gaye Kissinger. Elsie was born on February 19, 1930; she passed away on July 21, 2015.
Credits & Sources