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The Cat’s Meow: Wheeling Honors Slim Lehart for Decades of Entertainment

Slim Lehart receives a congratulatory hug from Cynthia Johnson, the Capitol Theatre events manager, in front of the theater’s main entrance Friday. (Photo by Scott McCloskey)

WHEELING — “The Wheeling Cat” got himself one grand birthday present Friday.

On the day he turned 86, friends and fans stood at the entrance of the Capitol Theatre to honor Wheeling country music icon Slim Lehart for his contributions to music and the city. The city’s “Slim Lehart Day” officially was proclaimed April 7, 2020, yet the COVID-19 pandemic robbed Lehart of a public celebration on that day.

City officials gave him that long-awaited honor Friday.

Following an introduction from Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling Convention & Visitors Bureau, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott read aloud the proclamation for “Slim Lehart Day,” which recounted some of his memorable exploits.

Lehart has enjoyed plenty of great memories, especially inside the Capitol Theatre where he was honored Friday. This latest celebration, he said, is an all-time memory.

“This is really about the best one,” Lehart said, “for local people to come out and enjoy you and tell you what you’ve done and how you helped in different areas.”

Born in Marshall County, Lehart moved to Wheeling at age 15. At 17, he joined the United States Navy and fought in the Korean War. Upon his return, his life in country music began.

He made his first appearance for the Wheeling Jamboree at the Rex Theater in 1965. For decades afterward, he performed on bills with country music legends. He opened almost every Saturday concert for the Wheeling Jamboree and Jamboree USA — though one of his favorite memories was in 1966, when, in Nashville, Johnny Cash opened for him.

He took the nickname “The Wheeling Cat” from his signature song and captivated audiences with his energetic concerts. It wasn’t just a time to sing for him. It was a time to perform. A photo Lehart had saved on his phone showed him walking down a narrow stage in the aisle of the Capitol Theatre during a performance, every audience member’s eyes locked on him.

“My style was active, very active,” he said. “I was off the stage and doing all kinds of stuff. I was doing a show.”

Lehart and the Capitol Theatre became synonymous. When the venue closed, he was at the front of the line fighting to see it reopen. O’Brien held up a photo at Friday’s event showing Lehart, after a performance at the reopened theatre, kneeling down to kiss the stage. When the theatre was paid off, it was Lehart who got to burn the mortgage papers.

“Talent and musicians like Slim Lehart who have been around 40, 50 years, they have set the stage for what we’re seeing today,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien added that Lehart’s stage presence and talent made him a great ambassador through entertainment for the city of Wheeling, playing a style that hearkened back to the classic country artists.

“It’s authentic,” he said. “I can’t think of any other word to describe it. It’s authentic country music that appreciates the roots of the genre. He always stayed with that traditional approach. He never tried to modernize it or rock it up.”

After more than five decades entertaining crowds from the Capitol to fairs, festivals and parks, Lehart said he sometimes looks back at that lifetime in music with wonder.

“It seems like I was another person,” he said. “Now, it doesn’t seem like that was me, to have done all that stuff. It’s a strange feeling.”

Yet it was him. And Wheeling wanted to make sure its “Cat” received the admiration he has earned.

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