Welcome to Winston-Salem! Notable Visitors. Part 2


Entertainment came to Winston-Salem in a variety of forms, particularly in the city’s early days. Traveling circuses, singers, acrobatic acts, ventriloquists, comics, orchestras, actors and instrumentalists brought a touch of sensationalism to town and provided a respite from the ordinary work week.

Ava Gardner made frequent appearances in town to visit her sister, Myra Pierce, and her sister’s family. Most of her visits were probably quiet family gatherings, but on one occasion in 1951, Ava visited her niece, Jean Pierce, at Wiley School. In the photo above, Ava is showing Jean her showboat necklace, surrounded by Jean’s classmates. The newspaper article describing the visit mentioned that Miss Gardner was besieged by questions about the children’s favorite movie stars, particularly the movie cowboys.

Dale Robertson was a movie and television western actor, best known for his television series, “Tales of Wells Fargo.” In 1958, the P. H. Hanes Knitting Company sponsored a private rodeo for its employees in the Coliseum. It was a western version of the annual Hanes Family Day, and Dale Robertson performed at the rodeo. The following year, Dale Robertson and Gail Davis were headliners at a traveling rodeo which also performed at the Coliseum. Gail Davis starred in television and movie westerns, and she played Annie Oakley in the television series. With her blonde hair plaited in pigtails and performing tricks on horseback, Gail Davis became a favorite among little cowgirls.

By 1959, very few people remembered that the real Annie Oakley came to Winston-Salem 50 years earlier, in 1909. As representatives of the Remington Arms Company, Annie came to town with her husband, Frank Butler, and George Maxwell, to give a public exhibition of trap shooting at Piedmont Park. Frank was a crack shot who had performed in 14 different countries, George was a one-armed expert trap shooter, and Annie Oakley was the chief attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for 17 years.

The trio of sharpshooters performed stunts for a crowd of about 1,000 people. Even some local shooters performed as well. Annie Oakley put to rest the concern that her shooting days were ended after being severely injured in a train wreck in Davidson County in 1901. Annie Oakley had a caring heart and often contributed to causes that involved complete strangers. Annie read an article in the Winston-Salem Journal about a local man, Ed Vaughn, who died in a mine accident in West Virginia and was buried there. His young wife desperately wanted to bring his body home for burial but did not have the funds. Although she had left town, Annie wrote to the Journal and established a fund for the widow, contributing 10% of her Winston show salary. Annie appealed to other citizens to contribute to the fund, and her appeal resulted in sufficient funds being received to bring Mr. Vaughn’s body home.

Zelma Kathryn Elizabeth Hedrick was a local girl who performed opera, starred in musicals and entertained the troops in the early days of World War II. She went by this name as a little girl, but after she moved to St. Louis and was “discovered,” she was known as Kathryn Grayson. Even with her busy musical career, Kathryn found time to visit Winston-Salem in 1949 and perform for the Forsyth County Centennial Celebration.

Mary Pickford was a silent-screen movie star, nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” who became a businesswoman when the silent movies transitioned to “talkies.” She and her husband, Buddy Rogers, were frequent visitors to Winston-Salem after they became stockholders in WSJS Television. In 1955, they visited Old Salem, toured the exhibit houses and particularly admired the furnishings of the John Vogler House.

Minnie Pearl’s “How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E!” rang out in the Coliseum during her 1960 visit to the National Grange Convention. The Grand Old Opry performer entertained more than 2,000 fans at the barbecue supper, along with Cleveland County native, Don Gibson. Minnie Pearl made an earlier appearance in 1950 when she attended the opening of Joe King’s play, “Blood, Thunder, n’Katherine.” Minnie left her country persona in Nashville and attended as her sophisticated alter ego, Mrs. Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon.

Coming in September: Welcome to Winston-Salem! Notable Visitors. Part 3.

By Molly Grogan Rawls, author of the Winston-Salem Time Traveler website. Contact Molly at mollygroganrawls.com or winstonsalemtimetraveler.com.