Opal Taft (Opie) Cates (1909–1987)
Opie Cates was a popular bandleader, musician, and radio personality, known as one of the great clarinetists of the swing era (mid-1930s–mid-1940s). He was a familiar presence on radio in the 1940s, at one time appearing weekly on four different shows. By Cates’s own reckoning, his audience numbered over thirty-five million listeners. Some believe that the character of Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show was named after Opie Cates.
Opal Taft Cates was born on October 10, 1909, in Clinton (Van Buren County). His parents, Abb Cates and Sarah Jacobs Cates, were farmers. Abb Cates died in 1914, Sarah Cates married Lee Andrew Reaves (or Reeves) in 1916. The blended family, which included several Reaves step-siblings and a younger sibling who died in 1917, left Arkansas, moving first to southeastern Kansas before settling in the southwestern corner of Missouri.
Cates attended Joplin High School, where he sang tenor in the Boys’ Glee Club and the Mixed Chorus, and played clarinet in the school band. After graduating, he attended the University of Missouri in Columbia and continued his involvement in music. By the early 1930s, Cates was touring the country, fronting his own orchestra. During this period, he met West Virginia native Kathryn (Kay) Stein in Cleveland, Ohio. They married in 1932. The couple had five children: Robert Taft, Dixie Lee, Dinah Mae, Linda Lou, and Liza Jane; the daughters were named after well-known songs.
In 1934, he joined Ben Pollack and His Orchestra as a clarinet and alto saxophone player. His bandmates included Harry James on trumpet and swing legend Glenn Miller on trombone. Pollack was known as the “Father of Swing,” and the band was based in New York.
Although Cates was not principally known as a recording artist, he did release several records during his career, generally to favorable reviews from the music industry press. Some were released under his own name or as the Opie Cates Orchestra; on others, he and his orchestra backed singers such as Trudy Erwin and Martha Tilton.
Cates appeared regularly on several popular radio shows, including The Judy Canova Show and Meet Me at Parky’s, and was a guest on many others. He starred briefly in the eponymous situation comedy The Opie Cates Show in 1947–1948. Cast as “a boy from Clinton, Arkansas,” learning to survive in the big city, he introduced each episode’s misadventures with the line “The doggondest thing happened to me th’ other day…” The show received good reviews but failed to find a corporate sponsor and was canceled after a three-month run. In recognition of the positive publicity from the show, the Clinton Chamber of Commerce made its native son an honorary member. He then became musical director for the long-running Lum and Abner radio show. In 1950, Cates did a short stint as musical director for Granby’s Green Acres, which later was recycled into the 1960s television sitcom Green Acres.
A widely circulated claim speculates that the character of Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show was named after Cates. Although unsubstantiated, the claim is not implausible. One of the cast members on Meet Me at Parky’s was Sheldon Leonard, The Andy Griffith Show’s producer. Cates’s son recalled that Leonard contacted his father to request permission to use his first name in the show. He also said that in Cates’s later years, during which he was in failing health, the “other Opie” (actor/director Ron Howard) would “call occasionally to check on his namesake’s condition.”
In the early 1950s, Cates retired from the entertainment industry to pursue his other passions of farming and raising livestock, and he relocated his family to a large ranch in Oklahoma, just west of Fort Smith (Sebastian County), where he would spend much of the rest of his life.
Kathryn Cates died in 1972. Opie Cates was ill and incapacitated in his final years. He died on November 6, 1987, in Moffett, Oklahoma. He was survived by his children and his second wife, Willene Jones Cates (1922–2011). His remains, along with those of his wives and mother, are interred in the chapel at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Fort Smith.
For additional information:
Cates, Opie. “The Autobiography of Opie Cates: From Rags to Riches to Rags in One Easy Lifetime.” Jot ‘Em Down Journal 16 (October 1999): 10–11.
Cates, Robert T. “The Life & Times of Opie Cates.” Jot ‘Em Down Journal 16 (October 1999): 4–6.
Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Hollis, Tim: Ain’t That a Knee-Slapper: Rural Comedy in the Twentieth Century. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.
Robinson, Dale, and David Fernandes. The Definitive Andy Griffith Show Reference. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1996.
Greg A. Phelps
Lindsey Wilson College
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