From The Watauga Democrat
Fred Kirby Celebrates 80 Young Years,
Will Be Honored At Tweetsie This Saturday
By Jim Thompson
Editor's note: You might not know the names of the last five governors, but if you live in the Carolinas, you know who Fred Kirby is.
Three generations of North Carolinians have grown up listening to everyone's favorite marshal on WBT radio and then WBTV. Every Saturday morning, thousands switch on WBTV at 10:30 a.m. to enjoy `The Little Rascals" as presented by Fred Kirby.
Fred Kirby is the sort of man you never outgrow, just like you don't outgrow a favorite uncle.
This month, he celebrates his 80th birthday, on July 19.
Tweetsie Railroad, where he was marshal for almost 30 years, will honor this remarkable man on July 7. Fred Kirby Day will include a very special gift for him: Tweetsie is dedicated their new handicapped access equipment to him. This includes a ramp for the train itself, as well as for a bus that will take people to the top of the mountain. Plus, everyone in the High Country will have a chance to say hello to Fred Kirby again this weekend.
In this interview, everyone's favorite cowboy shared some memories of his career and life:
MT: How did you become a singing cowboy?
FK: Well, it started way back when I was in late teens. My mother taught me to play the guitar, and I always did like to sing. The late Jimmy Rodgers, the Blue Yodeler, I tried to sing exactly like he did. I loved all of his songs and wanted to copy him.
We lived in Florence, South Carolina, at that time. I went to Columbia to see my cousin on my birthday. My guitar had to be fixed, so my cousin took me to this music store. It was directly across from a radio station, WIS.
I got my guitar and I got it fixed and ready and my cousin Bill said "Would you like to see a radio station?" That was something I never dreamed I would see. I hadn't even been thinking about it, but I said I'd love to see it. So he took me across the street and said "go in and I'll be in in a little bit, I've got to call dad and tell him where we are." I went in the radio station and there wasn't a soul to be seen. It was just empty.
I went into the studio and there stood a mike. I'd seen pictures of them in the newspaper. There wasn't anybody around, so I thought, well, I might just as well pick my guitar and sing a few songs—pretend I'm on radio. So I picked every song I could think of and sang all the way through.
Then Charlie Crutchfield, who was President of our company, came out with the program director and said "well, you get the job, buddy."
I said, "what! I don't know what you're talking about." He said, "you called up this morning and made an appointment for an audition." I told them I didn't know anything about singing on a radio, but he said "you just did, you sang beautifully."
They had a 12 o'clock news and home and farm hour and I went on then. That was the beginning of my radio and television career. That was when I started singing professionally—though it wasn't very professional, they never did pay me. They gave me a set of guitar strings. (Laughs) I remained there for about seven or eight months.
MT: Then did you go on to Charlotte radio?
FK: Yes. This is weird; it sounds like something you wouldn't believe. There was this handwriting expert at WIS who was asking people to send in their names and he would tell their story, just from the name. He would read some of them over on the air.
So he just called me and said "Fred"—by the way, I told him my name was Freddie Kirby and he said "that just doesn't sound right. Why don't we just call you Fred Kirby?" Anyway, he took my name home and he came back the next day and said, "well Fred, you're planning to go to Charlotte, North Carolina, to WBT." I said, "how in the world did you know that, because I didn't tell a soul." He said, "you're going in a few weeks because you've got to have the measles first." Imagine all that—and I had the measles. After I got through with the measles, I took off for Charlotte. He told me they would hire me the next day, and sure enough they said "you've got the job."
MT: And you've been on WBT and WBTV ever since.
FK: Well, not ever since. I remained there for a good long while. I started off on Bill Davis' Cotton Blossoms, that was the music that was there, so I joined them, plus another show they gave me. We had a man named Clare Shadwell that went to WLW in Cincinnati and he called Don White and me—we did a duet on some of our stuff—and he said "how would like to come and be on WLW?" I said, "man alive, that's a big station! We'd love to." So we went to Cincinnati and we were on for a year. Don went with another outfit, and I got a call from WLS in Chicago wanting me to come to Chicago. I went there and remained for two years. Then they called me from KOMX in St. Louis, Missouri.
During the two years I stayed there, I sold over $1 million in war bonds. They had a little white house there on the square in St. Louis and that was where we entertained and sold war bonds.
Then Charlie Crutchfield, who had become program director of WBT in Charlotte, called me and said "don't you think it's about time you came home to the Briarhoppers?" And, boy, I was homesick, so I came back to the Briarhoppers and started another show for children, called Fred Kirby's Tiny Town.
Television signed on, and when it did, they switched my show over to TV and called it Junior Rancho. I've been there around 45 to 50 years.
Of course, I'm celebrating my 80th young birthday the 19th of this month.
MT: When people think of you, one of the first things that comes to mind is your love of children. Have you always loved children?
FK: That's something that's absolutely true. I'll tell you what changed me. I went to the Shriner's Hospital in St. Louis and visited there at least once a week. They took me over and I took them over. I'd sing to them and they'd smile ear to ear. I had always entertained for the physically and mentally handicapped.
But I said when I left St. Louis I would change my way of living, and devote myself to entertaining physically and mentally handicapped children. That's what I'm doing right now.
That's why I'm looking forward to coming up to Tweetsie. I'll be meeting my old Little Rascals pals, who grew up with me over the 30 years I've been on with the show—and the little ones now who watch.
MT: Do you plan to retire or keep going?
FK: I imagine someday they'll retire me again. But as long as I'm able I think they'll let me go.
Final message for all of Fred Kirby's High Country friends: "Tell everybody up there howdy for me!"