Friday, April 6, 2012

April 6, 1968-The Night the Opry Was Canceled

This is reprinted from "The Grand Ole Opry History of Country Music."

For seventy years the Opry has always gone on unfailingly, with the exception of one night. There was good reason to cancel the show scheduled for April 6, 1968. Two days earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, touching off a firestorm of riots in Memphis, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati the following day. Local officials in Nashville imposed a 7:00 p.m. curfew in an effort to head off any potential problems. For the Opry, this meant no studio audience and no live show. They had to broadcast a tape of a previous show.

Because events had transpired so quickly, no advance announcement had been made to inform out-of-town visitors about the cancellation. When a small crowd gathered outside the Ryman that afternoon, Roy Acuff couldn't bear to turn them away without a least some kind of show. So he invited everyone to his museum just around the corner on Broadway. Acuff had owned the building since 1965 and used the first floor to house his museum and to provide dressing space for himself and his band. Upstairs was a space used for square dances. That's where Acuff and other Opry performers put on an impromptu show for those lucky enough to be on hand. Afterwards, everyone who had purchased a ticket to the Opry got a backstage tour of the Ryman.

Despite the prevailing spirit of goodwill among the performers and fans, it was a disappointing night for Opry officials. They had planned a special tribute to Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs in honor of their twentieth year together and their fifteenth year of sponsorship by Martha White Flour. The night was also disappointing to E.W. "Bud" Wendell, for it was to be his inaugural show as the Opry's new manager, having succeeded the retiring Ott Devine. Wendell, who hailed from Akron, Ohio, had followed in the footsteps of his father, a National Life Insurance salesman. With an economics degree from Wooster College, he joined National Life in 1950, becoming administrative assistant to WSM President Jack DeWitt in 1964.

Wendell immediately endured himself to the Opry cast by announcing that all performers who had been scheduled to perform April 6 would be paid for that evening. A few weeks later, someone asked Grandpa Jones what he thought of the new manager. "He's great," said Grandpa, who had his own measure for a good boss. "He's brought in some coffee and lemonade backstage."

I thought I would reprint this story as I felt it was well done.

A few more details on that show at the square dance hall. It started at 2:00 p.m. and in addition to Roy Acuff, the show featured the Smoky Mountain Boys, Harold Weakley, along with Sam and Kirk McGee. The reason given for not using the Ryman for an afternoon show was because it would have required a police presence due to the large crowd that would have attended and there were no police available.

So, technically, by playing a taped show, WSM can claim that the Opry has never missed a Saturday night, but as far as a live show, the Opry has missed one in its history.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for your great history on the "'Opry that didn't happen." I was in Nashville when the events you outlined took place. I certainly remember the tension in Nashville.
    I attended "Roy's show," and enjoyed the article, as I couldn't remember the show's location.
    My likely faulty recollection was that the Acuff show took place on Sunday, but will defer to the expert.
    Thanks again!

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  2. I'll echo Nat's thanks and praise. I guess since they aired a taped show and Mr. Acuff held a show, the Opry really hasn't missed a broadcast or, as they say in opening for business Saturday night, "performance."

    I am listening to the Friday Night Opry as I type, and The Potato sounds good. Eddie Stubbs seems to be the one suffering with a sore throat or cold.

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  3. Same here Mike, as I am listening to the Opry also and you are right, Jimmy sounds pretty good tonight.

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  4. I'm Nat's brother, and I'm not sure about this, but it is my memory there was a one half hour live show performed just for the radio, but no audience was allowed, only the artists. The rest of the evening's broadcast was a tape of a previous show. This was done specifically so the unbroken string of shows would continue. Again, this was a long time ago, the weekend was stressful, and my memory could be wrong.

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  5. I have found nothing at all to suggest that WSM did a half-hour studio version of the Opry that night. Here is another quote from Bud Wendell:
    "Nashville was closed down. You just were not allowed out. The streets were to be cleared. I called the mayor and I said, 'I understand all this, but you must mean for everybody except us,' and he said, 'No, you're included.' So we had no alternative. We couldn't get artists together, bands together, even if we had wanted to do something. There was no way for people to get out. So we did the best thing we could. It was during that period of time that we had bomb scares. People would call schools and businesses and say a bomb was going to go off in ten minutes, so we had a standby tape that we made ahead of time, and we played that tape. It was a sad night, but we survived."

    And from the Tennessean, "For the first time in 43 years there'll be no live Saturday night Grand Ole Opry. Instead of a live show, radio listeners will hear tapes of past performances. The Opry would have performed for the 2,204th consecutive time tonight."

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  6. From Fred:

    A sad, but probably necessary, surrender to lawlessness and opportunistic hooliganism, especially in the context of the 1960s.

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  7. My brother was almost certainly wrong about a live half-hour show, but then again, I thought the Acuff show was on Sunday...sigh...
    The Hill brothers were in Nashville, though. Of that much, I'm certain!
    I remember very clearly Del Wood playing an electric piano, and having a very funny look on her face at some of the sounds it made. It was an amazing, historic, weekend in Music City USA.
    Thanks so very much, Fred, for walking us down memory lane, even if the lane has a few wrong turns for a few of us.

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  8. I will be down in Nashville and at the Opry this weekend and I will see if I can dig up any more on regarding this show. Maybe I can come up with something more substantial.

    Funny how our memories change as we get older.

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  9. What about the "Midnight Jamboree" at Ernest Tubb's Record Shop. Was a tape run instead of a live show, or was there no show at all?

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  11. There were more than just this night that the Opry wasn't broadcast. There were the Saturday nights December 11, 18, and 25, 1926 and January 1, 1927 when WSM wasn't even on the air - they had closed WSM down on the night of December 4, ending with that night's WSM Barn Dance Program. WSM had been broadcasting at a power of 1000 watts (1 kilowatt) and the new towers they were to erect were to beam out the signal at 5,000 watts (5 kilowatts). They began broadcasting again, beginning with the WSM Barn Dance on January 8, 1927. On December 10, 1927, the WSM Barn Dance would be changed to "Grand Ole Opry" by George D Hay (proof of this is in the Sunday listings of December 11, 1927 which listed the entire follwoing week's radio listings). I know that WSM also did not broadcast the Opry for at least two Saturday nights for campaign speeches during the election cycles sometime in the 1930s, and at least one fireside chat interrupted the Opry as well by President Roosevelt. I will try to get those dates all put down from all my listings all the way down the line and post them on Faye Fare sometime in the near future.

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