Amazing 1954 radio show find highlights Coast history

         

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST COMMUNITY COLLEGE C.C. “TEX’ HAMILL DOWN SOUTH MAGAZINE COLLECTION. The Down South Magazine staff turned to the radio in 1954. The one missing from the photo of those involved with “Down South Magazine of the Air” is Tex Hamill, the editor/publisher who took the photograph. The others are, from left, Ray Thompson, Alice Bell Prindiville, Marguerite Hamil, Ruthe M. Carr and MacMahon Gibbs.

An unearthed treasure

A 1954 radio show — has been matched with vintage photographs, and this audio-visual mix offers a time machine voyage to the Mississippi Coast, its local characters, lore and historic sites.

“Down South Magazine of the Air” is a 23-segment radio show filled with stories of Singing River, trawl making, shrimp catching, robot diving, Ship Island and the Walter Anderson murals.

Hear the Slavonian accent of the eldest Capt. Pete Skrmetta on the ferry to Ship Island. Learn how to catch shrimp, or how the Hermit of Deer Island had his own post office in the form of a channel pine tree. Climb the first Jackson County fire tower. Let a 1950s docent take you through Jeff Davis’ Beauvoir.

The radio shows, soon to be available on the Web, are also the core of a two-hour WKFK Digital TV-7 documentary that premieres Friday.

The radio tapes resurfaced after a 2006 phone call from Marguerite Hamill. For three decades she and her husband, C.C. “Tex” Hamill, published Down South Magazine, a bi-monthly filled with stories of the people and places of the Coast.

Marguerite Hamill had, the previous year, donated 43,000 Down South photographs and negatives to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College archives. She later discovered the box of half-century-old reel-to-reel tapes, which miraculously survived Hurricane Katrina and years of exposure to Mississippi heat in a garage.

Here was the proof the Down South staff had briefly ventured into radio. The segments aired in 1954 from WVMI studios, then located at Biloxi’s Broadwater Beach Hotel.

“The radio show was fun,” Marguerite Hamill said. “Our own curiosity about things always made it interesting to do, no matter what story we were after. The Down South philosophy was to promote the Coast any way we could.

“But a lot of work went into the show. It took a half-day or day to get the information and a half-day to present it. We were also producing a magazine and visitor brochures for local hotels, restaurants and visitor sites. We had to stop the radio, because it was taking up so much time.”

The death of the show was bittersweet for the overworked Down South staff, who lugged a 49-pound field recorder everywhere they went. The staff included Ray Thompson, who also wrote the popular “Know Your Coast” feature in The Daily Herald. Alice Prindiville, Ruthe Carr and MacMahon Gibbs also joined the Hamills on air.

Years passed, memories faded, Tex Hamill died and then Marguerite discovered the box. When she called MGCCC archivist Charles L. Sullivan, she wasn’t certain the fragile tapes were usable.

“At first I thought ‘Down South of the Air’ was the earliest radio documentary in Mississippi,” said Sullivan, who is a historian, author and MGCCC professor emeritus.

“Now I’m thinking it is the only one, unique. The Mississippi Department of Archives & History knows of no others.”

Through the magic of patience — the splices kept coming apart — and through digital technology, the 23 radio segments are preserved for posterity. Some of the best segments are included in the documentary to be aired Friday on WKFK.

The documentary and all 23 audio segments also will be available on http://www.wkfk.com, a feat Sullivan credits to Doug Mansfield, production manager for the Pascagoula-based station.

Before joining the WKFK staff, Mansfield worked 36 years for MGCCC in video/TV production and teaching. He and Sullivan worked together on numerous history productions, so their teaming for this project was a natural.

Both men and their employers believe strongly in preserving local history, be it an interview with an aging military hero or saving rare audio.

As they listened to the tapes they quickly realized what a history treasure they had, with interviews such as the teenaged Mary Anderson Pickard describing the murals of her artist-father, Walter Anderson, or a priest describing the first Blessing of the Fleet.

When Tex Hamill introduced the first radio show Jan. 3, 1954, he told listeners, “Down South is published every other month and countless stories come in faster than we can published them . . . We can do with radio for our local audience what we do for tourists with Down South Magazine — sell the Coast.

“The radius of 100 miles from WVMI studio is one of the most fabulous areas of history and romance, legends and lore to be found anywhere — Mobile, Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans.”

The TV documentary, which required visuals as well as voice, is possible because of the earlier Hamill donation of Down South photographs that depict the mid-20th-century Coast.

From the Hamill collection and from another recent MGCCC acquisition, The Dixie Press Collection, Sullivan chose hundreds of photos to illustrate the radio topics. Mansfield then spent months matching the old images and new video with the 1954 radio voices.

“Talk about a walk through history,” said Mansfield, who is also founder of the GI Museum in Gautier.

“‘Down South’ recorded voices that haven’t been heard since then. Matched with the vintage photos, the documentary is like a live history book.”

By KAT BERGERON – kbergeron@sunherald.com
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