Paige Sawyer: When Cowboys Were King

  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wikimedia Commons Gene Autry was among the most popular cowboys in the movies and entertained millions of boys and girls for years.


I’m sure it was a typical hot summer day on June 11, 1938 when my father wrote in his diary he had gone to the movies and saw “Springtime in the Rockies” starring Gene Autry.

Growing up with a cap gun and holster, I asked him who were his favorite cowboys. He always mentioned the singing cowboy himself, Gene Autry but he also liked Bob Steele, Tom Mix, Tim McCoy, William S. Hart and Hoot Gibson. Many a night we sat in our living room watching Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Paladin, Rawhide and many other westerns on our black and white television.

Cowboys have always attracted the attention of American boys. We learned principles and morals that were illustrated over and over as the good guys overcame evil by beating up or shooting the bad guys and rescuing the ranch and distressed family.

Mention the names Leonard Slye or Marion Morrison to a male and they’ll scratch their head and give you a funny look. Mention their movie names, Roy Rogers and John Wayne and they’ll immediately relate with tales of a happy childhood and a favorite cowboy hero.

Al “Fuzzy” St. John was a sidekick to several of the movie cowboys in the late ‘30s and ‘40s but is most remembered as Lash LaRue’s saddle pal, Fuzzy Q. Jones. Glennie Tarbox remembers seeing Fuzzy in person when he came to the Strand Theater and was impressed with Fuzzy sitting on the back of a chair with his feet in the seat and rocking back and forth. Cowboys could get away sitting in this fashion.

John Wayne’s name comes up frequently as a cowboy hero. Just ask Carlos Long who his favorite cowboy is and he’ll tell you “The Duke.” Carlos’ favorite movie is the 1949 classic “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” starring you know who. His favorite song is “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and he loves the quote by John Wayne, “Life is tough, but if you stupid, it’s really tough.”

This quote also ensured Charlie Luquire to claim John Wayne as his favorite cowboy. “If you’re stupid says it all about cowboys,” said Charlie. “You can’t be stupid and survive as a cowboy.” “Cowboys or the images associated with cowboys are still sort of impressive to me on some level; the ideas they were painted to stand for — right, the little guy, right or wrong, do the right thing, etc. was the producer’s hook to keep the actors and shows going so they appealed to some basic instincts.”

Charlie remembers visiting dime stores and admiring the cowboy outfits and cap pistols. Getting both for Christmas was a big deal and Charlie wishes he still had them. He also liked Gene Autry and later changed allegiance to The Lone Ranger and Tonto. The Lone Ranger’s theme music, “The William Tell Overture” also introduced many a young cowboy to classical music along with their first foreign word; Kemosabe which translated into “Trusted Scout.”

The Lone Ranger also appealed to Ben Klopp. He remembers Santa leaving him two revolvers with silver bullets along with a mask and outfit and his favorite cowboy music to this day is “The William Tell Overture.” Ben also had a Red Ryder BB gun.

Bill Doar had many but Tex Ritter, Gene Autry and Lash LaRue were his favorites. He remembers the Saturday cowboy movies at The Palace Theater and how Mr. Abrams could fill an empty candy dispensing machine in less than a minute. “The movie also included a serial usually about cowboys. As I recall admission at least at one point was 9 cents. A candy bar was a nickel.”

Two western movies from 1972 and 1976, “Bad Company” with Jeff Bridges and “The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday” starring Lee Marvin are favorites of Roger Morehead. Walter Brennan, Chuck Connors and Clint Eastwoord are his favorite western television actors while he claims the best western song is, “Back in the Saddle Again” by Gene Autry.

Jim Clark grew up in Elizabethtown, NC and remembers going to either the Rowe or Clark theater on Saturdays for an afternoon of cowboy movies. He has a photograph taken of him at age four wearing his Acme cowboy boots. Jim also had a complete cowboy outfit with chaps, vest, hat, two cap guns and spurs. Lash LaRue and Gabby Hayes are his favorite “shoot’em up” cowboys and his favorite song is “Home on the Range” by none other than Gene Autry. Today while cruising in his truck, he likes to listen to the Marshall Tucker Band singing “Searching for a Rainbow.”

One Christmas morning after Santa had left, Dwight Ford’s parents found their five-year-old son outside wearing his cowboy outfit with spurs, six shooter and holster looking for some masked bank robbers.

A few months later on a Saturday afternoon, an enterprising photographer with a pony showed up in the neighborhood selling photos of kids on the pony. The photographer had all sorts of costumes, outfits and guns so you could look like your favorite western hero.

After eagerly waiting two weeks, the photograph finally arrived and Dwight kept it on his dresser for a few years until he grew out of cowboy mode and into soldier mode. He idolized Roy Rogers, The Rifleman, The Lone Ranger, Sky King and many others. His favorite song is “Happy Trails to You” by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

The Lone Ranger was also a favorite with Marty Alfonsi. He quit listening to Hi Yo Silver on the radio when his parents finally got a television. Growing up on a farm, Marty and his friends played Soldiers or Cowboys and Indians and his grandfather made him a pair of chaps out of sheepskin. The wool side was on the inside and the outside was tanned and the chaps protected Marty’s legs from brambles when he rounded up the sheep and cows from the woods. But Marty wanted chaps like the cowboys wore.

One Christmas Santa brought him a two gun holster set with shiny pistols and “real” cowboy chaps. Although they looked great, it wasn’t too long before the brambles tore them up and he went back to the chaps his grandfather had made.

Marty and his best friend “Dough Boy” couldn’t ride the big Belgian work horses so they turned their attention to the smaller farm animals. Sheep and goats weren’t the same as cowboy horses, so they decided to ride a big hog. After herding the big hog to a small section of the pen, Dough Boy faced the hog while blocking the exit. When Marty tried to grab the hog it took off towards Dough Boy running right through his legs. Although backwards, Dough Boy clamped his legs around the hog and holding onto his tail, fell off after ten feet into a big mud puddle. Needless to say, Marty and Dough Boy never tried hog riding again.

Although his parents couldn’t afford a complete cowboy outfit all at one time, Hal Tanner did have some guns, holsters and cowboy hats throughout his childhood. His favorite cowboy was Gene Autry and his favorite song was “Happy Trails to You.”

Growing up in Savannah, Hal remembers going to the Saturday movies and seeing a double cowboy movie, a cartoon and newsreel and sometimes a live cowboy show. His parents gave him a quarter which he spent five cents for the bus ride, ten cents for the movie, five cents for a Coke, five cents for popcorn or candy. Since he had spent all of his money, Hal walked the two-and-one-half-miles home.

He remembers many of the live cowboy shows and his favorite was Lash LaRue. He never got to see a live Gene Autry show.

Several years ago, Time Warner put out a “Treasury of the West” music set with thirty western/cowboy theme songs and music. Pick out your favorite and see if you remember the words and melodies.

Rawhide, Back In The Saddle Again, Tumbling Tumbleweeds, High Noon, The Rebel-Johnny Yuma, Cattle Call, Along The Santa Fe Trail, Gunsmoke, The Magnificent Seven, El Paso, Don’t Go Near The Indians, Legend of Wyatt Earp, Old Rivers, Happy Trails, Bonanza, Big Iron, The Ballad of Paladin, Buttons And Bows, Cool Water, Whoopie Ti Yi Yo, Don’t Fence Me In, Home On The Range, Ghost Riders In The Sky, The Hanging Tree, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Shenandoah, The Wayward Wind, You Are My Sunshine and Red River Valley.

January 30, 1933 marked the 81st anniversary when The Lone Ranger was first broadcast on radio. The serials remained until 1949 when it became a popular television show.

Happy Trails.

Paige Sawyer may be reached by e-mail at paigebsawyer@gmail.com.

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