Opp's Lew Childre kept Alabama at heart

Published 11:38 am Wednesday, October 10, 2007

By By Lowell McGill
Lew Childre was a famous musical artist from the 1920s until the 1950s. Born and raised in Opp, he lived out his final days in his Foley home. There are and were several residents of Atmore and the surrounding area who actually knew Lew or knew some of his family.
Before I get into those local connections I will tell you something about the man.
The son of a judge, he began his career in Opp with childhood ambitions of becoming a vaudeville star. His family wanted him to attend the University of Alabama to study medicine, but he had other ambitions. Extremely talented, he was endowed with an extraordinary facial profile. A Hollywood "look," if you will. His smile, which extended from ear to ear, was only overshadowed by his perfect set of teeth. In other words he "looked the part" and you would get the impression that he was destined to become the "showman" that he was.
As I stated, several from Atmore had knowledge of Childre. Mrs. Alvis Respress, who was raised in Opp, has talked with me numerous times about the Childre family. Others included John Paul Jones, now deceased, and a former businessman here. Bill Ward, the late father of Don and Mike Ward, knew of Childre from his early days in Covington County. Tony Albert at Rex Sporting Goods sold Childre fishing equipment for many years. (More about the Childre business further down in this column). Floyd Holk was raised with Lew Jr. in Foley. In fact, they were great friends. In the 1930s and 1940s my dad had a service station in Perdido. I remember his telling of occasions when Childre would stop to buy gas. Childre, known to love fishing, had built a fishing camp near Foley where he and his family would frequently visit.
But the person who had more personal knowledge about Lew Childre was the lady my grandfather married after his first wife, my grandmother, died. We called her Ethel. She was raised in Opp and she personally knew Childre. She would often tell how talented he was. She said he tried learning the guitar without too much early success. In high school he played brass instruments such as trumpet and trombone and was real good on the drums. She said that he would go into the woods and get on top of a big oak stump where he developed a style of dance, which would eventually propel him into stardom. He would also do his dance on street corners in Opp. She said he improvised his own stage costume, which in those early days included a straw hat and "blousy" trousers. His clothing was very colorful, she said. He also had a gift of writing stories, songs and comedy gag lines. She remembers that he left Opp with a traveling tent show where he went out into the world in search of his career. After he left, she never saw him again because her family moved away from Opp.
According to historians, Childre was forever in search of that "traditional" vaudeville career. But he never obtained that goal. It was learned that he formed a small band in the 1920s, which actually included Lawrence Welk as one of the members. He also took up the guitar during those band years, teaching himself to play in both traditional and Hawaiian styles. He and his band were together for only a few years. But they traveled around the country playing at various well-known radio stations and performing in tent shows.
Country music was beginning to ascend and he was drawn into this new form of show business, not as a band member but as a "musical comedian." He added a style of "ad-libbing to his performances, which included "buck dancing" while playing the guitar and singing in a very recognized southern style." In 1945 he was invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
In his tenure there, which lasted for many years, he was finally able to show his "country vaudeville" talent. He performed with such Opry greats as Red Foley, Roy Acuff and Whitey Ford, better known as "The Duke Of Paducah." He did commercials for several nationally known companies on the Opry. His commercials were heard and seen throughout the entire country.
His goal had finally been obtained.
His most recognizable closing line on the Opry was "I want to say goodnight to my mammy down in Opp, Alabammy."
While Childre was enjoying years of popularity, he built a home south of Foley where he developed a fishing tackle business. This business would later enjoy tremendous success. After Childre died in 1961 his son took the reins of the business and marketed its products nationwide.
The business was famous for fishing poles and related fishing rods and reels. Lew Jr. went to Japan where he found a particular bamboo which fishermen, even today, say is the best fishing pole ever made.
Tony Albert regarded the "Lew Speed Stick" as one of his best selling items when he owned and operated Rex Sporting Goods" here for so many years.
Floyd Holk often spoke of Lew Jr. and their friendship when the two grew up together in Foley. Floyd said he was one of the most liked of all his friends.
Lew Jr. had built an airplane landing strip in a field located in rear of his home. He used the plane in his business travels. In 1977 at the age of 47, Lew crashed his plane in that field in the back of his home. The crash took his life. But the business continued under the direction of his mother and other family members until it was sold a few years later.
Lew Childre was of the most famous ambassadors the state of Alabama ever produced. He ranks right up there with such notables as Hank Williams, Helen Keller and Fred Thompson, the current "Law And Order" TV star and Presidential candidate.
In future columns you'll learn of many other famous movie stars, personalities and musicians who were not from Alabama. But, they retired along the coastal towns from Fairhope to Foley to Gulf Shores.
Lowell McGill is a historical columnist for The Atmore Advance. He can be reached at exam@frontiernet.net

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