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From the 1988 HCP files: Opry humorist laughs at fate

Despite his comedic antics, Bill Atterberry, born in 1942, is an accomplished musician and can play seven instruments. Hannibal Courier-Post file photo, Feb. 27, 1988.


Hannibal Courier-Post

Saturday, Feb. 27, 1988

Selling furniture in Shelbina seemed to be Bill Atterberry’s destiny when he graduated from high school.

However, a twist of fate lead the Shelbina native from his hometown to a career in the entertainment field. Instead of selling furniture, he became a comedian for Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry in Osage beach.

His first taste of comedy came as a high school student. “when I was involved in 4-H work, they had a ‘Share the fun’ program at the end of each year, which was more or less a talent show. Homer and Jethro were popular entertainers at that time, so a friend and I decided to perform one of their songs.

“I learned three chords on a guitar,” he said, “We started doing the act for pie suppers and community nights at the old school houses,” he said. The pay was meager: “Not much money, but all you could eat.”

As the comic pair perfected their act, they received more job offers. They were soon performing at local county fairs and homecomings. These early performances whetted Atterberry’s appetite for entertaining, but he still didn’t aspire to be a comedian.

“I had worked at a Shelbina furniture store after school since I was in junior high, and I began working full time there after I graduated from high school. At that time I never considered being a full-time entertainer. I figured I would probably die working at that furniture store.”

While performing at the Shelby County Fair, he worked alongside Toby Dick Ellis, the featured performer on WGEM-TV’s weekly variety show, Possum Hollar Opry. Ellis was impressed with Atterberry’s comedic and musical talents, and offered him a job on the show.

Atterberry accepted the invitation, and performed every other week on the Sunday variety show. He still didn’t consider making a living in the entertainment business.

His attitude was about to change, however.

About that time, Lee Mace, owner of the Ozark Opry, was looking of a new talent for his show. He visited Quincy, Ill., and made a point to watch the Possum Hollar Opry. He liked what he saw and offered Atterberry a job.

The offer came as a shock to Atterberry, who still considered himself a furniture salesman. But Mace made the offer hard to refuse. Try a few road trips, Mace said. If it doesn’t work out, resume your work in Shelbina. If it does work out …

“Goofer” Atterberry accepted and enjoyed the assignment. “That was 27 years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

Atterberry sings, tells jokes, plays seven instruments and works with nine other performers to entertain the Ozark Opry audience six nights a week, April through October.

When he first moved to Osage Beach, Mace’s spry was the only entertainment in the area.

“The first six or seven years, we did two shows every night except Monday,” Atterberry said. Back then, you either watched TV or went to the Ozark Opry.”

Until five years ago, the show took to the road during the winter months, playing schools and small-town halls. “We traveled 100,000 miles a year on a bus in a seven-state area. I don’t know whether we got older or it got too expensive,” he said, but Lee Mace decided to stop the road shows.

“It kept me in shape,” Atterberry said.

Today, atterberry travels a little during the off season, entertaining fans throughout the state. He will perform with Patsy Sledd in November at Hannibal’s Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest; and he had a performance scheduled in Kansas City next month. His next show will be March 19 at the Bud Reese Show in Kirksville. Tickets for the show are already sold out, Atterberry said.

He especially likes to perform back home in Shelby County.

“There is a fella from down by Lakenan … where ever I am in the area, he’s always there,” Atterberry said. “They’re real good to me up there.”

Atterberry recently recorded a new comedy album available on cassette tape. Titled “Just for Laughs,” it is excerpts from past performances. cassettes are available by writing him in care of the Ozark Opry, box 242, Osage Beach, Mo. 65065. Takes are $6, plus $1 for postage.

The 46-year-old Atterberry is constantly trying to develop new material in order to keep his performances fresh.

“This has been my life. My wife and I have talked that maybe I’ll get too old some day to perform. If I had the opportunity to do anything else, I don’t know what I’d like to do besides entertain people. I really enjoy it. This keeps me young.”


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