June 25, 1939: Musicians from Wheeling Steel Perform to 26,000 at New York's World Fair
On June 25, 1939, musicians from the Wheeling Steel Corporation performed at New York’s World’s Fair before 26,000 listeners. The performers, selected from Wheeling Steel’s extended family, had become the surprise sensation of the late ’30s. It was all the brainchild of Wheeling Steel’s advertising director, John Grimes, as a way to promote the corporation’s image and products.
Grimes launched It’s Wheeling Steel on WWVA radio in 1936. It featured light classics, popular songs, and show tunes, performed by an orchestra of local musicians and amateur headliners. The program was an instant success and was picked up nationally by the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1939.
In 1941, It’s Wheeling Steel jumped to NBC and rose to fifth in the ratings. During World War II, the show encouraged listeners to buy war bonds, generating $663,000 in bond sales in just one program broadcast from West Virginia University’s field house. In 1944, at its peak of popularity, the show was discontinued, primarily due to John Grimes’s failing health. The show’s arranger, Lew Davies, would later develop Lawrence Welk’s TV variety show based largely on the format of It’s Wheeling Steel.