It began as a simple Chamber of Commerce songwriting contest to get Wichitans excited about Wichita. But now, to the surprise of city boosters, 2,500 armchair songwriters in every state and nine foreign countries are singing Wichita’s praises.
The only problem is that most of the would-be composers writing tunes such as “I Left My Heart in Wichita” and “Take Me Back to Wichita, Kansas” have never laid eyes on the place.
“Tell me,” one recent caller asked, “just what does Wichita look like?”
To hear some of the non-native lyricists tell it, Wichita is a city of towering smokestacks, sunflower-lined streets, corsetted women, pulsating neon lights and backyard oil wells. A place where, as one Californian wrote, “even with its spring tornadoes, you can still grow your potatoes.”
Others more accurately describe an aircraft manufacturing center in the heart of wheat and cattle country where the people are friendly, the air is clean and the streets are safe.
A Worldwide Response
Soon after the Chamber of Commerce invited folks around here to write a song for its annual meeting--and offered a $1,500 cash prize--sheet music, tape recordings and handwritten lyrics began flooding in from around the world.
“I don’t know much about Wichita, but, in writing this, I’ve become very fond of it,” said Joan Rogers, a housewife in England who wrote “Wonderful Wichita.” She urged judges to “imagine it with a real good orchestra.”
The verse offered by Lorraine Myers, of Fair Oaks, Calif., focused on Wichita’s family atmosphere:
Did you ever see such a ma!
She raised us right in Wichita
Fed us beef and wheat and beans
Sunflower seeds and collard greens.
Taught us manners and right from wrong
And made us learn to sing this song.
The musical tributes originated as far away as Parachute, Colo., Haledon, N. J., Butte, Mont., Jonesville, La., Kildare, Ireland, and Brisbane, Australia. The composers include students, real estate agents, ministers and even professional musicians such as Johnny Guitar, Pinky Herman, Frosty Lawson and the “singing psychic,” Bea Manzi.
No one expected a deluge of entries from out of town when the contest began. But word spread. Radio commentator Paul Harvey, a former Kansan, talked it up on his program. Then the British Broadcasting Corp. did a story.
Entries Rolling In
Since then, Wichita has received 75 entries a day. A panel of local musicians will select the winner of the contest, which ends today, and the new song will be unveiled Nov. 21 at the chamber’s annual meeting.
The rules decree that each song contain the word “Wichita,” a requirement that results in some creative attempts at rhyme and even more creative spellings.
What rhymes with Wichita? How about ma and pa, Saginaw, Moose Jaw and bucksaw? Or there’s always Hee Haw, thaw, flaw, Yamaha and hem and haw.
Janet E. Rowe, of Horseheads, N. Y., managed to rhyme every line with Wichita:
Where virile men eat their beef raw.
Where all the sweet ladies wear a bra.
Where every Indian respects his squaw.
Where fine fish dinners come with slaw.
It’s hard to imagine Wichitans singing this verse, from a woman in Streator, Ill., but it does rhyme:
Flies buzzing around my food annoy me
Bees buzzing around annoy me too
But hardly anything annoys me more than
Having an itchy bra--in Wichita.
Spelling Wichita turned out to be more difficult. Is it Witchita, Wichitah or Witchata? Rose Nixon, of Trenton, N. J., summed up the problem:
I think that I have never saw
A place as nice as Whichita.
It is my duty now to tell it.
By gum--if I could only spell it!
So far, only about 300 entries include original lyrics and music, as required. About two-thirds of the entries have come from outside Kansas.
State Bird and Tree
Some writers who have never been here rely heavily on the city’s promotional material, and Chamber of Commerce slogans pop up frequently in their lyrics. Others use almanacs, encyclopedias and road maps. They sing enthusiastically of Interstate 35, the cottonwood tree (the state tree) and the meadowlark (the state bird).
Not surprisingly, peculiarities in local parlance trip up a few songwriters. Several have the Arkansas River winding through downtown Wichita, which it does, but rhyming Arkansas with Wichita, which it doesn’t. It’s the “Are-kansas” River in Kansas.
Area businesses recently added to the $1,500 cash prize. They are offering about $10,500 in merchandise and services, such as Coleman camping equipment, Cessna flying lessons, prime Kansas beef, free airline tickets and a year’s supply of blue jeans.
Some contestants are after the prizes, but many more harbor a secret desire to become another Cole Porter. “Only in America could a housewife be realizing her dream,” said Mary Lou Timson, a contestant from Red Oak, Iowa.
With all those people composing tributes, this city of 280,000 is basking in good feelings and the kind of image-raising that money could not buy.
“We’ve tried hundreds of times to raise the profile of Wichita,” said Dorothy Schmitt, a chamber vice president. Now, “we have realized millions of dollars’ worth of publicity, and what’s nice is that we didn’t expect it at all.”
Cities larger than Wichita have searched nationwide for an official song. Los Angeles and Chicago are still looking. Although Wichita’s winning tune may one day be adopted by its city fathers--and may even become a commercial success--the organizers will be pleased if it injects a bit of life into the annual meeting of business leaders.
“We’re not a Chicago or an L.A., but we are something special, " said David Norris, a local businessman who is leading the song search. “These songs are saying about our community what we always thought about it.”
As Nebraskan Bill Kingston put it:
Wichita is one fine town,
One of the best any where aroun’.
Many have said, Ol’ Kansas is such a bore,
But, drive to Wichita, and you’ll say it no more.