The Grand Ole Opry House Turns 40
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Feb 19, 2014 05:42 PM EST
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It all started in 1925, just five years after commercial radio was born in the United States. The National Life and Accident Insurance Company built a radio station (WSM) as a public service to the local community with the hope that the new medium could advertise insurance policies. Soon after going on the air, National Life hired George D. Hay, one of the nation's most popular announcers, as WSM's first program director. Hay and championship fiddler, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, created the WSM Barn Dance show.
The wildly popular show was renamed in 1927, becoming the Grand Ole Opry. Crowds would line the hallways of the station to watch the performers and the National Life company decided to build an acoustically designed auditorium capable of holding 500 fans. When WSM radio increased broadcasting power to 50,000 watts in 1932, most of the United States and parts of Canada could tune into the Opry on Saturday nights, and the show became even more popular.
Over the next decade, the crowds outgrew the space again. The Opry went through a number of homes in several parts of Nashville before settling, in 1943, at the Ryman Auditorium, a former religious meeting house built in 1892. The Opry stayed at the Ryman for nearly 31 years and many of the show's legends spent most of their Opry runs there.
In 1955, Ralston Purina began sponsoring an hour-long regional-network television show from the Ryman stage featuring Opry stars. And in 1974, the Opry moved from the Ryman to its current location, a new, larger facility at the heart of a multi-million-dollar entertainment complex nine miles from downtown Nashville. Keeping the spirit of its humble beginnings alive, the Opry took a six-foot circle of wood from the Ryman stage and placed center stage at the new Grand Ole Opry House. The Opry House celebrated the grand opening on March 16, 1974 with a standing room only Opry performance attended by President and Mrs. Richard Nixon, among other VIP guests. The evening marked the first time a U.S. president had ever attended the Opry. To this day, Nixon still stands as the only President ever to have performed on the Opry, having played "My Wild Irish Rose" and "God Bless America" on the Opry’s upright piano in addition to "Happy Birthday" in honor of First Lady Pat Nixon, who was celebrating her birthday that night. On that memorable evening, President Nixon received an impromptu on-stage yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff. During the lesson, Nixon famously quipped, "I’ll stay here and try to learn how to use the yo-yo; you go up and be President, Roy!"
As The Grand Ole Opry celebrates 40 years at The Grand Ole Opry House, the celebration will kick off the weekend of March 15 and continuing throughout the year. Among those scheduled to appear on two Opry House Anniversary performances March 15 are Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year nominees Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert as well as Opry members Clint Black, Diamond Rio, Josh Turner, Ricky Skaggs, Green River Ordinance and more. Tickets range from $29.50 to $69.50.