Carolina Cotton, the "Yodeling Blonde Bombshell," was "grand marshalette" of Newhall's 1950 Fourth of July Parade, which ran up
San Fernando Road (which, in 1950, was another name for Railroad Avenue) and ended at Ernie Hickson's Placeritos Ranch, which was renamed "Slippery
Gulch" for the 1949-1951 Independence Day celebrations. Today it's Melody Ranch.
Image courtesy of Carolina's daughter, Sharon Marie (2014).
About Carolina Cotton, the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell, 1925-1997
By her daughter, Sharon Marie
Carolina Cotton was born Helen Hagstrom on Oct. 20, 1925, and raised on the family farm just 3 miles south of her native town of Cash in northeast Arkansas. Mother Helen Dodson had studied business, and father Fred Hagstrom was a Swedish chef. Helen's sister Winifred was 2 years older. The two siblings would remain close through the years. Helen's grandfather, George W. Dodson, was head of the farm. Grandma Della (Boyd) Dodson often looked after the young children.
Little Helen loved going to the movies and watching Westerns. She often sang along to songs on the radio and even tried her hand at yodeling to them.
When the Depression and drought years came along, times grew hard on the Dodson farm. Helen's parents went to Colorado to find work, finding luck in Denver.
"In 1935, we were havin' a Christmas vacation and the whole family went to Denver," Helen said. "Then we picked a spot on the map we liked the sound of. It was Klamath Falls, and it was a place we hadn't ever been in, so we packed and took off, Mama, Daddy, my sister Winifred, and me. Well, we went to Cheyenne, then Scott's Bluff, Neb., and then to Caspar, Wyo. Daddy worked in Caspar and bought the landlady's car for $45. When we got to the top of a mountain near Bend, Ore., the transmission or whatever you call it, fell out — the whole bottom works. We got pushed into Bend, and Daddy sold the car for $25. Imagine sellin' a car for $25.
"Well, we lived in Portland and Seattle and Sacramento and finally daddy went to work in Ignacio, that's near San Francisco, and we lived on a big ranch. And we stayed there."
The family spent a year or so traveling around and finally settled in San Francisco.
Helen, now in junior high school, began taking dance lessons from the O'Neill Sisters and soon joined their popular O'Neill Sisters Kiddie Revue. They often performed at the Golden Gate Theatre. It was there that Helen got her taste of show biz, and she liked it. She also performed numbers at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Around that time, she tried her luck in an amateur radio contest.
"It was so funny, but when that song, ‘The Love Bug Will Bite You If You Don't Watch Out,’ was popular is when it happened. I went to keep my girlfriend from gettin' too scared. She was tryin' out on Larry Keating's program and she was goin' to tap dance, only she never got up enough courage. Well, they wouldn't let me in the studio (to watch, as a non-contestant) so I was in the music library and somebody give me the song, you know, ‘The Love Bug Will Bite You if You Don't Watch Out, and I sang it."
She won — and attracted the attention of another local radio talent, Western Swing band leader Dude Martin.
Helen began visiting the studios of KYA Radio after school to watch Dude and His Roundup Gang perform. She got to know the band and was influenced by the yodeling of their female vocalist Arvada Miller. When Miller left the group to be married, Helen got her break.
In order to stay on the radio, the musicians union ruled that bands must have seven card-carrying members. This was during World War II, and whenever one of Dude Martin's bandmates was drafted into the military, Martin was forced to get a replacement or get kicked off the air. So along came Helen, who not only could sing and yodel some, but also had a union card. She joined the Roundup Gang in August 1942. By 1944, Helen and the Roundup Gang had a very busy schedule.
"I was doin' 17 broadcasts and five dance jobs a week, and then I was studyin' harmony and arrangin', and goin' to school at the same time. We did a broadcast and rehearsal at 6:30 every morning, and then I'd go to school. After school, I'd get on a train that goes across the bay, and take a li'l ol’ street car — let's see, it was two street cars and the train — every day and I'd go over to Richmond (East Shore Park) for another broadcast. And we did a show, too. That was at 5:30. Then we had supper and we did a dance job and another broadcast at 10:45. On Wednesdays we did a Cowboy Hit Revue and on Saturday afternoons I did a 15-minute broadcast."
Helen was now a bona fide member of the Roundup Gang, but she needed a name change. The stigma of Arkies and Okies was still a problem in those days. Since Helen was from Arkansas (and wasn't a very exciting stage name), she was given the nickname "Carolina."
In the summer of 1944, Carolina went down to Hollywood to buy new costumes from famed Western clothing designer, Nathan Turk. She expected to get a nice outfit or two and then return to her routine in San Francisco. But it turned out to be a bit more than she expected.
As luck would have it, she literally bumped into entertainer-songwriter Johnny Marvin. The two carried on conversation, and he invited her to a big Hollywood film party where she ended up meeting the cast of the movie "National Barn Dance": Pat Buttram, Lulubelle and Scotty, the Hoosier Hot Shots and many others. This later led to a trip to a Hollywood nightclub where Carolina met bandleader Spade Cooley and his Orchestra. Marvin encouraged her to sit in with the band, so she got up and sang a number with them, and the audience loved her.
Once Carolina returned to San Francisco, she got a phone call from her newfound friend, Johnny Marvin. He offered her a part in a "B" movie down in Los Angeles. But now she was faced with a big decision: She had to choose between staying with Dude Martin in the Bay Area, or moving to Hollywood. It brought her to tears, but friends and family encouraged her to choose Hollywood. So Carolina packed up and moved to Los Angeles.
Her first movie was Republic Pictures' "Sing Neighbor Sing" with Roy Acuff. Around the same time, she joined Spade Cooley's band and made her yodeling debut in the movie, "The Singing Sheriff" (Bob Crosby/Universal).
The Spade Cooley Orchestra entertained packed crowds nightly at L.A.'s popular Western club, the Riverside Rancho. At the time, Cooley's band included legendary musicians Tex Williams, Joaquin Murphey, Smokey Rogers and Deuce Spriggens. The band could be heard on KNX radio's "Hollywood Barn Dance" and made soundies, an early form of music video.
Cooley's manager was a clever businesswoman named Bobbie Bennett, one of the first female promoters. (At first, Marvin was Carolina's manager, and eventually Bennett became her manager throughout her career.)
Carolina still didn't have a last name, so Bennett held a contest down at the Rancho to find her one. The winning name was Cotton. It was suggested by Santa Monica resident Sharon Carter.
Carolina made a third movie, PRC Pictures' "I"m From Arkansas." With Spade Cooley's band, she began filming at Columbia Pictures: "Outlaws of the Rockies," "Texas Panhandle" and "Song of the Prairie."
Carolina became romantically involved with the Spade Cooley Band's bassist, Deuce Spriggens. The two were secretly married in June 1945. Before long, Carolina and Deuce left Cooley's band and took a few band members with them. Together with left-handed fiddle player Tex Atchison and the popular Plainsmen Trio, they formed the Deuce Spriggins Orchestra, a group that easily rivaled Cooley's in musicianship. Spriggens' band also made a few soundies and appeared in four Columbia films: "Song of the Prairie," "That Texas Jamboree," "Cowboy Blues" and "Singing on the Trail" — all with Ken Curtis and the Hoosier Hot Shots. There were also more radio shows and a house gig at the newly remodeled Western Palisades Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier.
Carolina and Deuce appeared to get along well, but eventually the marriage failed. The couple divorced in 1946.
Meanwhile, the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell moved on without missing a beat. She returned to the Riverside Rancho to perform with Hank Penny in the Fall of 1946. She also signed a recording contract with the newly formed King Records label. They released four songs, one of which was the tune she wrote about her hometown, "3 Miles South of Cash (in Arkansas)." She joined Ken Curtis, Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, The Plainsmen and Cottonseed Clark on the well-known AFRS Radio series, "Ranch House Party." And she was becoming equally popular at rodeos after having learned to ride for films. She soon became known as an outstanding horsewoman and began appearing as "grand marshalette" at parades and fairs.
In June 1947, Carolina Cotton went on the road, touring with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. "Smokey River Serenade" was her next picture, and she recorded two songs for Crystal Records.
In 1948, Carolina became one of the first female disc jockeys in the country, landing a half-hour show on KGER in Long Beach. She also appeared on other programs including the popular KMPC Westerners.
Television beckoned, and Carolina landed a spot on KLAC-TV's "Sunset Ranch," a local L.A. show. She began making guest appearances on other local TV shows and in between, she made another movie, "Smokey Mountain Melody" with Roy Acuff.
In the Spring of 1949, Carolina toured with the famous Sons of the Pioneers, making her the first "Daughter" to tour with the group. She made one film with Utah-based Astor Pictures, "Stallion Canyon" with Ken Curtis. Carolina continued her guest appearances on Radio and TV, at parades and rodeos, and started to become a popular attraction at charity benefits such as the annual St Mary's All Western Days of El Cajon, Calif.
By 1950, things were really coming together for Carolina. In January she made her Big Apple debut, at New York's Greenwich Village Barn. The critics gave her thumbs up. Nick Kenny of the New York Daily Mirror wrote: "New York City! Calling all cities! These appearances of Carolina Cotton on the TV from the Village Barn are something."
Carolina's film, "Feudin' Rhythm," completed the year before, was still playing in theatres. Right on its heels was another Eddie Arnold film, "Hoedown." And she inked a new recording contract with MGM Records, for which she recorded such favorites as "Boo Hoo Blues" and "I Betcha I Getcha."
Carolina continued guest to appear as a guest on TV and radio shows as well as making live appearances. She was becoming quite a regular on the parade and rodeo circuit while getting more involved with charitable organizations. If there was an event worth holding, chances are, Carolina would be there.
Without a doubt, the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell was winning the hearts of fans. And it was during a Texas tour that she won the interest of some investors who were willing to back plans for Carolina's own TV series. The program evolved under several working titles including "Gun Notches," "Adventuring with Carolina Cotton" and "Queen of the Range."
The show would cast Carolina as herself, portrayed as a female Hopalong Cassidy — a rip-roaring, ridin', shootin', bronco-bustin' cowgirl. It would be the kind of action-packed show that would rival Annie Oakley. (In fact, Carolina was originally asked to play the part of Oakley, but turned it down to play herself in this new series.) Manager Bobbie Bennett launched an all-out publicity campaign. Toy manufacturers were set to put out 25 different Carolina Cotton items, including a doll and a gun-and-holster set.
Meanwhile, Carolina went to work. She learned stunt work from Red Wing while taking judo and marksmanship from LAPD Officer Mickey Finn. On this TV show, she would handle the bad guys, yet still keep her feminine touch. She would leave the cowboy on the porch and ride off into the sunset.
Most critics and fans loved the idea. A few remained skeptical. One critic wrote, "Little girls will toss other gals, and break out their six guns." It was am era when women usually played a more conservative role. Sadly," Queen of the Range" never materialized.
The decision to drop the proposed TV series was quite a blow, but once again Carolina bounced back and moved on. In the Fall of 1950 she participated in an all-celebrity baseball game called the Out Of This World Series. It was a star-studded charity event held annually in Los Angeles.
The Games always included a "Who's Who" of Hollywood's favorites. Among them were Desi Arnaz, Tony Curtis, Lionel Hampton, Bob Crosby, Jane Russell, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Spade Cooley, Gary Cooper, Shelly Winters, Janet Leigh, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Trigger — competing in a friendly but outrageous game of baseball. Some of the players even ran the bases on horseback. There were no real "rules," as it was all in fun. (Carolina was invited back to play in at least two more games, in 1951 and 1952.)
By December, Carolina was honored join in her first of many USO shows, called the Hollywood Christmas Caravan. Although this particular tour was not officially labeled "USO," it still entertained our military troops overseas. The tour sent Carolina to Europe. She was especially honored to receive West Germany's prestigious medal of Deputy Provost Marshal — the only civilian to receive the award.
Carolina stayed on with MGM Records in 1951, this time recording four songs with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, including a remake of her song "Three Miles South of Cash." They made a music video (Snader Telescription) of the tune, as well as one for "Yodel Mountain." Another TV opportunity came along, this time co-starring on KTTV's "Hoffman Hayride." She also began filming on two more pictures for Columbia, "Rough Tough West" (Charles Starrett, Smiley Burnette) and the Gene Autry film, "Apache Country."
In December 1951, Carolina participated in one of her most colorful stunts: placing a giant 9-foot striped pole, filled with 5,000 childrens' letters to Santa Claus, and dropping it over the North Pole. She and Alaska DJ North Pole Nellie took part in a big celebration in Fairbanks. Carolina had a lot of fun as she tried dog-sledding and became an honorary member of the Alaskan Dog Mushers Association. The two girls were set to fly in the Polar Express — the very first commercial flight over the North Pole. However, the plane was scheduled to make a refueling stop at an all-male military bass en route — where, unfortunately, women were not permitted. So Carolina and Nellie were left behind. In their honor, the airmen on the flight let out a spirited yodel as the candy-striped "pole" fell to Earth, marking the Top of the World.
While the naval station at Point Barrow, Alaska, may have been off-limits to women, across the ocean, the military bases of war-torn Korea needed female entertainers. So Carolina was soon on her way overseas with the USO. Besides Korea, she performed for troops stationed in Europe and North Africa.
Soon the familiar folks at the Armed Forces Radio Service called on Carolina, and she answered with a new show: "Carolina Cotton Calls." The 15-minute programs were down-to-earth and a welcome comfort to many a soldier, reminding them of the "girl next door" back at home.
In the states, the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell kept up appearances at rodeos, fairs and charity benefits. Los Angeles' Miracle Mile honored her during Cotton Week, crowning her queen of the event. She even teamed up with a kiddie amusement park in Compton when it was renamed Carolina Cotton's Tiny Town.
She released her last two songs for MGM, "Yodel Yodel Yodel" (revised for the Autry film, "Blue Canadian Rockies") and perhaps her greatest yodeling showcase of all, "Nola."
In December 1952, another USO tour to Korea was under way. Carolina really connected with the troops, so much so that she requested a return visit a few weeks later. This time, she performed on the front lines. As a token of appreciation, the 188th Tank Corps named a tank after her: Miss Carolina, The Cotton Special.
Carolina finished filming two movies with Gene Autry: "Apache Country," and her final film, "Blue Canadian Rockies." She also made one more Durango Kid picture, "The Rough Tough West," featuring her old friends Charles Starett and Smiley Burnette.
Although 1952 was the final year Carolina released any commercial recordings or made "B" Westerns, she was far from stepping down from the limelight. She continued to make TV appearances; she was regular on KTLA's "Western Varieties," and back in San Francisco, on a show with another familiar face, Cottonseed Clark. She made guest spots on a few radio programs. One of the most popular was the "Navy Country Hoedown." She appeared on the series with Ernest Tubb and a couple of comrades from the old days: Tex Williams and Merle Travis. Of course she made her yearly USO tours overseas to Korea and the Far East, and numerous personal appearances within the U.S.
In June 1956, Carolina made one final overseas trip with her fellow entertainers. This time it was to Johannesburg, South Africa. Included in the group were Zsa Zsa Gabor, Keenan Wynn, Walter Pidgeon and longtime friend Merle Travis. Together they toured hospitals on behalf of the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation. Carolina really connected with the disabled children there, telling herself that if she ever left show business, she would do something to help such kids.
Meanwhile, Carolina had become romantically involved with L.A.-area musician Bill Ates, nephew of character actor Roscoe Ates, with whom she did many shows throughout her career. The two were married in August 1956 in Los Angeles. A special wedding party was held at the Silver Saddle Inn. It was a grand affair complete with a fashion show by old friend Nathan Turk.
Times, they were a-changin'. Now married, and with Western Swing and "B" movies becoming more a thing of the past, Carolina concentrated more on her new home life. She still made an occasional appearance here and there and kept in touch with her old friends, and even wrote a few magazine columns for Trail and Rustic Rhythm magazines.
The couple settled in the San Fernando Valley and soon started a family with two children, son William and daughter Sharon. But the marriage didn't survive; Carolina and Bill divorced in the early 1960s.
Carolina remembered the promise she made to herself in Johannesburg. She moved her family back to the very place where her entertainment career began years earlier, San Francisco, but now, she turned her attention to becoming a teacher. Before long, she earned a master’s degree in Special Education (and a second degree in general education). Carolina taught at several schools in the Bay Area.
In time, better teaching positions came along, and the family relocated to Panama (Balboa, Canal Zone, where her sister Winifred also taught); the Hot Springs, Ark., and finally back to California, settling in Bakersfield.
In the 1970s, Bakersfield was known as Nashville West, and it wasn't long before country artists there such as Bill Woods and Buck Funderburke learned that the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell was now living and teaching in their own back yard. As they say, "once a musician, always a musician" — and with her kids now grown, Carolina would occasionally join in a few jam sessions at the local Grange Hall.
On more than one occasion, Carolina performed at events sponsored by the Kern County Museum to help raise money for its Country Music exhibit. One of these shows included her old friends Joe and Rosa Lee Maphis, comrades from her days on the "Carolina Cotton Calls" AFRS Radio programs.
The Country and Western Music community wasn't the only one to remember Carolina from the Good Old Days. By 1984, she attended the first of many Western Film Festivals, which honor and celebrate "B" Westerns. These get-togethers were (and still are) quite an affair for fans and celebrities alike. Carolina enjoyed mingling with old and new fans. She also reunited with a few friends she'd worked with through the years, such as Gloria Henry, Gail Davis, Lash LaRue, Sunset Carson and others. Of course, no Film Festival would be complete without the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell doing what she does best: Carolina wowed the crowds with songs like "I Love To Yodel," "Lovesick Blues" and her audience-participation duet version of "Three Miles South of Cash in Arkansas."
Then in 1994, Carolina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite undergoing chemotherapy, she carried on with the same enthusiasm she was blessed with since childhood. She not only kept teaching full-time, but also kept her part-time sales job in the Housewares department of Gottschalks (formerly Brock's) department store. She even appeared at a couple of film festivals and continued to enjoy summer trips to Europe.
It appeared she was beating the odds, but by March 1997, her illness forced her to retire from teaching. In mid-April she entered the hospital, where she died the morning of June 10, 1997.
Carolina Cotton lives on in the hearts of fans old and new. She is fondly remembered by those who knew her and loved her, the world over. The ongoing preservation of her films, recordings and memorabilia will ensure her works will be shared with generations to come. It’s a fitting tribute to the lovable little gal from Cash, Ark.