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Small-Town Girl Hits the Big Time

When Viola Jeanne Chassels graduated from Salem High School in Illinois in 1931, she may have had the typical high school dreams of the time: get married, settle down, raise a family. Instead she became a well-known radio singer.

Jean Chassels (third from right) on the Dorothy Perkins Program

Jean Chassels (third from right) on
the Dorothy Perkins Program

Three girls from Salem decided to cast their lot in the big city to the West. Jean, as she was known, was the lead singer in the group, which had been known around Salem as The Chassels Trio. Her mother apparently managed the group, and documentation shows Julia Chassels set her sights high for the girls.

Woody Klose, one of the popular announcers on KMOX, sent her a letter inviting the trio to an audition at 8:30 on the morning of May 28, 1932:

“This audition will make you eligible to appear on the broadcast of the KMOX Public Audition Program, which goes on the air at 9:30 o’clock, a.m…You are only allowed two minutes at the most.”

The three girls, Jean, Vivian Griffin, and Marie Hamilton had a chance to appear on KMOX, provided they made the cut at the audition.

Julia’s effort paid off. The Harmonettes, as the group was now known, were regularly featured on several KMOX short-form variety shows, which usually lasted fifteen minutes. They’d sing three selections with a piano or organ accompaniment. Most of these shows were “sustaining” at first, meaning there was no sponsor.

Later, as the economy improved and The Depression began to fade, their shows acquired a sponsor. That was due, in part, to the backing of Ted Straeter, a KMOX programmer who had a successful side business as a producer of talent for KMOX shows.

In early December of 1932, another letter came to Salem from St. Louis.

Dear Mrs. Chassels: I should like to have you and the girls come to my studio on Thursday, December the eighth at eleven in the morning, at which time I should like to discuss plans for work with the girls trio. Kindly let me know immediately if this will be satisfactory.

Ted Straeter #2 Studio Building, Taylor and Olive

Straeter and his partner Myles Hasgall were so well-known for their work that they were credited at the beginning and end of the shows that featured talent they had discovered, as found on this KMOX script from 1933: “Myles Hasgall and Ted Straeter, maestros of music in St. Louis present their regular Wednesday evening program. Tonight Hasgall and Straeter present The Harmonettes.”

A newspaper clipping of the era noted, “Union Electric Light and Power Company signed them for its KMOX Thursday night show after their first audition.”

Back in Salem, the town was proud of its radio stars. An ad in the local paper read: “Dorothy Perkins radio program over KMOX St. Louis, each Tuesday night 7:45…Three Salem girls who have made good in big time radio broadcasting. Tune in next Tuesday night and enjoy the program.”

As their popularity increased, two of the original members of the Harmonettes married and moved on, but Jean was the one constant, and it’s safe to assume there were a lot of proud people in Salem when the CBS Radio Network began national broadcasts from the KMOX studios featuring the group.

There must have been something in the air in the 1930s at KMOX. Jean Chassels met a guy at the station who was also interested in music. He was single, and he spent a lot of time working as staff arranger and pianist for the Karl Hohengarten and Al Roth big bands, even finding time for his own musical show of piano selections seven times a week. He also did some arranging for the Harmonettes.

In 1938, Jean Chassels gave up her singing career on KMOX. She married that music man, who by that time had moved to a job at KSD, and became Mrs. Russ David.

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 10/05)