Hillbilly-Music.comThe People. The Music. The History.
About The Artist
Ed Keen, or Ezra Hawkins as most fans knew him, was born in Valley Falls, Kansas. He claimed in a 1945 article in the WIBW Round-Up that the doctor 'wallopped' him just after being born which started him "...to making lots of noice and later influenced me to get onto the radio." If you haven't figured it out by now, he was a bit of a comedian. But he was also a talented musician. Many fans saw him with the fiddle, but he also played the guitar, mandolin, honky-tonk piano and perhaps also the saxophone.
A later article in the WIBW Round-Up magazine tells us of how "Ezra" was created. When he first came to WIBW, he was a fiddle player named Ed Keen. But he seemed to have this character inside him and would often amuse his co-workers with a characterization of an old man. On a dare, he tried this old man character on the air and from that day on, he was Uncle Ezra.
He tells us his first job was playing fiddle for a group known as the "Barber College Orchestra" being heard over WIBW back in 1927. Ezra decided he wanted to start something of his own, so he formed a band and they called themselves the "Kansas Farmers". We have to give you a bit of his sense of humor he used to write his biography then. He would commence telling some aspect of his life, then suddenly woven into that mention was a bit of a humorous tale mixed in with it, whether it was quite related to what he was telling you or not.
But we learn in a 1951 article in the KMA Guide, that Ezra's first efforts on radio was from an ability to sell himself and a concept to the radio station manager and to simply laugh at jokes made by "Truthful Jones". At the time, "Truthful Jones" was radio character on WIBW who dropped in once a week on one of the shows and commence to telling a tall story. On one of those occasions, young Ed Keen was in the audience. Afterwards, the story goes, he told the manager that "Truthful Jones" told good jokes, but the audience didn't laugh. He told the manager that on each show, he should have someone doing a different and unusual laugh at the appropriate times of the yarns told by "Truthful Jones". He sold the idea so well to the manager, that he was hired at the handsome rate of $1 (yes, that's one dollar) per show to ... just laugh.
So, as he told us of the forming of the "Kansas Farmers" group, he said, well, let's let Ezra tell it as only he could, puns and misspellings included:
"I was like my famous enerjetic uncle who worked out at the court-house, and ever monrin he would polish the cannon out on the lawn and had the same duties to perform in the evenin, but uncle was smart like me and he saved a good part of his wages and it weren't long before he bought a cannon of his own and went int business for hisself."
While performing with the Kansas Farmers, Ezra started thinking that folks ought to laugh more during his shows, so he started telling jokes as part of the act. But he says the "boss" thought they were laughing more at his fiddling than the jokes and he dismissed the group.
Ezra wasn't going to be deterred though. When there was a change of management at the station (Note: We have no way to determine at this point whether it was due to this or if he in fact was dismissed, only Ezra's tale then.), he got himself back on the air working under the name, "The Sod-Busters". He said the group used that name up until about 1939-1940.
At that time, Ezra's group became known as the "Bar Nothin Ranch Gang", which had a long run at WIBW. Back in 1945, the show was a half-hour show that began at 6:15am, Monday through Friday and was also a part of the weekly Saturday night show, the Kansas Round-Up.
Ezra mentioned about 1944, he had bought a ranch. Many fans thought the 'ranch' was purely imaginary, but it was real. He had 31 acres "...in the heart of Topeka..." and the farm included a cow, chickens, dogs and cats and many other items he associated with the Bar Nothin Ranch show. He had two dogs, Siccem and Pot Likker. But it seems soon after moving in, a fire occurred that burned the house down. Ezra claims he lived out in the barn with the cows and hogs until the insurance company had rebuilt the house. Knowing Ezra, you just never know about that.
While telling us of his house burning down, he tells us of his dealings with the insurance people. Of course, that led into a bit of a sidebar about another 'incident' with the insurance people with its own pun-derific twists, so let's see what Ezra wrote to the WIBW readers then as only Ezra could:
"...They got after old Pot Likker (he's my dog and best friend) cause one night some crooks broke into the Barn Nothin and swiped a brand new clock right out from in under his nose. They said he wasn't a good dog or he wouldn't let crooks stell clocks that way. That made me mad(sic) and I ups and tells them that Pot Likker is a "watch" dog and don't know a thing about clocks and besides I wouldn't have a clock watcher on the place."
The early 1950s saw Uncle Ezra had moved on as many entertainers did in that era. This time, he moved up to Shenandoah, Iowa and radio station KMA. In November of 1950, KMA announced that Uncle Ezra's Bar Nothin' Ranch Hands were to be a new show on the air. He was still Uncle Ezra and the Bar Nothin Ranch Gang was still on the air and part of his persona appearances. The show started at first on KMA as a 15-minute show, six days a week at 4:45pm. But it rose in popularity with the KMA listening audience quickly and later became a full half-hour show at 5:00pm. Today, that would be known as prime time in the evening commute home.
Lee Sutton, one-time WWVA Jamboree announcer, was the emcee for the show and with the words... "Let's all go down to the Bar Nothin' Ranch!" Uncle Ezra's show was on the air at KMA. At the time, KMA called it "...a sparkling new musical-comedy program." He appealed to the midwest audience of KMA. They told us "...the home-spun appeal of Ezra's tall tales and impossible situations are as humours to the youngest members of the younger generation as they are to any fun-loving mother or father."
The cast of this 1950 show with Uncle Ezra included many of the fan favorites then on KMA, who were known by another name as part of the cast of the show as follows:
The premise of the show is that it takes place down on the Bar Nothin' Ranch with Boss Ezra Hawkins leading the way. His 'hired hands' provied the music, along with the stories and wisecracks. He had Timothy Longacre who was in charge of the hen house details. Charlie Smarthopper was nicknamed the "golden-voiced hog caller" and naturally, tended to the pigs and hogs on the "ranch". Sam Leatherberry got the task of taking care of the horses and mules because they said, "...the horses and the mules just naturlly take to Sam." And Wilbur Numby, well, he just tried to stay out the way. Even announcer Lee Sutton got in on the fun claiming he was the best milker in the gang, too - but claimed he had received a written request from the cows to use gloves on cold mornings.
We learned in an early promotional article announcing the show that Uncle Ezra had wrote the theme tune for the show, "Arkansas Rag" in 1932 and it had been used by him on the Bar Nothing Ranch shows ever since then.
The show was seemingly an immediate hit with the listening audience. Kma continued to promote the show - in fact, every Saturday night, the Bar Nothin' Ranch Hands hosted a free dance at the Shenandoah Armory. The group was quite popular - for they would often get people driving from as far away as two hundred miles to attend the dances. The Chamber of Commerce sponsored the show and KMA broadcast the dances each Saturday evening from 9:45 to 10:00pm and again from 10:15pm to 10:30pm.
The summer of 1951 saw Uncle Ezra take a break, and during that time, Ezra and the family (his wife Virginia and daughter Cindy) hitched up their trailer and drove to California. The old KMA Guides would regularly provide little tidbits of the lives of their stars to help fans get to know them. On this occasion, the KMA Guide related a tale of how they did a seemingly impossible thing of driving over the Superior Pass out of Globe, Arizona pulling the trailer. It seems he put the car in low gear and floored the gas pedal to keep it moving but they finally made the twelve mile drive over the pass. Folks in Globe were suitably impressed by this accomplishment when he got there.
In 1952, he had hooked up with long time WIBW entertainers themselves, Doc and Esther Embree. Together, they billed themselves on personal appearances (PAs as the artists would call them) as "The Bar Nothin Ranch Search for Talent". Theyou would give the local amateurs a chance to peform on stage as part of the show, sometimes they would have as many as 25 amateur talents making an effort to entertain the audiences and getting experience in performing in front of an audience. The show would usually last about two hours. The show would often be a joint effort with a local community organization to help them raise funds.
A few months later, Ezra was a part of a new act that KMA put together for doing personal appearance tours, the "KMA Western Jamboree". At the time, Betty and Lyn were a popular female duo on KMA, doing "...popular, hillbilly and hymns" and specializing in western numbers that used their own style of yodeling. Uncle Ezra provided the humor with his "...folksy wit and humor and authentic old time fiddle and mandolin playing." Rounding out the group was Curly Dale, who also sang, and played the electric guitar, banjo and mandolin.
The last mention of the Ezra's Bar Nothin' Ranch on KMA's schedule was in February 1953. Taking its place in March 1953 in the 5:00pm slot, was a similar type of show called Tumble Weed Ranch, but with a new group of performers. From there, Ezra continued entertaining children on a Geargia television station, using a character and costume similar to Ezra Hawkins.
On the personal side, while he was at WIBW, Ezra married the former Virginia Bruce of Ottawa, Kansas on October 15, 1945 in a ceremony in Lawrence, Kansas. Attending the wedding were fellow WIBW performers, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Willhite (The Shepherd of the Hills and Virginia Lee). They took a short two-day honeymoon in Kansas City and returned to Topeka, residing on the "Bar Nothin' Ranch". In June of 1948, they welcomed an addition to the Ranch, daughter Cynthia Ellen. He was previously married to the former Mary Wright on August 11, 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri. Mary and Edwin had seven children.
Edwin "Ezra Hawkins" Keen passed away in June of 1967 in Topeka, Kansas.
Credits & Sources