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Transcript of interview with Earl Summers, Jr., March 2, 1992, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project


Q: Earl, tell me the story of how Its Wheeling Steel got started?
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ES: Back in 1935, my dad and I and quite other musicians around town were what we call 'free-lancing' at the radio station. We did commercial broadcasts for like Richert Furniture Company and the Keebends? Furniture Company and things like that. We worked very closely with Walter Patterson, who was the program director at WWVA at the time. Mr. John Grimes from Wheeling Steel approached Walter Patterson about the feasibility of having a program sponsored by Wheeling Steel where they could have an orchestra to accompany different headliners from the factory. In other words, like if they had a clarinet player or a vocalist or an accordionist, they would feature them as a headliner and they would have a weekly program. Dad and I were both pretty active in the music scene back then. We were both playing with the symphony, and I had a dance band. We formed an orchestra; we picked out people who could play both types of music. Primarily it was a dance band, but we had five or six legitimate players who could play the classical music too. We formed -- I think back then we got sixteen or seventeen men, something like that --
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Q: Can I interrupt you a second? ...


Q: Earl, I want to back up just a little bit. It's 1936; it's the middle of the Depression. Why embark on something -- why did Wheeling Steel want in on something so extravagant as making a radio show?
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ES: When they first went into this, they didn't anticipate going nationwide; it was just a sort of employee relations thing that they wanted to give some of the employees that had talent to show their ware. So they got this idea a radio program where they would be the headliners and they would be accompanied by an orchestra which they would rarely would have an opportunity to do without somebody sponsoring it. John Grimes had approached Walter Patterson about the feasibility of it. Walter talked to my dad and I who at that time were free lancing at the radio station on various commercial broadcasts and asked us if we could get up an orchestra that could play all types of music. They didn't want symphonic, and they didn't want it strictly jazz. I had a band at the time, and there was a band here. Nyles Carp? had a band. We took actually the best musicians from both orchestras, and then we added a few legitimate people who played symphonic music, but still understood the jazz. We started an orchestra then. At the same time, they got a mixed quartet which was similar to the quartets that were singing in churches at that time. There was a tenor, a baritone, an alto, and a soprano. They were more or less used as a variety to support some of these home talent people that they pulled out of the steel mills itself.
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We broadcast for a year locally with that group. They found out that they could produce a network show for the same amount of money that they were paying for a Saturday Evening Post ad once a week. They pulled the Saturday Evening Post ad, and they decided to go commercial the next year, not nationwide but we started out on ...

Q: Can we stop a second and that pick up? ...


Q: Tell me how the people behind the show realized that it could be more than just a local talent show and what they did about that?
ES: As I said, they went into the cost of what they could produce it for and they found out they could have the show on a bigger scale than what they were doing it simply by taking their ad out of the Saturday Evening Post, which was a weekly affair, and putting that money towards the program. Now, when we first started to broadcast, the first year we were just broadcasting on two stations -- that was a station in Portsmouth, Ohio, and WWVA here in Wheeling. Then the next year we went on Mutual over WOR in Newark, New Jersey and we were on five stations. We had the Portsmouth station, WWVA, WLW, and I don't know what the other ones were, but there were five stations. We stayed that way until 1939, when they switched over the NBC Blue Network. We were still on the Mutual when we went to the World's Fair in 1939.
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Q: I'm going to ask you about that in a few minutes, but first what does it say about the musical heritage of Wheeling that a national radio show can just kind of be dreamed up out of thin air?
ES: Wheeling has always been a very musical city. I'm the third generation of musicians that were in the Summers family; my grandfather was a musician; my father was; I am, and I have two boys who are both musicians. My oldest boy graduated from Julliard, and the other one from Penn State. My grandfather played with the old opera house orchestra in the 1890's. Then, as I say, my dad and I were both charter members of the Wheeling Symphony here. This is one of the few small towns that even at that time had a playable symphony.
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Q: Do you have any idea why music and Wheeling have gone together?
ES: I really don't know; I think music as a whole has sort of disappeared everywhere, except for the rock bands and what-have-you, although legitimate music is making a comeback some way.

Q: I mean no more in the turn of the century and in the past, how did music in Wheeling become so intertwined? Was it industry brought it all different kinds of music?
ES: Yes, that's right. The Welsh people are great singers, and there was a lot of Welsh people in Martin's Ferry working in the steel mills. Of course, you had the Polish people, the Slavic? people, and they all had different ethnic music. They all supported music here, and we've had some very, very fine musicians come out of Wheeling. Especially when I was growing up in the 20's and the 30's, we had some of the top guys in the industry came from here.

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Q: Getting back to the show, tell me about your remembrance of the first broadcast?
ES: The first broadcast was from the studios of WWVA up in the Holly Building, and it was real dead. They had thick carpets on the floor, and it had acoustical tile and everything. It didn't sound very good, so after about two or three of those broadcasts they came in and tore up all the carpet, put inlaid linoleum down and just livened the studio up; it got better. We used to do some jazz, some songs, and of course there was the headliner; and then we'd do what they call a 'capsule classic'. Maury Longfeller? who they had brought in as an arranger used to arrange. We did things like 'Meditation from Tia? East' and all these kind of things. We usually one of those a program. Of course the rest of it was sort of popular-orientated.

Q: You've been in bands all your life from when you were a boy. What was special about the Wheeling Steel Radio Show?
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ES: I think the main thing it was a very versatile group; as I say, we brought people in that could play both kinds of music. Then, as I say, they got the idea of the family broadcast; and it wasn't very hard to do because practically everybody in Wheeling either worked for Wheeling Steel or had a father, mother, uncle or aunt working for Wheeling Steel. They promoted that to the utmost. I'd say from the time we went on Mutual until the time we quit, it was strictly a family broadcast. It was very similar to the Lawrence Welk Show, which appealed the class of people that Wheeling Steel wanted to reach. In fact, Lou Davies, the arranger that they brought in after Morey -- in fact Morey and Lou were both here at the same time -- Lou Davies later set the format for the Lawrence Welk Band. He arranged their first arrangements at the ... champagne music. He set the style of the Welk Band.

Q: Tell me how old you were when you first started on the show, and tell me what kind of a feeling it was like to be on the show?
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ES: In '36, I was 19. It was a premier radio show, although as I say I'd been working at the radio station for a couple of years before that on various commercial broadcasts. In fact, all the way through the Steel Show, I had a commercial broadcast for the Cleebins? Furniture Company here in town. We had a string group.

Q: Wasn't that a special gig for you?
ES: Yes, it was.

Q: Tell me that again, tell me what was special about it to a musician?
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ES: It was the best job in town, and we got a lot of exposure locally and nationally because even when we were still on the Mutual ...


Q: Earl, tell me from the inside your feelings about being on the show, especially at such a young age. It was different then, your gigs at some of the ball rooms and places like that. Tell me about it.
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ES: As I say, we were really the royalty of Wheeling musicians at that time. We were treated very well by the Steel Company; they had a place across the street from the rehearsal hall where we could go after the rehearsal and get sandwiches and beer, and Wheeling Steel would pick up the tab and things like that. It was just a good feeling. As I say we knew it was being broadcast in New York and later on they go the Donley? Network in California. We were coast to coast even on the old Mutual before we went NBC. It was a big thing.

Q: When you talked to each other about 'hey, we're on national radio,' what did it feel like to be --
ES: I don't know; we didn't think that much about it, really. I mean, we enjoyed doing it; the band was good. That was the main thing; we had ample time for rehearsal. We went into this thing and played the best that we could; it could on. People liked it, and we were proud. Especially when we went to the World's Fair and when we came back from the World's Fair, they gave us a parade in town. They put us on a flatbed truck and we went all through town. It was like Lindbergh coming home from Paris, more or less. We were just glad to be on it. Back in those days it was good money, too. I mean, we didn't make by today's standards. It wasn't that much, but I can remember when we were playing at Wheeling Park, we got four dollars a night. We played three nights. We had more money than anybody in town.
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Q: While we're on the subject of going to the '39 World Fair, that reminds me of a story you told me about the bus rides.
ES: That wasn't the world's fair. We went up to world's fair on a train, but we played later on in Cincinnati at the Taft Auditorium for a bond drive. Then we broadcast from down there. We had a bus, and of course we were allowed to drink beer; but we had to drink it in cans on account of Wheeling Steel cans. Every time the bus would go up a hill all the beer cans would roll to the back of the bus; when we'd go down a hill, they'd all roll to the front of the bus. It just sounded like thunder, you know. Then we got into Cincinnati and the mayor of the city and everything were all lined up to greet us, to give us a key to the city. The first guy off the bus was a trombone player by the name of Mal? Stevens. He got off the bus, took one step, and fell flat on his face. That's how we entered Cincinnati. There were good times.
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Q: Tell me about the '39 World's Fair? What was that like to go from Wheeling, West Virginia.
ES: We went to New York; we stayed at the New Yorker, and we rehearsed at the New Yorker in the ball room. Then the Saturday before the broadcast they had a West Virginia day at the fair, and we out to the Court of Peace and played the program out there. The governor of West Virginia, who at that time was a fellow by the name of Kump was the governor of West Virginia, he was there. He gave a speech, and we played about four or five numbers and entertained them. Then the next day we went back and played the same place for the broadcast, and there were around 10,000 people there for that broadcast. It was the biggest crowd to ever witness a commercial broadcast at that time.

Q: In the late 30's you were on the road seldom?
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ES: That's right. This was our first trip; in '39, that was the first trip. After that, after the war started and everything, we made a lot of bond trips. We went to Cincinnati; we went to Clarksburg, Fairmont, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Steubenville, places like that.

Q: Tell me about how the war changed the show?
ES: They took off practically all the commercial broadcasts; in other words, it was like Lucky Strike Green has gone to war. They said Wheeling Steel has gone to the war; all we will do is to promote the products that we make for the government and things like that. So it become more or less of a flag waver after that, after the war started.

Q: And it changed where you did the show and who did it for, didn't it. You did the show more on the road, didn't you?
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ES: Yes, we took quite a few trips after that. Every place we went we gave programs before and after the broadcasts to raise bond money for the various bond drives and things.

Q: When you look back on that eight years that you were on the show, is there a highlight, is there a day that really kind of sums it all up for you about what it was about?
ES: Actually, the day I remember the best was the day before Pearl Harbor and I did the Pearl Harbor broadcast, which they say actually never went on the air because although we did it and they taped it -- in fact, I have a tape of it. They didn't tape it; they put it on transcriptions. We put it on tape later. Then the trip to the Great Lakes was quite a thrill. Up there and all the soldiers, it was like a Bob Hope trip, you know.

Q: Who was the most interesting star that might have been looking over your music at, either because of their talent or because of their looks? Was there anybody like that?
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ES: We had some pretty good ones. Paul Whiteman conducted us on a program. Anna Nagel who was a movie star came here and did a show with us. Those are about the only ones I can remember right off hand.

Q: What was the reaction of the town? What did Wheeling think about its radio show?
ES: Again, up until that World's Fair thing, I don't think we ever got the recognition that we thought we deserved. After that, they supported it pretty well. Although I don't think they even realized how big it was until some of the national magazines and everything started. All the music magazines and back then it was Radio Guide, they wrote us up quite a bit.

Q: When did you realize that was a big deal?
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ES: I think I realized it when we went to the World's Fair. Up until then, it was just another job more or less. We enjoyed playing because the band was good, and then as I say we came into contact with a lot of people after that. Even some of the name bands who were our idols like Glenn Miller and some of those bands, they used to send us arrangements. I remember we did Freddie Martin's arrangement of 'Tonight We Love,' which is based on the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. We had his original arrangement. Glenn Miller sent his original arrangement of 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo'. We did it with the four,? Jean? and her Boyfriend? sang.

Q: You mentioned that night in Styfold? ? about victory discs and being the Republican in charge? Did you feel like you were contributing to the war effort?
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ES: Yes, sure. And then you know every summer when the war was on, we played at Oglebay Park on Saturday nights with the full band, the whole 25 piece band. We played for dancing. Then at 11 o'clock they picked us up on NBC on the national hook-up. We promoted -- I remember there was one program that I heard that we promoted -- everybody turn in their old records. This is when they still had 78's so they could send them to the boys overseas and things like that. There was always something going for the war effort on every program, even when we were broadcasting from the Oglebay Park or the Pine Room.

Q: How was it playing back up for the Evan Sisters?
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ES: Again, we backed up the Evan Sisters. We backed up all the soloists and then we had a chorus too. At that time when we started the chorus, there was Jean and her Boyfriends and the Steel Sisters and they had the Singing Millmen, they brought in Robert Shaw who was the choral director with Fred Waring at that time, who is now possible one of the most foremost choral directors in the world. He coached us for about a month, our chorus. They spared no amount of money to make the program better; that's one of the things. They bought our uniforms; we never had to buy our uniforms. They did take our eating privileges away. A couple of the guys went over and I think one of the fellows ate six sandwiches one night. That ruined a good thing.

Q: What about the mill itself, Wheeling Steel, did they take notice of the show?
ES: Yes, especially the people who wanted to be on it. They had auditions every week for headliners, and they say they were just packed. We were never in them, those auditions. Every week they'd have 50, maybe 100 people auditioning for a headliner in this thing.
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Q: What about the last show, what do you remember about that?
ES: All I know is we all ended up with a big lump in our throats. I mean -- we? were out at the mansion? when I played the finally and everything for the show, I think.

Q: Let's go back to that day again. Tell me more. ... We'll pick that up. ...


Q: Let's switch gears, we'll get back to what we were talking about in a second. What was Wheeling like during the Depression? The show started in '36.
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ES: Actually '36 was the end of the Depression. The Depression itself was from about 1930 through '34. When Roosevelt became president in '34, that's when they repealed the 18th Amendment. From then on, things went pretty good for awhile. Of course the war came along and the economy and everything just started to rise on account of the war effort and the manufacture and everything.

Q: But when the show started, what are your remembrances of what Wheeling was like? Was it a town that had a cloud hanging over it like many American towns?
ES: No, I don't think so because the steel mills had been working. Things were tough financially, but they had had the WPA here for awhile and the CCC -- the Civilian Conservation Corps -- and things like that. Of course I was young; I really didn't realize there was a Depression because my dad had been working in the theaters and he worked for the WPA for awhile. There were times when food things were scarce. I remember my dad brought home a sack of flour from the WPA that they'd handed out. I remember we lived on pancakes and home made bread and things like that for a couple of weeks from that sack of flour. But outside of that I really don't remember being deprived of anything. Of course I was in high school at the time, and --
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Q: Tell me a little bit about your father's association with the show?
ES: As I say, Dad at that time was the associate conductor of the symphony; and he'd played all the theaters and everything. He and I had been working at the radio station. I had taken over the dance band in '34 because I knew all the kids. It was actually his band. When I started working at the radio station, we were the first ones that Walter approached because we both had symphony experience and we also had dance band experience. He was the first conductor of the orchestra, from '36 until '39. Tommy Whitley took over in September of '39. He was conductor for four years, and Lou Davies was the conductor for the last two years.

Q: Going forward a little bit now. What are your remembrances of the town of Wheeling during WWII? What kind of place was it then?
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ES: It was a wide-open town. Bill Lias? who was one of the big -- he's not Mafia -- but he was sort of an underworld figure -- they had the numbers racket. They'd go in -- they had a big nightclub down at Zeller's Restaurant, upstairs of that, and every little nightclub in town had a band. Everybody was working. There was a protection going on with the police, and so they never bothered them. They had a regular casino with roulette and everything up at Zeller's, which was Lias' place. All over town it was wide open. I mean, even the red light districts, were operating. I'd say through the war it was a pretty booming little town.

Q: And people got to know Wheeling then through the radio show?
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ES: Right, right. Of course up at Bethany College they had a V-2 program, where they were training naval officers. Then of course there was a army hospital out in Cambridge, Ohio. On weekends they'd all converge on Wheeling. On Saturday night it was -- Back on those days there was hardly any crime. You could walk anyplace, and nobody ever bothered you. Today, you can't even walk down around 15th or 16th Street, down on Market Street; it's not safe.

Q: When you were growing up in the '20's do you remember being in vaudeville and burlesque ? ?
ES: Yes, yes. Dad opened the Capital here in 1927. They had vaudeville and movies together. They had five acts of vaudeville and then movies. I remember when I graduated from high school in '34, the Virginia Theater tried it once more. It lasted about two months, and they folded. They had burlesque here in -- I was about 14 years old -- so that would be in 1930, '31, over where the Security National Bank, there was this burlesque theater there. I remember one of the emcees -- they'd bring in one of these what they called 'tab' shows. They would put on a different show every week. They'd stay here for a month or so. One tab show had Red Skelton as a emcee. He was just starting out; he was about 21 or 22 years old. I was playing, and I was 14. I remember one Saturday night they came up and arrested the whole cast, the orchestra and everything. Took us down to the City Building; when they found out I was only 14, I wasn't allowed to play again. So that was my one experience with burlesque.

Q: Did the town look differently then?
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ES: Not a heck of a lot. There were more theaters in town then; now there's no theaters in town. There was the Rex Theater and the Liberty Theater, the Colonial Theater, the Court Theater, the Virginia Theater, and then the Capital Theater. So we had plenty of theaters. The Virginia Theater was possibly the best theater for acoustics and everything of any of the theaters in town. They tore than down and made a parking lot out of it.

Q: It's 1944 and the show's winding down, the last show. Do you remember it?
ES: Yes, I do remember. Didn't hear it was winding down until about three or four shows from the end, and then they told us that they weren't going to renew it. You just more or less took it with what was happening. The war was still on of course. There had been quite a bit of turnover in the cast through the war years. We'd have to replace musicians and also soloists, like Arden White? went? and some of our band members went. We just sort of took it as one of those things that was going to happen. We were sorry to see it go because it was a lot of fun and at that time it was very remunerated. It's just like anything else that ends. Especially the last show, there's always a nostalgia. At that time it wasn't a nostalgia, we were just sorry to see it go.
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Q: When you think back on your career, does the radio show have a special place?
ES: Yes, it was one of the big moments in my life. Back in those days I was playing mostly jazz. Of course I played with the symphony here too, but then after it went off the air I kept the Steel Band together until '61. Then we sort of busted it up. From then on up until 1980 I did mostly just classical music. I played with Columbus. Started playing in Pittsburgh and then of course here.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about why it was one of the highlights of your life?
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ES: I was young enough to appreciate then too. It was just a good time. The cast were all like a family. In other words, it gradually became a family broadcast because we were just one big, happy family. We had little spats here and there just like any family. At that time we rehearsed three nights a week and then Sunday morning. Then the show was Sunday afternoon. Actually we saw more of each other than we saw of our regular families at home.

Q: What's this Strip? Edna? story?
ES: Ten? DeProspero? who is one of the legitimate families of the orchestra, he played saxophone and he played clarinet and he played oboe, his wife was a soprano. She was a headliner on the program one day. He was supposed to say, "Stick to script, Edna." And he said, "Strip to the stick, Edna." And everybody just roared. This was on the air when he said this. That's the 'strip to the stick, Edna.' That's the story on that. It was supposed to be 'stick to the script'.

Q: Earl, why have you stayed in West Virginia?
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ES: The main reason -- I've had plenty of chances to play -- in other words, I was concert master of the Civic Light Opera in Pittsburgh and then I played the ballet and the opera. I played with the Columbus Symphony, and I played with the Wheeling Symphony. I've always played some good jazz and everything. Then I was a purchasing agent for Mail Pouch Tobacco Company; I worked for them for 45 years. That was a base. Back in the thirties and even in the forties you couldn't make a living in music unless you were big time. I always had good a base and I ...

Q: What we'll do now is to record a little silence ...

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