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Oklahoma Memories

Martha Knott

2012-03-31

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KBYE clip - "Yessiree that old theme coming up in the background, pushing ole Cousin Nellie right off the airwaves. Neighbors, gonna see you here tomorra. You bethar and I'll be here, and we'll have a wonderful time. In the meantime, don't forget our wonderful sponsor, Springdale Farms Poultry. This is your old Cousin Nellie saying [unintelligible] neighbors, we gottagit!"

That is the voice of Martha Knott closing her 1950s radio program as Cousin Nellie on KBYE in Oklahoma City.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Martha Knott was active in show business in Oklahoma from the early 1900s through just a couple of years ago. In fact her family, the Standley family, produced three generations of entertainers that spanned the totality of the twentieth century. The patriarch, Jack, and his wife Myrtle began their careers on the east coast in Vaudeville. In 1905 while on tour, they married in Charleston, South Carolina. They then joined other permanent and circle stock companies, performing in theaters around the United States. In the late 1920s the couple helped operate the Merry Frank Players before purchasing their own tent to do tent shows. Beginning in 1931 the Standley Players began following the wheat harvest, playing in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas while the show wintered in Oklahoma.

"My dad, Jack Standley, who was the manager of the Standley Players, and my mother and dad were theatre people. They were on the stage, and then I have a brother, John, a sister, Marjorie, a sister, Eleanor, and I'm Martha. Well, we were the Standley Players, and we traveled all over."

It was in those tent shows a young Martha began her career.

"We had a fairly large show. We would have like an orchestra when things were good and the seasons where the farmers had good cotton crop or good wheat or whatever. Well we sort of, our success depended on their success, and if they had money and made money, we made money. When things got bad for them, which is certainly did through the Depression and the Dust Bowl, it was bad for us, the Standley Players."

Early in the family's career, Oklahoma became their home.

"We kind of chose Oklahoma more or less as a headquarters. It seemed that it was sort of strategically located for our traveling and for moving the show. They retired from the road in '57. You know, Oklahoma just all the little towns, and I can think of Reydon and Cheyenne and Butler and, oh Camargo, and I could just name them. Cherokee, Arnett, Elk City, Clinton, Sayre, Hobart, all over - we played all those towns..."

Martha Standley Knott performed as an actor, a comedian, musician, and singer for the Standley Family Players. Martha married Bobby Knott, a musician that toured with the tent show. In the early 1950s the couple settled in Oklahoma City. Bobby formed an orchestra and played at clubs, garnering a long-term job at the Petroleum Club in downtown Oklahoma City. Martha had her radio show on KBYE in Oklahoma City titled Cousin Nellie, a take-off to the Minnie Pearl style comedy, and played country music. Martha stayed active in the stage, acting and directing at Oklahoma City's Mummers Theater and Lyric Theater.

Martha and Bobby's son, Robert Knott, joined the family profession in the 1980s. He has acted in dozens of movies and wrote and produced Appaloosa, starring Ed Harris. Martha Standley Knott passed away two weeks ago, March 24th, at the age of 98.

You can learn more about Oklahomans in show business and in motion pictures when the new exhibit "Oklahoma at the Movies" opens next month at the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rdStreet, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.