By Terry Hussey
"There were no rehearsals, and auditions were unheard of. The only thing you had to be to be on Stacey’s Country Jamboree was to be sincere and sober," said Charlie Tenan to the Milbridge historians, talking about the popular local TV talent show from the 70’s.
The real origin of the Country Jamboree was in Milbridge when local merchant Bob Whitten initiated the show in the late 1950s. Whitten was the owner of a Ben Franklin store on Main Street, where the Milbridge Market is today. According to Tenan, Whitten had a falling out with the Franklin chain and changed the name of his store to Frankensteins. It was Whittens Frankenstein Store that sponsored of the Country Jamboree.
"Bob bought two hours of air time [on TV channel 7 in Bangor] for $75," said Tenan. Then he invited his friend Tenan to MC the show. "What would I do?" asked Tenan.
"I don’t care what you do," said Whitten. "Just have a good time." And thus began Tenan’s 30 year career as host of the show. Others took over occasionally for short periods, but the show was largely Tenan’s.
The format was relaxed and unrehearsed. Anyone who played a guitar or sang could come to the studio and perform on the air. "We were just doing what a lot of people were doing in their own homes," said Tenan. "People loved it."
"It was all done live, and sometimes we made mistakes, but people loved us anyway. Made us more human. Most of the people were pretty good at what they did, but a few were 'less than talented,'" according to Tenan. But that was OK too. The show aired late at night, every Saturday night, and became a local legend Downeast.
Tenan's job was to keep the show moving at a good pace, and to make everyone feel comfortable. He had to keep talking to smooth out the rough places. He had to be able to think fast, respond to any possible situation, and never lose his cool. "We couldn’t prepare," said Tenan. "We never knew who was coming."
"Performers would walk in the studio and feel like they knew everybody up front. They felt like we should know them, because they knew us," he said.
"A lot of people don’t know about all the other things ob Whitten did," said Tenan. "Whitten was also the owner of Minot Film Exchange, the largest provider of education films in the United States at that time. You would be amazed at the number of films he mailed around the country."
Tenan said that Whitten owned the original film copy of "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" and "Leave her to Heaven." Whitten and Charlie Smith would take his films all over eastern Maine, showing them in town halls and theaters. They used carbon arc projectors to show the films.
Tenan said that Whitten told him that "One night the film we were showing was terrible. We weren’t very proud of it. When we put the last reel on the projectors, we showed the janitor how to turn it off, grabbed the cash box and ran out the door."
Whitten showed films in Milbridge at the old roller rink, which was then located where the municipal safety complex is today. Later he converted it to the opera house. And he held dances at the rink. Most of the old timers in the room had fond memories of attending those dances.
"Each time a new station manager came into WAII, the first thing they would say was that they were going to cancel the Jamboree. And then he would take a look at the Nielsen ratings. We could outrank the big network late shows every time, so they left us alone," said Tenan.
The show went on, sponsored by Frankenstein's, until Whitten’s death. "Then the station tried to get me to get new sponsors, but I wasn’t much of a salesman," said Tenan. "The station kept enough sponsors to keep us on the air until one night in 1973 when Dick Stacey entered the picture. Stacey owned three gas stations. He said he would take the show for a 13 weeks trial period, and he kept it for ten years and 13 weeks," said Tenan.
Tenan said the show aired from a very small studio on the Farm Road in Bangor, a room not much larger than the Historical Society's meeting room. "And every week there were 100 or more people in the room, two cameras, and a band. I'd look out in the parking lot, and it would be full of $90,000 Winnebagos, people who drove a long way to see the show."
Stacey was often a performer on the show, but the host was still Tenan. "If you’d hear me sing, you’d know why I pump gas for a living," said Stacey. Stacey did most of the commercials too, a feature many listeners enjoyed almost as much as they did the music. Many of the same regular performers came back week after week, but Tenan was the only paid performer.
"We were like a big old family," said Tenan. "We really cared about each other."
Stacey put the show on cable, and we watched as it moved down the coast, through the Canadian Maritimes. "We started getting mail from New Brunswick, then Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and even Newfoundland. They knew us in every little town, all along the line. We had letters from all over."
"A couple of times we took the show on the road, all the way down to Nova Scotia. We filled a 2,000-seat auditorium in Dartmouth and played for a full house two nights in St. John's."
Faithful listeners soon got to know regulars like Wanda Harris, who went on to be the top female vocalist in Florida, and Perley Curtis, who today plays for Loretta Lynn. "Jeff Simon started on the show when he was about 11 or 12 years old. He has his own band today. Donnie and Dwayne Nickerson started on the show, and today are touring with their own band.
"Everybody remembers Jennie Shontell from Bucksport," said Tenan. Her trademark was her song, "On the wings of a snow white dove," one of her repertoire of about five songs that she could sing, according to Tenan.
Tenan showed the historians a film of the show, put together by Alan Grover of channel five News. It was made from the original show masters, and showed clips of many of the old stars.
"Of course as our ratings went up, the price for advertising went up too. Soon it was $70,000 for what Whitten had paid $75. The end finally came in 1983 when the production of the show was getting just too costly, and advertising was just too hard to come by," said Tenan.
"The group had a reunion in 1990 at Jordan's Snack Bar in Ellsworth, and it was wonderful," he said. "We were just like a family, and it was great to be together again."
Morrill Worcester tried to revive the show on cable a few years ago. He could send it from Maine to Alaska by satellite. "It worked for a while," Tenan said, "and we were still getting 35-40 phone calls every night we were on the air. There’s still plenty of people who enjoy this kind of show."
"I did it for 30 years, and I loved it," said Tenan. "If my health allowed, I'd do it again tomorrow." Tenan is hoping to get a reunion group together next summer.