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Preserving the legacy of 'It's Wheeling Steel'

In the mid-1930s, workers and management at a major steel producer in the Northern Panhandle were often at odds as the Great Depression lingered.

Wheeling Steel's advertising director, John Grimes, was looking to get the good word out about the company and hoped to get the workers involved.

Grimes decided that a half-hour musical variety show that used local talent - not professional musicians - would be a cost-effective way to market Wheeling Steel.

The workers' response was enthusiastic, as they came out in droves to audition for singing roles or to play instruments. Their family members were invited to try out, too.

Despite company officials' initial skepticism, the show, "It's Wheeling Steel," went on to be broadcast to millions of listeners across a nearly 100-member network of radio stations, and had achieved Grimes' goal "in spades," said Lee Kelvington, president of the Wheeling Big Band Society. 

"From what I understand, this did wonders for employee morale," said John Cuthbert, director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at West Virginia University.        

During an era when radio was king, the unique Wheeling-based radio show went on to impact a national TV variety show, drew the largest outdoor crowd at the World's Fair in New York City and is even credited with bringing the company's people together.

A new book celebrating that legacy, "It's Wheeling Steel: The Story of Wheeling's 'Coast to Coast' Celebrated Radio Program," is available for purchase at Tamarack in Beckley, The Wheeling Artisan Gift Shop and other Wheeling locations. It costs $30.

The Wheeling Big Band Society, Inc. researched and compiled the book with assistance from the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., the book's publisher. Both are nonprofit organizations.

Kelvington said the book's sales would help support both organizations.

Cuthbert, who wrote the book's overview, also oversees a complete collection of audio files from all 326 "It's Wheeling Steel" shows that aired. The collection is housed at the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU's Main Library in Morgantown.

'Entertaining and unusual' 

Grimes had a pool of about 25,000 Wheeling Steel employees and all their family members to draw from for the show's talent, which gave him access to many talented amateur performers, Kelvington said.

In the fall of 1936, the program started out on WWVA in Wheeling and immediately sparked the interest of local listeners. Little more than a year later, Grimes persuaded the company to purchase a half-hour time slot on the Mutual Broadcasting System network, which featured 17 stations from coast to coast.

Feature stories in LIFE and Time magazines followed, as well as reviews in Radio Guide, Billboard and Variety. In just months, the show became a fixture on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and "as it's fame and popularity grew, so did the quality of the show's performance," Cuthbert wrote in the book's overview.

LIFE magazine sent in their top crew because they recognized the uniqueness of the show, Kelvington said.

Years later, in a news release, NBC would call "It's Wheeling Steel" one of the most "entertaining and unusual of musical radio programs." In that release, NBC announced the show's first-ever performance on the NBC-Blue Network would be coming Oct. 5, 1941.

Big band music was at the show's heart, and big band leaders like Glenn Miller offered up both original arrangements and singers for "It's Wheeling Steel" to use, Cuthbert wrote.     

The big band swing era peaked from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, which coincided with the eight-year run of "It's Wheeling Steel." 

Big bands are often made up of about 13 to 19 pieces. They usually consist of a brass section with trumpets, clarinets, saxophones and trombones, and a rhythm section with drums, bass fiddle and a piano, Kelvington said. One or two soloists join the band, while any other singers normally played instruments, too.

Some referred to big bands as "swing bands" because they moved the audience to get up on their feet and dance.   

"It was the last pop music that could be enjoyed by multiple generations," Kelvington said.

Over the years, big band leaders like Paul Whiteman and Henry Busse dropped by to serve as guest conductors, Cuthbert wrote.

Big Band leader Horace Heidt took the show's singing "Steele Sisters" along on an extended tour with his band.                                     

Names like Regina Colbert and Dorothy Anne Crow also became widely recognized because of the show's popularity.

Colbert was a member of the Wheeling Steel quartet "Jean and Her Boyfriends." She later turned down offers to join big bands and to do special network programs for NBC because she fell in love with a man whom she married and stayed with in Wheeling, according to the book.    

After the show ended in 1944, musical arranger and conductor Lew Davies went on to write arrangements for Perry Como and worked for Lawrence Welk.

By many accounts, and because of Davies' influence, the family friendly format of TV's long-running "The Lawrence Welk Show" was descended directly from "It's Wheeling Steel," Kelvington and Cuthbert said.

Kelvington had personally discussed this tie to the long-running and popular television show with Welk's secretary, while alumni from "It's Wheeling Steel" have said there was a connection between the two, Cuthbert wrote.

'Our company'

Grimes' experiment in commercial advertising and employee relations -- as Cuthbert put it in the book - came at a time when labor relations at Wheeling Steel were poor during the Depression, Kelvington said.

But hundreds of employees turned out to audition for the show, which premiered on Nov. 8, 1936, and consisted mainly of popular songs, show tunes and standard light classics, Cuthbert wrote.

The show also featured narrative advertising usually "presented in the form of anecdotes about the people, history and contributions of Wheeling Steel," he wrote.           

Cuthbert wrote that the variety show's "homey" nature and "plain folk" cast quickly caught on with local listeners both in the Wheeling Steel family and those not affiliated with the company. 

"This was really a rallying point for the employees in this company," Cuthbert said in an interview.                

Kelvington said for some Wheeling Steel employees the attitude went from, "That damn company to 'our company.'"

Kelvington has a first-hand appreciation for what Grimes set out to accomplish.

As a former executive with Ohio Power Co., under American Electric Power, Kelvington was looking for a way to improve union and management relations at the Cardinal Plant near Steubenville, Ohio, around the 1980s.

His idea was to shoot a video history of the plant that included the employees.

"Good management recognizes that to achieve the goals of the company ... all depends on your employees," he said.

The first person to get on board was the union's president. The video was made available to everyone and helped to improve labor relations at the plant.

"We couldn't keep them in stock," Kelvington said.

Going out on top

The World's Fair, for its time, was a major global event. Cuthbert compared a musical performance from "It's Wheeling Steel" at the World's Fair to a Super Bowl halftime show or an Olympics opening ceremony performance today.

"It was a really big deal, not just nationally, but internationally," he said.

The Wheeling Steel musicians performed at "the Court of Peace" at the World's Fair on June 25, 1939, and drew the largest crowd for an outdoor performance, with more than 26,000 in attendance, Cuthbert wrote in the overview.

Like all on-air performances of "It's Wheeling Steel," the World's Fair program was on a Sunday, and was dedicated to West Virginia Statehood Day at the fair, held five days earlier on June 20.

The crowd alone "indicated again the popularity of the program across the country at that time," Kelvington said.

"The 1939 World's Fair was considered by many to be 'the world's fair,'" he said. "To get an invitation to perform at that World's Fair was very significant unto itself."

By the fall of 1941, NBC's Blue Network picked up the 5-year-old program. In the war years that followed, "It's Wheeling Steel" expanded to about 120 radio stations, including its old home, WWVA in Wheeling, and WSAZ in Huntington.

On Dec. 6, 1941, top NBC executives and their wives arrived in Wheeling to attend a Christmas party thrown by the cast of "It's Wheeling Steel," according to the book.

The next day, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed both the show and the nation forever.     

Of the 327 "It's Wheeling Steel" programs that were produced, only one -- the Dec. 7, 1941 show - never aired on the radio.

From that day forward, Wheeling Steel never promoted its own products on the program, Kelvington said. The steel company produced metal mats for landing strips, fins for bombs and "Red Label" pails, tubs and garbage cans, Cuthbert wrote.     

As it was across most of America, the show was used to support the war effort, and the audience response during "It's Wheeling Steel" war bond concerts was tremendous, Cuthbert said.

Several "Buy a Bomber" shows were broadcast nationally from selected West Virginia cities in 1943, he wrote in the overview.

"It was a staggering amount of money that these concerts brought in," he said.

The final "Buy a Bomber" program, broadcast from WVU's Field House in Morgantown, generated an incredible $663,000.

The following year, on June 18, 1944, the 326th and final show aired while "It's Wheeling Steel" was at the height of its popularity, Kelvington said. A year earlier, it became the fifth most popular radio show on the NBC network.

Wheeling Steel executives decided to end the show, with the biggest reason being Grimes' failing health, Kelvington said.

"It did go out at the height and sometimes that adds to the program's mystique," he said.

Preserving a legacy  

In the book's introduction, Kelvington and Baird Kloss, vice president of the Wheeling Big Band Society, write that they hope the book "will serve as a lasting historical reference of a Wheeling ... treasure that helped brighten the decades of the Great Depression and WWII."

At WVU, curators and researchers with the West Virginia and Regional History Center have spent a lot of time re-mastering several hundred hours of audio from the old radio shows. The extensive collection will be preserved forever and remain housed at the Morgantown library, Cuthbert said.

There are hopes, he said, that WVU Press might put out a highlight CD within the next couple years.

To hear some audio files of the show from the history center, visit: http://tinyurl.com/pn9usky.

To purchase a book, contact the Wheeling Artisan Center gift shop at 304-232-1810 or call Tamarack at 304-256-6843. 

Reach Davin White at davinwhite@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1254.


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