leftColAlbum Cover

They called him the nation's "Victory Cowboy" during the war years . . . because Fred Kirby yodeled in over five million dollars worth of bond sales for Uncle Sam. That's a lot of yodeling ... and it took the friendliness and warmth of Fred Kirby's familiar voice to "put it over" with such a bang.

Hill-billy music, a rich and wondrous part of American history, is ideally suited for Fred's melodious, happy-go-lucky voice. His repertoire includes much of the folklore of the southern hills . . . which may be one reason for his tremendous popularity on WBT's "Briarhoppers," a six day a week hill-billy jamboree originating in Charlotte, North Carolina.

But even with his past success and future promise, Fred Kirby has a smile and a handshake for all who cross his path. He is indeed the Pied Piper of the hill-billy ballad.

— Liner notes
"Hill-billy Tunes"
c. 1947

 

 

 

Galleries | Diane's Scrapbook

A daughter's memorabilia of Fred Kirby's life and career
  • Fred at 24. He had been at WBT for three years.
  • Cover of an early songbook of Fred's tunes.
  • Inside page of the songbook.
    Odd that no mention was made of WBT
  • A sponsored promotion piece with his partner Bob Phillips.
    At this point Fred had not settled on a cowboy identity. He was part farmer, brakeman and "hill-billy."
  • And here's what it was advertising.
  • Another songbook from the 1930s.
  • Already with a record contract! Moving on up.
  • Fred at WLW Cincinatti.
  • A late '40s songbook. Now he is, and forever will be, a cowboy.
    Songbooks were immensely popular in pre-television days, when many people relied on their own pianos for enjoyment.
  • An ad inside for Fred's biggest hit.
  • Words and music for Atomic Power.
  • Another hit: It Makes No Never Mind.
    Note that it was sung by Merle Travis.
  • A page of photos in the book.
  • More photos.
  • Fred, vintage World War II.
  • A public appearance promotion from the '80s.
  • Fred in attack mode in WBTV's Studio One.
  • From The State profile, Dec. 1992.
  • Fred with his long-time sidekick, Uncle Jim (Patterson).
  • Fred on a float in some Christmas parade.
  • A sketch accompanying a profile in the Winston-Salem Journal.
 

Click an image to start the show...

Charlotte Observer - June 1, 1975

A Childhood Drama On Junior Rancho

By PAT BORDEN, Observer Staff Writer

As a child who grew up with television — and television in Charlotte — I also grew up with Fred Kirby. And somewhere in that growing-up, which included a year or so in Texas and a crush on most every singing cowboy, as well as their horses, it was as necessary as breathing that I appear on "Junior Rancho."

I expect I was around 10, that day of my television debut which ended in heartbreak.

THE DETAILS of the "Junior Rancho" day have faded — as well as the grief — with the quarter-century separating now and then.

But I do recall the nervous excitement I felt, the way my fingers trembled as I buckled on my beloved colored-glass-studded cowboy belt (I had to wear suspenders with it, but under my shirt). No matter that my little-girl jeans bagged in the rear, bagged in the waist, bagged in the legs — I sensed I was destined for the bigtime.

I was going to be on Television. On "Junior Rancho" — an event planned and anticipated and discussed to rags and tatters before it ever came about. When it finally did, my parents chauffeured me to the WBTV station in our old green DeSoto. I was nearly paralyzed with excitement.

In the studio, children milled and parents hovered, until they were sent Thursdayage set and monitor, respectively.

I, a skinny child with braids and big front teeth, was squeezed between squirmy bodies to wait for the Big Moment. I remember a wood bench around the old corral but mostly I remember the revered Presence: Fred Kirby's entrance. He seemed very large and overwhelmingly happy.

To be quite honest, I noticed Fred Kirby out of the corner of my eye, which was otherwise glued on the television camera from the moment I'd identified it for what it was: my gateway to greatness.

I'M SURE I never smiled as I smiled then, a toothy, enduring grin which must have caused my cheeks to go into a muscle spasm later.

The time went by in a flash. It seemed that Fred Kirby had no more than hollered, "Hello, boys and girls!" sung a song or two and jollied it up with several of the children — on the other side of the bench, although I leaned (still smiling) as far in that direction as I could — when it was over.

When the lights went off and the children were gathered up, my parents told me that they never, not once, not for the briefest of moments, got to see me on the television screen. The cameraman either didn't see or saw all too well, the kid who was mugging it up. (Of course, that's a conclusion drawn many years after the fact. All I knew at the time was numbness, a strong sense of failure.)

We got back in our old green De-Soto and very quietly went home.

* * *

I CONTINUED to wear my glass-studded cowboy belt however. One disappointment does not a cowgirl unmake. And because of that belt, I achieved a small but satisying victory in the fourth grade. Which I'll tell to offset the tragedy of this story.

* * *

A BOY in my classroom noticed the belt one day and — he said — wanted to admire it close up. Would I take it off and let him hold it?

Sure, I said, and did, handing him the belt with pride.

"Hah," he gloated. "Now your pants'll fall off!"

"Nope," I said, pulling my shirt out of my jeans. "I wear suspenders, too."

Charlotte Observer - June 1, 1975

'You Just Can't Feel Bad When You're Around Him'

By Lew Powell, Observer Staff Writer

THE STORIES Fred Kirby tells about himself are worn smooth, not by craft but by sheer force of time. With each telling they become more like parables.

One of 10 children of an evangelistic circuit rider, 16-year-old Freddy Kirby wandered into a radio station in Columbia, S.C., with his $7.50 guitar. A microphone on an empty stage tempted him to try a couple of songs. Suddenly, three station executives who had been waiting for another singer to audition appeared out of nowhere and said, "You're hired, son." One of them, he says, was Charles Crutchfield, now president of WBT. Crutchfield was working at the Columbia station at that time but can't recall the incident.

Kirby dropped out of school and after a few months in Columbia was hired by WBT. Kirby stayed 10 years before leaving for radio stations in Cincinnati (where he and a fledgling singer named Doris Day had the same voice teacher), Chicago and St. Louis.

In St. Louis he was designated the Victory Cowboy for his efforts in selling war bonds. On the wall of his office is a color photo showing him in a white Hank Williams style cowboy Suit, one hand holding a sheaf of war bonds, the other pointing I-want-you. He is enclosed in a huge neon V and flanked by American flags.

In 1945 he returned to Charlotte and the Briarhoppers country music show, which was emceed by Charles Crutchfield. When the show was cancelled after a couple of years, Kirby was kept on to run "Tiny Town USA" and later "Junior Rancho," one of the first local television programs.

Shortly after his return he took a brief leave of absence to appear in "Kentucky Jubilee," a low-budget Hollywood movie starring Jerry Colonna. He sang "I've got that pistol-packin' mama" to a blonde, who shot his hat off, but most of his other scenes were cut. The experience forever cured him of Hollywood fever, he says.

"UNTIL THEN I had wanted to be a singing cowboy like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers . . . But I went out there for this movie, and for the first time in my life, I was thoroughly disgusted with the way people lived. They cut you down, they shyster you ... I saw little girls making up to casting directors they wouldn't have come within a mile of, otherwise. That's when I decided to leave, that's what ended my wish."

That same year Kirby, moved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wrote a song called "Atomic Power." ("Atomic pow-wer, atomic pow-wer, it was given by the mighty hand of God . .") Again, though, he was crushed in the machinery; his own recording was poorly distributed, he says, although two others sold a million copies all together. He estimates that he's written more than 600 songs in his lifetime, from "Jukebox Jackson From Jacksonville" to "God Bless the Little Ones That They May Walk Again" to "The Old Country Preacher," a tribute to his father, recorded by Red Foley.

As a singer, Kirby is . . . well, enthusiastic. "My father always said, 'Freddy, you can't sing so good, but you can sure sing," he says. His early hero was Jimmie Rodgers, a seminal figure known as the Singing Brakeman and America's Blue Yodeler. In the beginning, Kirby often wore overalls when he performed but decided "to go Western" because of the popularity cowboys enjoyed with children.

Also in 1945, Kirby made his television debut in a country music show in Constitution Hall in Washington. Jimmy Dean, then a back-up musician, told him, "Fred, I want to be just like you."

Fred Kirby smiles. "And just look where he's gone," he says matter-of-factly.

"FRED KIRBY HERE TONIGHT," the sign says.
He makes a good part of his comfortable living playing places like Mom 'n' Pop's Family Steak House in Coulwood. The Saturday night crowd is mostly white, casually dressed, in search of meat-and-potatoes and a night's reprieve from TV reruns.

Kirby heads for a booth in the back. Before he can take a bite of his salad he is set upon by kids wanting him to sign their paper placemats. "Oh, Fred," a waitress tells him, "it was so dead before you got here. We were all waiting for you."

Bill and Carolyn Helton of Stanley are sharing a table with Ronald and Etta Wade of Mount Holly. Both couples came, with their children, to see Fred Kirby. "There's something about him," Helton says. "You just can't feel bad when you're around him ... And he makes the kids eat their meals, too — I told Cristie that Fred wouldn't come if she didn't eat."

For almost three hours (though he was being paid for only two) Kirby wanders from table to table, playing his ancient repertoire, giving children the Little Rascals high sign, handing out pictures, signing autographs, posing for Polaroid snapshots.

Except for a couple of teen-agers going through the I-could-just-die stage and a table of out-of-towners unaccustomed to bursts of yodeling with their chopped sirloin, everyone loves him.
By 9:15 the place is about cleared out, and Kirby packs up his guitar. As he leaves, a young black man waiting for a take-out order says, "Hey, Fred -- when you gonna run 'Yum, Yum, Eat 'Urn Up' again?"

* * *

"Fred has followed sick and handicapped children through life, and on to death with leukemia, etc." —Fred Kirby press release

IT BEGAN, this love affair with children, at a Shriners hospital in St. Louis. Since then, Fred Kirby has spent hundreds of hours a year with the crippled, the retarded, the sick.

Struggling Cub Scout troops ask him to help revive interest; mothers call on him to tell Tommy to quit sucking his thumb. No function is beneath him when children are involved.

But the handicapped receive his greatest attention. "The only time I've ever seen Fred upset by criticism was when he got a letter asking why he was always talking about handicapped children, why didn't he talk about the ones who were well," Uncle Jim Patterson says. "That really got to him."

"A lot of entertainers, like other people, give lip service to the mentally retarded," says Jim Brooks, a recreational therapist at Western Carolina Center in Morganton, "but they don't want to get involved in it ... Fred Kirby really puts himself out."

* * *

FRED KIRBY and his family live in a two-bedroom, brown brick ranch-style house in Indian Trail. Displacing the cars in the garage is an 1880 surrey Kirby rescued from Tweetsie Railroad and restored.

Inside, Mary Kirby and daughter Nanette, 15, are busy cooking for the next day's Kirby family reunion in Columbia, S.C. Fred's seven surviving brothers and sisters all live in the area.

This is Kirby's second family. He has three grown daughters from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

Fred Kirby and Mary Burke met 20 years ago. She had just moved to Charlotte from Atlanta and was working as a PBX receptionist at WBT. "I remember seeing this grown man coming down the hall in a cowboy suit and thinking he must have fallen out of a tree on his head," she said. "The name Fred Kirby didn't mean a sack of salt to me."

Kirby's tiny office, situated off the kitchen, looks like a miniature museum. The walls are covered with memorabilia: A photo of him and the original Calico (now 30 and retired) passing the reviewing stand at Truman's inauguration. Keys to the city from Whitmire, S. C., Rockwell, N. C., and Miami. Framed words of inspiration. Shelves of pictures, baby shoes and hand-painted horses given him by his "special children."

On the sofa in the living room is a patchwork pillow sent by a retarded woman in Kingsport, Tenn. She is 26 now. The pillow contains squares from each of the 130 dresses she has worn since she was a baby. A photo: another retarded woman, 29, in a wedding dress. She wanted to marry Fred Kirby; he obliged, mock ceremony and all.

He pulls out a stack of old photos and souvenirs. A booklet from a Chicago radio station shows Kirby in overalls, Andy Williams as a member of the Williams Brothers and a country comedian who would later change his name from Georgie Goebel to George Gobel. Publicity stills pair him with Piper Laurie and Tony Curtis, Gene Autry, Audie Murphy. A picture of the Briarhoppers show brings back a memory. "We always called that girl 'little 14-year-old Betty Johnson'...She was 16 really, and she always resented it."

* * *

IT'S EASY ENOUGH to snicker at Fred Kirby, to write him off as an aging Ponderosa Pollyanna who never made it big. The landmarks of his career are the Roy Rogerses, Jimmy Deans and Doris Days who passed him by. He has had no knack with what money he has made; he hopes life insurance will take care of his family.

None of these things — which the rest of us like to think of as the hard realities of a man's life — seem to faze him. "In my world," he says, "people are wonderful."

In the beginning Fred Kirby created himself in the image of other singing cowboys; now there is just him. By perseverance he has become a sort of back-formation original.

His talent, clearly, is not singing. It is being Fred Kirby. Says Jim Patterson: "If I put on that outfit, they'd say, 'Who's THIS dude?" With Fred, it's no facade. He doesn't have to play-act."

But hair dye and eyeglasses from outer space only delay the inevitable. On doctor's orders, he no longer leaps from Tweetsie to wrestle with the Indians. "I'll keep on in a wheelchair if I have to," Kirby says, and he just may.

* * *

FRED KIRBY has been talking about his experiences in New York and Hollywood. Old memories, old dreams, have been stirred. "Naturally, anybody is ambitious," he begins. "If a good part came along, with a studio like Paramount, I might ..."

 

The Charlotte News, June 10, 1979

* * * Singing Railroad Protector * * *

Legendary 'Marshal' Kirby Would Do It The Same Again

"How old did you say you were?" I asked WBTV's singing cowboy Fred Kirby.

"I didn't say," he replied. "I'm as young as I feel. And I feel pretty good."

What it boils down to is that Fred has been feeling good for a long time—more years than many of us can remember. Come July he will mark his 30th anniversary with the television station and his 21st season as chief marshal of Tweetsie Railroad, the famous train that chugs through the North Carolina mountainside each summer.

"Marshal Kirby, that's what they call me," he said with a chuckle. "My job is to protect the passengers from the outlaws and Indians who attack the train. I figure I'll be making my 100,000th trip this summer, but I don't ride as much as I used to. We get the students from Appalachian State University to do that. They're deputy marshals.

"Most of the time I stay in the station, talk to the people and look after the children who need assistance."

Kirby has lived in Charlotte so long most folks probably figure he's a native. As a matter of fact, he is. He was born on the city's east side. During his early teens he picked up a guitar and started singing cowboy songs.

"The first job I had was with radio station WIS in Columbia. I went down there to be on a show. I broke a string on my guitar and went into a music store to get a new one. The radio station was just across the street and a friend took me inside.

"I was really excited. I had never been in a radio station before. I walked in an noticed no one was there. But there was a microphone in a studio. It seemed to be there just for me so I started picking and singing as if I were on the air. I sang every song I knew.

"What I didn't know was that microphone was there for a young boy who was supposed to come in for an audition. A group of station executives were listening and apparently thought I was the one. At any rate, I got the job. The other boy never showed up."

WBT brought Kirby to Charlotte in the mid-30's. Except for about five years in Cincinnati and St. Louis, he's been here ever since.

"They called me back to sing with the old Briarhoppers," Kirby recalled. "But I got to doing other things, too."

One of the things he did was sign a contract with a Hollywood movie company. Visions of becoming another Gene Autry danced in his head. The company, Grand National Pictures, signed him for eight movies and gave him $500 to get to Hollywood. There was just one thing wrong. The company went broke before he could get there.

"I can't say I'm too sorry with the way things turned out," said Kirby. "Some years ago I did go to Hollywood for a movie, but I was disappointed in the place. I didn't like the way they did business. I was glad to get back to television.

Kirby works anywhere from 10 to 100 hours a week, depending on his schedule. Sunday is his busy day. He's on WBTV's educational "Whistle Stop" show at 8:30 a.m., then back at 12:30 to host the Little Rascal comedies. Before the week is out, he may ride in a parade, make a few personal appearances or even write a few songs.

"I've written between 600 and 800," he said. "I write some for the Whistlestop Show. Last Christmas I rode in nine parades. But my horse Calico is the main attraction.

The horse is a story in itself.

"I'm on my fourth Calico. I got the first one when Harry Truman was about to be inaugurated president. The Oxen Hill, Maryland, Saddle Club gave it to me to ride in a parade.

"I don't often take the horse to Tweetsie. Last time I did, hundreds of people flocked around Calico and nobody was riding the train."

Kirby sees himself as a children's entertainer and pays particular attention to the physically handicapped.

"They need love and special attention," he commented.

"That's been a pleasure for 35 years, entertaining children," he said. "It started when I went to the Shriners' Hospital in St. Louis to do a show, and frankly I haven't wanted to do anything else since.

"I think if I were just starting out today, I'd do exactly what I've done, though I may do some things differently. I've had a good family life. I have four daughters, the youngest is 20. Don't ask me the age of the oldest. I don't even know."

Fred Kirby is a legend in his own time. Just ask the kids.

The State, December 1992

TAR HEEL PROFILE: The Last Singing Cowboy

By Art Weinstein

Fred Kirby spent more than a half-century touching young lives through a variety of children's shows on Charlotte's radio and television airwaves.

His name is legend to thousands of people who grew up in Piedmont North Carolina. As the Carolinas' original singing cowboy, he had a way with children like few others.

Fred Kirby touched many lives during a television and radio career that spanned more than a half-century. From the 1940s well into the 1980s, whether he was hosting "Fred Kirby's Little Rascals" or one of his other children's shows on Charlotte's WBTV, or serving as the marshal at Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, Kirby has had an undeniable impact on those who grew up watching him.

He's 82 years old now, living with his wife, Mary, in Indian Trail near Charlotte. The years have passed, but Kirby's many fans would instantly recognize the sparkle in his eyes and his ready smile.

To be sure, he was more than a children's entertainer. During the 1930s and 1940s, Kirby was one of the most popular entertainers in the South, and his work was known all over the country. He was a member of the Briarhoppers country and bluegrass music group, longtime performers on Charlotte's WBT radio. He tried his hand at acting in Hollywood. The singing cowboy also composed hundreds of songs for MGM, including the 1945 million-seller "Atomic Power."

His younger fans probably don't remember that song, but if they grew up within a 75-mile radius of Charlotte and the signal of WBTV, they will almost certainly remember this song:

"How we love the Little Rascals,
Little Rascals, Little Rascals,
How we love the Little Rascals,
Little Rascals all day."

The tune, of course, is from his popular Sunday afternoon children's show, "Fred Kirby's Little Rascals," which first aired in the mid-1960s.

"I just got the idea and wrote the song in one night," says Mr. Kirby. "Not much to it."

The show featured episodes from the popular 1930s serial "Little Rascals," but Kirby was the real star. Dressed in his trademark outfit — red shirt with white fringe, cowboy hat and twin Colt .45s —he shared the stage with his beautiful horse, Calico. The show, like his many other children's shows, was immensely appealing to kids.

Kirby was but a kid himself when he got started in entertainment. He was born one of 10 children in Charlotte on July 19, 1910. One day when he was 17, he recalls going to visit his cousin in Columbia, South Carolina. Already fancying himself as a musician, he took his guitar to a music store in town for repairs. Across the street was radio station WIS. One thing led to another, and young Fred, curious about the new technology of radio, walked over to the station for a visit.

"I went into the studio and didn't see a soul, but I saw the microphone," says Kirby. "I said, 'I'm going to take advantage of this while there's nobody here.' I picked up my guitar and started pickin' and singin'. I sang every song I could think of and still nobody came in. Then I just quit and put my guitar up, and lo and behold, an announcer came out with the program director and said, `You're hired.'"

That announcer was Charles Crutchfield, who would later become general manager of WBT radio and WBTV television in Charlotte. The two men would go on to forge a working relationship for five decades.

Fred moved to WBT while still in his teens and stayed for the next few years. Then he hit the road, working for a few years at a time at some of the largest stations in the country — WLW in Cincinnati, WLS in Chicago and KMOX in St. Louis. These were the golden days of radio. On WBT alone, the powerful signal went out at night all over the East Coast, from Florida to Canada. Gene Autry may have been the original singing cowboy, but Kirby's act was popular with millions of radio listeners.

It was during this period that he adopted his familiar cowboy attire. It was also during this time he discovered his love for children while entertaining at a Shriners' hospital in St. Louis.

"That changed my life," he says. "I was entertaining adults at that time but loved children and always sang to them. I came back to Charlotte after playing the Shriners' hospital. I promised God that I would dedicate my time and my talents to entertaining children."

So at WBT radio, he started a children's show, "Tiny Town USA." When WBTV signed on the air as the first television station in the Carolinas in 1949, Kirby had the third local live broadcast ever aired on the station, a children's show entitled "Junior Rancho." The names of his shows may have changed over the years, but Kirby's love for entertaining and helping children has never waned.

"Fred had a great rapport with kids," remembers Crutchfield. "I had him out one day when a grandchild of mine had a birthday. These kids just had a fit. He sang, and he talked their language. That's why he was so successful up at Tweetsie Railroad."

Kirby was a natural for the job at Tweetsie, which he began in 1957. Several times each day, as visitors rode the Tweetsie train through the mountain park, it would come under "attack" from a band of Indians or outlaws — actually, college students played the role, but if you were a terrified kid, this concept did not register. Invariably, Marshal Fred Kirby would ride to the rescue.

"They said I was the very thing they needed for the marshal at Tweetsie Railroad, and I enjoyed that very much," Kirby says.

True to form, however, he gave up the mock gun battles after 20 years. Seems he wasn't finding enough time to greet the kids visiting the park. For the next 10 years he served as a goodwill ambassador at Tweetsie.

On the wall in Fred's study are plaques, photos and other mementos from his lifetime in entertainment. There are letters of commendation from several former North Carolina governors. There's a photo of Kirby riding Calico past President Harry Truman in his inaugural parade in Washington in 1949 (Fred received the first Calico —altogether there were eight of them —as a gift from some fans in Maryland before the parade). There is a scale model of the train from Tweetsie Railroad, the train Kirby so faithfully rescued all those times.

"It's a rewarding thing," says Kirby, pointing out the various mementos.

He says he never expected any awards for his work with children's charities or his association with children's shows. Still, he realizes that after a lifetime in entertainment, his cup runneth over. With some degree of pride, he produces a picture of a man on a horse. The picture is signed: "To Fred Kirby, the last singing cowboy — with very best wishes from the first. . . . Gene Autry."

As a youngster growing up in Charlotte, Art Weinstein religiously spent Sunday afternoons watching Fred Kirby's Little Rascals." He now writes for The Leader, a Charlotte weekly and The State's sister publication.

Rock Hill Herald, April 24, 1996

Hundreds bid final farewell to TV cowboy

By Harvey Burgess, Special to the Herald

CHARLOTTE — Several hundred of Fred Kirby's closest friends gathered Wednesday to bid farewell to the legendary singing cowboy.

Kirby, 85, died Monday in his sleep, leaving a legacy of fond memories after more than half a century on radio and television.

Kirby left thousands of York County-area fans with happy recollections of his songs and appearances at the York County Fair. His sister, Virginia Newton, who lives in the Rock Hill area, had visited with Kirby the weekend before his death.

People attending his memorial service Wednesday at Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte lined up like a "Who's Who" of local broadcasting.

"Simply put, I loved the man," WBTV newscaster Bob Inman said. "There wasn't an unkind bone in his body."

Tears welled in Loonis McGlohon's eyes at the memory of an old friend he described as "the most compassionate person I ever knew."

Mourners sang Kirby's favorite hymns, "How Great Thou Art" and "Holy, Holy, Holy" as friends and fans of all ages listened to the Rev. Dr. C. Allen Laymon, pastor of Park Road Baptist, speak of the man who "never refused to come and entertain the children."

"I doubt there's a person in here who can't sing 'How We Love the Little Rascals,"' Laymon said, referring to one of the popular theme songs of Kirby's afternoon television children's show that enthralled thousands of youngsters during three decades following World War II.

Laymon said Kirby, the son of a minister, often told him he wondered what it would have been like had he gone into the ministry.

"I told him he had his own ministry," Laymon said, "And that he was far more effective in what he did by simply being who he was."

"Everybody in here has a story to tell," said former Mecklenburg County Sheriff C.W. Kidd. It was at Kidd's Rocking K Ranch that Kirby housed his horse, Calico, during the singing cowboy's celebrated career.           

Atomic Power

John Hutchinson, now president and general manager of WBTV, remembers when he was a first-grade "Buckaroo" and sat with Kirby's "Junior Ranchers" in the "peanut gallery" with Kirby and his sidekick, the late "Uncle Jim" Patterson.

"I never dreamed I'd graduate from college and come to work at the station as a stage hand for (Kirby's) show," Hutchinson said.

"The funniest thing I remember about that later time was that whenever Fred forgot a line in s script, he'd start yodeling or singing `Atomic Power,' " Hutchinson said.

The big-hearted cowboy, always seen in public in his fringed shirt and white cowboy hat, "also was the only person who was allowed in the station wearing a gun," Hutchinson said.

Kirby worked tirelessly for charity, often helping out in fund-raisers for Belmont's Holy Angels Nursery and the Shriners' Crippled Children's Hospitals.

A private interment followed Wednesday's memorial service.

Kirby is survived by his wife, Mary Burke Kirby, four daughters, eight grandchildren and scores of great-great grandchildren.

The Charlotte Observer, April 23, 1996

Kids' hero, TV cowboy Fred Kirby dies at 85

By PAT BORDEN GUBBINS, Staff Writer

Charlotte's singing cowboy has hung up his six-shooters for good.

Fred Kirby, loved by fans in the Piedmont for his yodel, his horse Calico and his kindness to children, died Monday, April 22, 1996.

He was 85 and died in his sleep at his home in Indian Trail.

Kirby, with his cowboy hat shading a set of dark eyes and a gap-toothed grin, was a local hero for children and adults alike.

He began his broadcasting career on radio in the 1920s and appeared on television before most Americans had ever even heard of it. By the time he had retired from Charlotte's WBTV in 1976, he had earned the title of the longest-running children's show host in America.

"When Fred Kirby spoke to you, it was like you were the only kid in the world," said Phyllis Keels, a 37-year-old data processor from Salisbury. She appeared on Kirby's "The Little Rascals" television show in the '60s when she lived in Shelby. She had won a bicycle. "With a banana seat and butterfly handlebars. There was just something really wholesome about Fred Kirby."

After a radio career that included a coast-to-coast CBS show titled "Carolina Calling," Kirby started his television career in 1951 on WBTV with "Junior Rancho." It was followed by "The Little Rascals," "Looneytune Jamboree," "Ricochet Round-Up" and "Whistlestop," all on WBTV.

If you missed him on the airwaves, you might have seen him riding Calico in the Carrousel Parade on Thanksgiving Day, upholding the law as make-believe marshal at the Tweetsie Railroad theme park near Boone, or visiting children in hospitals across the country.

His audience kept on loving him, well into adulthood. There are plenty of Carolinians older than 30 who can still sing: "How . . . we . . . love the Little Rascals, Little Rascals, Little Rascals . . . " and who recall Kirby's pardner Uncle Jim, Jim Patterson, who died in 1986.

Shannon Reichley, WBTV news director, remembers the stir Kirby created last year when he stopped by the station and was spied by a church group from Salisbury.

"He had his cowboy hat on," Reichley said. "Those forty-something folks saw him, and they went nuts. It was a very touching thing."

For any child who loved to play cowboy, Kirby was the real thing.

Union County Sheriff Frank McGuirt remembers the first parade he attended in uptown Charlotte when he was an elementary school student in the early 1950s.

Parade grand marshal William Boyd, who starred in the "Hopalong Cassidy" TV series, got polite applause, said McGuirt. "And then Fred came along, and the crowd went wild."

Ratings in February and March 1972 showed more than 200,000 folks tuned in to see Fred Kirby and "The Little Rascals," which came on Sundays at noon. At least one minister was known to let his congregation leave early so they could catch the show.

Kirby took his responsibility to children seriously. "I try to be a good example," he once told a reporter. "I don't drink or smoke, and I don't go places I wouldn't take my 12-year-old daughter, Nanette."

He made himself accessible. He visited hospitals, made endless personal appearances and invited kids to join him on the air.

For many, one of the great joys of childhood was to appear on "Junior Rancho."

Parents watched a monitor in another room, while Kirby had his small guests perch on the split-rail fence that made up his set.

He typically pulled out his guitar, did his trademark yodel and sang a couple of songs. He walked along the fence and talked with some of the kids, who were electrified to be in his presence. Kirby favored colorful cowboy shirts, loaded with fringe and fancy embroidery.

McGuirt never got to be on the show, but he was a proud member of the Junior Rancho Club. He had a special decoder that went with the membership.

"He aired a secret message, and you had to have the decoder to get the message," McGuirt said. "It was usually something about child safety or 'Do your homework.'"

When he grew up to become sheriff, McGuirt was surprised when Kirby sent him contributions for each of his four campaigns. "He lived in Indian Trail," just inside Union County, McGuirt said. "He seemed to become a fan of mine, after I was a fan of his. I hope so, anyway."

Kirby was born in Charlotte on July 19, 1910, one of 10 children of a Methodist minister.

His mother taught him to play on a $7.50 guitar. When he was 17, Kirby's family lived in Florence, S.C. On a trip to Columbia, the young Kirby visited radio station WIS, where he was invited to play and sing. That earned him his first radio job.

After eight months, he moved to WBT, where he starred for the next 10 years.

One of his earliest idols was the Father of Country Music — Jimmie Rodgers, known for his yodeling.

"I tried to emulated his 'Blue Yodel,'" Kirby said in an interview in January, one of his last. "Somebody told me, 'Fred, why don't you stop emulating Jimmie Rodgers and start emulating yourself?' So I changed. And I started writing my own songs."

He would go on to write more than 500 of them, including his 1946 million-selling "Atomic Power," about the awesome power of nuclear energy. But his favorite was "The Old Country Preacher," which he wrote it memory of his father.

Kirby often performed on WBT radio with a country band called the Briarhoppers. One band member, 86-year-old Don White (of Indian Trail), met Kirby on WBT radio in 1935. Four years later they got together as "The Smiling Cowboys" on radio station WLW in Cincinnati. Their material in cluded Kirby compositions like "My Old Saddle Horn Is Missing."

Later, they changed their name to the Carolina Boys.

"We did sing-through-your nose country," White said. "Fred was a nice guy to work with. He had a good sense of humor."

Kirby left Charlotte for several years and traveled to stations as far away as Chicago and St Louis.

During World War II, Kirby met some of the most famous names in American show business, including Doris Day. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau Jr. proclaimed Kirby "The Victory Cowboy" for helping to sell millions of dollars in war bonds and raising money for charities.

Over the years, Kirby had eight horses named Calico. Horse and rider were well-known to visitors at Tweetsie Railroad, where for 30 years, Kirby was a part-owner and marshal. Later, he was a spokesman for the wild-West attraction.

Kirby often performed at nursing homes, Special Olympics events and children's hospitals.

A girl he had never met underwent spinal surgery in May 1972 at the orthopedic hospital in Gastonia. Before she went under anesthesia, the girl was asked if there was anything she wanted when she awoke.

"To see Fred Kirby," she said. He was there when she opened her eyes.

Kirby spent most of his time in his later years watching TV and reading the Bible.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Burke Kirby, four daughters, eight grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

Memorial services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Park Road Baptist Church. Visitation is 7 to 9 p.m. today at McEwen Charlotte Chapel and at the church. Memorials may be made to Holy Angels, 6600 Wilkinson Blvd., Belmont, NC 28212, or to the charity of the donor's choice.

"Happiness has been my trademark," Kirby said in January, looking back over his career. "A smile to everybody."

Staff writers Joe DePriest, Kay McFadden and Tony Brown contributed to this article.

The Charlotte Observer, April 25, 1996

A healer of a child's wounds


Readers sometimes pour their most intimate thoughts into our telephones.

Not into our ears, exactly. If the subject is too painful or tender, they'll leave a message on a newsroom phone at a time they suspect no one will be around to answer in person.

A vagrant's therapy. Cheap and effective.

This happened last week to colleague Pat Borden Gubbins, whose obituary on TV cowboy Fred Kirby ran Tuesday.

With a rueful smile, she held out her receiver to me Tuesday, and I listened to the message of a Charlotte native named Doug, a professional man in his 50s. He'd read Pat's story and wanted to talk about Fred Kirby.

What he said moved me.

Doug didn't learn of Fred's death until he got to the office because his wife, who knew how devastated he'd be, had hid the paper.

Fred brought solace

In a voice both resonant and trustworthy, Doug said he grew up physically abused.

It wasn't sexual abuse he suffered, he said. But every day when his mother came home from her part-time job, she'd "stomp his butt," then banish him to the family room.

It so happened Fred's show came on about that time, and Doug said that as he sat there smarting from the beating, Fred's "mannerisms and simplicity and his direct kind of faith" would heal his wounds.

This won't surprise those of you who grew up with Fred, knew him and loved him. But it surprised me.

Healed his wounds. Imagine.

Doug kept on talking, but I could only see him now as a boy — knees out, ankles crossed, tears beginning to dry, a smile starting to play as Fred talked or yodeled on the TV.

Solace, I thought. Fred Kirby brought this boy solace.

What a talent. What a gift for the multitudes.

Position of first honor

I considered calling the experts to see what they'd say about one man's power to so deeply touch a child.

But we all know what they'd say. It's common sense.

Of course it's important for troubled kids to find solace. Of course, it's essential for them to have supporters inside and outside the family. And when there's little or no support inside, it becomes double, triply important that someone be there outside.

Unfortunately, need alone doesn't create the likes of a Fred Kirby.

First, there are kids with needs. And if we're lucky, if we're blessed as a community, a magnetic Fred Kirby appears to gaze deep into a child's soul and rearrange its tortured landscape.

As an adult, Doug went on to say, he never missed a Carrousel Parade, where Fred usually starred.

But two years ago, Doug said, Fred rode a golf cart in the parade. The next year, Fred sat with the newscasters on a float.

"Not in position of first honor, as he should've been," Doug said, "but on the bottom, with the anchor woman on top."

First honor. A child's plaintive expression.

For what had happened as Doug talked about Fred, is that he became a child again. And, miraculously, in his voice there was not a trace of bitterness.

For that we can give our most grateful thanks to the yodeling cowboy himself, Fred Kirby, who probably never knew the wounds he healed in this city.

Dannye Powell's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. You can call her at 358-5230 or fax at 358-5036.

Closing note - Parading with Fred

WBTV Late News - 12/4/86 - Bob Inman

A note in closing tonight...

If you ever get the idea you're a big-shot Celebrity ...Ride on a float in the carousel parade with Fred kirby. That will cut you right down to size.

Fred in a paradeFred used to ride his horse calico in the parade...Right in front of our float with all the channel 3 personalities on it. Folks would go nuts over Fred...And then they'd get a slow look at the rest of us.

But they don't have horses in the parade any more... So for the past couple of years, Fred has been un the float with us lesser mortals. The crowd still goes nuts over Fred...And the rest of us could be wearing our birthday suits, for all anybody's paying attention.

Fred kirby is an amazing man...Amazing in his warmth, his charm, and his durability. He has three generations of fans in any crowd. ..And the oldest are just as attached to him as the youngest.

For three generations, Fred has been the "good guy" to millions of Carolinians...Sort of a Roy Rogers, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan rolled into one.

What's kept him that way is the fact that Fred is genuinely in love with the world...Especially its younger element. He's one of those bigger-than-life heroes who can make a kid feel 10 feet tall.

I didn't grow up watching Fred Firby on TV...But he's a hero of mine. I'm glad he's up there on the channel 3 float in the Carousel Parade, with that big smile and that red shirt and big cowboy hat and two-guns [ ... ]