Steve Stephens (1930–2021 )
aka: Stephen Owen Stephens
Stephen Owen Stephens was a well-known television and communications pioneer, most famous for Steve’s Show, a popular television program in the 1960s. He remained a communications specialist well into his retirement.
Steve Stephens was born on April 22, 1930, as Rufus James Stephens to Owen and Allie Mae Stephens, owners of a restaurant service station in Newport (Jackson County). Later his parents opened a furniture store in the same town, which they successfully operated for more than twenty years. Stephens attended Castle Heights Military Academy and later graduated from Newport High School in 1948. Following graduation, he attended the University of Arkansas until the fall of 1950 when, “looking for adventure,” he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Attaining the rank of sergeant, he received three battle stars in Korea and was honorably discharged in 1954. Following the Korean War, he returned to Newport to join his father in the furniture store business.
While in the marines, Stephens was often asked if he had ever been a broadcaster, as he seemed to have a natural “radio voice.” After returning home, he began part-time radio work by becoming an announcer for radio station KNBY in Newport, where he was known as “The Voice of the White River Valley.”
His entry into radio coincided with the beginnings of rock and roll, and Stephens soon became a popular proponent of this new type of music. In 1957, an unplanned trip to Little Rock (Pulaski County) television station KTHV with popular rock and roll band Sonny Burgess and the Pacers resulted in his being offered a position as a “booth announcer” for the station. On April 21 of the same year, he married Ellen Beede of Newport. They had two sons: Stanton (deceased) and Steele. After nearly thirty years, the marriage ended in divorce.
Stephens was asked to host a television “dance party,” six months prior to the national launching of the ABC television program, American Bandstand. His first show aired on a Saturday afternoon in March 1957, and was initially called Your Party. By May, the program had become so popular that it was expanded to six days a week and renamed Steve’s Show. At the suggestion of Jack Bomar, the television station manager, he changed his name to Stephen Owen Stephens for legal purposes.
Attendance at Steve’s Show soon became so high that, in order to comply with the city’s fire code, ticket reservations were required to limit the busloads of teenagers arriving from all over the state. Stephens helped launch the careers of Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Sonny Burgess, Fabian, and many others who appeared on his program during a seven-year period ending in 1964. As a result of his continuing popularity, Stephens was awarded a recording contract and recorded several songs during this period, including: “Honey Bee,” “Pizza Pete,” “How It Used to Be,” and “Weird Session.”
Teenagers selected Stephens as the Top Television Personality of Arkansas from 1957 to 1961. His popularity was recognized nationally when he came within one vote of being selected as the Nation’s Top Local Television Personality of 1960 by TV and Movie Screen Magazine.
From 1958 to 1965, he served as the senior weatherman for KTHV at both 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. and was the first forecaster in the state to use radar. He had another first when, on Christmas Eve in 1958, he became the first weatherman in the nation to use radar to “spot” Santa Claus flying into the state.
Stephens also created and produced a television program called Eye on Arkansas, which led him to negotiate with The Vapors nightclub in Hot Springs (Garland County) to publicize the club in exchange for appearances by the headliner acts. He interviewed such entertainment icons as Liberace, Patti Page, the Four Aces, Angie Dickinson, Bob Crosby, Mickey Rooney, the casts of TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies and Ponderosa, Roy Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ronald Reagan (while touring as the host of GE Theatre, prior to becoming governor of California), and many other notables.
In 1965, Stephens left KTHV to accept a position with U.S. Senator John McClellan in Washington DC as a special assistant in charge of media relations. In 1968, he returned to Little Rock to form his own public relations and advertising company. In 1986, he was approached by financier Jack Stephens to become assistant to the chairman of the board and director of communications for Stephens Inc. He remained with Stephens Inc. until his retirement in 1998. Even after retirement, he continued to serve as a voice talent for numerous local and national radio and television commercials. He hosted the “Biography Arkansas” segment for KUAR radio since the segment’s debut in 2005.
Stephens served as a National Trustee for the March of Dimes for more than a decade, was named an Honorary Life Trustee of the organization in 1998, and received the “Jonas Salk Lifetime Achievement Award” for his fundraising efforts. He was the founding chairman of the Greater Little Rock Motion Picture and Television Commission and created numerous charitable awards, including the Arkansas Citizen of the Year Award, the Vision award, and the Sidney McMath Lifetime Achievement Award. He was a founding member of the Little Rock Mayor’s Tourism Commission, as well as a founding member of the FBI Citizens’ Academy Foundation of Arkansas and the Arkansas Cancer Research Center Foundation Board at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (which later became the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute). He produced a series of fundraising galas for UAMS and became a member of the Chancellor’s Circle.
In recognition of his pioneering achievements in broadcasting, he was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in October 2003, and on April 3, 2004, his name was added to the Arkansas Walk of Fame in Hot Springs. On April 22, 2010, Stephens was recognized by the Eighth General Assembly of the Arkansas House of Representatives with a Lifetime Achievement Citation “for maintaining a high degree of professionalism and integrity during his 50 years in business and broadcasting in Arkansas.” In 2011, he was inducted into the Newport High School Hall of Fame.
In July 2018, Stephens was honored by the Mid-America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; he was selected for the Gold Circle, which honors those who have devoted fifty or more years to the television industry and who have made significant contributions to broadcasting/media.
Stephens died on January 29, 2021. He was buried at Walnut Grove Cemetery in Newport.
For additional information:
Cunning, Chuck. Fate Has Been My Friend—The Life and Times of Steve Stephens. Hot Springs, AR: Alexus Publishing, 1998.
Danielson, Kay. “Dancing the Past Today: Steverenos.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 3, 1994, p. 1G.
Hubbard, Sandra. Steve’s Show. Documentary film. Little Rock: Morning Star Studio, 2003.
Sallee, Bob. “Channel 11 Show Hosts a Pioneer in Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 2, 1998, p. 4E
———. “Steve Stephens’ Career Chronicled in New Book.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 3, 1998, p. 4E.
Stephens, Steve. “Interview with Steve Stephens.” June 2, 2009. Video at Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History & Art, Central Arkansas Library System: Steve Stephens Interview (accessed January 30, 2021).
Steve Stephens Papers. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Charles William Cunning
Hot Springs, Arkansas
I want to thank Steve Stephens for being an inspiration to a young kid many, many years ago. When I was seventeen years old, I left home to seek my fame and fortune. I had about $50 in my pocket and a beat-up old car with all my possessions inside. I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do. I somehow ended up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where I found a job working midnight to 8 a.m. at Oscars Bakery. I hung out on the weekends with some local kids my age. I remember one of them asking me if I wanted to ride to Little Rock with him to be on some TV dance showthats how I found Steves Show. The kids there were nice to me, and the girls were cute. I ended up moving to Little Rock and becoming a semi-regular on the show. The only names I can remember after all these years are Jerry Berry and Ceciland a hot girl I danced with named Donna. When I saw what Steve did and how much fun he had, I thought I had finally figured out what I wanted to do in life. So, I wound up in the crazy world of radio and TV. And its been pretty good to me. I was one of the first VJs ever on VH-1 television (I could only take it for three years), and I make a good living doing the morning radio show on WPLJ-FM in New York City and serving as the official voice of the Sean Hannity Show. I was also fortunate enough to make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago.
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