Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Meet Woody Ernhart

Every once in a while, I run across a vintage ad that triggers my curiosity – and sends me on a wild goose chase that spans over several years. This is one of those occasions.

More than two years ago, I did a post on an ad for Ben Hart's Show Bar (here) . The ad (shown above) promoted an appearance by a comedian named Woody Ernhart at the nightclub in January 1963. At the time of my post, I wondered if Woody ever hit the big time – and if he was still alive.

Since then, I've spent a lot of time trying to find out whatever happened to him. I finally did, but it wasn't easy.

Apparently, the spelling of his name seemed to change with each appearance of it in a newspaper. I've seen it as Ernhart, Earnhart and even Earnheart. But for the purposes of this story, I'll just refer to him as Woody. I might as well be on a first-name basis with him. After all the research I've done, I feel like I know him.

First of all, how did he become a comedian?

It turns out that Woody got his big break while he was a fraternity brother at Ohio State. A two-page spread in the November 1951 issue of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Journal reveals how he started out as one half of a performing duo. It also mentions his real first name: Dean.

Here's the story. Ted Mack, host of Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour was televising his TV show from the Ohio State campus in spring of 1951. This provided a golden opportunity for Woody and John Crawford, his partner.

As the article in the Journal noted, "Comedian John Crawford and Singer Dean Earnhart from the Sig Ep house on Woodruff Avenue presented a hilarious comedy routine somewhat suggestive of the Martin and Lewis formula. They won by a wide margin of applause.

The duo actually won several times on the show. The article also noted, "Crawford and Earnhart were three-time winners of the year's Original Amateur Hour television programs. In all three appearances they broke the program record for total votes received. They were judged by the response of the viewing and listening audiences. Their success was partly due to the backing that the Ohio State fraternities, sororities, and other organizations gave them."

Here is the November 1951 Journal spread (below). It has some great photos of Woody in action with his partner – and posing with his mother as well. (Click on it for a readable version.)

As a result of their three wins, Earnhart and Crawford were invited to compete against all of the other three-time winners at Ted Mack's gala show at Madison Square Garden in June. Unfortunately, they did not win in the final competition.

But Woody was apparently bitten by the show biz bug, because a few years later he was on the road, performing a solo act as a comedian, as well as performing emcee duties for various lodges.

The August 27, 1954 Altoona Tribune had an article about an upcoming variety stage show and ball put on by the Cooties of Altoona Pup Tent No. 18. The article noted, "Woody Earnhart, three-time winner on the Old Gold Ted Mack show, will be master of ceremonies." It identified him as a comic and impressionist.

As the actual event approached, the paper mentioned Woody again. The October 14, 1954 Altoona Tribune stated, "Woody Earnhart, a superlative comedian, will act as master of ceremonies throughout this big two-hour stage show. He is a three-time winner of the popular Ted Mack amateur hour, now appearing professionally."

The Sandusky Register Star of October 15, 1955 had another Woody sighting. An article about the annual fall stag of the Prophets of Sinatra Grotto stated that the prime rib dinner was to be followed by "an hour and a half floor show by Columbus talent headed by "Woody" Earnhart, "The Campus Jester," who will MC the fast moving program."

Eventually, Woody seemed to stop touring and found a new outlet for his talents: radio.

A few months after Woody's appearance in Lorain at Ben Hart's Show Bar, the March 2, 1963 Evening Independent included an item about a basketball game sponsored by the Band Boosters of Jackson school between a group of faculty members and the staff of radio station WHLO, Akron. Woody Earnhart was listed among the radio station's staff members.

Woody didn't make the newspapers again (at least the ones whose archives are online) for a long time until he changed careers in the 1970s. And what was his new career?

He became a magazine publisher that catered to a very specific market segment: fishermen.

An article that was distributed nationally by the Associated Press told the story. Here's how it appeared in the Nevada Daily Mail on Feb. 18, 1979 (below).


Fisherman Turns Love Into Magazine Career
By Michael Hoffman
Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Woody Earnhart likes to fish. He likes to fish so much that he had to start publishing a magazine about it.

Actually, Earnhart publishes two magazines. The first, "Ohio Fisherman," is now three years old. "Great Lakes Fisherman," is going on three months of age.

The first issue of "Ohio Fisherman" hit the newsstands in January, 1976. Now, three years later, the average circulation is 40,000 copies said Earnhart, 50 this month, who knows the reason for the magazine's success: "I found a hole."

"There's an old saying that 90 percent of the fish are caught by 10 percent of the fishermen," Earnhart says. "And I thought, 'Why not let the other 90 percent know how the top fishermen are doing it?'"

The "Fisherman" is strictly about angling in the Buckeye State.

"Great Lakes Fisherman" circulates 80,000 copies in an eight-state area around the lakes. It is devoted to coverage of fishing not only on the Great Lakes, but also the waters nearby.

How did Earnhart find his hole?

"You know what really did it? It was gummed labels," he explained. "All those outdoor magazines, they had labels on the cover saying 'News of Your Area' and inside I'd find only a column.

"Well, I walked the riverbanks. I talked with people and I asked them, 'Would you buy a magazine about fishing in Ohio?' I talked to boat owners and bait dealers. I spend two years researching the idea before getting the backing," he said.

"I feel very fortunate to be able to turn my hobby, really more than my hobby, into a profession," he said.

So here's the rest of the story.

Once I finally learned to Google all of the various ways that Woody's last name was spelled, I seemed to keep finding more and more online mentions of him.

He served as the President of Outdoor Writers of Ohio in 1979. He was also asked by Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes to help with the "Fish Ohio" program by serving on the Executive Committee as an advisor. I even found a column written by the Outdoors Editor of the Pittsburgh Press that recounted his July 1983 fishing trip on Lake Erie with Woody.

But the one thing I did not find was an online obituary for Woody.

So I had great hope that he was still out there somewhere. Based on his age at the time of his appearance on Ted Mack's show, he would be about 85 now.

Last week, I had an idea. I contacted his old fraternity at Ohio State. Surely they would have some information about how to get a hold of him. They emailed back that they would see what they could find out for me.

I anticipated a hilarious phone call with Woody, in which I would tell him about all my detective work. I was sure he'd be amused. I also wanted to ask him: just what was he doing in that photo from the ad for Ben Hart's Show Bar?

Alas, I'm sad to say that it looks like I'll never know.

Yesterday, I did a little more research – and found the listing below in the Deaths notices of the October 29, 1989 Columbus Dispatch.

EARNHEART - Dean E. "Woody," 60, Thursday; service 10 a.m. Monday, Rutherford Funeral Home.
There was no obituary either. So this post may very well be the most comprehensive record of the life and times of Woody Ernhart.

I don't know if any of Woody's friends or relatives are still around. If they are, I hope they find and enjoy this little online shrine to him.

It took a lot of guts to try and make a living as a comedian, working the lodge brother circuit and performing for groups like the Cooties of Altoona Pup Tent No. 18. It took even more guts to launch two magazines and keep them going successfully for more than a decade.

So here's to you, Woody Ernhart – or Earnheart – or however you spell your last name!


Ken said...

Nice post, Dan. This is why what you do is more important than you realize.

Miss Merry said...

Thank you for introducing us to Woody. What a fascinating article! I really enjoy reading your posts.

Dan Brady said...

Thanks, Merry.

Anonymous said...

Well done! You never give up when you become curious about something and that is what makes your blog so entertaining.


Enviro Geologist said...

It was hard to read this without emotion. One of the best things that ever happened to me was that my wife and I bought a house next to Woody in 1985. It was our first home. I had no idea who this kind, grey-haired man was, but he became my best friend. He was nearly 30 years older than me - and he was a bit of a father figure for me. He filled a huge gap in my life. Woody had been hit by alcoholism at age 20. It held him in its grip until age 40- when he liberated himself. Shortly there after, he started Ohio Fisherman. When I met him, he had just lost the magazine. Woody, had given his two partners 33.33% ownership. One secretly sold out - and soon a third party had control of it - who had a very different world view.

I was a late starter in life - and Woody acted as a sounding board and source of advice I needed. We talked a lot about leading the life you really wanted. I had lost time to make up for - just like Woody had at age 40. Woody died of complications after a heart attack on the afternoon of October 25, 1989. I was there.

23 years ago I was a vice president and member of the board of directors in an engineering firm. I had the corner office. I was not leading the life I wanted. On October 25, 1995, I walked out and started my own company. I did it on the anniversary of Woodys death as a gesture of respect and to acknowledge what the man had done for me. Just like for Woody, that bold move changed my life in positive ways I could not have imagined.

Woodys ashes were released to Lake Erie near Starve Island, near South Bass. Whenever I sail alone in the area, I always have a long talk with my old friend. Woody was one of the kindest, most generous souls I have encountered in life. I still miss him to this day.

Thank you very much for posting this. I am truly grateful.