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Dusting Off And Digitizing Country Music History With The Jimmy Dean Show

Jimmy Dean (L) welcomes Buck Owens, one of 35 future Country Music Hall of Famers who performed on his prime time ABC variety show between 1963 and 1966.

Between 1963 and 1966, country music enjoyed one of its earliest and most prominent showcases on national television from a studio in the heart of Manhattan. The Jimmy Dean Show, a prime-time, hour-long series launched on Sept. 19, 1963. It was an ambitious Broadway style production, says series co-producer Steve Boyle.

“These were shot at West 77th Street in New York City in ABC Studio One, which is about two blocks from Julliard and three or four blocks from Lincoln Center. It must have seemed like a UFO landing in the middle of Manhattan.”

The performances, all live, no lip synching, showcase a golden age of country music just as it was going uptown and competing on a national stage.

You may know Jimmy Dean Sausage from your grocery store freezer and that’s indeed the same guy. Upon his death in the summer of 2010, Dean was remembered as a savvy businessman as well as country singer. In his heyday, he recorded only a handful of top ten radio hits. But as a host and an all around entertainer on television he was an innovator and a star.

The 82 surviving episodes of the Jimmy Dean Show are being restored and released to DVD. They’re also being broadcast on cable network RFD-TV, with Season 3 premiering early next year. I was curious about the show’s role in music history and the process of bringing vintage TV shows back to life, so I visited the show’s video restoration specialist Steve Boyle.

“This is really an historic show,” Boyle says. “These performances would be lost forever and they’ve spent way too much money on cleaning all these up to try to get them out there. Just in country alone, Ernest Tubb is on here. These guys are in their younger days. Roy Acuff and Buck Owens, Minnie Pearl, Connie Smith. Jim Reeves is on here less than 90 days before he dies in a plane crash in Brentwood. Hank Williams Jr. is on here. He’s 14 years old.”

Nashville video producer Steve Boyle was hired to restore the Jimmy Dean Show for broadcast and sale.

Also appearing: Merle Haggard, Dottie West, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller performing “King of the Road” to an audience that had mostly never heard it before. Also Hank Snow, Chet Atkins, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and George Jones.

In all, 35 country music hall of famers appeared across the three seasons, not counting Jimmy Dean himself. But as a national show on the ABC network out of New York, pop music was front and center as well: Teresa Brewer, Bobby Vinton, Gene Pitney and Eydie Gorme.

Dean, the show’s creator as well as its star, bantered with sports stars, introduced gospel numbers and featured a range of standup comedians including a clean cut, sport coat wearing George Carlin and Don Adams, two years before the launch of Get Smart. But no pop culture character got a better launch or more exposure on the show than Jimmy’s weekly sidekick Rowlf the Dog.

Boyle: “(It’s) the Muppet Rowlf The Dog that most people know about. But what you may not know is this is Jim Henson’s first network television show. Jimmy Dean gave him his first break.”

Rowlf The Dog, a weekly feature of The Jimmy Dean Show, was how Jim Henson got his start on national television.

Bringing all this to contemporary TV screens has been three-year, multi-million dollar effort spearheaded by Jimmy Dean’s widow Donna Dean Stevens and some Nashville television and music veterans. And every frame has had to go through Steve Boyle, who got the job of restoring the footage so it was fit for broadcast.

“The challenge is the state of the media itself,” he says. “It has been stored away all these years and in some cases it comes back and it looks great and in some cases it looks like a truck has run over it. So at that point it has to be cleaned up. And these are kinescopes that I’m working with.”

Kinescope was the technique of placing a 16 millimeter film camera at one end of a black box and a tube TV at the other, coordinating the frame rates and shooting the video image to film.

“Between 1945 and into the early 1970s, kinescope was used for a lot of reasons because it was either inexpensive or it could travel. But if you were a member of the cast, a guest star, a producer or if you were Jimmy Dean and you wanted a copy of the show, you can’t take a two-inch videotape home. So you would get a kinescope.”

The Jimmy Dean estate tapped a variety of private sources and assembled a nearly complete set of shows on film, 82 of 86 Boyle says. Those kinescopes, in varying condition, were transferred to digital video.

“From there I go into the film itself - the original film transfer. And that has a bunch of filters on it that will clean things up. In some cases, or just little tiny edits.”

Digital tools let him adjust the contrast and the grain. He can remove streaks and specks of light where the original film was punctured. It can be extremely painstaking work.

Jimmy Dean was born in West Texas in 1928 and after serving in the Air Force, he started working radio and TV in the Washington DC area. His first hit record, “Bummin’ Around” came in 1953. His recording career was modest compared to others, but more than any other artist of his day, he pushed himself as a TV host.

The show Country Style on WTOP led to a CBS afternoon show under his own name. That lasted a year, and the final episode shows an emotional Jimmy Dean saying farewell and leaving no doubt he’s unhappy with CBS. One might have thought his TV career was over. But 1961 brought him a crossover smash on country and pop radio.

“Big Bad John” gave Dean the clout to get back on television in a big way. Over its three seasons, the Jimmy Dean Show traveled from time to time, taping at the Ryman Auditorium  and even Carnegie Hall. Besides the subsequent fame of Rowlf the Dog and Jim Henson’s Muppets, two Jimmy Dean Show writers went on to create Hee-Haw.  It was a good run and an influential one.

Learn More:

The Jimmy Dean show on RFD-TV.

Jimmy Dean’s inductee page at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Correction: The audio version notes incorrectly that the Jimmy Dean Show was taped at the Hollywood Bowl. It was in fact taped at ABC Studio in Los Angeles. The web text has been updated.