In fall 1938, Harry Barton traveled from his home state of Iowa to secure his position as the new band director of Boude Storey Junior High School. He knew no one in Oak Cliff, but one of the young majorettes at Storey, Bettye McGee, quickly determined that the handsome young man with the wavy hair would be perfect for her older sister, Eloise.
Bettye encouraged Barton to call her sister, and when Barton called the family home, Bettye told him to wait until she could go get Eloise. What she didn’t tell him was that Eloise was playing tennis … a mile away from the house! Bettye bicycled to the courts, retrieved her sister, and the duo sped back. Amazingly, Barton was still on the phone.
The sisters lived on Marsalis Avenue with their parents, Roxie and Bernard McGee. McGee worked for the North Texas Interurban, but on his way to work one morning in 1929, in front of the old Oak Cliff Carnegie Library on the southwest corner of Jefferson and Marsalis, he was struck by a drunk driver and, for the remainder of his life, walked on crutches.
Regaining his strength, McGee owned and operated two Ewing Avenue service stations before opening a small hamburger stand directly across from the Veterans hospital on Lancaster Road, where the entire family worked. It was a Depression-era struggle, but like most people of that period, they pulled together to make ends meet.
According to Eloise, “In those days, you could choose which high school you wanted to attend. I went to Sunset [class of ’39], but Bettye went to Adamson [class of 43].”
Within a year of that phone call, Harry Barton and Eloise McGee married in the Marsalis Avenue home of the Rev. Albert W. Luper, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oak Cliff. Afterward, the couple set up housekeeping on Woodin Avenue. Then, in 1942, Barton was named as band director at Adamson High School, where he soon organized a snazzy new dance band: the Rhythmaires.
“Through their years, the different [Rhythmaires] bands played for dances in the Adamson gym, at the Oak Cliff ‘Y’, at the ‘Family Night’ stage performances at the Texas Theatre, Lee Park and the old two-story clubhouse at Cedar Crest Country Club, among others,” says Adamson alumni association board member Don Coke (class of ’43).
“That wooden second-story floor [at Cedar Crest] was so wrinkled that it looked like we were playing hopscotch when we tried to dance,” he chuckles.
“The bands were hot, and the charts that Harry B. got for them were the best,” Coke adds. “Miller, Shaw, the Dorseys [Tommy and Jimmy], James, Goodman, Bob Crosby. When the war began to really drain the ranks of the big bands, you couldn’t hear better music played at LuAnns or the Plantation than what you could get at a Friday night dance at Adamson with the Rhythmaires.”
With WWII raging and November 1942 being the last date that eligible males could enlist and not be drafted, Barton joined the U.S. Army Air Force when he became aware of a vacant military band director spot. But in October 1945, Master Sgt. Barton returned home, slipping into his former job at Adamson, while also serving as band director at Forest Avenue High School (now James Madison). From there, Barton was recruited by another school system and moved “across the river” to begin a 20-year stretch as superintendent of music at Highland Park High School.
During that tenure, he also served for 29 years as director of pageantry for the annual Cotton Bowl game halftime shows with son, Corky, as his field coordinator. Before the days of computer-generated graphics and sophisticated communications options, Barton put together slews of impressive halftimes that included local bands, drill teams and majorettes, along with the university bands that represented the competing teams. Serving as his announcer for most of these years was Oak Cliff’s own Bill Melton (Sunset ’58), with whom Barton developed a lasting friendship.
“Actually, some of the bands came from beyond the local level,” Melton says, “including state and national. And, of course, the Kilgore Rangerettes were always there.”
When Six Flags Over Texas opened in 1961, Barton served as musical director of the Six Flags Revue show and, for years, oversaw the park’s “Battle of High School Bands.”
From their early days at Storey to their adventures in Highland Park and the Cotton Bowl, the Barton/McGees are a typical Oak Cliff story that expanded beyond Oak Cliff. Eloise Barton and Bettye (now Williams) still live in Dallas and remain close, often remembering those long-ago days when an accident changed their family’s future and they flipped burgers at Pop McGee’s little stand.
Harry F. Barton passed away in 2004, with thousands of students, parents, dancers and TV viewers all enriched by his contributions. The legacy he left continues in the lives of many, even today.
• Read more of Gayla’s Oak Cliff history columns here.