On a hillside in near-West Knoxville, just beyond a sign that spells, in oriental letters, SHANGRI-LA, is the unusual home of one of Knoxville's most recognizable early television personalities, Mr. Jack Wiedemann. He no longer wears the black-framed glasses that, 50-something years ago, made him look like Allen Ludden's hipster cousin. He dresses all in black, and his jet-black hair, if not his van dyke, gives him a little of the aura of Elvis, maybe a fitter, flintier version.
If you ever suspected there was a secret link between the singing careers of Jim Nabors and James Brown, look no further than Jack Wiedemann.
He won't tell you how old he is, and he's not sure when he first arrived in Knoxville, sometime in the latter '50s. But when he did, he already had a reputation in television circles as a sort of magician. Every station he ever worked for, he says, dominated its market.
"I'll just say I pass for a lot younger than I am," he says. He was born in New Orleans, into a family with a traveling dramatic troupe. By age 6, he was playing a dwarf in a production of Rip Van Winkle. Home-schooled on the Bible, Shakespeare, and Kipling's Just So Stories, he was 14 when he graduated from high school—at that time, he happened to be up in Harrisburg, Ill.—and it was that year he first worked as an announcer, at Harrisburg's WEBQ. "It was principally because of my voice," he says. His voice is deep and rich, that of a mid-century radio announcer. He later worked as a late-night DJ for Chicago's WGN.
Restless of mind, he wanted to write, to act, to paint. He attended the Chicago Art Institute and the National Academy of Arts in New York, where he studied with Raymond Johnson, host of the radio mystery show "Inner Sanctum." But his mother, acquainted with show biz, insisted he get something to fall back on. At Columbia, he earned a degree in architectural engineering.
Then he went to work for NBC, getting some of its early affiliates on the air, at WJBF in Augusta, Ga., which signed on in 1953.
Wiedemann produced and hosted talent shows. Child star Brenda Lee was one guest. Another was Augusta's most memorable shoe-shine man, who sang as he worked. Wiedemann encouraged young James Brown's career, took him to auditions.
Then he was unable to shake off a lady who said her nephew could sing. "This lanky kid came in and sang ‘The Lord's Prayer.' He opened his mouth, and, my God, he blew me away." It was, of course, Jim Nabors, several years before anybody had heard of him.
Because hardly anybody made a living just singing, Wiedemann taught Nabors to edit film. When Wiedemann went north to Chattanooga to launch WRGP, he took Nabors with him.
Then Wiedemann came to Knoxville, hired as operations manager for WATE, when it was broadcast out of an old mayonnaise factory on Broadway at Walker Boulevard. The first thing he noticed was the station's terrible acoustics, the room partly lined with tin. "The sound in there was like you were in a bucket," he says. He proceeded to staple egg flats to the walls and ceilings, "to get a decent sound in that place," then painted it all black so nobody would notice what they were.
He hosted his own show here, a daytime show called "Holiday for Housewives," billed as a "Zestfull Hourfull of Songs and Laughs, led by affable, likeable host-comedian Jack Wiedemann." A regular guest was Nabors, still before his first appearances on the Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle.
Later, it was Wiedemann who was instrumental in moving WATE into the landmark Greystone, employing his architectural engineering degree to shoehorn a TV station into a Victorian mansion.
As an announcer, he was the face of urban-renewal era Knoxville, at the opening of Market Square Mall, the Coliseum, the Promenade. He made commercials for John Duncan Sr.'s successful 1960 run for mayor.
"We were the number-one NBC station in the nation, ratings-wise." He says he still knows the secret for market domination. He won't share it for publication.
The souvenirs that line the walls of his large basement trophy room help him tell stories that might be less believable otherwise. The room is sort of a show-biz Batcave, a bar at one end, a big-screen TV, large photographs of voluptuous nudes, and lots of his own paintings, big and little, of Jesus, of Obama, of an elderly saxophonist. And framed autographed photos. Archie Campbell's says, "Jack—You're the best at everything you do." Later famous as a comedian on Hee Haw, Campbell had a daily half-hour show on WATE, as host and singer.
There's Loretta Lynn and Burt Reynolds, with whom Wiedemann worked on the 1976 film, Gator.
There's Robert Mitchum, who became a friend when Wiedemann worked with him as a location scout for the 1958 movie Thunder Road. Wiedemann cringes, but smiles, as he talks about the movie's well-known flub, when the camera lands on a sign for the Asheville Pharmacy in a scene supposed to be in Memphis.
He says Mitchum claimed the story was true. "Some relative of his had been a moonshiner in Kentucky, who ran into Tennessee." Wiedemann says he still has Mitchum's script of a sequel.
More photos, of Wiedemann at WATE interviewing Carol Channing and Hans Conried. Photos of Wiedemann in plays at the Carousel Theatre, as Hamlet, as Dracula, as Stanley Kowalski.
A photograph of Johnny Cash is inscribed "To the Man in Black Jack." He became acquainted with Cash in the '50s. Cash once asked Wiedemann, "Jack, why do you always wear black?"
"Because it makes me look slim and trim," Wiedemann answered. Soon after that, Wiedemann says, Cash became the Man in Black.
Wiedemann's deep, rich voice is somehow unruined by cigarettes. During our hour-long conversation, he smokes about nine of them.
Modern local TV, he says, is mainly just news.
"We made it fun," he says.