The Purple People Eater & The King of The Road

The Purple People Eater & The King of The Road

The Sandhill Curiosity Shop in Erick, Oklahoma is known throughout the world for the ribald vaudeville performances of Harley Russell © Jim Hinckley’s America

Erick, Oklahoma is on the fast track to becoming a ghost town. The Route 66 corridor signed as Roger Miller Boulevard is lined with long shuttered motels, empty storefronts and century old brick buildings that hint of better times.

For fans of the double six Erick is internationally known for the Sandhills Curiosity Shop housed in the old meat market and the ribald vaudevillian performances of Harley Russell. This is rather fitting as Erick is the home of two celebrities.

Roger Dean Miller was born January 2, 1936, in Fort Worth, Texas. He was only a year old when his father, Jean, died. This was the era of the Dust Bowl and his mother, Laudene Holt Miller, was unable to provide for her boys. So, each of his fathers three brothers came and took one of the boys to live with them. And so Roger was raised by Armelia and Elmer Miller on a cotton farm outside Erick, Oklahoma. It was a hardscrabble life made even harder as Miller struggled with loneliness.

Even though more than twelve years separated them, Miller struck up a friendship with Shelby Fredrick “Sheb” Wooley, an Erick native. They worked together fixing fences, herding cattle and doing other farm chores. And they also talked of dreams about making it big in show business, and listened to the Grand Old Opry program on the radio. Wooley also taught Miller how to play the guitar, and bought him his first fiddle.

At the age of 15, with a talent for music, Wooley played in a popular regional band, the “Plainview Melody Boys,” that performed at area events and on radio station KASA in Erick. And later he became a professional rodeo rider. In 1940 he married Roger Miller’s cousin, Melva Miller. In 1946 the couple moved to Fort Worth, Wooley formed a band, and took the show on the road.

In 1950, Wooley moved to Hollywood with a hope of breaking into the movies by using his rodeo schools. It worked. Over the course of the next few decades he appeared in dozens of movies. In 1950, he appeared in Rocky Mountain Starring Erol Flynn and Slim Pickens. In 1952 he played the role of the outlaw Ben Miller in High Noon, a movie that starred Gary Cooper. He appeared in episodes of television programs including the Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Kit Carson, Cheyenne, and the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Wooley was cast as the drover Pete Nolan in the CBS western series Rawhide that aired from 1959 to 1966.

In the late 1950s, Wooley kicked off a recording career with a smash hit, “The Purple People Eater.” earning him considerable fame. He followed up with a series of novelty hits, a few pop recordings that climbed the charts, and then country and western tunes. Over the years Wooley’s work was honored with numerous awards including Comedian of the Year Award, Songwriter of the Year Award, and Western Heritage Award.

Miller also fulfilled his childhood dream but his road to fame was a rocky one. While he was still in high school, Roger began hitchhiking from town to town in Texas and Oklahoma and picking up day jobs as a laborer. And he spent the evenings in road houses and honky-tonks. His care free days as a drifter were brought an abrupt end after stealing a guitar from a music store in Texas and returning home to Oklahoma. Even though he was only seventeen, the judge gave the option of jail time or enlistment in the United States Army. And so he joined the army and served in Korea. The end of his tour was spent at Fort McPherson in Georgia where he was assigned to Special Services. It proved to be a fortuitous break as he had the opportunity to play the fiddle for the Circle A Wranglers, a band that had been started by Faron Young.

Miller would eventually become a renowned and award winning song writer and performer. He would even have a television program. But the road to stardom had detours, and a few dead ends.

In coming weeks I will be sharing more of Miller’s and Wooley’s story. And I will be sharing the stories of other celebrities such as Garth Brooks, who will be performing at the inaugural celebrations for President Joe Biden, Sammy Davis Jr. and Gene Autry. These will be published as exclusive content on our Patreon based Jim Hinckley’s America crowding site.

 

 

 

 

A Quest For Speed & Innovation

A Quest For Speed & Innovation

The astounding $35,000 speedster built by Harry Miller. Authors collection.

Harry Armenius Miller was an inquisitive young man that became caught up in the bicycle mania of the 1890s. And as was the case with many young men of similar proclivity in the closing years of the 19th century, all things mechanical mesmerized Harry. In pursuit of opportunity to fuel his insatiable appetite for mechanical knowledge, Harry defied his father, a teacher, and quit school at age sixteen. He found work as an apprentice in a machine shop.

After a brief sojourn to Los Angeles and a stint as a bicycle repairman, he returned to Wisconsin and his former employer. Working after hours, Harry Miller utilized the machine shop and applied theories obtained from countless books to design and build a one-cylinder engine. Then he attached it to a bicycle to create a motorcycle. The following year, 1896, he developed an outboard motor.
In 1897, Miller again moved west, this time to establish a machine shop of his own in Los Angeles. It was here in 1905 that he built his first car. And it was also here that he began developing carburetors specifically designed for high-speed engine application, the foundation for establishment of the Master Carburetor Company.
As Los Angeles was at the heart of west coast automobile racing, Miller’s company proved to be quite a lucrative endeavor. Still, Miller was an independent thinker with big dreams and so in 1914 he sold the Master Carburetor Company. This funded his next project, a partnership with master machinist Fred Offenhauser and establishment of the Harry A. Miller Manufacturing Company for the production of a carburetor and lightweight pistons designed specifically for aircraft application.
Engines, ancillary components, and carburetors were not the only products under development by Miller. He was also pioneering marine specific racing engines and components including transaxles and tubular frames for the construction of front-wheel drive racecars.
In 1925, at the Indianapolis 500, a front-wheel drive vehicle equipped with Miller designed and manufactured components claimed second place and riveted the attention of E.L. Cord who was about to launch his automotive empire after successful management at Moon. Envisioning the potential for a cutting edge automobile that could be designed with a lower stance resultant of the absence of a drive shaft, Cord purchased the manufacturing rights to the Miller front wheel drive transaxle, offered a royalty to Miller, and commissioned him to build a prototype.
Enlisting the aid of gifted engineer Cornelius W. Van Ranst, Miller completed the revolutionary prototype in November of 1927. Cord himself traveled to Los Angeles for the first test drive.
After the sale of his company in 1929, Miller became involved in a series of partnerships and projects including the development of a high speed F-head for the Model A Ford engine and a collaborative effort between Miller, Offenhauser, and mechanical engineer Leo Goosen, to build limited edition, special order passenger cars. The first manifestation of this dream team’s talent was a stunning four-wheel drive speedster powered by an in house designed 310-c.i.d. V8 engine. The second and final creation was a front wheel drive speedster powered by another in house designed engine, a supercharged V16 commissioned by William A.M. Burden at a cost of $35,000. A partnership with Indianapolis, Indiana Packard dealer Preston Tucker and the establishment of Miller & Tucker, Inc. followed in 1935.

The Bantam Checker Jeep prototype with front wheel drive and four wheel steering. Authors collection

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Selling the Sizzle

Selling the Sizzle

From its inception, the automobile lent itself well to marketing that utilized catch phrases, slogans and jingles. In conjunction with flashy, eye-catching banners or advertisements, they became a foundational component in the development of the American auto industry and an infant car culture. Moreover, with the advent of radio, they soon became an integral part of our collective culture and many became more familiar than the national anthem itself.

Catch phrases, slogans, and ditties can often be recalled long after the vehicles they promoted are moldering in a scrap heap or have been recycled into beer cans or toasters. A catchy jingle played decades later can trigger crisp, clear images of the vehicle promoted so long ago attesting to the power of a successful marketing campaign.

Slogans from the formative years of the automotive age often speak volumes about the times. Then as now, slogans and catch phrases often encapsulate the social climate of the time in which they were penned, the technological state of the industry and its supportive infrastructure. When coupled with colorful advertisement they become windows into another era, a time capsule if you will.

Tag lines for the Jackson, “No hill is too steep or sand to deep” and the Model, “Hills and Sand Become Level Land” give an indication of road conditions in pre 1907 America. Likewise, with promotion for the Allen, “The King of Hill Climbers,” and the Kansas City Car, “The car that climbs the hills”and“Climbs hills like a squirrel and eats up the road like an express train – the Gale.”

In the decade that followed motoring became a bit more refined and automotive companies began promoting products that did more than provide Spartan, durable transportation. The Pope Toledo was, “The quiet, mile a minute car” and the Marmon Six of 1913 was, “The easiest riding car in the world” but “The thrills of speed with perfect control are his who drives the Biddle”.

Some early automobile companies chose simplicity in their promotion. Maxwell was, “perfectly simple, simply perfect.” King was “the car of no regrets.” The Durant was “just a real good car.” “A car to run around in” was the Austin but “Ride in a Glide, and then decide.”

More than a few companies, then as well as now, chose rhymes and limericks to ensure brand familiarity. Nevertheless, some of the more memorable and successful campaigns were those that were simplistic references to the companies’ merits. An excellent example of the latter would be Packard’s, “Ask the man who owns one” and REO’s “Gold Standard of Values” or Studebakers “The Automobile with a Reputation Behind It.”

Others chose to appeal to ego or vanity in their marketing campaigns. The Empire was, “The Little Aristocrat” and Lozier was “The Choice of Men Who Know.” The Winton Six of 1915 was “The closed car so necessary to a successful social season.” The Dorris was “Built up to a standard, not down to a price.”

By the second decade of the Twentieth Century, many aspects of the automobile such as steering wheels replacing tillers and engines that consisted of an equal number of cylinders had become industry standards. However, some innovators insisted on thinking outside of the box and the catch phrases and slogans devised for promotion of their vehicles presents another intriguing snap shot of the times.

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