Jamboree the Idol of its time

A generation before American Idol, people across Atlantic Canada would gather in front of their television sets on Saturday nights for an amateur hoedown that gained almost cult status among its viewers.

FREDERICTON — A generation before American Idol, people across Atlantic Canada would gather in front of their television sets on Saturday nights for an amateur hoedown that gained almost cult status among its viewers.

Dick Stacey’s Country Jamboree aired for a decade beginning in 1973, entertaining people from Maine and throughout Atlantic Canada and providing them with a chance to perform — even if they lacked any real talent.

On Wednesday night, many of the original cast will gather at the Atlantic National Exhibition in Saint John, N.B., for a reunion show.

“By golly, it’s going to be fun,” said Dick Stacey from his summer home in Maine.

Stacey — the jolly, down-home, gas station owner from Brewer, Maine — sponsored the show, which aired on Bangor, Maine’s ABC affiliate, better known as WVII among Atlantic Canadians.

To this day, his name and face are instantly recognizable by people across the region. In fact, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams counts himself a fan.

“I have fond memories of watching Dick Stacey’s Country Jamboree as I am sure that many others do throughout Atlantic Canada,” Williams said.

“It was unrehearsed and unpretentious and there were some very memorable performances. It also linked Newfoundland and Labrador and all of Atlantic Canada with our American neighbours in Maine.”

During his closing remarks last year at a meeting of Eastern Canadian premiers and New England governors in Bar Harbor, Maine, Williams thanked the people of the state for the jamboree and its contribution to Atlantic Canada.

Much of Stacey’s fame came as a result of his ad-libbed commercials, most notably the one where he promoted his full-serve gas station.

“I took three steps forward, put my hands in front of the camera and said ‘See these hands. They pump gas and by golly they stink . . . the reason being we pump the gas,”’ Stacey said in what was one of the show’s popular catchphrases.

Stacey parlayed that fame into three service stations and a motel, and became the top retailer of Atlas Tires along much of the U.S. East Coast.

While most of the entertainers changed each week, there were regulars such as Jennie Shontell, a sweet, grandmother-like senior who seemed totally oblivious to the cameras or her regional fame. Every week, Shontell — who died a few years ago — sang, On the Wings of a Snow White Dove.

“She’s buried in Bucksport, Maine and on her gravestone . . . she has a snow white dove,” Stacey said.

Other regulars will also be part of the three-hour reunion show, including host Charlie Tenan, New England fiddle champ Lucky Farrell and Jeff Simon, who grew up on the show.

Despite the 25 years since the show went off the air, Stacey and Tenan have agreed to no rehearsals.

“We don’t know exactly how it’s going to go, but neither one of us worry about it because it’s just the way it used to happen,” Stacey said.

“We never knew who was going to show up and do the program.”

The unscripted kitchen party flavour was one of the things that made it so popular, according to Gene Hardin, promotions manager at WVII.

“Watching the common person get up there and sing even if he didn’t have talent — and we know a lot of them didn’t have a heck of a lot of talent — but they got up there every week and did a great job, and just were themselves,” Hardin said.

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