He had a look: His hair was prematurely silver, his tan deep, his convertible white. He had a sound: As a bandleader, singer, and drummer he was hip from his baton to his banter (he called everyone “cat”; everyone called him “Daddyo”).
But more important, he had a role in local broadcasting history as one of the pioneers who built WBAP TV from the test pattern up.
Star-Telegram entertainment columnist Elston Brooks called Bobby Peters Fort Worth’s “greatest showman.”
“It was pure production,” Brooks wrote, “if Peters put on a funny hat, leered behind false whiskers or did the rubber-leg bit. He called himself a drummer, but he played just about any chair in the band.”
“He liked his Scotch, he wrote the book on hip talk and he thrived on the wee hours of the nightclub and touring band business.”
Robert George Peters was born in Pennsylvania in 1912. At age sixteen he began performing a nightclub and vaudeville act. By 1933 he was a regular on Pittsburgh’s radio station KDKA. Peters formed an orchestra in 1939 and performed at New York’s Village Barn club in Greenwich Village.
But that same year Peters came to Cowtown and decided to stay a spell. He began performing at the Supper Club and the Skyliner on Jacksboro Highway and at the Den in the Hotel Texas. “Fort Worth’s downtown dine & dance & spot.” It was air-conditioned!
Also in 1939 Peters and his dance orchestra performed on KFJZ radio and the Texas State Network. Note that radio programming in 1939 was mostly music (WBAP on the Texas Quality Network presented the Light Crust Doughboys) and dramatic serials (soap operas such as Pepper Young’s Family, The Guiding Light, Stella Dallas, Judy and Jane, Mary Marlin).
Peters had found a home in Fort Worth, but he could not resist the road and continued to tour with his band. In 1941-1942 they appeared in nightclubs and hotels around the country.
But soon Peters enlisted in the Army and during World War II served in the Special Services of the Army Air Forces. He emceed the What’s Your Name? radio program from Love Field in Dallas. Love Field was an Air Transport Command airfield during the war.
After the war Peters was again a man about town, appearing at the 400 Club on Jacksboro Highway at University Drive.
After the war came another medium for Peters to master. On September 28, 1948 WBAP TV signed on as only the second TV station in the country between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Two years later Bobby Peters brought his talent and energy to WBAP’s Broadcast Hill.
In the new medium, Peters and other television pioneers were making it up as they went along. And they were making it up on live TV.
In May 1950 Ira Cain, the Star-Telegram’s pioneer television writer, wrote that Peters was performing a feat that even “Mr. TV,” the “inexhaustible Milton Berle,” would not attempt: hosting an hour-long live TV program five days a week. Officially Peters’s On the Record show was a “disc-jockey program.” But, Cain wrote, “Appearing every day in a new costume—so far he’s been everything from a lion-tamer to an Arabian sheik—Bobby Peters falls back on an unending repertoire of gags and antics to keep his ‘Madman’s Matinee’ going.” Cain wrote: “Most of his performances, including the pantomime lyrics for records he plays, are scripted entirely in his mind. His 20-year background of show business is responsible for that faculty, Peters says, explaining that a lot of novelty acts with which he built a national reputation for his bands fit nicely into television.”
Poor-quality photos of 1950 are a sample of the many mugs of Bobby Peters.
In 1950 Peters’s On the Record program was on the air from 3 to 4 p.m. (Note Mary Punkins Parker’s Playtime at 5:15, wrestling matches from North Side Coliseum at 8:40, and Harold Taft’s Weather Tele-Facts at 10:05.)
Not content to perform on radio and television and in venues around town, in 1950 Peters opened his own nightclub—the Joynt—on East Belknap Street. Elston Brooks remembered the Joynt as a “cracker box” with “egg carton inserts for an insulated ceiling, crazy signs on the wall, knockwurst out of a jar, singing waiters and, of course, Peters himself.” The Joynt was “a show business haven, where the city’s talent dropped in after their own shows elsewhere and performed for free. He sold it later to [character actor] Norm Alden, and it folded after Alden went to Hollywood.”
This sheet music of “The Prairies Keep Callin’ Me Home” boasts that the song was “featured by Bobby Peters and his orchestra.”
Like fellow bandleaders Tex Beneke and Smith Ballew, Peters also was a recording artist. Here’s “I’m Through Cryin’ Over You” from a 78-rpm disc, a novelty song recorded in 1951 by Bobby Peters and Buster’s Gang on the Texadisc label in Dallas:
Peters may have come from back east, but he cottoned to Cowtown so much that he wrote and recorded a song entitled “Ridin’ the Texas Plains” on the Texadisc label.
By 1951 Peters was on WBAP TV with On the Record at noon and on WBAP radio at 3:45 p.m. with the Bobby Peters Show (“with music and fun”). Note that in 1951 two local TV legends—Bobby Peters and Bill Camfield—were on WBAP between noon and 1 p.m.
Here’s a real curio. This photo, taken about 1952 at the Bob Wills Ranch House western-style nightclub in Dallas, shows Bobby Peters posing with Jack Ruby. Dallas millionaire O. L. Nelms had built the nightclub as a showcase for Wills, but about 1952 Nelms leased the club to Ruby and later sold it to Dewey Groom, whereupon it became the Longhorn Ballroom. The short man is Little Jimmy Dickens. The man between Dickens and Ruby, reader Paul Roark tells me, is Leo Teel (1924-1910), who was a musician and owned a recording studio in Grand Prairie and nightclubs in Dallas.
In 1952 Bobby Peters began yet another experiment in early TV: He began hosting Bobby Peters Jamboree, “a new show for the kids.” Note that programming on Saturday did not begin until 10 a.m. (Yes, in the Washer Bros. ad syndicated newspaper columnist Mark Bertram “Bert” Bacharach, presented by KFJZ radio and the Mutual Network, was the father of composer Burt Freeman Bacharach, who was twenty-four when this ad appeared.)
(By the mid-1950s Fort Worth-Dallas TV would be jammin’ with Bobby Peters Jamboree, Cowtown Jamboree, and Big “D” Jamboree.)
Peters, to promote his new kids show, made local appearances. On March 7 he hosted “Teen Nite” at the Bowie Theater with a “Jamboree of Gags.”
Boys and girls who today are grandparents fondly remember having been members of the studio audience of Bobby Peters Jamboree.
Here is a four-second video clip from Bobby Peters Jamboree:
This WBAP TV script from 1957 may have been for a news segment about the pony presentation seen in the video clip above. Note that the pony winner chose $350 ($3,000 today) instead. (Photo from UNT Libraries Special Collections.)
Despite his day jobs on radio and TV, Peters kept his night job: performing in nightclubs, appearing at My Room on Camp Bowie Boulevard in 1953.
But in 1954 Bobby Peters had been diagnosed with cancer, and his health was failing. He managed to keep his Bobby Peters Jamboree on the air into 1957 and continued to lead a band for dances and to work as program director of WBAP FM radio.
(Note other Saturday morning shows in 1957: Howdy Doody, Gumby, Fury, Sky King, Mark Wilson’s magic show, Captain Gallant and Capt. Kangaroo, Mighty Mouse, Lone Ranger, Boston Blackie.)
But for Robert George Peters the stage went dark on February 13, 1961. He died at his home on Canterbury Circle in Meadowbrook at age forty-eight.
Local musicians and other entertainers honored Peters at his funeral.
Bobby Peters—showman and “Daddyo” to his generation, TV pioneer to later generations—is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.