Thursday, February 27, 2003
Spade Cooley…From KTLA, to KTTV, to the Prison at Vacaville
By ROGER M. GRACE
Spade Cooley, “King of Western Swing,” brought his bandleading, singing and fiddling to KTLA, Channel 5, on Thursday, Aug. 5, 1948. “The Spade Cooley Show” was soon moved to Saturday nights and, within just a few months, it was hogging 75 percent of the viewership in L.A. during its time slot.
The show was broadcast—live, of course—from the Santa Monica Ballroom at the pier. Other musical shows, originating from places outside the studio, were soon added to KTLA’s lineup. (They included “Harry Owens and his Royal Hawaiians,” launched in 1949, “Bandstand Review” with the Frank de Vol Orchestra and singer Harry Babbitt, started that same year, and “The Lawrence Welk Show,” kicked off in 1951—all emanating from the Aragon Ballroom at Ocean Park.)
Cooley’s program became known, for a while, as “The Hoffman Hayride,” named for the sponsor, a manufacturer of TV sets.
While Hoffman may have had his name in the title of the show, it was Cooley who was in the spotlight. This Oklahoma boy, born into poverty, who started his show business career at Republic Studios doing bit parts and acting as a stand-in for Roy Rogers, whom he resembled, had become a success. Even before launching his television career, “Spade Cooley and His Orchestra” had recorded some hit records, starting with “Shame on You,” in 1945. Now, he was a local celebrity.
The television show gained viewership rapidly as television sets became a must-have commodity. His recording career flourished.
It appeared, at that point, that Cooley, like Rogers, would be riding “happy trails.”
The March 31, 1956 issue of TV Guide (Southern California edition) contained an ad for Cooley’s show. It read:
“Spade Cooley’s formula for a show with top musical entertainment, a dash of western flavor, and a good sprinkling of comedy has proven to be just what the viewers ordered.
“The SPADE COOLEY SHOW, seen Saturdays at 8:00 P.M. on Channel 5, has been among the top-rated television shows in Los Angeles for many years. It features a host of talented and versatile performers, and reigning over the festivities each week is ‘The King of Western Swing’ himself. Seen with Spade are KTLA favorite Dick Lane, violin virtuoso Anita Aros, baritone Phil Gray, and singing sensation Kay Cee Jones. Hank Penny, Bobby Sargent, Mel Ryan, and Les Chatter see to it that the laughs are plentiful. A guest star is usually on hand to join in the fun.
“The Spade Cooley Show now originates from the new KTLA Sunset Studios at Sunset and Van Ness...”
Cooley was fired by KTLA the following year. He had become a heavy drinker.
In late 1957, he landed a 15-minute show, aired Monday through Friday on KTTV at 5:30 p.m. (followed each night by a rerun of “Topper” and George Putnam’s 15-minute newscast). He also became co-host on KTTV’s Saturday late-night country-western show, “Town Hall,” along with Tex Williams and Doye O’Dell.
KTTV’s joining of Cooley and Williams was ironic. Eleven years earlier, Cooley had fired Williams, the vocalist with the “Spade Cooley Orchestra,” over a salary dispute. Williams took several of the musicians with him.
Cooley’s association with KTTV was of short duration.
My wife, Jo-Ann, met Cooley once in 1961. She was a teenager, accompanying her father to Cooley’s ranch in Mojave to transact some business. Just what it was her father was interested in buying, she doesn’t recall. He bought and sold all sorts of things, and had a particular interest in objects relating to the Old West. Cooley, she recounts, was agitated; he paced, taking short steps, almost scampering. It was the next day—April 3, 1961— that he brutally murdered his wife.
Donnell Clyde Cooley committed the slaying of former singer Ella Mae Cooley, kicking, beating and strangling her, even burning her with a cigarette, while forcing their 14-year-old daughter to watch. A jury found him guilty of first degree murder and on Aug. 22, 1961, a Kern Superior Court judge sentenced Cooley to life imprisonment.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal, in affirming on Dec. 20, 1962, declared: “We conclude readily that there was overwhelming evidence of killing by torture, and that the murder was of the first degree.”
Cooley, a model prisoner, left the penitentiary in Vacaville on a three-day leave in 1969 shortly before his parole date. On Nov. 23, he made a public appearance at a sheriff’s benefit concert in Oakland, went backstage, and had a fatal heart attack.
“Shame on You” had been his theme song during his television career, and became his epitaph.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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