Where have all the cowboys gone?
In Jean Shepherd’s classic and favorite holiday book, then movie, “A Christmas Story,” the gift that little Ralphie wants more than anything else in the world is an official Red Ryder BB gun. His mother, teacher and everyone else dissuade him from this because “you’ll shoot your eye out.” And then he gets it and almost does.
But in the 1940s world of Ralphie (and many of us), cowboys were the heroes. They were the beacon of good versus evil, and if he got his rifle, he’d be able to protect his family from the bad guys. Played in the movies by Wild Bill Elliott (his side kick, Little Beaver, was played by Bobby Blake), Red Ryder originated as a Western comic strip created by Stephen Slesinger and artist Fred Harman. The comic, which served as the basis for a wide array of character merchandising, was syndicated nationally in the Sunday papers and then ran from 1938 through 1965.
On the cover of my autobiographical novel “The Glenside Kid,” I am pictured in a Hopalong Cassidy-like black cowboy outfit (at the tender age of 7). Every boy of my era probably has a picture of themselves attired as a cowboy. They were our idols, and we all wanted to grow up to be like them. We joined them most Saturdays at the matinees — places like the Keswick, Hiway, Yorktown, Grove and Hatboro movie houses.
Hopalong Cassidy, you say; who was Hopalong Cassidy? Portrayed on the screen by silver-haired actor William Boyd (and usually dressed in black astride a white horse named Topper), Hoppy rode the range in the first-run movie houses between 1935 and 1948 (and then as Saturday matinee fare for decades more) and on TV until the early ‘50s. A character created by western novelist Clarence E. Mulford, the movies adapted him from a hard-drinking roughneck to a tee-totaling hero who saved, but never kissed, the damsels in distress — or rescuing a good man gone bad who needed his help.
Boyd was the first famous TV western hero, and he became that icon out of necessity. The last 12 Hoppy movies in the late ‘40s were bankrolled by Boyd himself, but when the distributors lost interest in his flicks — and he was running out of money — he approached NBC TV (in those early days they were all looking for programming) and convinced them to run a few of his films. They did, the films were a hit and Boyd was in business. He acquired the rights to all his films and then, for good measure, though he was in his mid50s, suited up again and did four years’ worth of half-hour TV shows. Of course, he owned them, too. Born in Ohio, he joined the Army for World War I but was ushered out when they found he had a “weak heart.” The heart never was a factor in the scores of rough and tumble action movies he filmed.
He started in films as an actor in silent movies (he was born in 1895) and became a leading man in the ‘20s. A case of mistaken identity (another actor named Boyd was in all kinds of trouble with the police) almost cost him his career. But he got a chance to be Hopa-long (the original name) Cassidy, and the rest was history.
Ironically, in 1952, Cecil B. DeMille approached Boyd to star as Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” a major motion picture. Old Hoppy declined, saying people would see Moses but think of Cassidy. He was sure that his image was that dominant as a cowboy. Next choice for DeMille, the legendary Charlton Heston.
In the early Cassidy films, a young actor named Bob Mitchum frequently appeared — sometimes as a good guy, sometimes as a baddie. In a few early films, George Reeves (later TV’s Superman) was one of his sidekicks. Russell Hayden, who played Lucky Jenkins, was his regular partner, and Gabby Hayes or Andy Clyde provided comic relief.
Speaking of cowboys, I read recently that the Roy Rogers Museum in Branson, Mo., had closed. Darn. It was a place I always wanted to visit. Roy (aka Leonard Slye) was my all-time favorite. Back earlier in my career, I traveled frequently to California and always said I’d visit the Rogers museum (then located in Victorville). But I said it, never did it. They say Roy, himself, would ride over to the museum almost daily (in a golf cart, not on his Golden Palamino Trigger) and greet visitors. Roy’s son, Roy Jr. (or Dusty, as we fans knew him), frequented the second museum and frequently sang some of Roy’s songs there. Roy’s grandson, Dustin, heeded Grandpop’s wishes when he sold.
Roy, known as “The King of the Cowboys,” had said that if the museum stopped drawing people, stopped making money, they should close it and sell the artifacts. So they did. Roy’s horse (stuffed, of course) brought $266,000 when the things were sold. Also bringing good prices were Dale Evans’s (Mrs. Roy) horse Buttermilk and their German shepherd dog, Bullet. Nelly Bell, his Jeep, went high, too. There was no truth to the rumor that Roy and Dale were stuffed and also on display there.
Gene Autry was the other one of the big three stars — with Roy and Hoppy — and a shrewd businessman who was a multi-millionaire when he died (he owned the California Angels baseball team, radio and TV stations and other things), pretty good for a guy discovered as a railroad telegraph operator who could sing a little and play the guitar.
As kids, we looked up to those men and others — Johnny Mack Brown, Eddie Dean, Don “Red” Barry, Lash LaRue, Charles Starrett, Monte Hale, Alan “Rocky” Lane, Buck Jones, Randolph Scott, Tex Ritter, Sunset Carson, Tim Holt and, yes, John Wayne. And there were so many more.
I hear that Red Ryder BB Guns can still be purchased. Maybe some kid you know might want one for Christmas. Yippee ki-yay! Don’t let them shoot their eye out.