OUR COWBOY LEGACY
MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS
(WEll, AT LEAST UNTIL I GREW UP!)
That grim-eyed guy with the sixgun is RED RYDER in the person
of actor "Wild" Bill Elliott. Looking over his shoulder is "Little Beaver,"
who grew up to be Robert "Baretta" Blake, recently found not guilty
of the murder of his wife after a notorious criminal trial.
Red Ryder & Little Beaver:
Ah, those were the days!
By CHUCK McFADDEN
You remember the Lone Ranger, of course, and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Maybe even Hopalong Cassidy. But how about Lash LaRue, Tom Mix, and Red Ryder? Or Whip Wilson or Sunset Carson? The Durango Kid?
For thousands and thousands of pre-Boomer American men, and quite a few women, thinking about their cowboy heroes of the 40s and early 50s is a memory exercise as well as excursion into nostalgia.
My Columnists colleague Len Klempnauer remembers Sunset Carson, for Gods sake. I sure dont.
The lore of the West was all over the media when people now in their 70s or late 60s were adolescents. There were no plasma or LCD television sets then, or iPods, or DVDs, but there were still lots of ways in which we youngsters could connect with our Western Heroes. If the character was successful enough, you could listen to their half-hour adventures each week on the radio, you could read their comic strips in the newspaper, buy their comic books, or Big Little Books (remember those?) or you could go to the Saturday matinees where you could see a continuing serial, or maybe a regular-length B feature, usually from Republic Pictures. Some of them even made it to television.
My particular hero--dont ask me why--was Red Ryder. Almost forgotten now, he was a big deal 60 years ago. Ol Red did it all. He started out as a newspaper comic in 1938, made it to his own comic book in 1939, and then a Republic 12-part serial in 1940. Republic also made 23 feature-length Red Ryder films between 1944 and 1947. In most of them, Red Ryder's sidekick was a little Indian boy, a sort of pint-sized Tonto. He was played by--wait for it--Bobby Blake, who grew up to Robert "Baretta" Blake. Red himself was played by Wild Bill Elliott and then Allan Lane
The radio show began in 1942. In the late 40s and very early 50s, I heard Red's 30-minute program at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, if memory serves, and the sponsor was Langendorf bread. The Lone Ranger was on Wednesday nights and was sponsored by Kilpatricks bread. Hows that for head-to-head?
At the time I heard it, nearly 60 years ago, Red Ryder was on the Don Lee network, heard by West Coast, not national, audiences. I caught it on San Francisco station KFRC. A radio actor by the emphatically un-western name of Brooke Temple played Red.
And the titles of some Red Ryder radio shows were a hoot. How about Scorpion Gulch or Tarantula Springs?
Red had THREE radio sidekicks instead of the usual one. (Take that, Lone Ranger.) There was Little Beaver (for the gutter-minded among you, Little Beaver was always a young Navaho boy.) His mantra was You betchum, Red Ryder! Radio sidekick number two was an old fellow named Buckskin Blodgett, who didnt really help Red all that much, but added a distinctive voice to the radio series. The third member of the sidekick troika was Rawhide Rollins. He wasnt as prominent as the first two, or at least thats how I remember it.
The requisite ranch was looked after by Reds aunt, known as The Duchess, and I believe it was located somewhere in Colorado, although one of the radio episodes was titled Cowtown of Los Alamos. You sure dont think of cows when you think of Los Alamos these days.
The horse. Oh, yes the horse. Name of Thunder.
In contrast to the Lone Ranger, who first came to life on the radio, ol Red began life in 1938 as a newspaper comic feature, and then blossomed out to radio, comic books and then television. He didnt do so well on TV. There were only 39 episodes in the early 50s.
Ill bet the way Red Ryder is chiefly remembered today is through the Red Ryder Daisy air rifle. It shot BBs and was modeled after a carbine.
Although I did manage to hear the Lone Ranger and Red Ryder shows, my radio listening was severely curtailed. My father did not allow mystery series such as The Phantom or Inner Sanctum. The Cisco Kid, "O'Henry's Robin Hood of the Old West!--was out because the hero was a Mexican. I do remember a snatch of the intro to that program though: This way, Pancho, vamonos! (Im not sure thats the correct spelling of the Mexican verb for Lets Go! but thats how it sounded.)
There were strict rules to be observed in just about all westerns, be they movies, radio serials or Republic features:
The hero never loses a fistfight.
The heros girl friend (Reds was Beth Wilder) is virginal, helpless and never marries the hero.
When, during the course of a bad guy pursuit, the hero finds himself in a saloon, he never orders whisky; he orders sarsaparilla; (root beer to you tenderfeet;) if one of the saloons habitués scorns him for not ordering liquor, the hero smiles and ignores him; if the man persists, the hero beats him to a pulp.
The heros horse has an IQ at least 10 points above that of any member of the Bush Administration.
The hero was reluctant about it, but could always outdraw the other guy, who was always a baddie.
The hero never lacks for money, goes to the bathroom, or falls off the damn horse.
A confession: In reality, I am not nearly as qualified to discuss any of this as is my wife Barbara. She tells of going to the Saturday matinees in Californias Central Valley at age 5 or so with her grandfather, the two of them lustily singing Oh, Them Golden Slippers at the top of their lungs enroute while Grandpa stomped his foot on the floorboard.
Grandpa filled her with candy, soda, popcorn, and, when available, cherries. Barbara recalls not feeling terrific after some of these onslaughts.
Later, when she was a teenager, she insisted that her movie dates stick around long enough to watch the Western serials, which was not what a lust-addled teenage male was terribly interested in.
Some boyfriends broke up with me because of that, she recalls without a trace of regret.
They may have been dreamed up by bespectacled males in Hollywood dream factories, or by soft-bodied cartoonists and writers, but our Western heroes were tough guys who had an influence on our lives. Men were expected to handle things, preferably in half an hour, 90 minutes max. If all else failed, try violence. Women were to be treated with slightly distant courtesy. A mans best friend was his horse, or his oppressed-minority sidekick. Honesty was the best policy.
Nowadays, when a male is offended by someone, he doesnt saunter down the main street at high noon, ready to draw. He sends a stiff memo instead.
Many of us probably wish for times when things were more clear-cut and there wasnt so much of on the other hand. Alas, it seems now to be a more complicated world.
But Hoot Gibson would know what to do.
©2007 by Charles M. McFadden. The McFadden caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photo is from the collection of Ron Miller. This column first posted April 23, 2007.
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