MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN COWBOYS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I just finished reading the definitive biography of legendary film director, John Ford. It’s a wonderful read by Scott Eyman who specializes in biographies of Hollywood legends. “Pappy” Ford, of course, was the master of western films — from the memorable silent oaters of Harry Carey to the resilient westerns of John Wayne. Ford’s “The Searchers”, in my opinion, is the best western film ever made.

I’ve loved westerns, from my youth to my present senior citizen years. They’ve always been my escape from reality.

As a youngster in the late 40’s and early 50’s, I frequented the neighborhood movie theater. Frequented may be an understatement. For a dime’s admission, I could spend an afternoon watching B-movie westerns with the likes of Audie Murphy, Rory Calhoun, John Payne, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott among others. John Wayne’s westerns were usually “A” films, bigger budgets and more prominent cast members. I didn’t care about “A” or “B” as long as there was plenty of fighting and shooting with a minimum of mushy stuff. Good and evil was always clear in those films; nothing to muddle the brain of a young saddle pal.

I admired the outfits worn by the heroes. Roy Rogers was always resplendent in color coordinated outfits, brandishing his matching two gun rig and mounted on the beautiful golden palomino “Trigger”.

Hopalong Cassidy was a father figure dressed in black on his white stallion, “Topper.” William Boyd’s hair was prematurely white but that didn’t age him. He just seemed more mature than his sidekicks or the villains he fought. Boyd had a deep voice and wonderful laugh. He seemed tolerant of the clueless townspeople and even gave the bad guys due respect until they pushed their luck too far. I don’t remember any mushy stuff in the Hoppy movies. I think he had eyes for Topper.

There were the eclectic cowboy heroes like Lash LaRue, Whip Wilson, (Little) Bob Steele, Johnny Mack Brown, and Tex Ritter. These sagebrush heroes rode the dusty trails in grainy, frame jumping black and white films viewed on an obscure New Jersey TV station that tried our patience as we juggled the antennas on the little B&W television sets of an earlier era. We complained but never tuned out our heroes. They needed our support to banish those bad guys who were always unkempt with ill-fitting outfits and surly attitudes.

I fancied myself jumping through the TV screen, mounting my own trusty horse and galloping onward to join the good guys. I already knew what the villains were trying to do.

I was oblivious to the fact that all the western folks were White. Good guys, bad guys and the women. I didn’t know anything about Black cowboy heroes. The films of Herb Jeffries, a prominent Black cowboy star, were unknown to me. They didn’t play in our neighborhood. When Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte teamed up for “Buck and the Preacher” in the early 70’s, it was the first time we saw Black actors in primary and supporting roles. Poitier looked just fine as the wagon master hero and showed more gravitas as a gambler-bronc buster-gunslinger in “Duel At Diablo”, sharing the action with co-star, James Garner.

Westerns were just one of Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking achievements in Hollywood. I imagine he was a wonderful image for young people of color, chomping on popcorn and watching a big screen hero who seemed familiar.

I had many cowboy heroes as I grew up. John Wayne was always top dog. His screen persona was unique. The walk, the talk, the look, and his trademark big fist to the mouth of a snarky bad guy. I would learn later that Wayne’s screen traits evolved from mentors of an earlier era in the movies.

No matter. He was still “The Duke.” I, like many other young people, tried to emulate Wayne’s swagger-walk. I probably looked like all the other kids. Another funny Duke Wayne wannabee. Marilyn and I share a similar experience from our youth – watching “Shane” on the same big screen of our regional Radio City Hall magical movie theater.

Marilyn and I shared the experience of both seeing “Shane” at the Valencia Theater in Jamaica, Queens. It was an amazing theater. Aside from being bigger than an entire set of multiplex movie houses in one, it was decorated in a style that could be called “Hollywood Moorish Medieval Modern.” It was huge and could seat more than 3,000 people.

The Valencia Theater in Jamaica, Queens
Valencia Theater – James Karla Murray – Untappedcities.com

The Valencia Theater had a huge ceiling with more stars than MGM. It was truly a viewing experience that was so much more exciting than watching TV at home. I was enthralled, watching Alan Ladd’s “Shane” bring peace to the valley. It’s still one of my favorites and ranks as one of Hollywood’s best westerns, courtesy of director George Stevens.

It was also Alan Ladd’s finest moment. Shane’s slow ride out of town — with all the villains and their guns silenced — and the little boy imploring him to stay — is really the stuff of movie greatness. Clint Eastwood, in later years, would pay homage to “Shane” with his “Pale Rider” hero. There was more overt violence in “Pale Rider” than “Shane” but that was a sign of the times and changing movie values. Eastwood is our present cowboy hero but he is clearly at an age when it’s almost time for him to ride the high country.

One of the highlights of my professional life was meeting and interviewing John Wayne. It was 1974. Wayne was in Boston to attend a Harvard University award ceremony. Boston and Cambridge were not exactly John Ford country for the Duke.

The country was torn apart by Vietnam. Protestors lined the route from Boston to Cambridge and Harvard. Duke Wayne stood tall in a “half track” military vehicle, in a steady snowfall. He was periodically pelted with snowballs and jeers from the crowd, protesting Wayne’s Hawkish pro-Vietnam views.

Somehow, with the help of friends, Wayne left his moving vehicle and met me in an empty theater where we shot the interview with my favorite cowboy star. I had the thrill of crossing the stage, shaking hands with Duke Wayne and going right into the interview which left me smiling in its aftermath.

I spent the rest of the day and evening telling everyone over and over, “Do you know who shook my hand? Do you? JOHN WAYNE shook my hand”. I probably had gone around the bend when it was suggested that my work was done for the day and I should go home.

Hey, do you know who shook my hand?

In retirement, I have two perks. Baseball. Red Sox baseball. Oh, the ecstasy and agony! But there’s no agony when I settle in for an old western at day’s end.

I’m riding the range again with Duke, Roy, Gene and those 7 men with guns. McQueen, Brynner, Vaughn, Coburn, Dexter, Bronson, and Buchholz. We deal in lead, friend.

Yes, my heroes have always been cowboys. And they still are, it seems.



Categories: Anecdote, Book Review, Gallery, horses, Movie Review, Movies, Music, western movies

Tags: , , , , , ,

24 replies

  1. I think this is the best I’ve seen till now.

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  2. Wow. That is some theater. Do you remember my story about meeting John Wayne? Long before the period where suddenly politics entered the scene, he was my big hero as well. He always reminded me of my dad. Enjoyed your reminiscences.

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  3. Hi Garry, John Wayne was a bit before my time but my mom was a big fan. I remember Clint Eastwood Westerns which I loved when I was a girl. How amazing to meet your hero.

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  4. THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ALL OF THE ABOVE. I JUST HAPPENED TO THINK OF IT LAST NIGHT AND WONDERED IF I HAD ALREADY TOLD YOU OR NOT. WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, TWO OF MY FELLOW STUDENTS WERE BOB KEESHAN (CAPTAIN KANGEROO) AND BURT BACHARACH.THIS WAS AT FOREST HILLS HIGH SCHOOL IN FOREST HILLS, NEW YORK. MANY HEARS LATER, SIMON AND GARFUNKLE ALSO ATTENDED THERE.

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  5. those cowboy films of the early eras were great! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. DEAR GARRY….HERE’S A LITTLE STORY ABOUT TEX RITTER. STAN JONES (SONGWRITER..”GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY” AND A SLEW OF BACKGROUND MUSIC FOR WESTERNS, INCLUDING “THE SEARCHERS”)AND HIS WIFE WERE INVITED TO A PARTY AT TEX RITTER’S HOUSE AND TOOK ME ALONG WITH THEM. STAN INTRODUCED ME TO HIM AS PERRY CHARLES’ DAUGHTER. TEX IMMEDIATELY SAID, “ALWAYS REMEMBER YOUR HERITAGE. YOUR FATHER WAS A WONDERFUL MAN.” HE REMEMBERED HIM FROM MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN TEX WAS DOING A PLAY ON BROADWAY AND MY FATHER HAD A LATE NIGHT RADIO SHOW WHERE THE ACTORS USED TO DROP BY AFTER THEIR SHOWS TO RELAX AND CHAT. I REALLY APPRECIATED HIS REMARK. HE WAS DOWN-TO-EARTH AND FRIENDLY. I WAS NEVER FORMERLY INTRODUCED TO JOHN WAYNE, BUT WE ATTENDED SOME OF THE SAME FUNCTIONS ….FORD’S PARTY, HARRY CAREY JR.’S WEDDING, ETC. I EVEN RAN INTO HIM AT THE GROCERY STORE ONCE. HOLLYWOOD CAN BE A SMALL TOWN AT TIMES. I KNOW WHEN MARGO ALBERT AND I WENT CHRISTMAS SHOPPING IN BEVERLY HILLS, WE’D RUN INTO KATHERINE HEPBURN OR AVA GARDNER. WITH AVA, SHE SAID, “LET’S HAVE TEA,” SO WE TOOK TIME OUT AT A LITTLE RESTAURANT. SHE WORE NO MAKEUP AND WAS GORGEOUS.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia, thank you for that OUTSTANDING share. As always, I envy your childhood memories, mingling in ordinary fashion with those legends. THAT is what sets your stories apart from others. The PERSONAL touch.

      I didn’t realize Tex Ritter had done Broadway. Do you recall what show/s he did? I l love Tex’s remarks to you about your Dad and your family. I wonder how he felt about his son, John and his success?

      My awareness of Stan Jones has grown with your anecdotes. I’ve noticed he worked on LOTS of movies, different genres.

      Tea with Ava Gardner? Oh, my gosh! I did have tea that one afternoon with Katherine Hepburn and it seems like fantasy.

      Thanks, again, Patricia. I hope you are feeling well.

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      • DEAR GARRY,,,, BELIEVE THE TEX RITTER SHOW WAS “GREEN GROW THE LILACS.” THE LOVELY PART ABOUT THE PARTIES AT EDDIE AND MARGO ALBERT’S HOUSE WAS THAT THE CELEBRITIES WERE THEIR FRIENDS AND WERE THEMSELVES AND TREATED THE OTHER GUESTS AS SUCH. ONE OF MY FAVORITES WAS VINCENT PRICE, WHO WAS SUCH A DELIGHT TO TALK WITH. ONE DAY, WALKING DOWN A BEVERLY HILLS STREET, I RAN INTO HIM COMING THE OTHER WAY , AND HE IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZED ME AND GAVE ME A HUG. WE USED TO ALWAYS HAVE A GOOD CONVERSATION, JUST THE TWO OF US, WHEN HE CAME TO THE ALBERT’S HOUSE.HIS WIFE WAS TALKING TO OTHER PEOPLE, AND HE’D SNEAK A CIGARETTE WHEN SHE WSN’T AROUND AND .

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      • AT THAT TIME, JOHN WAS A TEENAGER. THEY HAD ANOTHER SON, WHO WAS HANDICAPPED, AND JOHN WAS A LOYAL AN DEVOTED BROTHER. WHILE WE ADULTS TALKED, JOHN TOOK MY DAUGHTER, CANDACE, WHO WAS ABOUT 11 OR 12 THEN, BACK TO WHERE THEY COULD VISIT HIS BROTHER. STAN AND TEX’S WIFE HAD GONE TO GRADE SCHOOL TOGETHER. IT WAS A CLOSE FAMILY.

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  7. I remember all those great westerns from the old Million Dollar Movie franchise. A lot of the movies were in terrible condition and I’m afraid many of them have vanished entirely. I was only allowed to watch TV during the day if I was home sick, so watching old cowboy movies was my comfort when I had yet another case of strep throat or tonsillitis. I couldn’t understand why they never took those tonsils out, but they don’t do that anymore. So, at least two or three times a year, I got to spend a week taking antibiotics and watching old western movies. Sometimes, you just get the good and the bad together.

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    • Marilyn, I remember watching most of those OLD westerns – during our NY youth – on Chs 9, 11 and 13. Ch 13, of course, was a challenge because of its signal but they had the BEST of the B westerns.
      I can still see the dancing film sprockets.

      Decades later, I met Larry “Buster” Crabbe in a Boston interview. I forget what Buster was selling but we had a fun conversation about his old westerns which he enjoyed more than his famous “Flash Gordon” serials. Crabbe even told me he had some new westerns coming out. They would be the A.C. Lyles “AARP” westerns that temporarily revived the screen careers of vets like Crabbe, Johnny Mack Brown, Rory Calhoun and other sagebrush stalwarts. Buster confided it was a bit more difficult now jumping into the saddle. I smiled. I didn’t get it. Now, I understand.

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  8. They were someone young people COULD admire. You knew the guy in the white hat would win in the end. The black hat guy would get his. Rules were simple and the wrong side of the law clear cut. I realize it was all fantasy, and that the reality was a lot more brutal than those wonderful films portrayed, but I will always remember and hold dear to memories of watching “Gunsmoke” every Saturday evening with my dad. James Arness (Matt Dillon) was larger than life and my brothers wanted to grow up and be just like him. There was a goodness to those screen cowboys, a sense of justice and right that is lost today (IMHO) and there’s another song called “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” which mourns the loss of the ideal. Thanks for the Willie song. I do admire some Willie ‘pickin’ and that song is one of his best ones IMHO.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Melanie, thanks for the share AND the song – which I’ll listen to shortly.

      As Duke Wayne’s character/s would probably say to you, “You’ll do, Baby Sister”.

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  9. AS YOU KNOW, I LIVED ON THE HARRY CAREY RANCH FOR TWO YEARS WHEN I WAS A CHILD. MY PARENTS AND HIS FAMILY WERE FRIENDS FOR YEARS. I RODE WITH HARRY AS CHILD ND THEN, LATER, AS AN ADULT, WHEN HE MOVED TO HIS NEW RANCH AND I WAS SPENDING A COUPLE OF WEEKS THERE AS A HOUSE GUEST. HARRY WAS A CONSTANT READER. WHEN HE WAS HOME, HE WAS ALWAYS READING ONE BOOK OR ANOTHER.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia, your stories are firmly etched in my sense memory now as I watch westerns and read the bios.
      Thanks to you, I feel as if I know these folks a little more than the average viewer.

      Thanks, again!

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  10. You didn’t wash that hand all day, right?! What a thrill, Garry. I’d have said the same thing. The Duke shook my hand….!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lois, thank you. Let’s see. 1974. I was 34 going on 12 when I met Duke Wayne. I’d already logged close to a decade as a TV news reporter – covering major stories and meeting some important people on the local, national and international stages. I had the memorable meet with LBJ in Vietnam. All very exciting stuff for me.
      Meeting Duke Wayne was special. My experience melted and I was a kid again. Fortunately, I was able to maintain my professionalism during the Wayne interview and we even shared conversation after the interview. Duke – who you know never did military time – noticed my USMC pin and shared a rueful smile. He shook MY hand. Walking away, he said, “Thanks, Marine”.

      Lois, I just stood there — the 12 year old in the 34 year old body – glazed smile on my face as my crew wrapped up the gear and prodded me to move on.

      Yes, Ethan Edwards/Hondo/Tom Doniphon, J.B. Books, Big Jim McClain, Young Sean Thornton, Big Jake McCandless, Capt. Nathan Brittles and Sgt. John Ryker — they all shook my hand.

      Did I quickly wash my hands? That’ll be the day, Pilgrim!

      Liked by 1 person

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