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Happy Birthday, Gunsmoke!

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Once upon a time, there was a popular TV Western called Gunsmoke. The show ran for 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, making it the longest running dramatic TV series ever. Over 630 episodes aired during that time span, not including 5 made-for-TV movies. The show frequently received top ratings and the series won 15 Prime Time Emmy awards. It outlasted NBC’s Bonanza and survived CBS’ infamous “rural purge” of the early 1970’s when it cancelled its Western-themed shows. A few years later, in 1975, without any advance notice to the show’s cast, producers, or the viewing public, CBS unceremoniously pulled the plug on Gunsmoke.

Many of you probably remember the series or have at least heard of it. What some of you may not know is that Gunsmoke the television show was adapted from a radio series by the same name. It was 71 years ago this month when Gunsmoke the radio series first took to the airwaves on the CBS Radio Network. The Western drama aired on the radio every week for 9 years.

For the varmints who don’t know, Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City, Kansas, and centered around Marshal Matt Dillon’s efforts to enforce law and order in the wild west. Other key characters included Dillon’s Deputy, Wesley Proudfoot, Kitty Russell, owner of the local saloon (and Dillon’s love interest), Chester Goode, Dillon’s assistant, and Doctor Charles “Doc” Adams, the town physician.

Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim.

During the entire 20 year run of the TV series, actor James Arness played the lead character, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. The 6’2” tall Arness looked and acted as if he was born for the part. He bore a slight resemblance to John Wayne and even sounded a bit like Duke. Legend has it Wayne was offered the starring role but turned it down.

In the radio series, however, William Conrad played Matt Dillon. You’ll remember Conrad as the 5’7″, 260 pound detective in the popular 1970’s TV detective series, Cannon. Nobody could’ve looked more the antithesis of an 1870’s Marshal than Conrad. I pity the horse that had to transport him. But this was radio, not television. Conrad had extensive experience in radio and it was his voice, as deep as Hells Canyon, that rightly earned him the part.

Rocky and Bullwinkle

Since I’m focusing on the Gunsmoke radio program and he was the star, allow me to devote a few sentences to Conrad. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1920, the son of movie theater owners. He became a fighter pilot in World War II and was a producer-director of the Armed Forces Radio Service. He directed numerous films and TV episodes and acted in many more over his 5-decade long career. He was the narrator for The Fugitive, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He married 3 times and had 1 son. His last starring role in a TV series was Jake and the Fat Man, a crime drama that ran on CBS for 5 seasons. Conrad died in February 1994 of a heart attack.

From Mark to Matt

Before the Gunsmoke radio series began, two different pilot episodes were recorded, both in 1949. The Marshal’s name for the pilot episodes was Mark Dillon and Conrad didn’t play the lead role in either episode. Neither ever made it on the air and the hero’s name was later changed from Mark to Matt Dillon.

For Adults Only

Unlike other radio Westerns of the era such as The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke was strictly geared for adults. It tended to be somber and often featured explicit and violent content, yet is generally regarded as more realistic than its television counterpart. From the radio show’s introduction: “There’s just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers and that’s with a U.S. Marshal and the smell of gun smoke!” Or as William Conrad as Marshal Dillon put it in his baritone voice: “[I’m] the first man they look for and the last they want to meet.”

Being the radio geek that I am and having been employed in said industry for years, I’m continually amazed at the work that went into these old time radio productions. Listening to the Gunsmoke radio shows, I put aside the story lines and concentrated on the other elements…the quality of the scripts, the music, and of course, the all-important, multilayered sound effects. An enormous amount of effort went into each and every weekly episode and the quality still shines through 7 decades later.

James Arness chasing down outlaws on Gunsmoke. Image from

Watch and Listen

If I’ve managed to inspire you to catch Gunsmoke the TV show, you’ll find the series airing weekday afternoons on the MeTV network (which, incidentally, also airs Cannon). Can’t get enough? The INSP cable network airs Gunsmoke episodes multiple times throughout the day and evening. Tarnation! On the other hand, if you’d prefer to acquaint (or re-acquaint) yourself with the original radio show, check out Internet Radio station WRCW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke, streaming out of Virginia. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Dodge City, Kansas anymore.

Image from

Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Most OTR (Old Time Radio) Internet stations play a variety of old time radio programs. Some OTR stations are genre specific like mystery/science fiction or comedies. There aren’t too many that dedicate themselves to one specific series like WRCW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke does. With WRCW Radio, it’s all Gunsmoke, all the time. I’m talking hundreds of episodes all broadcast on one radio station. You’ll even hear vintage adverts for Vicks cough drops and the original sponsor, L&M cigarettes. Interestingly, L&M was founded in 1873, the same time period the Gunsmoke episodes were set in. It’s bizarre to me to hear cigarettes advertised as having “flavor” and being “light and mild” with an “easy draw”, not to mention the white “miracle tip” filter. The L&M brand still exists today unlike some of their customers.

25 Years of Gunsmoke Radio

There are other Gunsmoke-only Internet radio stations like a similarly named radio station, Home of Gunsmoke. That station only streams at 64 kbps and it’s been my experience that this is typical of the majority of OTR Internet radio stations. WRCW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke streams at 128 kbps. It’s a minor point since the quality of the old time radio mono recordings aren’t exactly high fidelity, but I applaud WRCW Radio for going above and beyond. They’ve also been streaming Gunsmoke longer than most. The station celebrated its 25th Anniversary just last year. In 2005 it was nominated as Live365’s best station.

I spit-shined my Marshal’s badge, hopped on my trusty horse, and tracked down Marlene Micele, WRCW’s Founder. I asked the little lady what her inspiration was to start WCRW Radio – Home of Gunsmoke. “The inspiration to start the station came from my memories of hearing the show on the radio when I was only a few years old”, Micele wrote me. “I didn’t like the TV version of Gunsmoke”, she added.

As I mentioned, WRCW Radio plays all the Gunsmoke shows, well over 400, with one exception. “I air all the episodes that are available”, Micele told me. “There were many repeats during the show’s run, and I have removed them from the broadcast as to not be repetitious.”

Pull Up A Chair

One mystery that still endures…why William Conrad didn’t get the starring role in the Gunsmoke TV series after successfully playing the lead for 9 years on the radio. It’s been implied his girth was the reason behind the snub. Micele commented, “I quote from hearing Dennis Weaver [who was in the TV series] tell it: ‘The scene called for Conrad to jump up from the chair, and when he did, he got stuck because of his weight.’ It was clear Gunsmoke the TV series was either going to need bigger chairs or a thinner Marshal.

Just the facts, ma’am.

WRCW has some sister stations worth noting which also stream at 128 kbps. If Gunsmoke isn’t your cup of wild west whiskey, there’s WRCW Presents Dragnet, dedicated to Dragnet, another very popular TV show that began life as a radio series. WRCW Radio 2 Home of the Old Time Westerns airs Westerns in general, and WRCW Crime Story streams vintage radio crime dramas. Perhaps the “RCW” in WRCW stands for Radio, Crime, Westerns.

“Unlike other radio Westerns of the era such as ‘The Cisco Kid’ and ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Gunsmoke’ was strictly geared for adults.”

Without getting ornery, I have two quick cons about this Internet station. First, it’s not non-commercial, so be prepared to hear 2 minute commercial sets beyond the original vintage sponsorships. The commercials help reduce the station’s cost of the streaming platform and is often a necessary evil for Internet stations to exist.

The other quibble I have is that KCRW Radio’s metadata doesn’t identify the original air date of each Gunsmoke episode. The title of every episode is displayed but it would be interesting to know when they first aired. This information is readily available so I don’t understand why it’s not included. To be fair, the other Gunsmoke Internet stations I checked out also failed to indicate the broadcast dates.

Gunsmoke still looks and sounds pretty darn good at 71 years old. Without it, one has to wonder whether shows like Yellowstone, 1883, and 1923 would exist. Unless you’re yellow-bellied, rustle up some Gunsmoke on WRCW Radio or get out of Dodge!

Trivia: William Conrad wrote Gunsmoke radio episode #59, “Sundown”, which aired on June 6, 1953. He also directed two episodes of the TV series.

Trivia: James Anress, who portrayed Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke the TV series, had a famous brother…Peter Graves, who starred in his own hit television series, Mission: Impossible.

Arness is best, but there’s Festus for the rest of us.

Trivia: The Gunsmoke TV character, Festus Haggin, played by Ken Curtis, released several records. Long before Gunsmoke, Curtis was a professional singer and had a brief stint as lead singer with the Tommy Dorsey band in 1941 after Frank Sinatra’s departure.

A sampling of metaphors by Festus Haggin from the Gunsmoke TV series:

He ain’t got the gumption to pound sand down a rat hole.

I thumped him ’till his ears rang like the liberty bell.

Crookeder than a dog’s hind leg.

Hold `yer taters.

I’ll get onto you like ugly on an ape.

He can’t see past the brim of his hat.

This here stew will put muscles in your whiskers.

It’s hot enough to fry a horseshoe.

Tighter than the feathers on a prairie chicken’s rump.

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Happy Hee Haw Part II

In Happy Hee Haw New Year Part 1 I wrote about the interesting backstory to the classic country comedy show, Hee Haw, and featured an interview with original cast member Lulu Roman.

In Part 2 I conclude my series with two additional original cast member interviews…Jana Jae and Buck Trent. Sit back and relax. As Roy Clark and Buck Owens said in the opening of one episode, “it’s time for singing and it’s time for jokes, so gather ’round and join us, folks.”

Jana Jae

Jana Jae and her blue violin.

Jana Jae took up the violin at age 2, albeit a miniature version. She has a degree in music and studied at the Vienna Academy of Music. Buck Owens hired her to be in his Buckaroos band which led to multiple performances on Hee Haw. Her repertoire isn’t limited to country music. Jae has played the Montreux Jazz Festival, Wembley Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Known as “the first lady of country fiddle”, she’s toured Australia, Africa, Brazil, Japan, and the Philippines. In addition to Buck Owens and Roy Clark, she’s performed with Chet Atkins, Ricky Skaggs, The Oakridge Boys, Mel Tillis, Ray Stevens, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Jae has several albums under her belt and also founded her own Fiddle Camp and Music Festival which takes place in Grove, Oklahoma.

Peter: I know you have many fond memories, but can you share a specific “Hee Haw” memory?

Jana: Working alongside some of the many wonderful guest stars was a real eye-opener to me! Roy Rogers & Dave Evans, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, and so many more – I loved it! One funny thing was when Junior Samples brought his jug to our taping – his real, authentic moonshine jug thrown over his shoulder – sip, sip, sip! I think that was the first and last time on set, but it proved to me he was the real deal!!

Peter: Give me a sense of what it was like during one week of recording for “Hee Haw”. Did you rehearse beforehand?

Jana: Since I was a member of Buck’s band, we planned our time very efficiently. We had recorded some of the tracks ahead of time, and we all generally knew the songs and arrangements, at least Buck’s vocals (which he sang live on set). We would usually put in a full day in front of the cameras, doing all Buck’s songs together, then all of the cast songs together, then all the cornfields, the fence shots, whatever guests were scheduled, any solos or group fiddle numbers, etc. They had a detailed schedule for a couple weeks, then we left. It was really quite efficient – and always great fun!!!

Peter: Do you have a favorite performance from “Hee Haw” or do they all kind of blend together now? Did you perform before an audience or were applause tracks added later? 

Jana: I sure enjoyed the cast songs and the group fiddle numbers, still favorites, but I really enjoyed everything we did on Hee Haw! We performed before a small audience of friends and cast members, seated on hay bales with backs to the cameras. I was so surprised when I first arrived on set – I had expected every show in an auditorium packed full! Not! They filmed, gathered all the footage, then would piece together the shows, add effects or the barnyard animals going across the screen, lots of fun things. We never knew who or what would be in a finished show – it was amazing how each show was done! Genius!!

Peter: Why do you think the show was so popular? 

Jana: Hee Haw was a family show! It was a weekly family event before we had hundreds of channels to choose from, the entire family sat down to laugh and enjoy Hee Haw together – it was a fabulous show that really united families across America!  It was fast-paced, full of fun, corny but funny humor, comedy sketches, and tons of great music, some clap along tunes and also current hits with stars who loved the exposure. And of course, the girls got lots of attention, but still fine for the whole family to enjoy.  Everybody who was anybody wanted to be on the show!!!

Peter: Your famous blue violin was a gift (or an order!) from Buck Owens and you still use it to this day. You weren’t too keen on it at first but it must have become very special to you. Why was Owens insistent you play that specific violin? 

Jana: He thought it would look good on camera and be different from Don Rich’s red-white-and-blue fiddle. And he was right!!  It gets lots of attention!

Peter: You were married to Owens for a short time but you both remained friends until his passing, right? 

Jana: Yes! 

Peter: Buck Owens left “Hee Haw” in 1986. Were you surprised by the comments in Owens’ autobiography about only being a part of “Hee Haw” for the money? He always looked to me like he was genuinely having fun.

Jana: Buck valued money because he grew up poor and really wanted to make plenty so he would never be poor again! He was always fun to be with and I know he genuinely enjoyed being on Hee Haw! We always had a great time!

Friends for life: Jana Jae (left) performing live on stage with Misty Rowe, Lulu Roman, and Buck Trent. Photo from Jae’s Facebook page.

Peter: What’s it like performing alongside some of the original “Hee Haw” cast members again? The Kornfield Friends came about almost by accident, right? 

Jana: After I bought Roy Clark’s bus and we had such fun on the road, I had been talking for years to many managers about a Hee Haw road show. It kind of stayed on my back burner, but no real dramatic interest for a long time. It evolved right after we all were together again for producer Sam Lovullo’s memorial celebration. Sam really united us all – our Big Daddy! We all wanted to pay tribute to him and his contribution to so many of our careers, and after the memorial, where everyone either spoke or performed a song, lots of us went to dinner at Johnny A’s. They had a really good house band, and they kept asking me to play the fiddle (which was all put up and tucked away in the trunk of my car). I finally said I’d play if I could have a little help from my Hee Haw friends, and Misty immediately said, “I’ll dance if you’ll play!” We had a ball, and needless to say, we brought the house down! I talked to Misty about doing a show at one of the three summer festivals I present on Grand Lake in Oklahoma. She came and we absolutely had a hit! So, I added Buck Trent and we did several shows with that configuration, and Misty had a genuine cornfield that was a hit with the crowds. I had booked Lulu on a couple of our festivals also, so I asked Lulu to do some shows with us I formed an LLC, fronted all the initial start-up costs with my band and my bus, and Kornfield Friends was born! I probably won’t ever get my investment back because just as we were really going full steam ahead, COVID hit and wiped out our 2020 year full of bookings! Whatever evolves, it was worth it – and my dream goes on. We’ve taken a breath, but we’re still around, I still have the bus and the band and hope we’ll visit many more towns across the country. It’s a very special thing to meet in person the audiences who have watched us on tv over the years! I always felt the Hee Haw cast was like extended family. I treasure that family, including the wonderful family audiences who watched us over the years! 

Peter: You’ve accomplished a great deal in your life- founded a fiddle camp and music festival, played alongside some big names, and you’re an outstanding musician in your own right. But for many people, you’ll always be Jana Jae with the blue violin from “Hee Haw”. Does that bother you? 

Jana: I love it! At first, I was shocked by the blue fiddle they gave me to play on Hee Haw – I was kind of a purist with my wonderful Italian violin made in 1750 –but after receiving fan mail addressed to “the girl with the blue fiddle”, it became sort of my trademark – I always play the blue fiddle in my country concerts!

Peter: What artists/music do you listen to when you have the time? Do you prefer records, CDs, or downloads? 

Jana: Whatever is handy at the time – I can barely keep up with the opportunities on all the new online music platforms. Great fun to surf a bit, and I still like YouTube for being able to pick and choose easily. Of course, I have tons of vinyl, CDs, etc., but find I listen most online now.

Peter: Do you find music keeps you feeling young and energetic?

Jana: Absolutely – I can’t imagine what I would do without music in my life – it’s definitely in my blood, a life source! It refreshes me every day – and I’d love to spend more time creating music! I just want to stay happy, healthy, and keep making music every day of my life. That is being blessed, and hopefully it blesses others as well! That’s the real joy – to share music!!

Buck Trent

Buck Trent, picking and grinning.

Charles W. “Buck” Trent has played the bajo since age 10. He’s performed with such luminaries as Bill Monroe, Porter Wagoner, Roy Clark, Marty Stuart, and Dolly Parton (he played lead guitar on Parton’s Jolene and I Will Always Love You). He and Roy Clark were the first country music duo to tour the Soviet Union in 1976. Trent’s received many awards over the decades and has appeared on numerous TV shows including The Tonight Show, Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah! He invented the electric banjo but also plays the steel guitar, electric bass, mandolin, and guitar. His latest CD is called Spartanburg Blues and features Dolly Parton, The Oak Ridge Boys, Vince Gill, David Frizzell, and Marty Stuart.

Peter: I’m sure you’ve never been asked this before 😊, but how did your trademark “Oh Yeah!” and thumbs up thing come about?

Buck: The “Oh Yeah!” and thumbs up came about while taping my Talkin’ Blues [song]. After I sang the punchline to the joke, there were a few beats left and I had to have something to say. So, I said “Oh Yeah!” and gave the thumbs up!

Peter: How were you able to tape 13 Kornfield sketches back-to-back without it getting old real fast?

Buck: The Kornfield jokes were usually with different people so it was fun. The jokes were so corny and the more you messed them up the better it was.

Peter: Can you give me one favorite “Hee Haw” memory?

Buck: My favorite memory from Hee Haw was the day Roy Rogers and Dale Evans taped the show. He was my childhood hero. I went over to him to introduce myself and he said, “I know who you are Buck, I watch you every week!” That made my day!

Oh Yeah! Trent in 2019 performing at the Grand Ole Opry House where Hee Haw was taped. Photo from Trent’s Facebook page.

Peter: “Hee Haw” was one of the first shows to air bloopers. Is there one that sticks out in your mind? Did you have any bloopers?

Buck: There were a lot of bloopers. Junior Samples took 14 takes on the word “pollution”. He couldn’t pronounce it. Roy Clark had to get up and down with Junior 14 times. It wore Roy out! I’m sure I had a few but I can’t remember any.

Peter: When did you leave the show and why? 

Buck: I left in 1983 or 1984. The reason I left was I had quit working with Roy Clark and went out on my own. I was just phased out of Hee Haw.

Peter: Was “Hee Haw” a blessing or a curse? What do you think when you watch the reruns today?

Buck: It was a blessing for me and a lot of the others. I like watching the reruns. We did some great picking and singing on that show. We had the best guests on it, too.

 Peter: I have to admit, I got a bit choked up watching you interacting with Roy Clark during the 2012 “Salute To The Kornfield” reunion.

Buck: The reunion was fun. Roy and I just picked up where we left off. It was so special seeing everyone again. There were so many that died after we taped it. So sad to lose so many friends.

Legendary country stars Buck Trent and the late Roy Clark. Photo from Trent’s Facebook page.

Peter: What was it like working with Roy Clark?

Buck: Working with Roy was a lot fun. They said we had a wonderful time! Ha ha! We traveled the world together. Our dueling banjos is still a hit. No one has done it better than us!

Peter: How is it playing with the Kornfield Friends from “Hee Haw“?

Buck: The Kornfield Friends concerts was a lot of fun. I loved it and would like to do more.

Peter: Do you still perform your famous “Talkin’ Blues” song?
Buck: Yes, I do the Talkin’ Blues at the Kornfield shows. Robert Lunn came up with the original one. I did his first verses. Then I had to write my own for every show. 

My last question to Buck, since he also told jokes on Hee Haw, was whether he had heard any good (or bad) jokes lately. He said no, so I’ll steal one from one of his live shows: It was so cold out today, I saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets!

Hee Haw was a wholesome program the entire family could enjoy together. There aren’t too many shows you can say that about today. I think the best way for me to close this article is to quote from Hee Haw’s closing theme: “May your pleasures be many, your troubles be few.”

My personal thanks to Lulu Roman, Jana Jae, and Buck Trent for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions. A huge shout out also to Scott Sexton and Jean Trent for facilitating these interviews.

Trivia (from “Elvis Presley was reportedly such a big fan of [Hee Haw], he wanted to appear as a guest. Presley also dated two Hee Haw Honeys: Linda Thompson and Diana Goodman. After the legendary singer’s death, his father made an appearance on the show and paid tribute to his late son.” 

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Lulu Roman

Jana Jae

Buck Trent

Fiddle Camp

Kornfield Friends

Circle TV
Salute to the Kornfield DVD

Hee Haw DVDs

Happy Hee Haw New Year

In January of last year I wrote an article on my blog about the TV detective show Mannix. It received the most views and positive comments of any article I’ve written. To start the New Year off, I decided to write about another vintage TV show, but this program isn’t a detective show and it has much stronger ties to music.

Hee Haw began back in in 1969 when CBS aired it as a temporary replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which had been unceremoniously cancelled by the network due to disagreements with the stars. The country comedy show, loosely based on NBC’s Laugh In, was butchered by the critics, yet did so well in the ratings that it found itself in CBS’s regular line up in January of 1970, 53 years ago this month.

Country Variety

Hosted by country music legends Roy Clark and Buck Owens, Hee Haw was a country music variety show featuring musical performances, comedy sketches, and the Hee Haw Honeys (attractive young ladies in low-cut, tight-fitting outfits). Some of the show’s popular reoccurring skits included Pfft You Was Gone, Pickin’ and Grinnin’, Gloom, Despair and Agony On Me, The Kornfield, Empty Arms Hotel, Samples Sales (“Call BR-549”), K-O-R-N News with Charlie Fahrquarson, Archie’s Barber Shop, The Naggers, Gordie’s General Store, Doc Campbell and Nurse Goodbody, Hey Grandpa! What’s For Supper?, The Culhanes, and Lulu’s Truck Stop. These skits made household names out of Archie Campbell, Grandpa Jones, Junior Samples, Gordie Tapp, Don Harron, Lulu Roman, Misty Rowe, Barbi Benton, Gunilla Hutton, Gailard Sartain, Kenny Price, Lisa Todd, Roni Stoneman, and others.

As Hee Haw became a ratings success it attracted some heavy-hitting guest stars over its many episodes. Some of these included Ed McMahon, Hugh Hefner, Ernest Borgnine, Senator Robert Byrd, Billy Graham, Dennis Weaver, Billy Carter, Will Geer, Foster Brooks, and George Gobel.

Big name country music stars also graced Hee Haw broadcasts…singers like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and even Garth Brooks. Kenny Rogers, another huge star who performed on Hee Haw, met his 4th wife on the show- Hee Haw Honey Marianne Gordon. But I digress. The musical performances were taped before a live audience but the rest of the show had laugh tracks added.

What’s In A Name

Speaking of taping, Hee Haw was originally taped at a CBS-TV affiliate in Nashville, but soon moved to Opryland where an entire season was recorded twice a year, each in marathon one-week sessions. This dramatically reduced production costs and allowed various Hee Haw stars to record albums and tour with minimal disruption.

Pardon My Blooper

Hee Haw was also a pioneer of the blooper. It was one of the first, if not the first TV show, to regularly air bloopers in its episodes. These consisted of a cast member flubbing a line and requiring multiple takes to get it right. Perhaps the most famous of these was Junior Samples trying to pronounce the word “trigonometry”.

On the subject of records, Hee Haw spawned a cottage industry of country albums. There were three volumes of The Stars of Hee Haw and a spin-off titled Guest Stars of The Hee Haw Show. These were compilations of hits by regular performers on the TV show. There were also four volumes of The Hee Haw Gospel Quartet featuring Roy Clark, Buck Owens, Grandpa Jones, and Kenny Price. 

My Hee Haw Gospel LP. Photo by Peter Skiera.

For the Record

Many performers on the show launched their recording careers thanks to Hee Haw. Some of these included six records by The Hagar Twins, fifteen albums by Susan Reye (not including her collaborations with Buck Owens), Hee Haw Honey Barbi Benton cut five records (she was very popular in Japan), not to mention records by Stringbean, Grandpa Jones, Gordie Tapp, Roni Stoneman, Mini Pearl, Lulu Roman, Buck Trent, and Jana Jae. There were even spoken word records released by Junior Samples, Archie Campbell, and Grady Nutt.

CBS: Country Broadcasting System

In 1971, during television’s “rural purge” which saw the cancellation of such popular shows as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke, CBS cancelled Hee Haw after just two years. But Hee Haw had the last laugh, or the last hee haw as it were, because it went on to a much longer and even more successful second life in syndication. Hee Haw became a regular Saturday night fixture for millions of Americans. At its high point it had 30 million viewers.

Television shows don’t last forever, however, and first-run production of Hee Haw ended during the summer of 1992. A “best of” series called Hee Haw Silver, hosted by Roy Clark, ran for another year until the series finally came to an end after 25 years. Hee Haw proved to be one of the longest-running television shows in syndication history.

“…an entire season was recorded twice a year, each in marathon one-week sessions.”

Saa-lute 50 years later: (left to right): Buck Trent, Misty Rowe, Mike Huckabee, Lulu Roman, and Jana Jae. Photo from Huckabee’s Twitter page.

Heavy Metal

To the joy of Hee Haw fans everywhere, there have been several cast reunions, the most recent of which was on the TV show Huckabee in February of 2019, hosted by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. The show included a recreation of The Kornfield sketch where cast members told corny (pun intended) jokes like this one from the Huckabee Kornfield skit: “Why aren’t tubas used in country bands? Because they’re heavy metal.”

My Hee Haw DVDs (scarecrow not included). Photo by Peter Skiera.

Hee Haw on DVD

The best Hee Haw reunion in my opinion was RFD TV’s Country’s Family Reunion’s “Salute to the Kornfield” episode in 2012. Many of the surviving cast reunited to share funny stories, jokes, and of course, great country music. It was heartwarming to see so many of them back together again. I was so moved by it I bought the 4 DVD set. I’m not a DVD kind of guy but I figured it wasn’t a program that would be rerun very often, and I was right. The set also came with a 5th DVD featuring behind-the-scenes footage. And I own Time/Life’s Hee Haw 10th Anniversary Celebration DVD, which I also highly recommend. I’ve been unable to source The 20th Anniversary Show on any format even though the 2 hour performance was filmed. If you know of its existence, please let me know. I inquired with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) since they mention it on their website but their generic response wasn’t helpful. The regular series itself is also available on DVD, but at last check, you can watch it for free on Circle TV if your cable provider includes that channel.

To celebrate this unique show, I donned my detective’s fedora, rented a car from Junior Samples’ Samples Sales, and searched all of Kornfield Kounty to track down Hee Haw stars Lulu Roman, Jana Jae, and Buck Trent.

Lulu Roman

A kiss from Lulu: Lulu Roman circa 2019. Photo from Roman’s Facebook page.

Lulu Roman was actually born Bertha Louise Hable. Her life wasn’t an easy one. She was born in a home for unwed mothers, was raised in an orphanage, and later in life became addicted to drugs and did jail time. She got clean and converted to Christianity. She introduced gospel music to Hee Haw, but she’s probably best known for the “Lulu’s Truck Stop” skits in which she played a sassy waitress alongside an inept cook (played by Gailard Sartain) along with a rotation of unfortunate customers. In 1980, she sang at the Inauguration Celebration of President Ronald Reagan. Roman continues to perform, having made appearances just this and last month. She’s released several music CDs including 2013’s At Last, a collection of standards featuring duets with Dolly Parton, George Jones, and T. Graham Brown. In 2019 she published her autobiography- This Is My Story; This Is My Song. Roman was inducted into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

Peter: Where did the name “Lulu” come from? ​ 

Lulu: ​Well, that’s a story. One of my trips to jail- there was a lady in there that said I looked like [comic book character] Little Lulu. It stuck.​​​

Peter: Are your blue Hee Haw overalls original? ​

Lulu: Well, they aren’t blue, they are the official Hee Haw overalls, and yes, I still have them.

Peter: What’s your favorite or funniest memory from Hee Haw?​

Lulu: I have so many. My favorite memory is working with Sammy Davis. He was the best ever to work with in the Kornfield. 

Peter: Give me one juicy Hee Haw behind the scenes tidbit. ​

Lulu: We ​were a family so I don’t have anything juicy. 

Peter: Did it hurt to get hit by the “Joke Fence”? How did that work? Did a crew member pull a rope to lift the fence post? 

Lulu: One of the crew did have a rope to make the fence work. It didn’t hurt. 

Peter: Cathy Baker once mentioned the cast lunches at Cracker Barrel. Were you at any of those? That must have been fun. 

Lulu: ​We would all go together for lunch. Sometimes in small groups, sometimes all of us. 

Peter: What do you think when you see Hee Haw reruns today?  ​

Lulu: Brings back wonderful ​memories​.

The Kornfield Friends (from left to right): Misty Rowe, Buck Trent, Jana Jae, and Lulu Roman. Photo from the Kornfield Friends’ Facebook page.

Peter: How do you like doing the “Kornfield Friends” shows?

Lulu: I love getting together with my friends. 

Peter: It must have been emotional doing the Country’s Family Reunion’s ”Salute to the Kornfield” show. Was that the last time you saw most of the cast?​

Lulu: It was a hard day. We knew that would be the last time we would see some of them. We made it extra special for them. The last time I saw most of them was about 3 years ago at the 50th reunion. 

Peter: Who did you enjoy working with the most on Hee Haw? 

Lulu: ​I loved working with everyone. Gailard [Sartain] was always so fun to work with in the “Truck Stop” because we got to toss food around. ​

Peter: Why do you think Hee Haw proved so popular? 

Lulu: ​It was corny and people loved it. They got to see new up and coming artist. No show was the same.

Peter: Could a new Hee Haw show be done today and be successful? ​

Lulu: No, because the writers had a talent that just isn’t there today. 

Peter: Do you get tired of being asked about Hee Haw? ​

Lulu: No. When they stop asking, then I know we are forgotten.​

Peter: Your Birthday was in May. Many of your Hee Haw friends have passed away. Is there anything you’d still like to accomplish or do you take life one day at a time? 

Lulu: ​I do take it one day at a time. I love life. I will be out there as long as the Lord will allow me to be. 

Be sure to come back in week or so for part two which includes interviews with Jana Jae and Buck Trent.

Update: Since I conducted my written interview with Lulu, her health has declined. I’m sure you join me in wishing her a quick recovery and good health in 2023.

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TV Pumpkins

The history of television as portrayed on pumpkins. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Last year around this time I attended Roger Williams Park Zoo’s Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular which celebrated musical artists. This year’s theme was television, paying tribute to 75 years of broadcast entertainment. Being the serious couch potato that I am, and appreciating vintage television as I do, I decided to actually get off the couch, head down to Rhode Island, and see what was on the Zoo’s boob tube.

Twitch your nose at this: The Bewitched pumpkin. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Like last year, the professionally hand-carved pumpkins by Passion for Pumpkins of Oxford, MA were intricate and exquisite. The 5,000 illuminated pumpkins were sensory overload for my eyes. In the background, soundtracks to various television shows enhanced the effect.

The pumpkin displays were grouped by decade starting from the 1950’s through the 2000’s. As with last year’s musical theme, there were glaring (my opinion) omissions. No Simpsons pumpkin (yet there was a Futurama pumpkin!), no Friends, and no Brady Bunch pumpkin. Pumpkin blasphemy!

A pumpkin for Elvis. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Interestingly, Elvis was overtly MIA in last year’s display despite being a major musical icon, yet he was represented in this year’s television theme with an Aloha from Hawaii-carved pumpkin.

Then there were the noggin-scratching pumpkins like the Benny Hill pumpkin. Benny Hill? Really? The Benny Hill Show wasn’t even a US television show! The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, or Sanford and Son would’ve made more sense.

The Golden Girls pumpkin. Photo by Peter Skiera.

I’m a big fan of vintage so I especially appreciated The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, Bewitched, I Love Lucy, MASH, The Jeffersons, Cheers, Good Times, All In The Family, Batman, Star Trek, Mr. Ed, and The Golden Girls pumpkins (there was also a pumpkin dedicated exclusively to Betty White). There was even a Max Headroom pumpkin.

“…the professionally hand-carved pumpkins by Passion for Pumpkins of Oxford, MA were intricate and exquisite.”

This – is – Jeopardy! Photo by Peter Skiera.

Game shows and public television were also represented like the classy Jeopardy pumpkin and one each for Mr. Rogers and happy little tree painter, Bob Ross. However, I don’t remember seeing one for Wheel of Fortune or Sesame Street.

Yada, yada, yada. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Not surprisingly, the show with the most carved pumpkins was a show about nothing- Seinfeld. There was one each for Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, and all very nicely done.

Television wouldn’t be television without commercials. I think it would have been fun if the display had sprinkled in some classic television commercial pumpkins like Coke, Life Cereal, Oscar Mayer Wiener, Alka Seltzer, and StarKist Tuna to name just a few.

I also wouldn’t have minded seeing a couple of “news pumpkins” like one for Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, or perhaps even Mike Wallace.

If you’re in R.I. or planning a trip this month, The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence continues through the end of October. Tickets can only be purchased on line. For the more adventurous, there’s a zip line ride and illuminated swan boat rides. I’ve included a link to their site below as well as a link to my Instagram page so you can see more of my prodigious pumpkin pics. Happy Halloween.

Trivia: During the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular’s run, Passion for Pumpkins will go through 20,000 pumpkins to keep the displays looking fresh.

Now that’s what I call a pumpkin patch. Photo by Peter Skiera.


Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular

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Album Spotlight: Mannix

Album Spotlight focuses on a specific (usually vintage) record or CD. Album Spotlights will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or 5 months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!

Image courtesy of FETV.

January 26th marks the 5th anniversary of actor Mike Connors’ (aka Joe Mannix) passing at age 91. This year also marks the 55th Anniversary of the Mannix TV show. Accordingly, for this Album Spotlight, I look back on this extremely popular detective show and its music.

As mentioned, Mike Connors ably portrayed the lead character, private detective Joe Mannix. Connors was born in 1925 to Armenian parents. His original name was Krekor Ohanian, Jr, a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. His agent changed his last name to “Connors” and Columbia Pictures assigned “Mike” as his first name. Connors played basketball in high school, served in the Army in World War II, and graduated from law school with the intention of becoming an attorney like his father. However, a director friend of his basketball coach encouraged him to pursue a career in acting because of his voice and his facial expressions while playing basketball.

Connors appeared in numerous film and television roles that included such headliners as Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Robert Redford, Bette Davis, and Raymond Burr. However, it was Mannix that would be responsible for making him famous. The show debuted on Saturday night, September 16, 1967 on the CBS network. The first season had Mannix working for a high tech (i.e. lots of big computers), Los Angeles-based private detective agency called Intertec. Watching those early episodes today, the whole ultra-computerized thing looks silly. Perhaps it did back then as well, because Lucille Ball, President of production company Desi Lu, persuaded Paramount to dump Intertec in season two, making Mannix his own boss. This directly resulted in the show’s ratings really taking off.

Gail Fisher played Joe Mannix’s secretary, Peggy Fair. Still courtesy of FETV.

Being Fair

It was during this pivotal change that the character of Mannix’s personal secretary, Peggy Fair, was introduced. Played by actress Gail Fisher, it was a high-profile, prime time role for a woman of color, highly unusual for network television in 1968. That said, Mannix wasn’t known for tackling the issues of the day, although a few episodes dealt with Vietnam Veterans with PTSD, deaf and blindness, racism, and gambling.

Besides Connors and Fisher, there were some big-name stars who appeared on Mannix during its 8-year run. In fact, you’d be reading for a long time if I detailed the complete list of stars. Here are just a few names you’ll no doubt recognize (in no particular order): Neil Diamond, Diane Keaton, Vic Tayback, Tom Selleck, Ford Rainey, Rich Little, Martin Sheen, Lee Meriwether, Lou Rawls, William Shatner, John Ritter, Bill Bixby, Buffalo Springfield, Milton Berle, Claude Akins, Cloris Leachman, Burgess Meredith, Loretta Swit, and Vera Miles.

Mannix (seated) in The Brady Bunch living room. That’s John Ritter coming down the stairs behind him holding a gun. Still courtesy of FETV.

The Brady Connection

Robert Reed was another star appearing on Mannix in the recurring role of Lt. Adam Tobias whilst still starring in The Brady Bunch (also owned by Paramount). Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) and Eve Plumb (aka Jan Brady) each appeared separately in Mannix episodes as well. But wait, there’s more. There was at least a half dozen scenes from different Mannix episodes that took place on the set of the Brady house! In a November 1970 Mannix episode titled “Sunburst”, the crooks even drove a Plymouth Satellite wagon with a rear-facing third row seat, the same type of vehicle Mike and Carol Brady drove. An odd choice to say the least for a getaway car. Being the TV addict that I am, I couldn’t resist mentioning the Brady connection. I can hear the opening theme in my head now. Sing along with me…There’s a story / Of a detective named Mannix…

A model kit of Mannix’s 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado. eBay photo used with permission.

Dodge Fever

Speaking of Plymouth, the Chrysler Corporation furnished the cars featured in every Mannix episode after the first season. This suited Mike Connors just fine since he was a car collector in real life, owning a 1937 Bentley convertible and a Maserati Mexico. Conners even took race car driving lessons to prepare for the chase scenes in the show. The cars Mannix drove included customized 1968 and 1969 Dodge Dart GTS 340 convertibles (complete with an ultra-rare Motorola rotary dial car phone), 1970-73 Plymouth Cuda convertibles, a 1974 Dodge Challenger 360 coupe, and in the final season, a 1975 Chevrolet Camaro LT and 1975 Chevrolet Impala convertible. Many years later, Mannix’s ’68 Dodge Dart was found abandoned and rotting away in CA. It was completely restored, and in an episode of Drive, actor Mike Connors was reunited with his car and got to drive it again after more than 4 decades!

“…the Joe Mannix character was knocked unconscious 55 times, wounded by gunshots nearly 20 times, and viciously beaten more times than even Intertec’s computers could calculate.”

Make It Real

As to the reason behind Mannix’s popularity which continues to this day, with the notable exception of how often Mannix was shot and beat to a pulp, one reason was because Joe Mannix was a realistic character.  He wasn’t the suave, James Bond-like Peter Gunn, or the disheveled, cartoon-like Columbo. He was blue collar and down to earth. He showed his emotions. He made mistakes. He was relatable. In that sense, he was much like Mike Connors in real life. If you ever needed to hire a private detective, Mannix was the guy you’d want. In that episode of Drive I referenced in the previous paragraph, Connors said Mannix “was always believable. I think there was an honesty to it and I think that era was a great era of television. And I constantly get people saying they just don’t do shows like they used to.”

Another aspect to the realism was the fact that Connors insisted on performing almost all of his own stunts. If you’ve ever seen any Mannix episodes, you know there was a lot of action. Although he wasn’t “old”, at the age of 42, it must have been very physically demanding performing stunts for 8 years. In the pilot episode in which Mannix fights off a helicopter, Connors dislocated his shoulder and broke his wrist. As a bit of trivia, over the course of the series, the Joe Mannix character was knocked unconscious 55 times, wounded by gunshots nearly 20 times, and beaten up more times than even Intertec’s computers could calculate.

Mannix Gets Fired

With the exception of The Simpsons, television shows don’t last forever. When a television series is cancelled, it’s almost always due to a decline in ratings. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case with MannixMannix ranked in the top 20, and all signs pointed to a new season in 1976. However, when ABC began airing old reruns of Mannix at night, CBS was not amused (ABC had a cozy relationship with Paramount who owned the rights to Mannix). When CBS found out, they promptly cancelled Mannix, fearing they’d lose their audience to a competing network. This incomprehensible decision strikes me as CBS cutting off its nose to spite its face. I’m equally stunned that ABC or NBC never picked up the highly-rated show. Such is the strange business of show business.

“Mannix” actor Mike Connors circa 2006. Photo licensed from

Mannix earned Connors a Golden Globe Award, additional Golden Globe nominations, and several Prime time Emmy Award nominations. His final TV appearance was in a 2007 episode of Two and a Half Men. Connors died at the age of 91 on January 26, 2017 from complications of leukemia and was survived by his wife of 67 years and his daughter (his son died of heart failure 10 years earlier).

My Mannix soundtrack LP. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Setting Some Firsts

It’s worth noting that Mannix had a number of firsts. The show’s opening was unlike any detective show. It featured changing split screen sequences and the font of the text was similar to what was used by IBM. This was an intentional reference to Intertec’s computers.

Another first was the jump cut, pioneered by Mannix producer, Bruce Geller, which became a television industry standard. In one scene, Joe Mannix might be shaving in his bathroom, in the next, he’s getting into his car. Such cuts reserved time for more important scenes without confusing the viewer.

The Mannix opening theme was also a first for a detective show. Composer Lalo Schifrin, perhaps known best for his famous theme to Mission Impossible, wrote an unorthodox ¾-time waltz. As Morgan Ames wrote in her liner notes for the record, “Who else would have thought of using a waltz as a theme for a private detective? Anyone can tell you it doesn’t make sense- until you watch the credits at the beginning of the show and find yourself caught up.”

Ames (center) with Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli. Photo from

The author of those liner notes, singer/songwriter/producer Morgan Ames, met Schifrin and sat in on the Mannix recording sessions. Ames has quite a background herself, having performed with the likes of Johnny Mathis, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. Her songs have been recorded by singers such as Shirley Horne, Peggy Lee, and Roberta Flack. She’s also released several of her own CDs. I donned my detective’s fedora and tracked down Ames in cyberspace to get her reflections on the Mannix music 54 years later. “It certainly shows Lalo’s talent and range”, she wrote me in an email. “My personal favorite was Beyond The Shadow Of Today.” “[Schifrin] would have been aware of the importance of staying within certain parameters, shallow ones, to accommodate the medium and to keep the suits happy. He was one of several composers playing way beneath his weight, and getting successful because of it. So, he snuck in a lot of really nice writing and got away with it. He was not dismissed as one of those jazz guys. I also noticed his choice (my opinion), because Mannix was a manly-man, to use lots of brass in lower ranges, the kind a manly man could easily walk across the shot to and further the brand. He had a nice cue in 5/4 in there.” 

Peter: Were all session musicians used for the recording?

Morgan: It had to be a union session. The union prevailed in those days, especially when a session was related to TV or film. The most experienced players were union players. Lalo would have pulled from that pool because a lot of his stuff was hard. Heavy politics existed relative to orchestra contractors but nevertheless, the players were excellent. I’m pretty sure he would have been careful about that, like all the composers I knew.

Peter: What was Lalo like in the studio?

Morgan: My experience was that Lalo was easy and professional in the studio. Thus, the sessions went smoothly.

Peter: Where were the sessions recorded?

Morgan: I don’t remember but it was probably a sound stage in Hollywood or the valley.

Peter: What did you personally think of “Mannix”?

Morgan: My impression was that the show was written, produced and acted by men for men, with the occasional female, as were all shows in this genre. (Well, Girl From Uncle lasted a season or two, unsupported, but that was it).

Photo by Peter Skiera.

Mannix Extended

As a point of clarification, the 11 songs on this record are extended versions of the music taken from the series. If they hadn’t been extended, each song would’ve lasted under 90 seconds since that’s the way music for television usually works. Schifrin expanded on his original themes into proper songs in order to fill an entire album. More music? Yes please! Stand out tracks for me are The Girl Who Came In With The Tide, Beyond The Shadow Of Today, Turn Every Stone, and End Game. The music has a definite late 60s sound, which makes sense considering the music was recorded in 1968 and released in 1969. It isn’t the kind of dark, pensive music one would expect from a detective show. Like The Mannix character, the music is down to earth and isn’t afraid to show emotion. You don’t need to be a die-hard Mannix fan, or of the male gender, to appreciate the music.

My rare Mannix soundtrack CD.

There aren’t many TV shows that have the privilege of their own soundtrack release. Mannix actually had two. Lalo Schifrin re-recorded the soundtrack for CD in 1999 on his own record label, but the music is reinterpreted with an incongruous 90s sound and includes a “Mixdown” bonus track of the Mannix theme that is particularly painful to listen to. The original album was issued on CD by Collectors Choice back in 2008 but it’s long out of print and sells on eBay for outrageous money (i.e. north of $90!). The original 1969 soundtrack record on the Paramount label can be found used on eBay for more reasonable coin.

Image courtesy of FETV.

Besides listening to the music, if you’d like to watch Mannix, cable channel FETV airs two back-to-back episodes starting at 10pm ET every night. Mannix episodes are also available on DVD.

Like Mike Connors’ fans never hesitated to tell him, when it comes to detective shows, they don’t make them like they used to. Happy 55th Anniversary, Mannix.

Trivia: Mike Connors once described himself as a “frustrated song-and-dance man”. He played the trumpet and loved to sing. He never recorded an album but did perform a song live on The Mike Douglas Show.

My personal thanks to Morgan Ames for her time answering my questions.

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Morgan Ames’ website


Connors and the Dodge Dart

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