Tag Archives: ken curtis

Santa Clarita TV Tour: Gunsmoke

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gunsmoke this week (I’m sure you have too, right? Anyone? … Anyone?)

It actually makes sense because I’ve been spending lots of time lately at the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall preparing for this weekend’s Cowboy Festival.

For several years until the Western town at the ranch burned down in 1962, Melody Ranch was the home of Gunsmoke.

Gunsmoke began as a radio show in 1952, and was adapted to television three years later, where it would remain at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings for 635 episodes over the next twenty seasons. The series was intended as a Western for grown-ups, with grittier and more realistic stories than those filling the airwaves at the time.

After the Veluzat family purchased the ranch from singing cowboy Gene Autry in the early 90s, they rebuilt the Western town in meticulous detail, re-creating Dodge City in the process.

This weekend I’ll be taking groups of Old West fans on a couple of behind-the-scene tours of the ranch, pointing out Marshal Matt Dillon’s old jail, Miss Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon, and the Dodge House Hotel.

Gunsmoke landed in my thoughts a couple other times this week.

On Wednesday, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the passing of Ken Curtis, who for many years played deputy Festus Haggen.

Also on Saturday, I will be part of a panel discussing the two versions of True Grit, and whether or not Hollywood is seeing the return of the Western.

I discovered that Kim Darby, who played Mattie Ross in the original version of the film in 1969, was only selected for the role after Mia Farrow dropped out. Producer Hal Wallis was scrambling to find a replacement, when he turned on the television and found his girl.

And do you know what he was watching that night?

You guessed it: Gunsmoke.

Festus in Peace

For two decades, the Western television drama Gunsmoke was a crucial element of American culture. For eleven of those years, Ken Curtis, who played Marshal Matt Dillon’s cantankerous deputy Festus Haggen, was a crucial element of Gunsmoke.

Curtis, who was born Curtis Gates in southeastern Colorado in 1916, was the real-life son of a sheriff, living during his youth in rooms atop the Bent County Jail.

While mostly remembered today for his work on Gunsmoke, Curtis originally gained fame as a singer. For several years he performed with the Western band Sons of the Pioneers, as well as with the more mainstream Tommy Dorsey Band (where he replaced Frank Sinatra as singer).

Curtis began showing up on screen in the 1950s, often for famed director John Ford, who just happened to be his father-in-law at the time. Curtis appeared in supporting roles in several of John Wayne’s films, including The Searchers and The Quiet Man.

For a time, Curtis produced B-horror films, creating such anti-classics as The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster.

In 1964, he secured lasting fame when joined the cast of Gunsmoke. The show began on radio in 1952, and made its television debut three years later. It would last for (what was then) a record twenty seasons, often as the number one show on television.

After the show wrapped in 1975, Curtis still acted and performed at carnivals and rodeos. He was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1981.

Twenty years ago this week, Curtis died in Fresno. As a fitting ending for a true son of the West, his ashes were later returned to Colorado and scattered over the earth from which he sprang.