Greg Speight and I observed a moment of silence for Judy Canova on Monday afternoon.
We were sitting in the open doorway of his antique business, Retro Petro, on West Railroad Avenue. A large fan was pushing the air across the room. We were briefly interrupted by a train roaring down the tracks across the street. Greg laughed and explained that all conversations in Unadilla have to hit the pause button at the sound of a train whistle.
You probably have a wrinkle or two and some gray hair on top if you’re old enough to remember Judy Canova. Her entertainment career spanned five decades. Her stage was deep and wide. She was a darling of radio and performed on Broadway and in Las Vegas. She appeared in 42 movies and television shows.
Monday marked the 46th anniversary of her death. It didn’t merit much of a whimper in her “adopted’’ hometown, even though she brought a measure of notoriety to this south Georgia town.
“Judy Canova is all but forgotten,’’ Greg said. “Sadly, the generation who knew who she was is almost gone.’’
Canova never lived in Unadilla. She never picked up her mail at the post office, shopped at Harry Hamrick’s store or watched a movie at the old Dixie Theatre.
You might say she came and went without ever arriving. Unadilla was her honorary hometown, a place she left her footprints in rather serendipitous fashion on her way to brighter lights and bigger cities.
She grew up in Starke, Florida, near Jacksonville. But on her popular radio shows from New York — in the days before television — she cast herself as a sweet-spirited hillbilly from “Una-dilly.’’
She would tell the story of how she was traveling from Jacksonville to Atlanta, and the train made a stop in Unadilla. She was fascinated with the town’s name on the sign at the depot.
“She said it was a funny little name that rolled off your tongue,’’ said Greg, a sixth-generation Unadillan. “She and her brother and sister were performing in vaudeville before they got into film. They used the name in one of their routines one night and got a lot of laughs, so they kind of just left the name in.’’
Her real name was Juliette Canova. Her father was a cotton broker and her mother was a singer. Judy began performing when she was 10 years old, and later began singing in clubs and on the radio. She had hoped to attend the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but her family could not afford to send her to college during the Depression.
She left for to New York City with her sister, Anne, and brother Zeke. Band leader Paul Whiteman discovered Canova and her siblings performing at The Village Barn in Greenwich Village and invited her to appear on his national radio show. She made frequent guest appearances on “The Chase and Sanborn Hour” with Edgar Bergen and Rudy Vallee before getting her own show. It launched a career where she was coronated as “queen of the airwaves” and later brought her fame as a screen star.
On any given week, the “Judy Canova Show” reached an audience of some 18 million listeners. About 3,000 of them were back “home” in Unadilla, where they huddled around their Zeniths waiting for her to mention their little town’s name.
U.S. 41 once was the main route to Florida before Interstate 75, and it passed through Unadilla. Upon recognizing the town’s name, travelers often pulled over and asked about being in Judy Canova’s hometown.
Clint Shugart, the town’s former mayor, worked at a downtown service station. Out-of-town motorists would stop for gas and want to know about Canova. Shugart would have a little fun with the curiosity seekers. He would point down the street to a prominent home in town and tell them that’s where little Judy grew up.
Years later, A.R. Ware changed the name of his Plymouth-Dodge automobile dealership to the Judy Canova Motor Company. The sign painted on the side of the building remained long after the business was gone.
“At some point in time — I don’t have any documentation when or why — he changed the name to the Judy Canova Motor Company,’’ Greg said. “No one in the last 20 years that I’ve been chasing the story has been able to tell me if Judy was involved in it or ever came here.’’
In April 1939, while making personal appearances at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, Canova invited a group of Unadilla citizens, including Mayor E.H. “Son” Conner, to be her guests. She met their motorcade at the Atlanta city limits with a police escort and took them to the Roxy, where they were treated like royalty.
Greg is a former city councilman and once served as executive director of the Dooly County Chamber of Commerce. He still hasn’t given up on his dream of opening a museum dedicated to Unadilla’s history, with a section devoted to Canova. (Her daughter, Diana Canova, became an actress, appearing in “Happy Days,” “Chico and the Man,” “Starsky and Hutch” and “Soap.”.)
He contacted Canova’s great nephew, Derek Gray, and obtained several items, including her portrait that once was in her home. In the neighboring town Vienna, the late Fred Causey once had one of the most extensive collections of “The Wizard of Oz” memorabilia in the country. Greg attended an estate sale after Causey died in 2014 and purchased a large number of Canova collectibles Causey had gathered over the years.
Although Greg was only 4 years old when Canova died on August 5, 1983, he feels like he grew up with her. He is determined to preserve her unique local legacy and keep her memory alive to a generation that has never heard the stories.
“So many don’t know,’’ he said. “That’s the hard part … to keep the flame burning.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon and is the author of nine books. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.