Early TV show put young Monongahela women in spotlight
In his 1966 hit, "It Was A Very Good Year," Frank Sinatra sang about small town girls hiding from the lights at seventeen.
Those classic lyrics by composer Ervin Drake would have been appropriate 15 years earlier for four young women from Monongahela.
Although they didn't exactly shy away from the lights, 1951 was, indeed, a very good year for them.
"We graduated from high school in June and a few months later, there we were on television," said Faye Irey, of Monongahela. "It was so exciting, something I'll never forget."
Irey, the former Faye Henderson, recounted that experience in responding to a request in The Valley Independent's nostalgia-focused Valley Oldies column.
We listed several area residents who had performed on the Wilkens Amateur Hour, a mainstay of Pittsburgh radio and television for many years. We asked others who also may have presented their talents on the popular show to contact us.
"It was some time in the fall of 1951 that we gave it a whirl," Irey said.
She was a member of a vocal group known as The Fourettes. The others were Edna Comer Detwiler, Patty McGregor Vincent and Kay Bryner McCurry. While Irey graduated from Monongahela High School in 1951, the others received their diplomas a year earlier.
"We sang 'That Lucky Old Sun,' which had been a big hit for Frankie Laine in 1949," Irey said. "We felt we did a good job."
Buoyed by that confidence, the women had postcard-size ballots printed for distribution at First National Bank of Monongahela, where Irey and Detwiler worked.
"We encouraged everyone and anyone to vote for us and we sent the cards to the amateur hour," Irey said. "People from the community responded very well, but we lost to a nice young man who played the clarinet. It seemed that instrumentalists -- those who played the piano or some type of horn -- were crowd favorites. We were disappointed but not dejected. We had fun."
The Fourettes blended their voices for an a cappella rendition of 'That Lucky Old Sun' at the KDKA-TV studios in Pittsburgh.
"They may have had a house organist in the studio, but we performed unaccompanied by any musicians," Irey said. "Were we nervous• You bet. Even though there was no live audience, we were a bit daunted by the surroundings -- the lights, the cameras -- as well as the presence of the other contestants and the Amateur Hour staff.
"Al Noble, who was a handsome man with blond hair, was the master of ceremonies. He was very nice to everyone and did his best to keep (the performers) calm."
So did the twin sisters who were cast as the Wilkens Girls. Like Abbe Neal and her Wilkens Westernaires, the twins carried the Wilkens jewelry store's musical message about "EZ Credit ... Wilkens is the place where you can get it ..." to the listening and viewing audiences.
"We wore dark sweaters with Peter Pan collars, which were the fad in those days," Irey said. "The twins helped us get ready and helped settle the butterflies in our stomachs."
The Fourettes weren't the only Monongahela link to the Wilkens Amateur Hour.
Gloria Bergman Okon, who portrayed Jane Wilkens on the show, was a speech, drama and English teacher at MHS.
"She was from Mt. Lebanon, a graduate of Carnegie Tech and a super teacher," Irey said. "But she wasn't on the show when we appeared because she was on her honeymoon.
Irey still has a clipping of a May 1, 1951 item that appeared in the late Harold V. Cohen's The Drama Desk column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regarding Okon. Cohen wrote:
"Gloria (Bergman) Wayne has been signed for the announcer's berth on the Wilkens Amateur Hour, a post Jack logan had to vacate several weeks ago. She'll make her debut on the program next Sunday under the name of Jane Wilkens. By a strange coincidence, Miss Wayne happens to be the niece of Brian McDonald, one of the program's first masters of ceremonies."
"Wayne" was Okon's stage name.
If the name Okon sounds familiar, turn the clock back to 1979 to the award-winning Coca-Cola TV commercial featuring Hall of Famer Joe Greene and a 9-year-old boy. You may recall the boy offering Greene a refreshing Coca-Cola on his way to the locker room and in return Greene tossing the kid his number 75 jersey.
The young boy, an experienced child actor, who said, "Thanks, Mean Joe," was Tommy Okon.
"Tommy is Gloria's son," Irey said. "He now lives in Westchester, NY."
Gloria Okon was still performing as of 2009 in Ohio.
According to a release from the Ashtabula Arts Center, her more than 45 years of entertaining included a stint from 1955 to 1959 in the lounge at the Twin Coaches supper club. She recalled meeting such music greats as Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, the Four Lads, Tony Martin, Bill Haley and the Comets and the McGuire Sisters. Performing as Gloria DiFabio, she has recorded several albums, one of which, Let The Sunshine In, was nominated for a Grammy award. "Gloria is a very talented woman," Irey said.
The Monongahela link to the Twin Coaches was complemented by The Fourettes.
"We performed there one time," Irey said. "It may have been for a Rotary Club banquet or some similar event, but it was an unforgettable moment. We had sung in the high school chorus and with our church choirs, but this was a totally different experience. The Twin Coaches featured all the big names in the (entertainment) business and we couldn't believe we were singing on the same stage as those stars. We felt like we were in Seventh Heaven.
"Irey treasures those memories as well as a 1950 picture of The Fourettes and Olive Graff Bohl."
We were all best friends," Irey said. "Olive didn't sing with us on the Wilkens Amateur Hour because she was already in college then. But the five of us did sing together and I played piano for them. Those were special times for all of us -- very good years, indeed."