When I was a kid, I looked forward all week to Saturday afternoon when I went to the Broadway Theater to see a cowboy film. Didn’t matter whether it was Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy or Johnny Mack Brown. All those great “B” Western stars were our American Folk Heroes. And their horses were just as important, too. All of us young boys knew the names of the stars’ horses. Tom Mix’s Tony; Gene Autry’s Champion; Tex Ritter’s Flash; Johnny Mack Brown’s Rebel; Buck Jones’ Silver; Roy Rogers’ Trigger; and Ken Maynard’s Tarzan. How little did I know that many years later I would meet and be associated with some of the super stars of the silver screen.
Johnny Mack Brown and his horse, Rebel.
Tim McCoy and Buck Jones.
In the 1930s, the movie cost 10 cents, and in those Depression days that was a lot of money. I don’t ever remember having money for popcorn, but just to get that golden pass to enter those sacred halls was enough.
In later years I became a major publisher of pictorial and historical books in the country music field, with sales in the millions. My first book was published in 1949. It was then called “hillbilly music,” and it didn’t become “country” until I changed the name of my annual publications.
I became friends with many of the country stars, and a good friend was Tex Ritter. I first met Tex in the 1950s on a trip to Los Angeles, when I visited the Town Hall Party Saturday night show in Compton, California. Other stars on that show included Merle Travis, Johnny Bond, Tex Williams, and Joe and Rose Lee Maphis.
Tex Ritter DVD cover.
Tex and his wife, Dorothy, were two of my favorite people in country music, and when his home in Nashville was torn down, I retrieved a brick as a keepsake. When we were living in Denver, Tex was featured in a show with Johnny Cash and June Carter at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, and my oldest daughter, Tracy, and I had dinner with Tex and his drummer. Tracy was amazed that Tex ate his peas with a knife without spilling any! Another time, our daughter, Heather, who was our trademark, and I were backstage with Tex. Heather had a little storybook with her, and Tex put her on his lap and read the entire book to her.
Tex Ritter reading to Heather.
After graduating from high school with honors, Tex attended the University of Texas, where he studied pre-law. But that gave way to show business. He moved to New York City in 1928, and in 1930 he appeared in the Broadway production of Green Grow the Lilacs, the basis for the musical Oklahoma!
Millions have heard Tex’s voice as Big Al, an audio-animatronic bear at the Country Bear Jamboree attraction in Disneyland. And who can forget the soundtrack of Gary Cooper’s film, High Noon? Tex’s recording of “High Noon” (“Don’t Forsake Me Oh My Darling”) became a hit. He sang the song at the first televised Academy Award Ceremony in 1953, and it took the Oscar for the Best Song that year.
In 1966, Georgianna and I received an invitation to Tex and Dorothy's 25th wedding anniversary celebration in Hollywood, and Heather went with us. We were very excited because we knew there would be many stars there, particularly some of the cowboy stars from the early days.
I was happy to see Eddie Dean there, whom I'd visited at his home on a trip to Hollywood. He was one of my favorite cowboys because he had a great singing voice. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry called Eddie “the best cowboy singing star of all time.” I was anxious for Georgianna to meet him; they shared the same birthday, July 9.
Left to right: Tex Ritter, Eddie Dean, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, unknown, Gene Autry, Roy Acuff, Johnny Bond and Heather.
I was sorry that one of my favorite people in cowboy films, Smiley Burnette, was not there. (He passed away a year later.) I had visited Smiley at his home one evening, and he was a delightful host, insisting that my companion and I try the sandwich spread he had concocted earlier that day. He enjoyed telling us about his movies when he was the sidekick of Gene Autry and other stars.
Smiley Burnette with Jeane Matthews, my Nashville rep., 1965.
What most movie fans don’t realize was that Smiley was one of the greatest songwriters of western songs. He composed nearly all of the songs for the early Gene Autry films. And his beautiful classic, “Ridin’ Down the Canyon,” is one of my favorites.
Ridin’ down the canyon to watch the sun go down,
A picture that no artist ‘ere could paint.
Cactus plants are bloomin’ on the mountain side,
I hear a coyote calling to its mate.
There must have been at least 200 people at the anniversary party, and all were served a full dinner. I wish I could remember who was seated at our table of eight. That evening I heard many names, stars, directors, etc., from the early movie days, and it brought back memories of my Saturday matinees at the Broadway Theater. Like Tex’s 1961 recording, I thought I was in “Hillbilly Heaven.”
In previous years, Heather had her photo taken with most of the top country stars. Seems everyone wanted their photo taken with Heather. For a unique photo shoot, Buck Owens took her to an amusement park in Salt Lake City, and Sheb Wooley put her on the back of a Clydesdale at the Denver Rodeo. She looked so tiny! And at a country show in the Hollywood Bowl featuring Eddy Arnold and Lorne Greene, the emcee took Heather in his arms and introduced her to 25,000 people! Yes, Heather was right at home in front of a camera. While Georgianna and I rarely had our photos taken, that evening Georgianna asked for a photo with her daughter.
Heather and Buck Owens on the Merry-Go-Round.
Backstage at the Hollywood Bowl: Left to right - Bob Reagan, Billy Armstrong, Lorne Greene, Hal Southern, Ms. Lorne Greene, Lucille Starr, Eddy Arnold, Heather, a fan, Marion Worth, Billy Walker and Skeets McDonald.
We were sitting at our table when someone said, “Well, look who just came in!” Everyone turned, and much excitement and chatter arose throughout the room as this gentleman with grey thinning hair strode in smiling, as people began surrounding him. I soon learned it was the legendary “B” Western star, Ken Maynard, one of my heroes of Saturday matinees.
A poster of Ken Maynard.
Maynard started out performing in rodeos and was a trick rider with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He first appeared in silent pictures in 1923. With his white cowboy hat, fancy shirt, and pair of six-shooters, from the 1920s to the mid-1940s, he appeared in more than 90 films. He died penniless in 1973 at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California.
Another Ken Maynard poster.
That night in Hollywood he was a star again, and all there recognized him as a true legend and were delighted he had come. Georgianna was excited, too, because Ken Maynard was her father’s favorite cowboy star. She asked me if we could get a photo of her and Maynard so she could send it to her father. He was delighted to pose with Georgianna and Heather. He was charming when I spoke to him about my matinee days as a kid – and when I told him how much I admired him.
Ken Maynard on his horse, Tarzan.
Don’t miss the next chapter. Early interest in music and movies.