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WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance
Yankton, SD

WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance

"Here we are, folks, with lard on our hair and out ears pinned back like a bitin' sow!"

From the moment listeners heard emcee Smokey Ward sign on there was said to be not a quiet moment in the city auditoriums in Woonsocket, or Worthington, or wherever the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance happened to be playing.

WNAX out of Yankton South Dakota used to sign on the air in it's early years "...This is WNAX, the voice of the Bridge Builders." Through the years it grew and in 1943, WNAX completed the construction of the world's tallest radio tower - 927 feet. Somewhere in that history, hillbilly music came to the station. Like many radio stations of that era, a live Saturday night barn dance / jamboree type show was created. However, WNAX did it a bit differently we find.

WNAX Barn Dance

It was described as an all-evening long fun-fest that was unique in that unlike other broadcasts, the audience didn't come to the studio or the theater. The show went to the audience. Every Saturday night in a different town or city of, Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota, or Iowa, Mom and pop put on their goin' out clothes, got a baby sitter for the kids or decked them out, too; and piled one and all into the family car and headed for town and the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance show.

Each Saturday night show consisted of a half-hour rip-roaring comedy warm-up (perhaps done by Herb Howard, the producer and director), a full-hour broadcast of music, fun and frolic over radio station WNAX, and then, afterwards, a two to three hour dance. An evening out on the town like that cost only $1.00 back then, quite the bargain.

WNAX Barn Dance

The show had other interesting twists due to its visits to other towns for its Saturday night broadcast. Consider this incident that was reported in National Jamboree magazine in 1949.

"There wasn't a ghost of a chance for anyone in Johnstown, Nebraska, to win a giant jackpot when WNAX'S Missouri Valley Barn Dance brought its show to town. The city's complete long distance phone facilities—one line—were tied up to broadcast the hour-long program. The good people of Johnstown, wanted it that way-with the tacit understanding that in case of flood, tornado or other acts of God the show would go off the air."

The producer and director of the show was Herb Howard, yes, the same fellow who directed WLS' National Barn Dance for five years. Mr. Howard, was also a romantic ballad singer in his own right, was said to be a casual fellow whose easy-going demeanor hid the the speed with which he got a show moving when seconds were short, and it's Howard who gets things going with a warmup.

WNAX Barn Dance

One singer on this show was a fellow by the name of Billy Dean, singer, who was a real honest-to-gosh cowboy. Billy's cousin, was Eddie Dean, also a former WNAX star, and later was a cowboy movie star.

No one was given top billing on the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance. But probably the biggest show-stopper they said was little Eller, so labelled because of her elongated 6'4" frame. They said she literally had them rolling in the aisles just by appearing in her way-above-the-knee little girl's dress, long white stockings, and pigtails.

Little Eller's husband was Smokey Ward, who was the emcee for the show. He dished up his own jokes and humor aimed at the local folks, touching on everything from crops to the rest of the cast—"all delivered in a broad hillbilly accent. (Make note of the opening sign-on attributed to Smokey and imagine that accent.)" Both Smokey and Little Eller were from Renfro Valley, Kentucky, home to another infamous radio program started by John Lair, The Renfro Valley Barn Dance, which is still going to this day.

The show tried to maintain an informal, shirt-sleeve, just-stopped-by-for-a-visit atmosphere right from the start of the warmup, through the broadcast and even afterwards for the "dancing-til-tired" portion of the evening. Most of the entertainers were seen as old friends to WNAX listeners, and many people made a special point of coming to see the musicians that they had heard over the air for years.

While they didn't have a headliner, perhaps they had a mainstay of the station. It was the familiar figure of Happy Jack O'Malley, who was playing his fiddle on the air from 1927, when he won an old-time fiddlers' contest. Happy was said to have had the first commercial program on WNAX. The article mentions that in the twenties, Happy used to be a bricklayer. He'd come up to the studio in his mortar-spattered overalls, trade his trowel for a fiddle, and just jump right into the swing of things whether it was a waltz or a polka and got the toes tapping in the audience.

The WNAX Barn Dance's unique five-state coverage —Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa—gave it wide popularity even before the show went on the air at its Saturday night stands. In fact, folks like them so much, that when the gang got ready to play for the dancing after the radio program broadcast, the enterainers had to break up into two groups - one group played the music while the other group signed autographs!

Some of the acts that were a part of the WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance included:

  • Smokey Ward, emcee (Little Eller's husband)
  • Happy Jack O'Malley, fiddler
  • Little Eller
  • Cousin Elmer Twirp
  • Larry O'Malley
  • Al's Rhythm Rangers
  • The Carson Sisters, Marge and Betty
  • The Novelty Boys and Cora Deane
  • Ben and Jessie Norman
  • Billy Dean

Little Eller

Sunny Dale

Al's Rhythm Rangers

The Carson Sisters

Ben and Jessie Norman

Jack Reno

Johnnie White and the Sons of the West


Credits & Sources

  • National Jamboree (Aug 1949); Words to Songs, Inc.; 1 East 42nd Street, New York, NY
  • WNAX Album 1945


Yes, Hillbilly Music. You may perhaps wonder why. You may even snicker. But trust us, soon your feet will start tappin' and before you know it, you'll be comin' back for more...Hillbilly Music.

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