Tim Sample: Stories I Never Told You

Maine homemade TV

Thu, 07/11/2013 - 8:30am

At age eight I contracted a serious case of the TV bug.

Not the common variety whose primary symptom is a compulsion to watch endless hours of television, but the infinitely more virulent strain characterized by an overwhelming urge to appear on television.

It all started innocently enough when my mom, serving a hitch as our Cub Scout den mother, loaded a boisterous scrum of 8- to 10-year-old Scouts into our Ford Country Squire station wagon (forest green with about a half acre of plastic-wood bolted to its gleaming metallic flanks) and drove us to the studios of WGAN TV in Portland to join the audience of the popular local program "The Ken MacKenzie Show."

Back then, when affiliates like WGAN worked hard to develop original programming to supplement the nationally syndicated network offerings, a fellow like MacKenzie, an affable country & western singer, guitarist and enthusiastic yodeler made the ideal host.

Basically a home grown version of big time “singing cowboys” like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Ken had paid his dues on the dance hall and county fair circuit. With his backup band, wife Simone and guest vocalist Betty Gribbin, he brought genuine talent to the brand new world of the tiny screen.

Not that I gave two hoots about any of that. Nope.

All I could think about while riding the elevator up to the TV studio was that I was finally entering “TV land.” Heck, for all I knew, I might bump into Annette Funicello. I had the TV bug all right, but, I sure wasn’t looking for a cure.

In the years since, I managed to find enough TV work to make a living at it. And while I never did meet Annette or any of the other Disney stars, I had plenty of fun along the way. Plus, I had the chance to meet some of Maine’s true TV pioneers; folks like Dick Stacey, Charlie Tenan, Curly O’Brien and Dick Curless.

By the time I met Curless in the early 1980s, he was an established country music legend with dozens of top 40 hits to his credit, including the 1965 Billboard Top 5 ballad “A Tombstone Every Mile,” in which he warns, in that trademark booming baritone voice, of the danger facing truckers foolish enough to drive on “ … a stretch of road up north in Maine … ”

The song’s title should give you a pretty good idea of how the story turns out.

Although Curless was the biggest star, the others (Dick Stacey, Curley O’Brien and Charlie Tenan) all earned their place in the Maine homemade TV Hall of Fame by virtue of their contributions to the legendary Country Jamboree show.

Originally broadcast late at night from a tiny studio in Bangor, The Country Jamboree ( universally known as “Frankenstein’s” for reasons that will soon become obvious ) quickly built a cult following.

The format couldn’t have been simpler. Charlie Tenan (later replaced by Dick Stacey) was the genial host of a rambling, off-the-cuff “not-so-grand old opry” style local talent/variety show.

Although there were “regulars,” like Jennie Shontell with her heartfelt rendition of the gospel standard "On the Wings of a Dove," people really tuned in because just about anybody could, and frequently did, walk in off the street and start performing.

Dick Stacey began hosting the show in 1973 and I believe the show was eventually broadcast from the downstairs lounge at his eponymous motel in Brewer. If memory serves, ads for the bar, called The Corral featured the tagline “Where stable people horse around.” Stacey even took the show on the road a few times, once filling a 2,000 seat auditorium in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

OK, but how come everybody called the show Frankenstein’s. Ah, it’s devilishly simple really. The show’s long time sponsor was Frankenstein’s, a general store in downtown Milbridge. The last time I saw Charlie Tenan, he asked me if I’d ever wondered how a store called Frankenstein’s came to be located in a remote village on the Maine coast.

Charlie’s explanation was a classic example of good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity.

Apparently the store had originally been called The Ben Franklin Store. Then, following a dust up of some sort with the home office, the franchise (including all rights to the name) was abruptly terminated.

What to do? Well, the owner obviously couldn’t continue using the original name.

But since the sign and the moveable theatre marquee style lettering that came with it was bought and paid for; he could do with it as he wished.

And that, dear friends, is a fresh, homemade slice of Maine TV history.