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Cover Story February 16, 2006


 

  by lyle e davis

 

 

 

by lyle e davis

 

Those of us who have more than a few years under our belt occasionally take the time to stop and look back at the trails we have traveled.  With that look back toward our younger years we often bring back memories - pleasant memories mostly.  Memories of being kids . . . of going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon and paying a whole nine cents for admission.  And seeing the good guys like Hopalong Cassidy, Lash LaRue, Wild Bill Elliot . . . Bob Steele, and other cowboy stars from a bygone era.

 

We would sit on the edge of our seats and see if the good guys would win again, or if the bad guys would finally prevail.  Often we’d have to wait a week because the adventures were in serial fashion.  You’d have our hero right in the middle of an impossible situation . . . surely he could not escape this time.  We’d just have to come back next Saturday to see how, or whether, he escaped.

 

About this same time there were  ‘The Big Three’ cowboys.  Not only were they on the silver screen but there was this new-fangled invention called the television set that had regular programs starring our favorite good guys.  Soon, ‘The Big Three’ emerged as the most popular of the B Western movies.  They were Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy.

 

Oh, there were a lot of other movie and tv cowboys . . . and we’ll get to them in a bit.  But first, let’s look at “The Big Three.”

 

I’ll start with Gene Autry first because that’s the cowboy with whom I have the closest, somewhat tenuous, contact.

 

Back in 1968 and 1969 I managed KGUD radio station in Santa Barbara, for Dick Clark (yes, that Dick Clark).  My secretary was a gal named Peggy Rogers.  She had been Gene Autry’s private secretary for years at Republic Studios and had his home number as well as his private office number.  They spoke frequently by phone.

 

While I never met Mr. Autry I heard plenty of tales about him.

 

His real name was Orvon Grover Autry.  Autry was born in 1907 and died in 1998.   We remember him as a singin’ cowboy . . . but he was also quite an astute businessman, probably the most successful of ‘The Big Three.’ 

 

Autry’s career blossomed from the mid ‘30’s hrough the 1950’s.  All of The Big Three were continually top votegetters in the annual Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls and popularity rankings.  As the B western faded all three migrated from movies to the tv screen, successfully.  All had successful radio programs. All three made regular personal appearances at huge venues, such as Madison Square Garden.   Autry’s Melody Ranch was a tv show that debuted in 1940 and ran for 16 years on CBS, later moving into syndication out of the tv studios in LA.  We have visited the set of Melody Ranch many times.

 

Autry and Rogers, being singin’ cowboys, made records but Gene was clearly the most successful. Autry amassed the largest "empire" of the three: he owned TV and radio stations as well as the California Angels baseball team. And in addition to his own weekly TV program, Gene's Flying A Production company made other 1950s shows such as The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill Jr., The Adventures of Annie Oakley, and more.  We are still listening to his songs today, particularly at Christmas time when we hear about “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty, the Snowman,”  and “Here Comes Santa Claus," and another favorite, later in the season, "Here Comes Peter Cottontail."

 

Gene had over two dozen "charted" tunes, and one of his earliest was "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine," which became a success after his performances in “The Phantom Empire” (Mascot, 1935) and his first starring role for Republic Pictures, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” 1935. 

 

Sgt. Autry was in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying supplies in the China-India-Burma theater of war, and served for 4+ years. After the war, Gene returned to Republic to finish out his contract obligations in five new films, the first of which was Sioux City Sue,” (Republic, 1946).  He then created his own production company and moved to Columbia Pictures for a new round of oaters. While Autry was in the service, his role of “King of the Cowboys,’ was overtaken by Roy Rogers.

 

Roy Rogers had nine "charted" songs between 1938 and 1975, the last being "Hoppy, Gene and Me" and his first was "Hi Yo Silver" which was popularized due to the radio program and the The Lone Ranger (1938) Republic serial.

 

There is a priceless story about Roy Rogers:

 

Roy Rogers was born Leonard Sly in 1911, on a pig farm near Duck Run, Ohio. When he had reached the height of his fame as Hollywood's most glamorous cowboy star, he happened to be making a personal appearance in Chicago, and he got the idea for a little experiment.  It was a studio requirement that Roy always wear his cowboy duds in public and one day he had been out walking in the Loop, attired in his sky-blue outfit and big white hat. Crowds of people pushed him around, wanting his autograph, wanting to talk to him, to touch him. It was that way every time he went out.

 

Back in his hotel, he thought about how nice it would be for a change to walk the city streets without being recognized. It had been a dozen years since he had worn a business suit, but now he called in a tailor and ordered one, a plain blue serge, a pair of black oxfords, and a white shirt and plain necktie and an ordinary hat. He put all these things on and went for another walk.  Nobody gave him a second look. He enjoyed the sensation so much that the next day when he boarded "The Chief" for Los Angeles, he was still wearing the civvies. He lounged in the club car and no one recognized him and then, walking through the moving train he arrived in a vestibule between cars and came face to face with a man walking in the opposite direction. The two stared at each other and Roy recognized a former resident of Duck Run, Ohio. But before he could say a word the other man cried out:

 

"Great God A'Mighty! Leonard Sly! WHIRR YOU BEEN?"

 

While Autry was in the service, Roy's “King of the Cowboys,” was released in April 1943, and that became the official Rogers billing.  1942 was Gene Autry’s last #1 popularity rating --- Rogers took over the crown in 1943, and would hold that #1 rating through the end of the B western genre in the early 1950s (with Autry coming in a consistent #2).

 

Roy Rogers rode a number of horses during his film and television careers --- they were all billed as "Trigger."

 

In over a quarter century performing in public, he used three main Palominos:

 

1. the original (known on movie sets as "the Old Man")

 

2. Little Trigger (featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1943 and in SON OF PALEFACE (1952))

 

3. Trigger, Jr.

 

The original Trigger was born in 1934 on a ranch in San Diego.

 

Looking at today’s horribly inflated salaries for movie “stars,” it’s interesting to see what the cowboy stars of yesteryear earned:

 

Roy Rogers’ initial salary was $75.00/weekly and at the end of the contract(s), his pay had escalated to $1000.00/weekly.

 

Rogers then signed a term picture arrangement which included a $10,000.00 bonus and pay of $21,000.00 plus a $500.00 clothing allowance for each of 11 films over a 2 year period.

 

In February 1950, Republic exercised their option to extend that contract for six more films at $21,667.00 each.

 

Republic and Roy agreed to another extension for his final two westerns at $25,000.00 each.  Quite a difference from today’s pay scales.

 

Roy Rogers died in 1998.

 

Two singin' cowboys and a mature 'man of the west' who wore black (but in reality, it was dark blue).

 

Because of their popularity, “The Big Three” were the ones that brought in the $$$ for their film production companies ... and theater owners flocked to show their films ... and that caused them to be more popular ... and on, and on.

 

William Boyd was the other member of “The Big Three.” 

 

His real name was William Lawrence Boyd.  He was born in 1895 and died in 1972 of heart problems.

 

Bill Boyd was best known as “Hopalong Cassidy.”  He was the third part of the Big Three but it was Gene Autry and Roy Rogers who battled for the number one position in popularity polls.

 

Boyd was the ‘senior, mature, cowboy’ who was still quick thinking, quick acting, and was always the good guy.

 

Shortly after his family moved to Oklahoma, both parents died and William was forced to quit school and toiled in the state's oil fields. He later worked his way westward at an assortment of odd jobs, orange packer, laborer, and night watchman in California, while trying to break into movies.

 

Boyd's prematuring gray hair added dignity to the character, who didn't smoke, drink, or swear. He played 54 Cassidy episodes before producer Harry "Pop" Sherman dropped the series in 1943. Boyd then took over as producer and turned out 12 more episodes. He later acquired all rights to the Cassidy character, and when television came along, he made a fortune from exhibiting his old films, from the production of new ones, and from a variety of by-products tied in with "Hopalong Cassidy." I can remember being the proud owner of a Hopalong Cassiday  Lunch Bucket and a black twin holster set with two “pearl handled” cap guns. 

 

Three of Boyd's four marriages ended in divorce.

 

Boyd starred in 66 full-featured Hopalong Cassidy films, 52 half-hour television programs, and 104 radio shows.

 

His horse was ‘Topper,’ a white horse that contrasted with his dark blue clothing. 

 

Other Notable Cowboy Stars and Sidekicks

 

"Wild Bill" Elliott

Real name: Gordon Nance

1903 or 1904 - 1965 

  

 

In his first eight films, the first appropriately titled CALLING WILD BILL ELLIOTT, Elliott played a character with his own screen name for the first time. He was teamed with George Gabby Hayes, probably filmdom's top comic sidekick, and leading lady Anne Jeffreys who demonstrated her versatility as a schoolmarm, Indian maiden, saloon singer and other roles. Elliott continued with the trademark firearms and paint horse, called Sonny, and a new shirt (back to the square frontal button arrangement).

 

Elliott in mid-1944 became, on tv at least, Fred Harman's comic-strip cowboy, Red Ryder. Republic had done a popular 1940 ADVENTURES OF RED RYDER earlier.  Now the role was Elliott’s.  In addition to working with Gabby Hayes, he also worked with another famous, now infamous, actor.  Bobby Blake, who grew up to become actor Robert Blake, played Little Beaver, Red's young Indian sidekick, in all sixteen films. The only wardrobe change was chaps for Elliott and a shirt with arrow pockets. The twin stag-handled butt-forward guns remained, even though Harman had drawn his character in the comics as carrying only one pistol worn in traditional fashion. And Elliott began riding a black horse, Thunder, to fit Red's comic book horse.

 

After his career all but ended, he moved to Las Vegas where he hosted a weekly TV show interviewing guests and showing some of his old movies. He became an advertising spokesman for a cigarette manufacturer, and died of cancer November 26, 1965.

 

George Francis Hayes

1885 - 1969

 

George “Gabby” Hayes is well known to many ‘mature adults.’  He was associated with each of the ‘Big Three” at one time or another.  Once known as simply George Hayes, later as “Windy” Hayes, and finally as his best known character part, “Gabby.”  Hayes is probably best remembered as the sidekick to Roy Rogers, and they appeared together in 41 films - their first was SOUTHWARD HO (Republic, 1939) and last, HELDORADO (Republic, 1946).

 

George Hayes was born in Wellsville, New York, on May 7, 1885, and during his teen years he joined some traveling shows.  Burlesque and vaudeville work followed.  He married Olive Ireland in 1914, and the two would be together for over forty years, until her death in 1957.  Gabby and Olive had no children.

 

His first major role was portraying 'Windy Haliday', the sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy at Paramount.  The total Hoppy films in which Hayes played 'Windy Halliday' is eighteen. In 1939 Hayes switched to Republic Pictures and his first sidekick role with Roy Rogers was in SOUTHWARD HO (Republic, 1939).  He did 41 films with Roy Rogers, but these were separated into two bunches - in between, Hayes was the saddle pal to Wild Bill Elliott in his 1943-1944 series of eight, as well as the first two Red Ryder oaters (which also starred Elliott).  

 

Anne Jeffreys with Wild Bill Elliott and George "Gabby" Hayes at Republic.

 

 

Gabby had some great sayings that were always good for a chuckle - there was "yer durn tootin," "durn persnickety female," "young whipper snapper," and "Yessiree Bob."

 

Though he most often portrayed a cranky and crotchety oldtimer on film, in real life Hayes was the exact opposite - serious, well read, well dressed.  He was also well liked by all that knew him and worked with him ... and to this day, he remains as one of the most recognized and remembered players of the B western.  Pretty good legacy.

 

Duncan Renaldo: Renault Renaldo Duncan

Born - April 23, 1904, Romania Death - September 3, 1980, Goleta, California

 

The life of Duncan Renaldo would have made a pretty good movie without any fictionalizing. Despite the official birthdate and birthplace listed above, Renaldo told some interviewers that he actually did not know when or in what country he was born. The confusion led to his arrest at one time for being in the United States illegally, and an eventual pardon by no less than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

 

Although he had an extensive film career, Renaldo would wind up being best remembered --- like Clayton Moore, Kirby Grant and others who moved from the big screen to the small one --- for his television series, THE CISCO KID.

 

He was arrested in 1934 for being in the country illegally and spent about a year in prison. His rescuer, according to the definitive book on the Cisco Kid (The Films Of The Cisco Kid by Francis M. Nevins, World of Yesterday Publications, 1998), was Republic Studios head Herbert J. Yates who signed Renaldo to a seven-year contract in 1937. He got a presidential pardon for any charges of illegal entry.

 

With one exception Duncan Renaldo would play Cisco for the rest of his career.

Cisco had ridden a palomino named Diablo in his earlier threesome, and kept the name for his paint horse in the later movies and TV series. Pancho got a palomino named Loco. As with the Pancho character himself, the horses' names came out of the radio series.

 

The final Cisco movie sequed nicely into the TV series, which was shot in color (which would come in handy once color television came along). The series featured many actors and actresses previously seen in B-westerns, and produced 156 half-hour shows. The show continued even when Renaldo was injured during the fourth season in 1953-54 in a rock fall and hospitalized through nine episodes (the producers had Cisco wearing masks, disguised as a ghost and other gimmicks where they could use doubles. They had Renaldo record his lines from the hospital, and inserted previously-shot footage of him). The sixth season proved the final outing for the show, although it has been popular in re-runs.

 

Renaldo retired at the end of the TV series, and died in Goleta Valley Community Hospital of lung cancer at the estimated age of 76.

 

Despite the TNT-TV movie, Duncan Renaldo remains the definitive Cisco Kid to most of us.

 

Johnny Mack Brown:

1904 - 1974

 

John Mack Brown was a real southerner, born in Dothan, Alabama, on September 1, 1904.

 

He was an All-American running back on the University of Alabama football team, and scored two of their three touchdowns in a winning effort against the favored Washington Huskies in the 1926 Rose Bowl.

 

For his All-American exploits on the football field, Brown was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1957, and the Rose Bowl Hall Of Fame in 2001. 

After graduation, he tried his hand at coaching for a short time.  He went to Hollywood and began doing bit parts around 1927 in silents.  A good looking gent, Brown became a fairly successful leading man at MGM for nearly five years, appearing opposite such famous actresses as Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.  Brown's first major cowboy role was portraying the titled gunslinger in MGM's BILLY THE KID (1930).

 

Johnny Mack Brown made about 165 films during a Hollywood career that spanned about 25 years

 

Johnny Mack Brown passed away November 14, 1974, due to a heart condition.

 

Ken Maynard

Real name: Kenneth Olin Maynard

1895 - 1973

 

Maynard made big money from the mid 1920s through the mid 1930s, when his star was at it's zenith.  But he also had a lavish lifestyle and bought cars, planes, etc.  He liked alcohol and cigars, had a quick temper, and his waistline expanded as he grew older.  His screen career lasted about twenty years, 1924 to 1944, and he starred in 80+ silents and talkies.  But his primary work, in both quality and quantity, occurred during his first dozen or so years on the screen.

 

Andy Devine

1905-1977

 

 

Devine was a sidekick in many of the Roy Rogers color films of the late 1940’s, often going by the name of “Cookie Bullfincher.”

 

However, his most remembered roles include the stage driver in STAGECOACH (UA, 1939) as well as 'Jingles P. Jones' in the Guy Madison/WILD BILL HICKOK TV series of the 1950s. 

 

Maxwell Emmett

“Pat” Buttram

 1915 or 1917 - 1994

 

 

Buttram was Autry's saddle pal during his later films as well as Autry's Melody Ranch radio program.  He was one of the National Barn Dance performers during the 1930s, and ultimately went to Hollywood.  In later years, he portrayed Mr. Haney on TV's GREEN ACRES.  He was also the founder of the 'Golden Boot Awards' which honors western film performers.

 

Buttram is identified in 18 films, and 17 of those are westerns.

 

Buttram is interred in Haleyville, Alabama:  

 

Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnette

1911 - 1967

 

Born in Illinois, he was a musical genius.  He eventually met Gene Autry, who was then broadcasting on Chicago’s WLS Radio.  They became life long friends.  Both became very wealthy.  Burnette, being a sidekick, was almost as popular as Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassiday.

 

In his latter years he appeared as the engineer, Charley Pratt, on Petticoat Junction.

 

His most popular character was “Frog Millhouse.”

 

Smiley also had a local connection.  He  had an A-frame drive-in called 'Checkered Shirt'. It was back in the 1960s in Escondido, California, north of San Diego.

 

The Other Stars

 

Yakima Canutt

1895 - 1986

 

Real name: Enos Edward Canutt

Nicknames: "Yak", "Yakima"

 

One artist the average movie-goer never really knew much about was one who revolutionized the art of doing stunts in the movies, Yakima Canutt.

 

Born in Washington state, Canutt became active in rodeos and wild west shows as a teenager.  He picked up the moniker of "Yakima" during rodeo days because he wound up being billed as "The Man (or Cowboy) from Yakima".

 

Canutt won the title of 'All Around Cowboy' at the Pendleton Oregon Roundup in 1917, 1919, 1920 and 1923. 

 

Canutt met Tom Mix during these rodeo performances and wound up in Hollywood where he began doubling for various performers. Canutt's time as a Hollywood cowboy hero was brief as an illness or injury caused his voice to have a gravely sound, and this basically ended any thoughts of continuing his stardom when talkies arrived.

 

Canutt is credited with the development of the choreographed screen brawl (where, in earlier films, the hero and baddie threw unrealistic punches at each other and wrestled/flailed around).

 

The Canutt screen fight involved the positioning of the camera at angles to the participants (rather than straight on), and the camera would often face one of the brawlers.  That camera angle gave the perception of bone-crushin' punches landing on the jaw.  Many writers and fans also note that Canutt did much of this development during his many appearances with John Wayne in the Wayne oaters for Paul Malvern's Lone Star productions of the 1930s.  Wayne and Canutt would remain friends for life.

 

Canutt is best remembered for a stunt he performed during the Indian attack in John Ford's STAGECOACH (UA, 1939) --- portraying one of the galloping warriors, he transfers from his horse to the six-horse team, is shot, and falls underneath the fast moving team and stage. He did the same stunt --- wearing the black Zorro costume --- in the serial ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION (Republic, 1939).

 

In 1966, Yakima Canutt was presented a special Academy Award for a lifetime as a premier stunt developer and performer ... as well as creating the stunt profession and developing a variety of safety devices.

 

Who Are/Were the ‘Other Stars?”

 

Test your memory . . . some of us have to be getting waaay up in years to remember some of these artists:

 

• Sunset Carson

• Lee 'Lone Ranger' Powell

• George Houston ... The Lone Rider

• Spade Cooley

• Bob Steele

• Tex Williams

• Tim Holt

• Ken Curtis

• Buck Jones

• Sammy Baugh

• Monte Rawlins ... the Masked Phantom

• Ray Whitley

• Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams

• Rex Bell

• Harry Carey

• Hoot Gibson

• Wayne Morris

• George Montgomery

• Tex Fletcher  ... the Lonely Cowboy

• Tex Ritter

• Jay Wilsey / Buffalo Bill, Jr.

• Kirby Grant

• Rod Cameron

• Charles Starrett ... the Durango Kid

• Tom Mix

• Bob Allen

• Clayton Moore

• Monte Hale

• Allan 'Rocky' Lane

• Ray 'Crash' Corrigan

• Bob Livingston

• Rex Allen

• Russell Hayden

• Buster Crabbe

• Eddie Dean

• Lash LaRue

• Jimmy Wakely

• Whip Wilson

 

The Lone Ranger Serials

• Clayton Moore

• Lee Powell

• Bob Livingston

• Chief Thunder Cloud (1st Tonto)

 

Credits

 

Much of the information for this cover story was found on a truly amazing website.  All kinds of background information on the western movies genre, its stars, it’s supporting actors, its musicians. 

 

The reader is invited to set their web browser to:

 

http://www.surfnetinc.com/chuck/trio.htm

 

Known as “The Old Corral,” this website promises (and delivers) hours of fascinating material and photos from ‘the good old days.’

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

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