In May of 1963 white supremacists employed arson, bombings, and rioting to stop non-violent civil rights protests in Birmingham, Ala.
Astronaut Gordon Cooper splashed down in the Pacific after orbiting the Earth 22 times and President John Kennedy cut his finger slicing bread.
Meanwhile in Memphis, the city experienced one of its weirdest protest movements when a group of folk music fans demanded access to their favorite form of entertainment. Standing in their way was a cornpone vampire flanked by several button down executives who refused to give them what they wanted.
On April 8, ABC television debuted a new TV show called “Hootenanny,” a folk music variety show. Broadcast at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday nights, the show conflicted with WHBQ’s science fiction/horror movie program “Fantastic Features.”
The program was hosted by a “monster of ceremonies” named Sivad who talked like a backwoods Dracula. “Fantastic Features” often won its timeslot, so the station refused to broadcast “Hootenanny.”
“It is a program of limited appeal,” a station spokesman said. College students from the University of Memphis and the nearby University of Mississippi disagreed.
“Any student in my dormitory caught watching ‘Fantastic Features’ would probably be laughed out of school,” wrote an ‘Ole Miss student.
However, there were others who loved the show.
“We agree with channel 13 that a ‘Hootenanny’ show of folk songs would bring less viewers. ‘Fantastic Features,’ on the other hand, is our favorite show. Sivad the monster is great,” wrote Sandy Baker, Bobby Wilson, Emily Woolfolk and Alice Young.
Weighing in on the controversy Henry Mitchell, who wrote the ‘Dixie Dialing’ column for The Commercial Appeal, declared, “those Memphis State folk-song people should not be so hard on ‘Fantastic Features’ and Sivad, its monster. His hairdo isn’t a bit worse than the average folk singer’s.”
At 4:30 on the afternoon of Tuesday May 7, a small contingent of University of Memphis students protested in front of the WHBQ-TV studios.
“Down with Sivad,” “Hootenanny, Si, Sivad, No!” read the picket signs.
Then a black-cloaked figure in a top hat suddenly appeared. Unafraid, The students surrounded Sivad who began to protest their demonstration. A little after 5 o’clock the mob and the monster ceased their demonstrations and trickled home. A second protest was held at Goldsmith’s Oak Court department store when Sivad made a personal appearance promoting his record “Sivad Buries Rock n’ Roll.”
Some 2,000 fans lined up to buy the record for $1, while seven students carried placards declaring “Help Bury Sivad.” When the line finally dwindled, the “Fantastic Features” host autographed the protesters signs.
The demonstrations finally ended when WHBQ agreed to pre-empt Sivad and broadcast one episode of “Hootenanny.”
The monster of ceremonies did have a sliver of revenge when the TV station superimposed Sivad’s face into the show’s audience. This was the only time “Hootenanny” was shown in Memphis.
The folk music craze soon faded as did “Hootenanny.” which was canceled in 1964. “Fantastic Features” remained on the air until 1972.
Although little more than a distraction from modern life, the Sivad protests are important because they reveal the struggle that once existed between local and national television.
In 1963 Memphis’s airwaves were filled with locally produced TV programs. Now they are all gone, save for local news and sports.
It is too bad we don’t have a 21st century Sivad who uses fright and laughter to bring us closer together.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.