I'm driving by the old KNBY radio tower in Newport and thinking about Steve Stephens, the Arkansas broadcaster and communications pioneer. He's our own Dick Clark, and he never seems to age.
Stephens was born at Newport in April 1930. His parents owned a restaurant and service station. They later operated a furniture store during a period when downtown Newport was booming, its streets crowded until late each Saturday night with sharecroppers and tenant farmers who came to town to shop and maybe even attend a movie if there was a bit of change left over.
Stephens attended Castle Heights Military Academy at Lebanon, Tenn., for a time. He returned home to graduate from Newport High School in the spring of 1948, just a few months before my parents arrived in town as employees of the Newport School District. Stephens was enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville until the fall of 1950 when he decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned three battle stars in Korea, left the Marines in 1954 and began working for the family furniture business. With his golden voice, he naturally also worked part time at KNBY as an announcer.
The folks at KTHV-TV couldn't help but notice that voice when Stephens accompanied the band Sonny Burgess and the Pacers to Channel 11's Little Rock studios for a live appearance. He was offered a job as a booth announcer and decided to make the move to the capital city. Local dance shows were becoming popular in the still-young television industry, and Stephens was asked to launch a Saturday afternoon program known as Your Party in March 1957. It was an immediate sensation. Two months later, the show was airing six days a week and was now known as Steve's Show. The host changed his name from Rufus James Stephens to Stephen Owen Stephens.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Attendance at Steve's Show soon became so high that, in order to comply with the city's fire code, ticket reservations were required to limit the busloads of teenagers arriving from all over the state. Stephens helped launch the careers of Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Sonny Burgess, Fabian and many others who appeared on his program during a seven-year period ending in 1964. As a result of his continuing popularity, Stephens was awarded a recording contract and recorded several songs."
Stephens, in fact, came within one vote of being selected in 1960 by TV & Movie Screen Magazine as the nation's top local television personality.
My wife and I were married in 1989 and moved to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., following our honeymoon. I was doing political consulting for Little Rock financier Jack Stephens and told him that I would need to find a job for my spouse. He hired her and assigned her to Steve Stephens (the two men weren't related), who was the communications director for Stephens Inc. Having been born in 1959, I was too young to remember Steve's Show. But my sister, who remembered the show fondly, was impressed that my wife was now working for a man she considered to be a celebrity.
Steve Stephens is still plugging. I receive emails from him on a daily basis. His voice can be heard hosting the Biography Arkansas segments on public radio stations across the state. He has been doing that since 2005.
One of last summer's highlights came when Stephens asked me to introduce him at a banquet in Shreveport. He was honored for his achievements by the Mid-America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In addition to hosting his dance show, Stephens served as the KTHV weatherman from 1958-65 and produced the program Eye on Arkansas. He moved to Washington in 1965 to work for Sen. John L. McClellan and came back to Little Rock in 1968 to open a public relations firm.
While Stephens was becoming famous for hosting a dance show in Little Rock, another Arkansan was achieving fame doing the same thing in Baltimore. Like Stephens, Buddy Deane hailed from a town along the banks of the White River. Deane was born in August 1924 at St. Charles. He later began a radio career in Little Rock. From there, he went to Memphis and Baltimore. He was rated as the top radio personality in Baltimore at WITH-AM and was hired by WJZ-TV to host a dance show that ran six days a week. Bill Haley and the Comets performed "Rock Around the Clock" for the first time on Deane's show.
Deane's dance show was the basis for John Waters' movie Hairspray, which was released in 1988. His television program ran from 1957-64. Billboard named Deane as the country's top DJ in 1962.
In late 1963, Deane began meeting with those associated with the show to discuss integrating the dance floor. A new station manager decided to cancel the program, which aired for the last time on Jan. 4, 1964.
Deane stayed in Baltimore until late 1964 as the host of the morning show on WITH. He then returned to Arkansas as the owner of KOTN-AM in Pine Bluff. He sold the station in 1983, bought it back in 1995 and finally sold KOTN and several other stations he owned in early 2003. Deane, who died at age 78 in July 2003, was known on his morning show in Pine Bluff as the Morning Mayor.
"The death of Deane, the Pied Piper of mid-century Baltimore teens, will symbolize for many the day the music died," Michael Olesker wrote in the Baltimore Sun following Deane's death. "He caught a couple of big pop cultural waves that, in the American way, first created him and then banished him--and then created his dressed-up image all over again."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 06/15/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: The dance shows