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Step right up: Old-timey medicine show is headed to town

POSTED: May 25, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Ramblin' Tommy Scott will bring his old-timey medicine show to Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University next month, and he'll be selling the snake oil whose formula was passed on to him by his mentor, Doc M.F. Chamberlain, more than 75 years ago.

Scott is nearing 91 years of age, but continues to play his guitar, sing and pitch his snake oil, which he says Indians first concocted as a liniment for a variety of ailments.

He lives in Stephens County, which he left to join Chamberlain's medicine show after graduating from high school. Winning an amateur talent contest with a guitar led to a $6-a-week job with Chamberlain. He snuck out of the family farmhouse before dawn one morning, walked to Toccoa in the rain and hitched a ride to catch the medicine show in Elberton.

Two years later, Chamberlain turned his medicine show and formulas over to Scott, propelling him into an entertainment career that saw him make 150 records, write dozens of songs, play in 15 movies, starring in two of them, and perform in thousands of towns across the U.S. and Canada.

Scott later owned a circus act, in which his daughter, Sandra, who attended Brenau Academy in Gainesville, performed high-wire acts. His beloved late wife, Frankie, was a partner and performer in Scott's shows.

He recently published a book that details his career. It is more like a thick scrapbook with pictures of the many stars he's worked with as well as letters and contracts that he accumulated.

Scott early on realized radio's entertainment value and as a vehicle to pitch his products, Snake Oil and Herb-a-Lac, a herbal laxative. A Toccoa station broadcasting from the basement of the First Presbyterian Church was one of the first to carry his show. Future cowboy movie star Roy Rogers appeared with him. Scott also performed with bluegrass star Bill Monroe and his brother, Charlie.

He married his childhood friend, Frankie Thomas. Frankie at one time ran Toccoa's WRLC radio station owned by heavy equipment maker R.G. LeTourneau, who prohibited songs that mentioned alcoholic beverages, eliminating quite a few popular country pieces. After her boss got on a plane headed out of state, Frankie played one of the banned songs. But LeTourneau heard it, turned the plane around and fired Frankie. She was rehired a few days later.

The Ramblin' Tommy Scott Show was among the early performers on television. It became part of the Grand Ole Opry, playing alongside such country luminaries as Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and lifelong friend Eddy Arnold. The Scotts rambled so much around the country, they had an office in Hollywood for 40 years. They became friends with other stars such as Lash LaRue, Tex Ritter, Tim McCoy, Roy Acuff, Pee Wee King and Junior Samples of "Hee Haw."

Scott knew Johnny Carson before he became a popular late-night TV star. He was at a television station when Carson filled in for an ailing news anchor, launching his career with NBC.

Scott turned down a then-unknown Elvis Presley, who would have joined his show for $40 a week. But, he says, Elvis probably reached stardom faster through his eventual manager, Col. Tom Parker. Among many songs he wrote or co-wrote was "Mule Train," which made singer Frankie Laine famous.

Scott's "The Last Real Medicine Show" landed him appearances on The Today Show, David Letterman and Public Broadcasting. Charles Kurault was so intrigued by Scott, he extended his stay in Blairsville to film his show on CBS.

Oprah Winfrey was a mere co-host of a local TV show in Baltimore when she interviewed Scott.
When Scott comes to Gainesville, he will be accompanied by his talking dummy, Luke McLuke, who has been a fixture from the beginning. Scott and Doc Chamberlain carved him out of a hunk of cypress wood they found near their campsite not long after they began working together. When Luke's clothes became tattered, Scott had new ones made. But he noticed nobody would laugh at him in the new outfit. So he dressed him in the old clothes, and his audience began to respond again.

Though he recently developed a serious crick in his neck that wouldn't allow him to turn his head, Scott plans to be at the history center at 7 p.m. April 8. "I've never missed a show," he said.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published March 30, 2008.



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