Couple seeks to restore Hayride to its former glory

(Tuesday, January 19, 1999)

By Mary Foster
Associated Press writer

SHREVEPORT, La. - Almost 40 years have passed since the sounds of the Louisiana Hayride floated out over the bayous and swamps of its home state, then west to the little towns and ranches of Texas, north and east to the hardscrabble farms of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and points beyond.

The live radio shows packed the Municipal Auditorium on Saturday nights and had people dancing on their porches, in their living rooms and in honky-tonks and churches around thecountry. The Hayride was Elvis Presley's first national stage and launched the careers of some of country music's biggest names.

Now Maggie and Alton Warwick are hoping to bring the Hayride back on a regular broadcast as it was back then.

"It's amazing how many people have stories about the Hayride," said Maggie Warwick, who first listened to the program as a west Texas teenager and later performed on the show.

"So many people remember the shows, being there or listening to them on the radio. It was a big part of our lives."

From 1948 to 1960 the Hayride blossomed in the region still known as the "Ark-La-Tex," a mix of cultures that included hillbilly, Western swing, blues, gospel, jazz and pop music.

"People think hillbilly is a derogatory term now," said Tillman Franks, a Hayride alumnus. "Back then it was just the kind of music a lot of people liked. They called it country and western later to try to dress it up, but it was pretty darn good when it was plain old hillbilly."

Aired live on 50,000-watt KWKH radio,the show was relayed nationally by CBS and overseas by Armed Forces Radio. As Saturday night entertainment, it was addictive.

"We had the only radio around and people came from all over to listen to the Hayride," John LeBlanc of Lafayette remembered. "We lived way out in the middle of nowhere, but come Saturday night the yard was full of pickups and our old Philco was playing full-blast."

The Shreveport Municipal Auditorium bustled every Saturday night with people jamming the aisles for music, comedy and contests all wrapped in a down-home atmosphere.

"They used to give away prizes. I guess they were from the sponsors," said architect Bill Weiner, who attended as a teenager. "I won it one night and I remember I got a bunch of stuff that seems pretty funny now -- loaves of bread, pots and pans, some dishes -- things a teenager wouldn't even take now."

It was on the Municipal Auditorium stage that Hank Williams built his reputation in the early 1950s, followed by Johnny Cash, Slim Whitman and Johnny Horton.

Elvis Presley started out earning $18 a show at the Hayride. Three years later, for his final performance, the show had to be moved from the 3,200-seat auditorium to the State Fair Grounds for the 10,000 teenage girls wanting to see The King.

"The gyrating rotary troubadour was seldom if ever heard by an audience, screaming every time he moved," the Shreveport Times reported the next day. "One of the finest displays of mass hysteria in Shreveport history."

It was at the Hayride in 1956 that producer Horace Logan tried to quiet the frenzied audience and coined a phrase by announcing, "Elvis has left the building."

The Hayride was called the "Cradle of the Stars" for the many young talents who appeared there before becoming famous and going on to the bigger, but more staid Grand Ole Opry -- Jim Reeves, Kitty Wells, Faron Young. Jimmie Davis, Louisiana's singing governor, was a regular. Gene Autry rode his horse onto the stage.

"The Hayride was where new things happened, where people got started," said Warwick, who appeared on the program in 1959 after winning a talent contest. "Shreveport was on the cutting edge back then. The Grand Ole Opry was too conservative."

The Opry was so conservative that it did not allow groups to have drums or horns and let Williams and Elvis perform only after they became successful.

"They came to the Hayride, and when they were famous from being there, the Opry took them," Franks said. "But they always belonged to us."

Today, with good times and casinos pumping money into the Shreveport economy, the Auditorium has been restored and the Warwicks, who own a production company and a record label, are hoping to bring the Hayride back.

The couple owns the rights to the Hayride name and their band performs regularly, attracting fans of the old show. On April 3, a 50th-anniversary salute to the Hayride will be performed at the Municipal Auditorium.


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