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Singer Patti Page had deep roots in Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, at 11:38 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, May 18, 2014, at 1:03 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

The world knew her as Patti Page.

But in Wichita, she was first known as Clara Ann Fowler, a girl with an affection for family, friends, and an occasional treat to a large Nu-Way burger with a bowl of chili.

When visiting family, she never made any pretenses. She slept on living room couches, pitched in with cooking and sometimes went without makeup.

But even after becoming a legendary singer, Kansas roots kept Clara Ann Fowler grounded.

“I was the youngest of the cousins and she would send her old gowns to me,” Dena Roeder of Haysville said. “I played in them. It was heaven. All my friends wanted to play dress up with me.”

Page, one of the most famous singers of the 1950s and 1960s, died New Year’s Day. Her funeral was Wednesday.

Oklahoma can claim Page as her birth state. California can claim to be her home state because that was where she lived and retired. But the singer of “Tennessee Waltz ”and “Doggie in the Window” has plenty of Kansas connections. It was, after all, a Kansas dairy farm that gave her the name.

Clara Ann Fowler was born Nov. 8, 1927, in Claremore, Okla. She was one of eight girls and three boys. Her father, Benjamin Fowler, worked for the Midland Valley Railroad and was stationed in Wichita at least twice. The family home was at Douglas and Seneca.

While in Wichita, she became friends with the Dinning Sisters, a famous singing act of the 1940s. Sisters Jean, Lucille and Virginia were born in Caldwell. Page would baby sit their brother, Mark. Jean Dinning would eventually write the song “Teen Angel” and Mark would sing it.

Throughout her life, Page would maintain contact with family members in Kansas.

Her sister Sarah Louise (Fowler) Thomas lived on West Maple. Another sister, Trudie Jane (Fowler) Miller lived on South Pershing. And brother, Mack Bolen Fowler lived on South Broadway.

“We were all proud of her,” said nephew John Fowler of Pratt.

“She was fun loving and down to earth, especially when she got with family,” Roeder said. “She would come from her large home in California to our little 900-square-foot home and slept on the couch. She didn’t go to a hotel room. Anybody she brought with her often ended up on the floor or the couch.”

In 1952, when Page’s fame was at its peak, the 15 boys in Jerry Miller’s physical education class at East High School knew of his famous aunt. During gym class, they snuck out of school and to the Miller home where a sleeping Patti Page was wakened from the couch.

She autographed their T-shirts.

Another nephew, Tim Akers of Wichita remembers cars driving by the family home and honking whenever Page was in town.

First few breaks

One of her earliest attempts at singing was in a contest in Wichita in 1940. She and her sisters, Rema Ruth and Ruby Nell tried out for the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, Akers said.

“He would plant one of his own troupes in the audience and then would award them with the prizes so most of his shows were fixed,” Akers wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle. “Aunt Patti told me that they of course did not win this show but actually performed on the Orpheum stage.”

Not long after, she received her stage name while working at radio station KTUL in Tulsa.

A Kansas Dairy, Page Milk Co., of Coffeyville sponsored a 15-minute program on the radio. They had a singer named Patti Page who sang regularly on the show. But when the first Patti Page became sick, Clara Ann Fowler was chosen to replace her.

“People knew her voice,” John Fowler said. “She got the job.”

Another break came when she tried out for Tulsa’s Miss Cinderella Contest. Bob Hope was the show’s emcee. He was asked to pick the best girl singer.

Clara Ann Fowler won. Hope gave her a check for $50 signed by him. She wouldn’t cash the check; instead, she framed it. Eventually Hope’s secretary called her and asked her to please cash the check, promising to send her a copy of the check so she could still have Hope’s autograph.

At the time, she was making $150 a week. Her father made $50 a month.

“The first recollection I had of her was when she was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” Akers said. “My mom said, ‘That’s Aunt Patti.’ It didn’t really soak into me until I was watching the Captain Kangaroo show and there was a puppet dancing to ‘Doggie in the Window.’ My mom said that’s Aunt Patti’s voice. I started collecting things about her when I was 7 years old.”

In 1952, Page Dairy and the City of Coffeyville hosted a concert in which the dairy officially gave permission for Clara Ann Fowler to legally change her name to Patti Page.

“The concert was like going to a Madonna or Lady Gaga concert now,” said niece Sally Akers of Elkhart. “She was very well known. The auditorium was completely full.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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