OLD TIME RADIO...and Ozark County musicians

Thelma, Jarrett and Lonnie Robertson, 1948

Thelma, Lonnie and Derrel Friend (from Mountain Grove) in a postcard picture promoting their KWTO radio show sponsored by the Busy Bee Department Store, 1950.

Jarrett Robertson at KWTO, early 1950s.

KWTO radio performers George Rhodes and Buster Fellows, 1951.

The KWTO radio group is pictured here in 1944. From left: Lennie Aleshire, Zed Tennis, Luke McNeley, Don Sullivan, Thelma Robertson, Lonnie Robertson and Floyd “Goo Goo” Rutledge.

Landon Hale, Ernie Frost and Gene Hale gather around the microphone as they prepare for a performance at KWTO radio.

KWTO’s Ozark Farm and Home Hour performers, 1944: Lonnie Robertson second from right on front row, George Rhodes standing behind him, and Floyd “Goo Goo” Rutledge sitting to his left. You may also note Slim Wilson sitting on the front row, third from left.

Don Sullivan

KOAM Pittsburg group, 1952: Virgil Glenn, Shorty Prewett, Landon Hale

From the early 1920s to the 1950s live radio was our main source of electronic entertainment. Listeners could hear almost any kind of live program on the radio. Plays, talent shows, situation comedies, mysteries and news were always on the schedule. A wide selection of live musical performances was also available from popular big bands to old-time country singers.  


Ozark County’s Robertson family

Many musicians from Ozark County traveled to distant towns all over the country looking for opportunities for work at radio stations such as Springfield’s KWTO, which came on the air in 1933. 

By 1936 KWTO AM 560 was broadcasting at 5000 watts, and its signal beamed northwest past Independence, Kansas, west toward Oklahoma, southwest to Rogers, Berryville and Harrison, Arkansas, and northeast toward Rolla.

Longrun native Lonnie Robertson and his wife Thelma from Theodosia were regular performers on KWTO during the 1940s. Author Howard Wight Marshall wrote that Lonnie was the “leader of the twentieth-century parade of radio fiddlers.”

Robertson was from a musical family, and he learned to play mandolin, guitar and fiddle as a boy. After inheriting a fiddle from his father, Jarrett Robertson, Lonnie left home at the age of 14 to find work. He got his start as a radio performer on KFEQ in St. Joseph and formed his first band, Lonnie and His Greenbacks. 

On a trip back to the Ozarks in 1931, Robertson married Thelma Jones, a teacher from Theodosia. Thelma was a daughter of Jack Jones, who owned a general store in Lutie.

Comedy/musical duets were very popular during the “Golden Days of Radio.” Robertson toured for several years with guitarist Roy McGeorge as Lonnie and Roy and performed at radio stations in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Virginia. He also hosted a radio show at KOAM in Pittsburg, Kansas called “The Fiddle Dusters.”

In 1943, the Robertsons moved to Springfield to work at KWTO with their three-year-old son Jarrett Jackson Robertson in tow. They had their own 15-minute shows as Lonnie and Thelma or the Down Home Folks, sometimes two shows in one day. Soon their son Jarrett joined them as a regular on the radio program. Jarrett sang “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” on his radio debut when he was only 4 years old. 

The Robertsons published three songbooks and sold them on the radio. The first book reportedly sold over 8,000 copies at 50 cents each.


George Rhoades from Protem

The KWTO schedule had plenty of opportunities for musicians, and Robertson was in the thick of it all. He teamed up with other KWTO artists and became a regular performer on KWTO programs. One of his music partners was George Rhodes, who played in Robertson’s band called Lonnie and His Cornhuskers at 4:30 every evening except Sunday.

Rhodes was born on a farm north of Ozark in Christian County, but the family moved to Protem when he was in high school. In the summer of 1928 he got special permission to graduate from Gainesville High School. 

After graduation he went to St. Joseph looking for a job and met Robertson for the first time. After several years of farming and traveling, Rhodes finally found his path to a musical career and ended up at KWTO as a guitar and mandolin player.

Rhodes was a member of the Ozark Farm and Home Hour Gang of 1944 at KWTO, along with Robertson. 


Other musicians and personalities

Other notable KWTO musicians in the group were Slim Wilson, Bill Bailey, Jim West, Red Belcher and Floyd “Goo-Goo” Rutledge. All of these musicians would participate in the KWTO network radio barn dance show called ‘Korn’s-a-Krackin.’ It was the first network radio show to come out of Springfield, and their performances were heard across the country.

Rhodes later became part of Slim Wilson’s family group, the Goodwill Family during the 1940s.


Don Sullivan, Hollywood actor

Lonnie and Thelma probably never dreamed of working with a Hollywood actor at KWTO, but 1934 GHS grad Don Sullivan had three motion pictures under his belt when he became a member of the KWTO talent staff in 1944.

Like Robertson and Rhodes, Sullivan grew up with a musical background. He was born on July 5, 1917, in a log cabin about 10 miles west of Gainesville. His father had an old-time singing school, but Don was the only child who sought a career in entertainment.

After high school, he left with his guitar and headed for New York City to live with an older sister. His first radio gig was a Sunday afternoon performance on WBNX in New York. He started working with the British Broadcasting Corporation singing hillbilly songs on Radio Normandy in France. 

When the Germans began advancing in Europe, Sullivan returned to the United States and situated himself in California to get into the movie business. He got a movie contract with MGM and appeared in the 1941 MGM films Lady Be Good, Stick to Your Guns, and Texas, proclaimed at the time as the “biggest Western ever produced.” 

When World War II started, he enlisted and served in the Eighth Air Force in England before being given a medical discharge from O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield on June 25, 1944.

KWTO snapped up Sullivan in Springfield before Hollywood could reclaim him. Sullivan told the KWTO listener newsletter The Dial the happy news that he was going to stay in the Ozarks: “I like this part of the country and I like the people around KWTO and I’ve already informed my agent that I’m not interested—that I like radio work better than I do pictures.” 

Sullivan was on three shows a day at KWTO: the Ozark Farm and Home Hour Gang at 11 a.m., the MFA program at 12:15 p.m., and Lonnie and the Cornhuskers at 4:30 p.m. The KWTO staff called Sullivan the “International Cowboy” because of his western dress, love for horses, and previous movie roles with cowboy actors Tim McCoy and Hopalong Cassidy. Sullivan eventually moved on from KWTO to have a successful radio and television career in Kansas City.


Landon Hale

Another Ozark County radio celebrity worth mention is Landon Hale, son of Baptist preacher Jim Hale and teacher Zella Hale from Isabella. 

Hale’s life in music was obvious in 1925 when he and a couple of friends walked several miles just to hear the first broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1925. In 1946, the family moved to Pittsburg, Kansas, where Hale had a successful radio career at KOAM. 

His more recent claim to fame is his daughter, singer Jeannine Bryant, who performed in Springfield at Wild Bill’s and Country Music City during the 1970s.

Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423