John Burch Stevens, Sr. has died at the age of 92.
Perhaps you don’t recognize that particular name, but for an entire generation in Southeast Texas, he was “Black Bart”, the mischievous nemesis of “Cowboy John” Garner.
The two of them were the loveable good guy & bad guy team on the Circle 4 Club, an afternoon show for children on the old KPAC channel 4 in Port Arthur, which was later KJAC.
Funeral Mass is planned for 11:00 a.m. Monday at St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica in Beaumont.
The following is the complete obituary for John Burch Stevens, Sr. from Broussard’s Mortuary in Beaumont:
John Burch Stevens Sr. was born on June 9, 1927, in Port Arthur, Texas. He was the youngest of nine children born to Simon Adam Stevens and Ociana Marie Trimble Stevens, both native of Jeanerette, Louisiana.
Stevens grew up in Port Arthur and graduated from Port Arthur Thomas Jefferson High School in 1945, where he was a cheerleader. He immediately joined the United States Navy at 17 years of age. He was stationed in San Diego, California, where he achieved the rank of Seaman 1stClass and was appointed Platoon Commander. He was honorably discharged on August 2, 1946.
John Stevens returned to Southeast Texas and entered Lamar Tech College majoring in Speech and Drama, and again became a cheerleader. He acted and sang in numerous college and theatre plays and musicals.
In 1947, Stevens began working in radio, broadcasting sports events, including Texas League Baseball, with Les Ledet for KPAC Radio in Port Arthur. Stevens recalled that he and Ledet would receive teletype updates of baseball games and improvise the game broadcast using their own sound effects. Stevens also sold cars (Lincoln, Mercury and Studebaker), office equipment, and advertising.
He married Nell Donnelly, of Port Arthur, in 1951, and they would have five children - John, Jr., Cynthia, Thomas, Philip, and Lauren. He resided in Port Arthur, Groves, Beaumont, China, and Nederland.
On April 2, 1957, Stevens was traveling and while at Dallas Love Field he witnessed the famous Dallas tornado which traveled from Oak Cliff to Love Field, killing 10 people. He called into KPAC Radio and broadcasted a dramatic live report of the natural disaster as the tornado headed toward him. KPAC immediately hired him to perform news, disk jockeying, and selling advertising. He pioneered the “Night Rider” radio program, calling himself “Cactus Jack Crash.” Stevens worked with famous radio celebrities and friends such as Gordon Baxter, Henry Larcade, George Crouchet, Steve O’Donahoe, and Jiles Perry Richardson known as “The Big Bopper.” He also would work at KPNG Radio in Port Neches.
On June 27, 1957, Hurricane Audrey became a major hurricane, striking the Gulf Coast just west of Cameron, Louisiana, with 125 mile per hour winds. Cameron had a population of 3,000 at the time of Audrey. Hurricane Audrey would wipe out Cameron and kill over 500 people, with almost 200 persons never found. Most of the victims succumbed due to the dramatic 12 foot storm surge.
Shortly after the storm passed, John Stevens learned that a tugboat was headed from Port Arthur to Cameron with medical personnel and supplies to help victims of the storm. Stevens talked his way on board. They were some of the first responders to reach Cameron as the roads to Cameron were impassible. They tied the vessel to the city courthouse, the only building remaining.
Stevens remembered seeing bodies floating where the town of Cameron had once been. While the medical personnel attended to the victims, Stevens accessed a ship-to-shore radio and began reporting the events to KPAC Radio, which in turn relayed the news of the disaster to the world. It was the first on-site information of the catastrophe, preceding other reporters who were waiting for the roads to clear to get to Cameron.
In 1957, the NBC affiliate, KPAC Channel 4 television, began as Southeast Texas’ second national television affiliate. Channel 6, KFDM, the CBS affiliate in Beaumont had begun in 1955. Stevens would soon join Channel 4 as a staff announcer and weather news reporter.
In January 1958, James Arness, the star of the hit television show “Gunsmoke,” came to Beaumont to support the March of Dimes telethon. Stevens met Arness and the other Gunsmoke stars at the Red Carpet Inn in Beaumont. Arness had an idea of holding a live televised shootout similar to the Gunsmoke show’s introduction. No one stepped forward to volunteer for the duel, except John Stevens. “I’ll do it,” he solitarily volunteered. John Stevens, Jr., was 5 years old at the time but remembered watching his father practice drawing his Colt .45 pistol from his holster in front of his parent’s bedroom mirror the evening before the planned “shootout.”
The next day, anyone who had a television in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana watched the duel between John Stevens and Marshal Dillon. As Stevens recalled, he couldn’t pull his pistol out of his holster fast enough before Arness shot at him with blank bullets. Stevens tells the story that even though he woefully failed to match the drawing speed of Marshal Dillon, he could at least act out the part of a western shootout loser. James Arness would laughingly recall he had never seen someone more dramatically flop around the ground acting as though he had been shot. Stevens was very fond of James Arness and the other Gunsmoke actors who visited Beaumont, who he considered very professional and unpretentious.
About this time, John Stevens met John Garner. Garner had come to Port Arthur to assist in the launching of KPAC-Channel 4 television. Garner had been in television at an Arkansas station and hosted a popular children’s program featuring his “Cowboy John” character, along with a sidekick who played a clown. Garner, impressed with Stevens’ performance with James Arness, related to Stevens that his clown sidekick had suddenly left town and Garner needed a new partner. Stevens said he was interested but he would never play a clown.
They came up with a masterful plan of John Garner playing the “Good Guy” and John Stevens as the mischievous nemesis “Black Bart.” Thus, began one of the most memorable entertainment duos in Southeast Texas history. They performed together from 1958 until the 1970’s. Every child wished to appear on the daily afternoon Circle 4 Club television show. During the program, each child would be interviewed by Cowboy John and Black Bart on live television where almost anything could happen….and did. As famously reported on NBC’s nightly nationwide Huntley Brinkley Report the evening after an embarrassingly funny event occurred on the Circle 4 Club show, “Goodnight Leroy, wherever you are.”
Cowboy John and Black Bart became a top act performing their slapstick Good Guy-Bad Guy routine at rodeos, business openings, and major events. They also worked regularly with talented entertainers such as Harold “Red” Ransonette who played the beloved “Jingles the Clown,” and the renowned parachutist Stephen “Skippy” Mannino. John Garner and John Stevens and their Cowboy John and Black Bart characters are represented in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
An interesting story is told that John Garner and John Stevens were performing at a rodeo in Louisiana in the 60’s. A renowned rodeo clown was also performing at the rodeo and apparently became friends with Garner and Stevens. This rodeo clown had a particular act involving the use of skunks in his program. After the rodeo, the rodeo clown told Garner and Stevens that one of his skunks gave birth to baby skunks and he wanted to give them to his new friends. Stevens readily accepted and placed them in a bag, and they headed home.
As they came into Beaumont, Garner and Stevens decided to stop to eat at Vic and Al’s Italian restaurant. Owners Vic, Al, and Ralph Patrizi were great friends of Stevens and Garner and urged them to visit the restaurant anytime, especially if they were playing Cowboy John and Black Bart. Stevens and Garner stealthily brought the bag of baby skunks in to keep a watch on them. How it happened, nobody is willing to admit, but the baby skunks got loose and scampered about the restaurant, sending patrons fleeing in all directions.
The Patrizi brothers, although good friends with Garner and Stevens, were not amused. It took a while before all the skunks were herded from within the restaurant. Fortunately, baby skunks are unable to emit their defensive musk odor until about one month old. However, most people don’t wait to find out the age of a skunk before fleeing an encounter. It also took a while before the Patrizi’s invited Cowboy John and Black Bart back to the restaurant.
While at Channel 4 television, Stevens became good friends with celebrated entertainer Tommy Vance and they would host the popular television dance program “Jive at Five.” Similar to “American Bandstand,” “Jive at Five” featured local teenagers dancing to popular songs. Stevens also worked the weather forecasting with top newscaster Ralph Ramos and sports reporter “Frenchy” Domingue. Stevens’ artistic talent was important as prior to modern electronic graphics, early television weather maps were hand drawn by the forecasters. During his television career, John Stevens would work with many celebrities including Joan Crawford, Eddie Arnold, and Anita Bryant.
During the 50’s and 60’s, John Stevens was also very active in community affairs, participating in Beaumont Community Players and Port Arthur Little Theatre productions. He was an officer with Beaumont Junior Chamber of Commerce and active in the Groves Rotary Club. He was also President of the Salvation Army in South Jefferson County.
In 1967, Stevens became Vice President of First State Bank of Groves, which later became First Bank and Trust. He would star in television commercials for the bank, playing different characters including the loveable “Granny Groves.” In 1979, Stevens started his own advertising and public relations company in association with Vance Matthews Advertising. He later accepted employment with the Texas Department of Human Services and headed the Beaumont Division’s Medicaid Eligibility Public Affairs Department.
In 1986, Stevens also began a lengthy relationship with Lamar University’s KVLU Public Radio. For over 20 years, he volunteered his talents to his alma mater Lamar University by hosting a variety of musical programs including the popular “Juke Box Saturday Night,” “At the Hop,” and “Big Band Danceland.” Stevens hosted the broadcasting of the “100thAnniversary of Spindletop of Gladys City,” “Jimmy Simmons Big Band Show at Antones,” “Jimmy Simmons and Friends at McDonald Gym,” and “Jimmy Simmons and Friends Encore at the Montagne Center.”
More recently, for several years, John Stevens announced for Britt Godwin’s Big Band concerts as he would emulate old time radio programs. Stevens acquired a phenomenal knowledge of the history of the Big Band Era Music. His favorite Big Band entertainer was Beaumont’s Harry James, who played with the Benny Goodman Band before forming his own band in 1939, featuring a young and upcoming vocalist, Frank Sinatra
John Stevens Sr. was happiest entertaining others, especially children and music lovers. In 2012, Lamar University presented John Stevens with a formal Resolution, recognizing Stevens for his dedication of time and efforts to Lamar and Southeast Texas. Then Lamar President James Simmons stated in the Resolution that John Stevens Sr. is “A Southeast Texas Treasure, whose contributions to Southeast Texas have been immeasurable – to Lamar University, the business community, non-profit organizations and musical devotees, sports fans, and in the early days, to children who thrilled to his television persona.”
John Stevens Sr. passed away on December 10, 2019, at the age of 92. He had five children, nine grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren.
A gathering of Mr. Stevens’ family and friends will begin at 4:00 p.m., followed by a Christian Vigil at 5:00 p.m., Sunday, December 15, 2019, at Broussard’s, 2000 McFaddin Avenue, Beaumont. His Funeral Mass will be 11:00 a.m., Monday, December 16, 2019, at St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica, 700 Jefferson Street, Beaumont. There will be a post service gathering to follow at The Laurels, 1315 Calder Avenue, Beaumont.
Memorial contributions are suggested in support of public radio and may be made to K.V.L.U. Public Radio, Lamar University, P.O. Box 10064, Beaumont, Texas 77710.