Wheeling Natives Lauded

Wheeling was mentioned frequently during the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony conducted at the Culture Center in Charleston Saturday evening, Nov. 16. The notices of the Friendly City were certainly appropriate since three former Wheeling residents were among this year’s class of inductees.

The newest members of the hall included singer, musician and songwriter Tim O’Brien; big band singer and game show host Peter Marshall and the late Metropolitan Opera star Eleanor Steber. Hosts for the induction ceremony, broadcast live on West Virginia public television and radio, were John Kruk and O’Brien’s equally talented sister, singer Mollie O’Brien.

“Mountain Stage” host Larry Groce lauded Tim O’Brien as “a master of American folk music whose career is still evolving.” After attending Colby College for a year, the Linsly graduate made his first recording in 1974 and co-founded the band, Hot Rize, in 1978. The Grammy Award winner has recorded more than 20 compact discs.

Groce noted that O’Brien has “a tireless interest in roots music” and has appeared as a guest on “Mountain Stage” more times than any other artist. “He’s a native son that makes us all proud,” Groce commented.

Another famous West Virginia singer, Kathy Mattea, who has recorded songs written by O’Brien, introduced him for induction. “I’m proud to be here to honor my friend,” she said.

Mattea cited O’Brien’s versatility as a singer of bluegrass, folk, gospel, blues and Celtic music. His talents include being a singer, player of multiple instruments, songwriter and music historian, she said.

Taking the podium, O’Brien thanked his parents, the late Frank and Amy O’Brien of Wheeling, “who gave me the opportunity. They were the kind of people who had open minds.” He recalled his late brother, “Trip” O’Brien, who introduced him to jazz, rhythm and blues and folk records. He said his sister was his first and favorite singing partner.

O’Brien also paid tribute to the late Douglas Haigwood, director of Linsly minstrel shows; the Rev. Charles Braun, who led folk Masses in Wheeling, and the late violinist Earl Summers Jr., concertmaster of the Wheeling Symphony and leader of dance bands.

Nick Clooney, a TV personality in Cincinnati and father of actor George Clooney and brother of singer Rosemary Clooney, introduced Marshall and quipped that he has been “chasing his (Marshall’s) shadow most of my career.”

A congratulatory video from game show host Alex Trebek was shown during the ceremony.

Marshall, who has been in show business for 72 years and spent his early years in Wheeling and Huntington, remarked, “I am a West Virginia boy.” Saying “I loved Wheeling,” he recalled that his first job, at age 8, was selling the Pittsburgh Press newspaper at Wheeling Downs. He took tap dancing lessons from the late Mary Elizabeth Fassig in Wheeling and made his stage debut in 1934, at age 9, dancing and singing at the Capitol Theatre.

Later, one of his classmates in Huntington was the future comic entertainer, Soupy Sales. At age 12, Marshall joined his mother and his sister, actress Jo Ann Dru, in New York City, where he worked as a page and usher at NBC and became a band singer at age 15. His early acting co-stars included Chita Rivera and Julie Harris.

In 1966, Marshall became host of the TV game show, “Hollywood Squares.” He appeared in more than 5,000 episodes over a 16-year period.

In introductory remarks, Groce noted that Steber, a Wheeling native who died in 1990, was an international star with 65 roles in her operatic repertoire. In 1940, she presented the first of 16 annual homecoming concerts in Wheeling.

In addition to operatic roles, Steber appeared on “The Voice of Firestone,” becoming “the first woman to sing on national commercial TV,” Groce said. During a 1950 State Department tour, Steber was the first western woman to perform in Baghdad, Iraq. That tour of 17 countries “had a profound effect on her” and “made her a champion of women’s rights,” Groce said.

Steber’s nephew, George Steber, and his wife, Kathleen, of Wheeling accepted her award. Kathleen Steber said the opera star “was a soloist with every major orchestra in the United States, but she never forgot her hometown of Wheeling, W.Va.” The singer was “a prima donna with a small-town kid inside her,” Kathleen Steber observed. “She had a deep respect and love for the mountains of West Virginia and the people who lived here.”

Linda Comins can be reached via email at: lcomins@theintelligencer.net