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Transcript of interview with B. J. Evans, March 3, 1992, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project


Q: BJ, tell me a little bit about your family.
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BJ: We're Welsh, everybody on both sides of the family from way back. My sisters and I have been very close all through the years. My brother was in the navy and was on the submarine that went into the Japanese harbor underneath the nets. When he joined the service, we didn't hear from him for about eight months. My mother was very, very distraught about that; we thought that maybe he'd been killed. He wasn't. He was seven years older than MJ was, so we didn't have a great rapport, was just too old, too much older than we were. But we're two years apart. When the girls sang on Wheeling Steel -- ...

Q: Cut. ...


Q: You grew up in the '30's. What was life like here in Wheeling here during the Depression? Did it impact your family at all?
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BJ: Oh, indeed it did. We were like most of the other families, we were very poor. There were five girls and a boy. My father worked in the mill, and I remember many times in the summer -- he was a roller in the hot mill at Yorkville -- and many times he would come home from work and roll with cramps on the floor because of the terrible heat he was in. For anybody who's ever been a mill, it's unreal, the noise and the sparks flying and the molten, steel pouring, and so forth. It's rather a frightening thing, but that's a way of life for the Ohio valley, especially for West Virginia.

Q: What did the Depression mean for young girls like you and your sister?
BJ: It was very, very hard. There were a lot of things that we didn't have that other people did have.
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Q: Could you start over and say the 'Depression' was.
BJ: The Depression -- we were very poor. As I say, there were five girl and a boy in the family. I recall there would people who would come to the door and knock. My mother was a great canner, and she never failed to give something to anybody that came to the door and that was hungry. But there were a lot of times I remember just having a piece of bread with sugar on it before we went to bed. We drank a lot of tea. We had corn flakes. I think this is very amusing now the way I waste milk. If we saved our milk we could have a second bowl of cornflakes. And that was something you really worked at. A lot of times we were hungry when we went to bed, but then everybody was hungry.

Q: Tell me about going down and getting clothes.
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BJ: We had a wonderful church that had a missionary barrel was what they called it. I can laugh about it now; it wasn't funny to me then. The people knew our family and knew we had a family of girls would call and tell our mother and tell her they were taking some clothes down that one of their daughters had outgrown and would give us a head start to go up and try things on. Then when we started to sing in the Wheeling Steel program, we could take our things to the missionary barrel and we did a lot. Sometimes you would see somebody on the street with something that you had donated. The worst part about that missionary barrel was the kids you went to school with, some of their parents had donated their clothes, and when you would wear them they would say, "Oh, that used to belong to me." That was tough, really tough.

Q: And you and sisters used to walk down the railroad tracks?
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BJ: Picking up coal. We had burlap bags and we would walk the railroad tracks where the coal trains would come through. They would naturally drop off lumps, anywhere from the size of a tomato and a itty bitty shale type stuff, --

Q: Cut. ...


Q: BJ, tell me about you and your sisters and the coal story?
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BJ: Everything came in burlap bags then. Everybody saved burlap bags. We would go down to the railroad track and we would walk along the railroad track and pick up lumps of coal. Each one of us would fill our bag as much as we could carry, probably a third or a fourth of the way. We would bring it home because we had no central heat in the house. We had fireplaces in the living room, in the dining room, and in all of the bedrooms. The warmest place of course was the kitchen where the stove was, where the cooking was done and so forth. I remember my mother and father banking that fire every night so that it would be ready to start in the morning. We had little coal scuttles that they would take our little rocks out of and throw in the fireplace.

Q: How is it in the midst of this your family became so musical?
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BJ: Because we're Welsh; that's the only thing we can attribute it to. If you get two Welshmen together, one of them sings harmony. If you get four, two of them sing harmony; it's just an inborn thing that the Welsh people are very musical. They are very intuned to harmony, which is what we sang. We used to sing in the Welsh church. The first time I ever sang there, I sang, 'Jesus loves me,' with my sister MJ. I sang the harmony, and she sang the lead. It's just something you did all of your life.

Q: Your parents?
BJ: My parents were very musical; my mother played the piano; my father sang. Everybody in the family sang. It was never quiet; it was always music in our house.

Q: Tell me how you heard about the Wheeling Steel radio show?
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BJ: Everybody knew about the Wheeling Steel show because it was local people entertaining local people and also the people in the service. When we had our audition to try out, not as the Evan Sisters or the Steel Sisters, but we had another friend and we had a sustaining program. This must have been when I was about 14 on WKWK. No, I was 15, that's right. When we come over and we sang a crazy little song called, 'Don't the moon look pretty on a country road,' which was very good, but such a silly song, that we always laughed. After we got through singing it, we went backstage and laughed at what dumb words they were. Then, I was a cheerleader at high school and Mr. Grimes, Pop, that we all affectionately called Pop called Roy Wilson, who was a friend of my family's and asked mother if we would like to try out to be a member of the Steel Sisters. Mother said yes. She had no thought about if we were going to get paid or anything at the time. Fortunately, we did. We came over, and we auditioned. One of the Steel Sisters had to drop out of the quartet, and they didn't like it all because there were two fresh, young things coming in to join their quartet which had always been a trio. However, we finally got along just fine, and we made beautiful music together.

Q: How much of a difference did the paycheck that the Evans girls brought home every week make?
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BJ: We made $35 each a week, which was a lot of money. We were never allowed to cash our checks. Everything went to mother, and she took care of all of the finances and she ruled with a iron hand. Wheeling Steel was very kind and gracious in buying clothes for the members of the cast, which was very, very nice and generous because you just couldn't afford to buy really high quality things, even then when we first started. They'd buy us coordinating colors and so forth, and we loved that. We were never allowed to take them out of the Capital, however. They stayed in our dressing room.
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That's another thing that's very strange, compared to TV now. We did our own hair; we did our own make up; we made sure our clothes were pressed neatly and so forth. Didn't dare come out on stage with a stocking that had a runner in it, so most everything you wore was long because where would you get the stockings during the war.

Q: WW II broke out and your brother went to the war and you were on the show. Tell me about being on the show while your brother was in the service.
BJ: I can tell you first. We were in the theatre when all of a sudden they had announced that we were going to sing, the Steel Sisters were going to sing for the program, and all of a sudden everything got real quiet and a loud voice --

Q: Keep that thought ...


Q: BJ, tell me about the war breaking out?
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BJ: December the 7th we were in the theatre starting our broadcast, and they just announced we were going to sing, the Steel Sisters were going to sing. I remember that the theater was jammed with people without any anticipation of any war or anything like that. We always had a full house because the tickets were free was one on of the reasons and you got to see the movie. All of a sudden everything on the stage sort of stopped and everybody was looking at each other and over the loudspeaker into the theater came a voice that said: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States." It was like being suspended in time. The announcement came across and everybody was so confused; we didn't know what to do. Finally, people started to get up and leave the theater. First, just a few, and then gradually everybody got up. Of course, I don't know what happened with the rest of program; we were so distraught, knowing that I had a brother that would be in the war. He left on Christmas Day to go to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and we didn't see him for two years, the only boy in the family.

Q: But you sang to him?
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BJ: Yes, we sang and he heard us in Pearl Harbor. In fact, they had one wonderful day over when all the people from the surrounding area in the Ohio valley, all the sailors were taken into one place, and they broadcast through the Armed Services Network, and they got to hear us.

Q: Do you remember what you were singing?
BJ: 'Never a day goes by when I don't think of you'. Everything was oriented to the war -- like 'Don't sit under the apple tree,' and 'You better give me lots of lovin' honey while your honey is still around,' 'Miss you,' 'Roses of Pickudee?' My heavens, in four years we sang so many songs. Then of course we had our dance jobs on Saturday night at the Pine Room at Oglebay Park, and we'd go on our bond trips. One of the highlights of the whole thing was going to Great Lakes Naval Training Station and walking through an auditorium with 7,000 sailors throwing their hats up in the hair and screaming. It was wonderful. A lot of them we knew because they were from the Valley. They had a special party for us after with the boys from the Valley.

Q: Was there the sense that the show was part of the war effort.
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BJ: I'm trying to think of something specific that I could tell you about that. We did have at one time a beautiful young blonde woman who came over from England. I can't remember what her name was, but she was a movie actress over there. We had a program called, 'Bundles for Britain.' That's when everybody was asked to take clothing and so forth and a specific depot that it was supposed go to, and Wheeling Steel program did a good job. A lot of people sent things in and said, 'We heard the Steel program and that's one of the reasons we're sending this in.'

Q: Tell me about the Mothers Day broadcast in '42, wasn't it?
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BJ: Yes, it was May the 10th, 1942. Pop Grimes wanted to know if my mother would be on the program. Initially it started out to be just us on with her. But then somebody suggested that why not -- let's hear how five of them sing together? They had already been on once. When we sang on Mothers Day Jenny was 9, and MJ was 19. They had a special person write the lyrics: 'We are five little sisters from 9 to 19 and in between. We have a brother who is a sailor and he is far away in a submarine.' It was really a terrific, kicky thing. The audience stood up and applauded; we had a standing ovation. But here we were -- from a little, tiny thing -- none of us was very big -- but there we were just grinning from ear to ear. My mother was so proud because she was seen on the radio. As she used to say. "Did you see my girls on the radio?" She was very proud; they gave her flowers; they gave flower to all of us. It was a very happy day for us, and my brother did hear that.

Q: It was a different time then, wasn't it? The WW II time in Wheeling? Did you have a sense you were more together, more of a community?
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BJ: Yes, we did have that. There used to be a line always in Wheeling, and you'd wonder what it was for. It was always to get cigarettes. They'd get a shipment of cigarettes in, and people would pour out of the Wheeling Steel Building and line halfway down the street so that they would be in line. They could only buy one pack at a time, and there'd be some horrible, horrible kind that you never heard of before like Fatima? and things that you'd hardly put in your mouth today if you did smoke. But there were shortages. One of the things that was impressive to me that you had to have stamps for everything. Hardly anyone drove a car; you couldn't get any gasoline tickets. We had tickets for sugar and tickets for butter and tickets for meat. Sometimes, for instance, nobody liked lamb chops around here for some reason. I don't know why. Some of the butchers would sell you lamb chops if you would spend your tickets to buy bacon, for instance. Not very many people could afford lamb chops.

Q: What was the reaction of the people around Wheeling to the show?
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BJ: The influx of the soldiers coming home and the sailors and the mariners, you would always see them down at Walgreen's talking to the girls and so forth. And the dances that we had on Saturday night at Oglebay were for the servicemen and their dates. I don't know where they learned to dance so well. I never thought that people around here could dance as well, but they all come home jitterbugging, especially the sailors. It was something to see. The girls all dressed up because their beaux were home, and the boys all dressed in their uniforms. It was very, very -- it was a romantic time really.

Q: Did you have a sense because you were on this national radio show that you were someplace important?
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BJ: Not really important. We just felt we were contributing to something we wouldn't have had control over otherwise. We were asked to sing in a lot of places, a lot of rallies. We sang at all of the company picnics. I have a funny stories about one of the company picnics. It was cloudy. We were at the Yorkville Plant and we were out at Wheeling Park, and they had just announced we were going to sing. We got up to sing, and the band of course was under the portico, or whatever it was. We started to sing. I think the song was 'When you're smiling.' When we came to the part of 'When you're crying, you bring on the rain.' The sky opened, and we just got absolutely soaked. But nobody left. They started to sing with us. We looked terrible, our hair all hanging down, and we were laughing half way through it. When we got all through, they clapped and wanted more, but we were so soaked we said, "No, thank you. We're gonna leave now."

Q: Was your father a dedicated employee of the mill? How did you think of, your family think of Wheeling Steel, the big corporation?
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BJ: Yes, he was. Wheeling Steel was in the whole Ohio Valley; Wheeling Steel was the major industries, from Steubenville, Ohio all the way down to Benwood, on both sides of the river. It was Wheeling Steel. Fact, one song we had we ended with 'Put your shoulder to the wheel like they do at Wheeling Steel and the whole world smiles with you.' They would re-write a lot of things like that that would apply to the Ohio Valley and the war effort.

Q: You didn't think of it then -- this is corny?
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BJ: No, music is never corny. We used to have a saying in our house -- I don't know whether this is Omar Kiam or the ? or what, but we'd say: 'And the night shall be filled with music and the cares that infest the day shall fold their tents like the Arabs and silently slip away.' That was our family philosophy. Don't worry when you go to bed tonight because that's already over with, and you can't do anything about it, just look forward to tomorrow. And we did that.

Q: So music kept your family through ?
BJ: Absolutely, no question about it. No question.

Q: Do you ever wish you could go back to 1942?
BJ: No.

Q: Why not?
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BJ: Because I'm happily married; I have a wonderful family, a wonderful husband. Three beautiful grandchildren, and I'm too old.

Q: In any sense was that a highlight of your life?
BJ: Absolutely. Yes, it was. It was such a part of our lives because it just absorbed everything we did. It was dedicated to that, what was going to happen that evening or what was going to happen that day. A lot of times in school they could call and say would you come to the office. I would go to the office and they would say you have a picture session at three o'clock. You better get home and change your clothes, and so forth and put on your Wheeling Steel outfits. That's one thing the girls in school resented. We weren't supposed to take our clothes out of the Capital Theater, but if there was going to be a shoot or we were going to appear some place -- ...


Q: BJ, tell me about that certain feeling you think about when you think back on those years in your show?
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BJ: I think back especially on the poverty we were in; it was just abject poverty before we went into it. We were just plunged into a brand new, whole life that people just don't expect ever have happen to them in a small town like Wheeling. We were not notorious, I don't mean that at all. There was a lot of adulation association with being one of the members of the cast of Wheeling Steel. There was never, very few times was it ever a bad attitude when people would talk to you about. It was always more 'well, you're really lucky,' or 'where did you get your talent?' 'How do you like doing what you do?' And you really don't know what to say; it's just something that's inborn, that happens to you and it's never happened to you before. There's sort of a happiness and an uplifting type of thing to it. As far as people making us feel special, really special like they do know with people who are in this type of business, that never happened to us.

Q: Did you ever have a sense that you would be listened to nationally?
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BJ: Yes, always. That's why we tried very hard to make sure that what we did was done well. We made very, very few mistakes. We used to sing in the chorus also. We hardly ever made any mistakes. One time we did -- the vocalist came in before he was supposed to, and luckily the orchestra leader picked it right up. Luckily we were all watching the way we're supposed to, and he just held his hand out for us not to come in until he pointed to us with a baton, which we did. It was not obvious to the audience, I'm sure or to the radio audience. Backstage we got it; we knew we were going to get it, although it wasn't the fault of all of us. They didn't like mistakes.

Q: Did your family have a radio? Did you listen to a radio?
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BJ: We had a little tiny radio. Yes, we used to listen to Major Bowl's Amateur Hour and Let's Pretend and Amos and Andy. I'll tell you something about Kate Smith. Kate Smith was the only person in the United States who was allowed to sing 'God Bless America' anytime she wanted to, which I felt was a real tribute to her talent. I'll have to tell you too about Paul Ivan. He was a very, very personable who wore gray suede shoes. In my youth I said, "Why do you wear gray suede shoes?" He was very rotund and he just held his stomach and laughed. He said, "This is the only kind I can afford," -- which of course was ridiculous. But he was a very, very personable man. Anybody that we got to come here to be on the program -- I don't know what they paid those people -- whether it was just something that they were doing for the war effort or not -- but anybody that came here was always very impressed with the talent that was in the Valley. I used to wonder to myself, "Why are they so surprised?" because there would be talent shows. There would be minstrels; there would be school affairs, and so forth that were really professional. They always seemed so surprised. "Oh my goodness, how did they learn to do this in such a small town like that?" It was a learned reflex.

Q: Then the war ended.
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BJ: Yes, and Wheeling went crazy. We had streetcars and everybody was riding on top of the streetcars; they were hanging off the side of it. They would pull the trolleys off and push it the other way. It was terrible; the police couldn't do anything about it; everybody was just like they were drugged. It had been going on so long, and people had been without. A lot of the girls that you knew maybe had gotten married before their boyfriends went off, even though they were very very young. Most of the marriages lasted quite nicely; a few didn't because they were gone too long. It was so strange to me to know girls who were married. They were just maybe a year or two older than I was. I had no thought of getting married at that age. In fact, in one interview I said in a magazine that I never, ever wanted to get married; and I thought marriage was a bore.

Q: Before the war ended, the show ended? How did you feel?
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BJ: We didn't know it was going to end. We got two weeks' notice when Mr. Grimes died. When he became ill he had phlebitis in his legs. It was terrible; it was such a -- it was like a pall? over everybody because it was the end of an era for all of us who had been on. I'm sure a lot of the soldiers and sailors who had been in the cast were coming home or thinking they would have a job when they got back, but that was not to be the case. The song we sang was 'We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when.' Everybody on the stage was in tears; it was just awful, even the audience was crying.

Q: Did life change in Wheeling when ? ?
BJ: Yes, it did.

Q: How?
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BJ: One of the ways it changed in Wheeling was that people, women who were working at Wheeling Steel and different places around the city, lost their jobs because the men came home from the service, and they took their rightful place. I was working at the Wheeling Steel Building on the 9th Floor Hall, which was the sales floor. I was the receptionist there, and I got myself in a little bit of hot water. One day when I picked up the phone, I always answer, "Ninth floor hall, may I help you?" But it was hot, and it was not air conditioned. This time was a miserable day. I picked up the phone and I said, 'Ninth Floor Hall, who in the Hall do you want?' It was somebody from the 13th floor, which is -- they were the people --

Q: Did you stay working long?
BJ: Yes, I did for awhile. I finally went to work for the telephone company.

Q: Did recalling the experience of being on the show make you think of having a career ? ?
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BJ: Yes, it did. Even after the show went off we were asked to sing just every place. People would call, but in the last year my sister Margaret -- This is a little cute story. I was talking about her make up. You know, that we had to do our own. We were -- she said to me before we got up on the stage. She said: "Go down and fix your lipstick; it's smeared." She was the boss because she was three years older. So I went down to fix up and when I got in her purse and I opened a little rouge box. I couldn't find her lipstick so I thought I'd put rouge on it. There was a wedding ring in there, and I came up to the stage. I said: "Wait till I tell Mother." She said, "What do you mean?" She got all flustered about it. I said, "Where did you get the wedding ring?" She said, "That's none of your business." Then I knew that she was married.
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She had just come back from Lake Charles, Louisiana where Jack was going to go over -- he was a bombardier in the Air Force. They got married. But if they would have found out, we'd have been fired right off. The girls were not allowed to be married. In fact, the girls in the chorus were never allowed to ride in -- like if we were going out to dinner or if we were going to entertain the girls at our house for something -- we'd have to go in three cars. Because you can imagine that if there were an accident, that that would just knock the show off right there.

Q: Why have you stayed in the Ohio Valley?
BJ: Because I was born and raised here. My life has been very fulfilling. I was always very active in civil affairs. I always liked to talk, as you can see.

Q: What about this place that's kept you here?
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BJ: Family ties I guess mainly. My family was all here. I like the people. This as I say is a very friendly city. I think it was because I was well known.

Q: But certainly opportunity was greater out there?
BJ: Yes, yes. But after MJ got married, we were no longer a trio. Then my brother came home, and the four of us were going to sing and let me be the lead, but we didn't get to do that. He got married. ? J was married. I went to work, and I got married. I was the first, one of my most fulfilling jobs was I was the first executive director of the senior services for the Upper Ohio Valley. I was also the first secretary and treasurer of the mental health clinic that I helped to start here. I was very active in Girl Scouts, very active in hospital volunteering work, but I knew the people I was working with. That's the reason I stayed there.
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