Best Locally Produced TV Show Ever: Had to Be ‘Possum Holler Opry’
If you were around in the 60s, and you were within range of Quincy television, you were probably a regular viewer of arguably the most popular locally produced TV show ever.
The Possum Holler Opry made its debut in May of 1960. The host and creator of the show was Richard Elsenpeter, better known to viewers as Toby Dick Ellis.
Elsenpeter told an interviewer many years later that the show was supposed to run for three weeks and wound up running for ten years, almost to the day.
The Opry aired live on WGEM-TV at 12:30 p.m. every Sunday. In a newspaper interview I did with one of the show's stars, Al Harvey, he told me the show over the years, gained the affectionate nickname, "The Burnt Potato Hour," because people trying to fix Sunday dinner at that time of day would pay more attention to the show than to their cooking.
The show followed the tried and true Barn Dance style country music show format, featuring local entertainers, with an occasional Nashville star joining the cast, with Ellis serving as emcee and providing the comedy.
Along with Harvey, show regulars included John Spurrier, Peaches Bennett, Linda Cassady, a lady who called herself Flaxie Frizzell and, in the early days of the show, a young singer-songwriter named John Hartford.
After the show's run, Elsenpeter became well known as a puppeteer, with Elsenpeter Marionette shows featured at a host of events around the region.
In their later years, Elsenpeter settled down at his home in the actual Possum Holler, near Barry. I had the honor of becoming friends with Toby and having many conversations, on and off the record.
Any conversation with Toby Elsenpeter would usually include two stories.
One, that John Hartford wrote his classic song, "Gentle on My Mind," sitting at Toby's kitchen table in the early 60s.
Second, as his Opry was coming to the end of its run, Toby went to Nashville to pitch an idea of a variety show that featured country music and a mix of live action and animated cartoons. The idea was rejected, but it wasn't long after Toby made the pitch that the show Hee-Haw began, which had animation with live action. Toby was steadfastly convinced his idea had been stolen, although, of course, there was no way to prove it.
There were a number of unofficial Possum Holler reunion shows over the years, the last one taking place in 2017 as a fundraiser for the Mid-America Military Salute, an organization run by Elsenpeter's son.