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Dolly Parton sang on television before her family owned one. One day, the young “Jolene” singer entered a contest and won herself $250 (a lot of money for her back then). With the earnings, she bought her family a TV. But it ended up bringing more bad to the Partons than good. 

Dolly Parton won the ‘greasy pole’ contest

When Parton was about 10 years old, she started singing on The Cas Walker Show. At one of the events Walker put on, there was a contest called the “greasy pole.” It involved a telephone pole that was sanded down smooth and then greased up with lard. At the top of the pole was $250. Parton had a plan to get to the top of the pole (a seemingly impossible feat). 

“First I got myself good and wet, then went out into the parking lot and rolled around in the dirt,” she wrote in her first memoir, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. “I thought if I could get enough sand and dirt stuck to me, it would give me better traction going up the pole.”

She was right. When it was her turn to climb the pole, the crowd laughed at the kid covered in dirt. But as she made her way to the top, people started cheering.

However, after she reached the prize, the cheering soon turned into disgruntled muttering. People realized that young Parton was a singer at the event and so they thought the contest was rigged. But Walker set them straight.    

“How could a greasy pole be fixed?” he shouted at the crowd. “Either you can climb the damn thing or you can’t. Nobody said you couldn’t roll in the dirt. If this young lady is smart enough to do that, she deserves the money. Hell, it’s my money! I didn’t expect to have to give it away at all. This girl has taught me something today, and that in itself is worth two hundred and fifty dollars.”

Dolly bought her family their first TV

$250 was a lot of money for Parton. So she decided to buy something she thought would benefit her whole family—a television set. 

“It would bring excitement and contact with the outside world that we had never known,” she wrote. “Not least of all, my family could finally see me sing on The Cas Walker Show.”

Prior to their TV, the Partons’ big source of technological entertainment was their battery-operated radio, which they had to listen to sparingly because batteries were expensive. But when they did listen, they loved to tune into the Grand Ole Opry. So a TV was very exciting. It also changed everything 

Why the Partons got rid of the TV

“There is a movie called The Gods Must Be Crazy in which a Coke bottle falls from an airplane and profoundly changes the lives of a tribe of Bushmen,” wrote Parton. “My TV had the same effect on that bunch of hillbillies.”

Right away, the Parton kids were glued to the television set for the eight hours a day there was programming. There were cartoons in the afternoon but what everybody really loved to watch was Gunsmoke. When Gunsmoke came on, the whole family was enraptured. And pretty soon, extended family and neighbors started coming over to watch the show. There’d be 25-30 people crammed into the Parton shack crowded around the snowy 19-inch black-and-white TV.  

Dolly Parton in Dollywood.
Dolly Parton | John Seakwood/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

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“If they had just watched Gunsmoke and then gone home, it might not have been so bad,” wrote Parton. “But they wouldn’t leave. They would sit, or stand, or lean and watch that TV until it signed off with the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”

This really bothered Parton’s father, who had to be up early in the morning to farm. He’d try to drop hints about needing to go to bed but to no avail. He even yelled at the crowd to go home on more than one occasion. But they’d just come back the next night to stay late once again.   

Parton’s father couldn’t take it anymore. He exclaimed: “That damned TV has got to go!” 

“We all recognized that tone of voice,” wrote Parton. “When Daddy used it, there was no room for discussion. The TV was sold. I would have to go on being a TV star without my own family being able to see me.”