When you think of historic country music broadcasts, you probably think of Tennessee's Grand Ole Opry. But for a while, the most popular country music show on television was broadcast out of a 1,100-seat theater in Springfield, Mo. Ozark Jubilee, a weekly live stage show that ran from 1955 to 1960, was the first network television program to feature top country music stars. At its most popular, the Jubilee drew in 25 million viewers a week and hosted everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Wills.
The 'New Nashville'
In the 1940s, Springfield broadcaster Ralph Foster and music executive Si Siman set out to make Springfield, Mo. the center of the country music world. His radio station, KWTO, had earned a reputation as an outlet for up and comers. The station's regular live broadcasts featured acts such as the Carter Family and Chet Atkins.
To boost Springfield's country cred, Foster and Siman contacted one of Nashville's hottest acts, Red Foley, and offered him a hosting gig for a national TV program. Foley just had a huge hit with his recording of the gospel song "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)" and was known as the "barnyard Bing Crosby" for his down-home gentleman personality.
Ozark Jubilee was a part variety show, part live music series. Broadcast out of Springfield's Jewell Theater, each episode began with a square dancing troupe, The Promenaders, from the local college. The program also featured comedy acts between music sets. Comedy duo Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap, who came up in the comedy world with Minnie Pearl, were audience favorites.
And then there was the music. The Jubilee brought country music into the cities and suburbs and put the Ozarks on the map as a cultural destination.
The video below features guest host Rex Allen and a young Brenda Lee, who made her network debut on the show.
Ozark Jubilee helped introduce the country to future country and rockabilly legends. Wanda Jackson, Webb Pierce and Porter Wagoner were all regular performers who rose to fame due in part to their appearances on Jubilee. The program was something of a gathering place for young performers on the circuit. Country singers Hawkshaw Hawkins and Jean Shepard met on the set of the show and later married.
A Jubilant Legacy
The Ozark Jubilee was the home of some significant moments in country music history. Carl Perkins and the Perkins Brothers Band made their television debut on the show, performing Perkins' hit "Blue Suede Shoes."
Despite its initial success, the tv show's ratings began to suffer when some of its biggest stars, such as Porter Wagoner, moved to Nashville. Ozark Jubilee was canceled in September of 1960. The Jewell Theater was demolished just a year later.
Springfield, Missouri never became the new Nashville. But the attention Ozark Jubilee brought to the Ozarks led to the eventual rise of nearby Branson, Mo. as a country music tourist hub.
Ozark Jubilee faded into the country music history books. All that's left standing is a plaque where the Jewell Theater once stood. It's a reminder of the little show that could and the music that still echoes through the Ozark Mountains.