Tag Archives: westerns


Gary Cooper, who began his career in silent films, became a worldwide star in talkies, despite rarely uttering a word on screen.

The quintessential “strong, silent type,” Cooper made 100 films during a thirty-five year career before dying of cancer 50 years ago today.

Cooper, known affectionately as “Coop,” whose High Noon is considered by many to be one of the best Westerns ever made, was a true child of the West.

Frank James Cooper was born in Montana in 1901 to parents who had immigrated from England. His father was a rancher and attorney who later served on the Montana Supreme Court.

Cooper and his brother were sent to England for several years to get an education, returning to their father’s ranch at the outbreak of World War I. When his parents moved to Los Angeles in 1924, Cooper went with them, and earned a living as an extra. The following year he changed his name to Gary on the suggestion of a casting director who felt he needed a name reminiscent of her gritty native city of Gary, Indiana.

He appeared in several silents, including Wings, the first film to win the Academy Award, and became a star in The Virginian in 1929, which was his first talking film. He would remain a top box office draw for the rest of his life, being nominated for the Best Actor Oscar five times and winning twice.

In the 30s he starred in the classics Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and A Farewell To Arms, becoming a close friend of Ernest Hemingway in the process. That same decade, he famously passed on the chance to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.

In 1942, he won the Academy Award for Sergeant York, which war hero Alvin York would only authorize if Cooper portrayed him on film.

Cooper won a second Oscar eleven years later in the role of Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, a film many consider to be the genre’s finest 90 minutes.

A lifelong Republican, Cooper addressed Congress during the Red Scare to help root out Hollywood’s alleged communist infiltrators. Although married to the same woman for nearly thirty years, he engaged in a string of affairs with many of Hollywood’s leading ladies.

Jimmy Stewart accepted an honorary Oscar in 1961 on Cooper’s behalf while his friend was suffering from cancer.

Coop died a month later on May 13, 1961, just a week past his 60th birthday.

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.


Wanted Dead or Alive: Tiburcio Vasquez, Part One

One of the things that I love most about the Santa Clarita Valley is its double-layered Old West heritage – double-layered because it was not only the place where the events most associated with the Old West took place, but where those same happenings were later portrayed to the rest of the world in thousands of westerns shot since the beginning of cinema.

One of the sites in the valley seen in hundreds of westerns and science fiction films over the years is Vasquez Rocks, named after the outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez, who was said to have used its other-worldly landscape as a hideout.

The first part of the story of Vasquez, who met his end at the bottom of a hangman’s rope during this week in 1875, is today told by the President of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, Dr. Alan Pollack.


While he never gained the same level of fame during the 1870s as bad guys Jesse James and Billy the Kid, California had its own legendary outlaw during the same era in Tiburcio Vasquez.

Vasquez was born in 1835 and grew up during California’s romantic Spanish Rancho period, and like most Mexican Californios, felt that his culture was being increasingly marginalized by the rapid influx of Americans from the East during and after the California Gold Rush.

Vasquez began his life of crime after being accused of stabbing and murdering Monterey County Constable William Hardmount during a fandango in 1854. In the early days of his career he stole cattle and horses, and robbed freight wagons and stagecoaches before spending most of the 1860’s in and out of San Quentin prison, from which he was finally released in 1870.

Vasquez was just getting started.

In August, 1873, Vasquez led a gang of eight men into Tres Pinos, (modern day Paicines, south of Hollister, California) taking over the town and killing three men in the process. After Tres Pinos, Vasquez became a most-wanted outlaw with a posse chasing him all over the state.

Vasquez had a fatal flaw which eventually ended his career … he was a womanizer.

After Tres Pinos, he had fled to a ranch at Lake Elizabeth near the Antelope Valley. There he had a tryst with the wife of Abdon Leiva, one of his own gang members. After Leiva caught the illicit couple together, he angrily quit the gang and turned himself in to William Jenkins, who brought him down to Lyon’s Station in Newhall and turned him over to Los Angeles officers. Leiva would eventually testify against Vasquez at his murder trial in San Jose.

Vasquez committed another infamous robbery, sacking the town of Kingston in Fresno County in December, 1873. The following month, California Governor Newton Booth offered an award for the capture of Vasquez to the tune of $2000 dead, or $3000 alive (the amounts were subsequently increased to $6000 and $8000).

During the next few months, Vasquez would elude capture as he was chased by Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland and Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse. He robbed a stagecoach at the Coyote Holes stage station on the road between the Cerro Gordo silver mines in the Owens Valley and Los Angeles. He then headed south, eventually ending up in Soledad Canyon where he hid out in a strange geologic formation that today bears his name – Vasquez Rocks.

Tomorrow, Alan will complete the story of Tiburcio Vasquez’s criminal career.

Black and White and Red All Over

Southern California is blessed with spots where the storied events of the Old West actually took place, and where those same events were later portrayed to the outside world in old black-and-white Western films. We recently visited one of these places in the Mojave Desert called Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Canyon is a 27,000 acre state park situated at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Range. It lies halfway between the towns of Mojave and Ridgecrest, 120 miles north of Los Angeles on California 14.

Watch out for the camels. They spit!

Destructive, yet beautiful, forces of nature created Red Rock Canyon. Tectonic tears caused by the nearby Garlock Fault raised what was once a lake hundreds of feet into the sky, revealing the sedimentary layers beneath. Some of these layers contain high contents of iron which rusted in the open air, giving the rocks its dark red color. Wind and rain have gouged the layers into stone curtains cascading down in accordion-like folds.

The canyons of Red Rock have seen their share of folks pass by, starting with the Kawaiisu Indians, who had a trade route through the area. During the nineteenth century, prospectors, twenty-mule teams, and even a party of lost Death Valley survivors creeped through the canyons.

"Tombstone Canyon" (1932)

With the majestic otherworldly vistas of the area, it was inevitable that Hollywood filmmakers would eventually find the place. According to Richard J. Schmidt of redrockcanyonmovies.com, the first film made here was Wild Horse Canyon in 1925. Since then, over 130 movies, television episodes, commercials, and music videos have been shot here. Many of Hollywood’s biggest Western stars have worked in the canyons, including John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes, and Gary Cooper. The area has appeared in classic horror and science fiction films as well, like Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Despite all of these attempts to capture the beauty of Red Rock Canyon on film, pictures just don’t do the place justice. You have to see if for yourself.

The same site today.

The Grand Ole Autry

Multimedia star Gene Autry.

Of all the more than 2400 performers who have been immortalized with terrazzo and brass stars embedded into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, only one has a star in each of the five featured categories of film, television, music, radio, and live performance. Can you guess who it is?

Bob Hope? Nice try, but he only has four stars.

Frank Sinatra? Danny Kaye? Good guesses, but only three stars each.

I don’t know? … Elvis?

Nope. “The King” has only one star, but the true King of Hollywood Boulevard is none other than the great singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

One of Gene Autry's five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Singing Cowby Superstar Orvon Eugene Autry was born on this date in 1907 in the Red River Valley of Texas and grew up on a ranch a few miles to the north in Oklahoma. After high school, Autry worked as a railroad telegrapher during the graveyard shift where young Gene would entertain himself playing the guitar and singing.

Autry signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records in 1929 and later hosted his own music show for four years on WLS-AM in Chicago where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. Autry’s biggest hits came in the Christmas music category where he struck gold with “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.He would eventually record over 600 songs – half of which he wrote – and would sell over 100 million records.

Hollywood soon came calling and Autry and Burnette went west to star as singing cowboys in pictures for Monogram, which was later absorbed by Republic Pictures. He made dozens of enormously successful cowboy films over the next twenty years atop his horse Champion, with Burnette often playing his singing sidekick. From 1940 to 1956 he would also host a successful radio show called Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch.

He invested the millions he earned wisely in real estate and broadcasting. He was the long-time owner of L.A.’s KTLA television station as well as of the baseball team that is today known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

A recent photo of my film class at the Melody Ranch gates.

Melody Ranch, another former Autry property, is a film ranch located in Newhall, California. Melody Ranch has a history stretching back nearly 100 years, and has been the filming site of thousands of Westerns, including many made by Autry. He was able to acquire it in 1953 and used it daily for film and television production until August 1962 when a brushfire burned most of it to the ground. Autry had intended to build his museum at the ranch, and much of his priceless personal memorabilia was destroyed in the fire. The museum was later built in Griffith Park. For the next three decades the property served as a retirement home for his horse Champion.

In 1991, brothers Renaud and Andree Veluzat purchased the ranch and re-created the Western Town from old photos. It has since been home to dozens of commercials, films, and television shows, including the spectacular HBO series Deadwood. (Fans can get a peek inside the Melody Ranch gates during Cowboy Festival, which takes place every April.)

Autry passed away at the age of 91 on October 2, 1998, just three months after the death of his friend and rival Roy Rogers.

(For more on Warner Bros. Sunset Studios, which later became KTLA, check out my new book Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.)

The New Home of the Old West: Melody Ranch

The portal to the Old West. The gates of Melody Ranch.

As a fan of the Old West, I’m lucky to live in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, because this is where the Old West happened. Everything associated with that colorful era took place right here and is remembered in tales of cowboys, Indians, range wars, train robberies, gold discoveries, oil wildcatters, stagecoaches, claim jumpers, bandits, and shootouts.

As a fan of Westerns, I’m doubly blessed, because this valley is also the place where the Old West was portrayed to generations of movie viewers around the world. Literally thousands of Westerns were brought to the screen from movie locations within a few miles of my house. One of these special places is the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall, California.

The history of Melody Ranch stretches back nearly 100 years to the earliest days of Southern California filmmaking. The name “Melody Ranch” may sound familiar to old-timer fans of Gene Autry’s radio show of that name. Autry was indeed the owner of the ranch for nearly 40 years, but ironically, he never recorded his radio show there. He did use the lot to film dozens of his own Westerns, and it was here that epic films like Stagecoach (1939) and High Noon (1952) were brought to the screen. Several long-running television shows were made here as well, like Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, and Wild Bill Hickock. The character of Wild Bill returned to Melody Ranch from 2004 to 2006 when HBO’s highly-acclaimed Western series Deadwood made its home here.

On Saturday, Kimi and I were able to peek behind the scenes of the movie lot with about a dozen members of a film history class I teach in Newhall. The tour was conducted by Sue and Renaud Veluzat (two of the nicest people in the valley), who along with Renaud’s brother Andre, have owned Melody Ranch since 1990. Gene Autry, the previous owner, bought the ranch in 1952, but had used it primarily as a retirement home for his horse Champion after a devastating brush fire turned the lot to ash in 1962. After Champion died, Autry sold the 21-acre ranch to the Veluzat brothers who painstakingly rebuilt the lot’s former Western Town.

A "captive" audience. My film class in the Melody Ranch jail.

The members of our group were the only people on the lot that morning, and I quickly found myself imagining that I was strolling through an Old West ghost town that had been hermetically-sealed in time. The Veluzat’s conducted thousands of hours of research on the Old West, and constructed their town to look authentic, meaning shoddy in many cases, because that is how a hastily-constructed boomtown like Deadwood in the Dakota Territory really looked.

A highlight of the tour was the visit to the Ranch’s museum. It is one of the great hidden jewels of Los Angeles County, housing dozens of vintage movie props and automobiles from the Veluzat family’s own collection of memorabilia.

If you are into movies and the Old West, or better yet, movies about the Old West, do yourself a favor and visit Melody Ranch. It is open to the public on one weekend a year during Santa Clarita’s Cowboy Festival in April. Special tours can also be arranged through the ranch’s website.