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The Early Years

In January, 1933, with George W. Smith as managing director of Wheeling, West Virginia station WWVA, the idea was conceived to program something special for late night Saturday listeners. A program of country style music, called a "Jamboree," was put together, using local talent. At 11:00 p.m. on January 7, country music history was made when the WWVA Jamboree went on the air for the first time.
Listener response was overwhelming, and for three months regular Saturday night Jamboree broadcasts were aired.

In response to public demand to see their musical favorites in person, show producers moved the show to the Capitol Theatre, where it opened that first day of April, 1933, to an eager audience of 3,266 people, with still another thousand turned away from the full house.

Because the Capitol Theatre was used for Saturday night movies, Station officials booked the theatre for Jamboree shows to begin at midnight...after the movies. The shows were billed "The Greatest Shows on the Air for a Quarter" since that was the price of admission. A great tradition had begun.

Who were these fans that were turning the Wheeling Jamboree into a success? WWVA's Paul Miller came up with the idea of a "Prowlin' Mike," later to be known as the "Inquiring Mike." This gave a chance for Jamboree fans to send greetings and personal messages back home. More importantly, it showed management that fans were driving hundreds of miles to see the show they had been listening to over the airwaves.

In 1934, the first Jamboree Harvest Home Festival was held in the Capitol Theatre before a capacity crowd. During the mid-1930s, the Air Castle Ballroom opened, offering Saturday night dancing to the music of the WWVA Orchestra. It was from there that WWVA aired its first remote broadcast.

The Jamboree's early success was spreading more than country music. Many other stations across the country thought they could duplicate the tradition begun in Wheeling but none came close to competing. The crowds continued flocking in ever-growing numbers. Special transit cars and trains ran up and down the Ohio Valley bringing country fans to Wheeling for a Saturday night of Jamboree entertainment.

1936 brought a first to the Jamboree pages of history with the first outdoor Jamboree ever held. This forerunner to the current Jamboree in the Hills , was held in the Wheeling High School football stadium (Wheeling Island Stadium) and drew a crowd of over 5,000 fans.

Coming of Age

New names brought new crowds into the Jamboree fold. By 1939 the world's Original Jamboree had reached the half-million mark in attendance. Its popularity increasing regularly, the Jamboree stars were soon on tour. In the early 40's, the tours became more popular and more names were added to the cast of regular entertainers.

The first tour took place in April 1939 as the Jamboree gang traveled to six towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio giving performances to large crowds. Because of the success, an annual Wheeling Jamboree Tour was planned but plans for a new tradition were halted when World War II took center stage around the world.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the "Inquiring Mike" feature had to be dropped in response to a National Defense policy that advised against broadcasts that made a microphone available to the public. During these years, a songfest called "Keep 'Em Singing" took its place and earned special recognition from Broadcasting, a trade magazine for the radio industry, for building morale in a country ravaged by the depression and the war.

As many of its stars left for duty in the Armed Forces, the girls of the Jamboree came into their own and kept attendance up by singing to crowds that included men in uniform, all of whom were admitted for free, regardless of their branch of service. The war, however, would do something that only the flood of 1936 had done until that time. The Jamboree show would be discontinued for the duration of the war, in order to encourage conservation of gasoline by the public. Until after the war came on December 12, 1942.

The Jamboree show continued during the remaining war years but only on the airwaves of WWVA from the studios. There were no live theater broadcasts or public shows. Soldiers stationed throughout the United States were finding the Jamboree broadcasts to be a great spirit booster. As the war ended, the men of WWVA and the stars of The Jamboree returned to Wheeling and on July 13, 1946, live theatre performances resumed. On February 28, 1947, another milestone in Jamboree history was crossed when Miss Laverne Howell became the one millionth visitor to The Wheeling Jamboree.

The Jamboree was becoming a national institution. The first 20 years brought more than 1,750,000 fans to Wheeling for jamboree performances. Countless other millions heard it on the radio. Listener surveys showed response from fans in 538 counties in 20 states and Canada. In its first 20 years, thousands of pieces of mail were received every week from almost every state in the nation.

In the early 1950's, it was popular for Jamboree entertainers to make personal appearances outside of Wheeling. In 1952 alone, Jamboree acts made 761 personal appearances in 436 cities and towns before a combined audience of 536,789 people.

For the 25th anniversary in 1958, as had been the case five years earlier, the Jamboree show was featured on the CBS show, "Saturday Night Country Style." That nationwide salute was only part of the acclaim being given the Jamboree locally and nationally.

Basic Communications bought the station in 1962, and when the Virginia Theatre was scheduled for demolition, the Jamboree moved to the nearby Rex Theatre through 1965. That same year the station switched to the ABC Network, bringing listeners such well-known entertainers as Don McNeil, Dick Van Dyke and Paul Harvey, who highlighted the occasion with a live broadcast from WWVA radio. 

Needing still more space to accommodate the crowds, the Jamboree moved next to Wheeling Island Exhibition Hall in 1966 and then came full swing back to the Capitol in 1969. Basic Communications bought the Capitol Theatre and moved the entire operation into renovated offices and studios. Soon after, the Capitol Theatre was renamed The Capitol Music Hall. 

During this era Mac Wiseman was brought to Wheeling  as Program Producer and Talent Director for the Jamboree. He stabilized the cast of performers and solidified Bluegrass prominence on the Wheeling Jamboree. While generally considered a bluegrass singer, Mac Wiseman regularly and unapologetically crossed the boundaries between bluegrass, country, and pop music. He worked as a disc jockey, record company artist, repertoire director, and concert promoter. Mac is also a co-founder of the Country Music Association.

Breaking Country Music Industry Records

Attendance records for any Country Music show were also broken with the appearance's of
Buck Owens and Merle Haggard at the Wheeling Jamboree during mid 60's.

Throughout the late 60's, something was being felt in country music, but even Jamboree artists couldn't quite tell what the feeling was. It wouldn't go away however, and growing stronger, finally burst forth with greater enthusiasm and quality in the 1970's. After all these years, country music had finally "arrived." It arrived largely because of the influence of the Jamboree.

 

October 23, 1971 stands alone in the annals of the Jamboree. On that date, an attendance record was set that has yet to be equaled. In his first Wheeling appearance, Charley Pride had an unprecedented four show sell-out by more than ten thousand country music fans. Having just been named male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year at the annual Country Music Association Awards, Pride brought the capacity crowd to its feet during his four 30-minute performances.

Each Jamboree performance was as fresh as a new dawn, but stable as yesterday. The secret to its success lay in Jamboree's honest approach to giving country music fans what they wanted...good country music. 

On January 15, 1983, The Wheeling Jamboree unveiled its "Walkway of Stars", intended to be a lasting tribute to individuals who have made a significant contribution to The Wheeling Jamboree and the ideals of country music. As part of its 50th Anniversary Celebration, 50 engraved bronze stars were embedded in the sidewalk leading into the Capitol Music Hall. The fifty honorees were:

  • Hugh Cross and Shug Fisher

  • Buck Owens

  • Cowboy Loye

  • Johnny Cash

  • Grandpa Jones

  • Elmer Crowe

  • Merle Haggard

  • Silver Yodelin' Bill Jones

  • Glenn Reeves

  • Gertrude Miller and Jack Dunigan

  • Mac Wiseman

  • Paul J. Miller

  • Marty Robbins

  • Howard Donahoe

  • Dave Dudley

  • George W. Smith

  • Dick Curless

  • Paul A. Meyers

  • The Blue Ridge Quartet

  • Kenny Roberts

  • Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee

  • Tom T. Hall

  • Big Slim, The Lone Cowboy

  • Hawkshaw Hawkins

  • The Statler Brothers

  • Loretta Lynn

  • Doc and Chickie Williams

  • The Sunshine Boys

  • Lee Moore

  • Pete Cassell

  • Reed Dunn

  • Conway Twitty

  • Joe and Shirley Barker

  • Cowboy Phil

  • Crazy Elmer

  • Charley Pride

  • Elton Britt

  • Gene Johnson

  • Tammy Wynette

  • Abby Neal

  • Lone Pine & Betty Cody

  • Billy "Crash" Craddock

  • Dusty Owens

  • Rusty and Doug Kershaw

  • Mel Tillis

  • The Osborne Brothers

  • Roy Scott

  • Barbara Mandrell

  • Monty Blake

  • Ronnie Milsap

The Wheeling Jamboree doors still open every Saturday night to country music fans who come to enjoy the music of the brightest stars in the country music industry.

Since its 1933 premiere, The Wheeling Jamboree has been a byword for country music, a genre which has been called "the only truly artistic musical contribution to the world that Americans can solely claim as their own." Gone now are the days of bales of hay adorning the stage, the blue-overalled male performers and "gals" in cute gingham dresses. Gone, too, are some of the memorable entertainers who performed here: Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb, Ira & Charlie Louvin, Tex Ritter, Crazy Elmer, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Big Slim, Stoney Cooper and Doc & Chickie Williams. Doc & Chickie were hailed as Wheeling Jamboree" and "West Virginia's Official Country Music Ambassadors," Williams had performed special Jamboree shows every year as well as many other concert dates across the country and Canada. 

The Wheeling Jamboree -- the second oldest country music program (next to Nashville's
Grand Ole Opry) -- continues to lead the way in the industry. All of the biggest contemporary names in country music regularly appear on The Wheeling Jamboree and its spin-off, Jamboree In The Hills: Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Lee Greenwood, Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, Charlie Daniels, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley and the list goes on. Modern though it may be these days, country music continues to express sentiments of love or ambition of broken dreams or wanderings that touch the heart of everyone - whether the subject be cotton fields or lonesome highways, mountain homes or river boats, empty pockets or empty hearts. The old-fashioned message is timeless; only the wrapping is new.

For the last 82 years, The Wheeling Jamboree has brought this music from the heart of America to America's heart. The Wheeling Jamboree endures as one of America's oldest live radio broadcasts and a proud American tradition. The Wheeling Jamboree is a historic leader in the tri-state area in tourism dollars, with an estimated 10 to 15 million dollars poured into the local economy (above and beyond ticket prices) in hotel/motels, restaurants, service stations, general shopping, etc., annually.

THE COUNTRY MUSIC SHOW WITH TRADITION LIKE NONE OTHER

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