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About The Artist
Mickey was born Edna Julia Estes on April 13, 1913 in Kansas. Her mother died of Pancreatic cancer when she was 3 years old.
Her parents were Stephen and Cora (Kesinger) Estes. They were married on June 12, 1894 in Greenwood, KS. Her mom passed away on March 1, 1917 at the age of 42. The 1910 census showed they had three sons and two daughters: Earl, Perl, Ray, Zelma and Donald. The 1930 census showed two younger daughters born prior to their mom's death, Edna (Mickey) and Irene. Their father Stephen, remarried to Florence May (Sproull) in 1919.
Mickey (Edna) prayed that God would lead her to a good, gentle man and that's what she found in Venice Pennington and they were married September 3, 1933. Her prayers may have been the result of witnessing the abuses she saw in her father's second marriage.
In their 67 years of marriage she never heard him say one swear word. They had 3 children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all who loved her dearly.
At her funeral, the minister, Bill Smith said of Mickey,
"She was a stately woman who wasn't afraid to get on the floor and play with her grandchildren."
As a little girl, her father would make corn brooms and she would sell them door-to-door. They lived around Eureka, KS where she attended school through the 8th grade. When her mother passed, she left $200 to each of her children. In later years when Mickey moved to Wichita, she used that money to pay for cosmetology school, from which she graduated.
Mickey wrote a letter to her family when she was 74 years old (around 1987) telling them of her early life and experiences growing up. Below are some of those memories from Mickey (some editing was done for brevity and flow of narrative):
"I was born in Greenwood County, on a farm near Eureka, Kansas as Edna Julia Estes. My mother was Cora Kisinger Estes, age 38. My father Stephen Estes age 40. My morther's birthplace was Fort Scot, Kansas. My father's birthplace, Missouri. They had nine children. Three had deceased at this time and I was the last.
Perhaps Mickey wrote more of her later life to her family, perhaps it was lost. Or she never did get back to writing more. But she did leave a perspective through a young child's eye of growing up in Kansas and how it impacted her.
After her marriage to Venice, she took on a role at her local church and little mentions were found in the local newspapers. The early newspapers seemed to always report on the happenings and events involving the local residents. On Tuesday, December 3, 1935, she hosted the Young Matron's council of the Fiarview Christan church at their home; Mrs. Fred Hall was leading the afternoon program. On Wednesday afternoon January of 1937, she hosted the Dorcas Circle of the Fairview Christian church at their home.
She continued to do hair until she was 88 years old, and even during her performing years with the Ark Valley Boys. In the 60's, they built an addition on the back side of their house in Wichita that included a beauty parlor with a separate entrance. This was known as "Mickey's Beauty Salon."
A March 1966 listing of Beauty Shops in Wichita that were featuring the "Body-Wave" by Halliwell included Mickey's Beauty Salon on East Clark Street.
In late 1938, perhaps the start of her musical journey in Wichita was beginning. She took part in a "Major Bowes" program in the basement of the Salem Evangelical Church on Friday evening, October 14, 1938. She was part of the musical portion of the evening's entertainment which included an instrumental quintet, a guitar solo, vocal trio, a piano duet, autoharp solo. Mickey was listed as "...hillbilly act."
On Sunday, December 15, 1938, the Fairview Christian Church choir was presenting the Christmas cantata "The Incarnation." The choir, under the direction of Mrs. Veta Maye Hatfield with Mary Ellen Harmon as pianist would do several numbers. Mickey was listed as an "alto" in the choir.
Her obituary noted during the years of 1939-1947, she sang with the Ark Valley Boys who were a major performing group for radio station KFH in Wichita. She was a yodeler and her stage name was "Cousin Mickey." That would be the name she would be known by for the remainder of her life. She sang on the radio, had her own radio show, played the guitar, piano and drums. In addition to performing on the radio, The Ark Valley Boys performed at various State and local functions.
On October 13, 1939, there was a large Harvest Festival taking place at The Forum in Wichita. KFH was going to have two separate entertainment groups at this festival that day. One was the "Tea Time Jamboree." The other was the "Ark Valley Boys" barn dance group.
The Ark Valley Boys were going to present their "original gang" that was headed by Cousin Clarence. Other barn dance entertainers appearing on the show were Darlene Williams, Aunt Lizzie Glutz and Mickey Pennington. This would be the first mention seen of Mickey and her association with KFH and the Barn Dance. A couple of weeks later a promotional ad for the show mentions "Mickey" as part of the show that says it was "with the original ast of Entertainers."
While she was not mentioned, a photo promoting the 47th consecutive broadcast of the KFH Barn Dance Frolic in December 1939 does show her as a member of cast with the Ark Valley Boys. In 1940, she appeared with the Ark Valley Boys and other entertainers at an "Appeciation Day" in Pratt that was sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce.
The gang would put on three shows during the day, 11am, 4pm and 7pm. At the end of the day, the KFH Barn Dance Frolic would be held in the Pratt Municipal Auditorium. The cast included Edward McKean as the master of ceremonies. Mickey appeared with Lizzie Glutz, Cousin Clarence, Puny, the Moss Sisters trio, Geraldine Mapes (three year old yodeler at the time), and the Victory brothers. Mickey was touted as being "...the original hillbilly girl, noted for her comedy and yodling numbers."
On Friday evening, June 1, 1940 Mickey and the Ark Valley Boys took part in an unusual event. The Wichita Eagle was holding its 9th Annual Wichita Eagle Radio Wedding at Riverside Park. It was deemed the biggest wedding event in Wichita for the year. About 8,000 people attended the wedding in the park. Lois Manning was marreid to Willard Rutschman. The ceremony was held on the theater pavilion in the park. The Ark Valley Boys would entertain the crowds from 7:00 to 7:30pm prior to the wedding. After the wedding, the Ark Valley Boys went to The Forum where a 'grand wedding dance' would be held. The wedding dance was to be preceded by the KFH Barn Dance Frolic. Mickey was accompanied by the Moss Sisters, the Victory Brothers trio, the Old Trader, Geraldine Mapes, Lizzie Glutz, Cousin Eddie, Puny, Cousin Clarence, Darlene Williams and more. As part of the celebration, a huge wedding cake would be brought out on the stage. Every one in attendance for the show would get a piece of the cake. The dancing was to continue until midnight.
Saber Nurseries was a sponsor of her shows over KFH for a time in the early 1940's of her 7:45am show. In the fall of 1941, Carey Salt Company became a sponsor of her program at 7:00am. In 1943, the Tailor Made Feeds that also made Tailor Made Flour was sponsoring the Ark Valley Boys and the KFH Barn Dance Frolic.
Mickey was also part of a long running morning program sponsored by Nutrena Feeds, called the "Nutrena Victory Trio." Radio logs show it began on October 7, 1940 at 7:45am. It ran until January 22, 1941. KFH had another group called the Victory Trio that included three Victory brothers - Bud, Tex and Oby. The Nutrena Victory Trio consisted of Clarence Brown, Mickey Pennington and Jimmie Hall.
A short blurb in July of 1941 gives us an indication of the type of music she could do at various events. An engineer for the Wichita park board was ging a talk at the Wichita Lions Club meeting at the Allis Hotel. Mickey was reportedly going to do several Hawaiian songs as part of the entertainment at the meeting.
In a rare article that mentions the tunes sung by the KFH artists, the Masons held an event for the families of the Albert Pike Lodge No. 303 in October 1941. The event even included an appearance by Loie Bridges. Cousin Mickey was a part of this troupe of entertainers.
Just from viewing the promotional ads of these years, one can see that Mickey was one of the featured stars on the station. She was part of the Nutrena Victory Trio show in the morning and then shortly after that, she was doing her own show for the Sarber Nurseries.
The Sarber Nurseries program started on February 8, 1941. A promotional item in the newspaper indicated that she "...puts on city clothes..." for that show, perhaps a reference to her "Cousin Mickey" character who dressed just the opposite. A picture indicated that Roy Christensen, Denny Dennis would be part of the show with Mickey; Tom Noone was going to be their announcer.
KFH seemed to promote "Cousin Mickey" quite a bit in 1941 as her popularity grew. Pictures would accompany short pieces about a new show or sponsor. In August 1941, a promotional picture ran of Mickey for a new program that was starting over KFH on September 1, sponsored by the Carey Salt Company. She was noted as "...well known KFH staff artist and popular vocalist of the KFH Barn Dance Frolic. Thew show would air three days a week at 7:00am.
She was said to be "...one of the reasons for the immense popularity of the KFH Barn Dance Frolic...original hillbilly singer and yodeller and one of the most charming members of the Ark Valley Boys troupe." A picture caption noted she was in her "store clothes," but it was said that thousands remember her for some of her "outlandish stage costumes" in her role as Cousin Mickey.
When she was not lending her talents to the Saturday night Barn Dance Frolic show, she was part of the Ark Valley Boys when they did personal appearances. In Wichita, that usually meant the local theatres. The group did a two day engagement at the Nomar Theatre in February. The promotional snippet simply indicated that the "...Ark Valley Boys will appear in a stage show with the yodeling hillbilly, Cousin Mickey." Three weeks later, the "yodeling hillbilly" appeared once again at the Nomar with the Ark Valley Boys.
In January 1945, KFH announced a new program was being added to their schedule. The show was "Chow Time with the Ark Valley Boys." This musical program would be broadcast at noon, Monday through Friday. The show starred "...vocalist Mickey Pennington, Henry Mattison as 'The Plainsman,' Program Directory Vernon Reed as 'The Old Trader,' Wayne Euchner as the pianist, Houston Forner, bass and Vic (Puny) Hawkins as the master of ceremonies."
Mickey was also part of troupe that helped put on a one hour broadcast each day in the 7th floor studio theater in the York Rite Building. It was called "One Hour of Fun" and starred the KFH Ark Valley Boys with Puny Hawkins leading the way as emcee. The show also included vocalists Mickey Pennington, Patricia Reed and Henry Mattison.
In that early era when radio was the primary form of entertainment at home, the performers would get fan mail, some with kind words of how they enjoy the singer, or in other cases, requests for songs for an occasion. Mickey was no different. Below are some examples of those notes she got from fans, courtesy of her grandson, Mike Harvill.
In 1947, Mickey had an opportunity to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. All the plans had been made, including Venice quitting his job and they were about to leave Wichita when Mickey realized a career in Hollywood could be filled with pitfalls. She decided not to make the move and chose to stay in Wichita as a beautician and dedicate her life as a Christian to serving in her church, the Elpyco Church of Christ.
Mickey's daughter, DeAnna wrote that her mom was basically getting out of public singing in late 1947. She was pregant with DeAnna's sister (born in 1948). At the time, audiences were not receptive to seeing a pregnant woman perform. But at the same time, Mickey said it was 'time to quit.'
In 1948, she gained some press for 'hitting the jackpot' on the "Grand Slam" program over the Columbia Network on a 10:30am broadcast. Irene Beasley was the person who announced Mickey as the winner. She won a bundle of prizes: a $100 War Bond, box of nylons, 24-piece set of silverware, a Dresden crystal candy dish, an 18-quart Westinghouse electric roaster and a set of waterless aluminum cookware. In our email correspondence, her daughter said that the premise of the show was "do you know that tune" type of theme. Mickey sang a song called "You're My Best Friend." No one knew the song; she sang it and won the "Grand Slam." She had sung the sung when she was with KFH.
Her daughter mentions her mom was in another contest - a talent show. This time, when she sang, her voice "cracked." As a result, the emcee told her, "Sorry, you better not quit your day job" and she was dismissed from the contest. That "crack" went on to make her famous. Mickey liked to tell that story.
During her time with the Ark Valley Boys, she co-wrote a song with Lee "Corky" Edminster and Jimmie Davis, both of who went on to have productive music careers. Davis later became the Governor of Louisiana and is credited as the author of the song "You Are My Sunshine". The song she had a part in writing was entitled, "To You At Home," and Copyrighted and published by Peer International Corporation in 1942. The songwriter's agreement signed by Mickey, Corky and Jimmie was signed on December 11, 1941. Royalties were to be split evenly by all three. The song would get three cents per copy of sheet music sold and the writers would get 50 per cent of all royalties from commercial phonograph records, transcriptions, synchronizing fees or foreign royalties recieved by the publisher "from the exploitation of the Composition." One interesting aspect of the agreement is
"The Publisher may, if he deems it advisable, grant to any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, the right to print copies of the Compositiion for distribution therewith, or as part thereof, and no royalties shall be claimed by the Composer for any copies so distributed."Knowing the number of folios and magazine publications that published sheet music and/or lyrics over the years makes one wonder if the composers received any royalties from such publications. However, through the years, Mickey always maintained that she had a little input in the arrangement of the song.
Mike Harvill said Mickey was a very humble person and she never made a big deal of her performing career. This was evidenced by the fact that there was never anything on display in their home that mentioned her career. In fact, her grandson says it wasn't until he was in his 20's that he started to learn about his grandmother's singing career and it wasn't until after her death that he learned so much more.
Mickey's daughter stated, "She was a prankster, big time!" Mickey liked to tell a story about when she was at KFH. Sometimes they would go out for lunch. A couple of different times, she and her friend would be outside the doors to the station, looking down at the sidewalk, looking for something. People would then gather and ask what she was doing and could she use their help? Of course, Mickey welcomed their help. She said she "dropped her diamond ring." After a short bit of time, Mickey and her friend just simply walked away and went to lunch, leaving the crowd looking for the 'diamond ring.' DeAnna said that over the years, it became known that if you walked into a room where Mickey was and wondered where she was, just listen. Listen for the laughter and you would find Mickey.
She was a remarkable woman for those days and extremely talented her daughter wrote. She taught herself to play the piaon, guitar and drums. Later, she turned to art, painting on fabric, wood, china, doing acrylic and water color. DeAnna says they have lots of Mickey's work in their homes.
A little more about "You Are My Sunshine." Mickey sang it to her daughter when she was a little girl, who then sang it to her son and his three younger brothers, Her grandson sang it to his kids when they were young.
In later years the brothers would do some quartet singing (perhaps a talent they inherited) and would sing "You Are My Sunshine."
They sang it a few times with "Grandma" and she would sing a separate part called "double-talk" where she would sing a totally different line at twice the speed of what we were singing.
She spent her final days in a nursing home and one evening I went to a program where they had a group playing. Ironically, they played "You Are My Sunshine" and the two of us sang it together for what I was unaware would be our last time.
When she passed, the last words her grandson Mike said to her on her deathbed were "Good-bye Sunshine." He said that because she always brought sunshine to everyone who met her. It was at her memorial service that he then learned about her connection to the song.
Her daughter, DeAnna, wrote more about Mickey as part of the email of Mickey's memories. Mickey did graduate from beauty school in Wichita, using the money her mom left her in her will. She married Venice E. Pennington in 1933. Their first child was Ralph LeRoy, born in 1935. In 1938, she began working for KFH using the stage name, "Cousin Mickey" (derived from Mickey Mouse). She hosted a morning show, sang with the Ark Valley Boys at fairs, barn dances, theaters and other public appearances all over Kansas and Oklahoma. A second child, DeAnna Rae, was born in 1939. She ended her singing career in 1948 when a third child, Linda Sue, was born.
From that point on, she prided herself in being a Bible teacher firs and foremost, and used her singing talent at church talent shows for fun, weddings and funerals. She also worked at Sears in the fragrance department and all the while, continued to do her beautician work until she was 88 years old. The last perm job she gave was at a Christian Care Center in Michigan, to a nursing home resident.
She died in a nursing home in Clawson, Michigant at the age of 90 years from a brain aneurism that stemmed from hip surgery she had undergone just 10 days earlier. She is buried in Wichita.
Credits & Sources