Howdy! Like a sidewinder, the cowboy slithered through the tall grass, his trusty six-gun at the ready. Suddenly, a gruff voice: “Hold it right there!” The gruff guy sidled up, almost nose-to-nose. The two sodbusters lay belly-down. Impasse in the grass. The cowboy cocked his sidearm. “Click!” The gruff guy shot the cowboy—we’re talkin’ late ‘50s. The cowboy was me. The shootist was George Hurrell, still photographer par excellence. We were crawlin’ around in the backyard of his Sunset Strip studio, don’ a job o’ work for Warners publicity. Inside the studio Hurrell had carefully laid out a tabletop full of props. I went right at it, wrestlin’ with a rope, twirlin’ a rifle, tryin’ on a sombrero. I lost all self consciousness. I was a kid in a toy shop. Hurrell fiddled with his camera, keeping a sharp eye out. Now and then he’d whoop, “Do that again!” And he’d shoot it. We worked hard all day. Most fun I ever had makin’ monkey faces. Never saw Hurrell again. Saw the stills. Hurrell had excavated pretty deep, digging up some nuggets I didn’t know lay buried in Ol’ Sweet Toes. Hurrell was a master craftsman, a brilliant picture director. Best pictures I’ve ever had taken. Wonder whatever happened to them?
I thought about this when I entered the Film Society building in Fairmont, MN, one September with Betsy Palmer and Babs. It was like going through the Emerald Gates of Awes. On the entry room wall is a display of “Hurrell of Hollywood’s” art. Magical photos of stars of Filmdom’s Golden Age—Garbo, Bogie, Coop, Boyer, Dietrich, Davis, the ever popular Mae Busch, et. al. There they are, and there they shall remain, forevermore. Hurrell painted with light, capturing fantasies, dreams in still life. Eclectic is a good word to describe the Film Society’s decor. Babs calls it kitsch, but Good kitsch. Whatever, it sure is unique. Bottom line: To provide a warm, convivial setting for eating, drinking, and being merry while watching movies.
The beautifully framed movie posters of yore brought back hours and hours well spent in the dark. Classic films and some not so well known, such as “Charlie Chan in the WAC’s Barracks”, “Lassie, Get Down” (UK title: “The Big Heist”), and “Happy Hooker Goes to Boyle Heights”. What ho! There’s a mural of Betsy, her famous legs prominently displayed. And one of Elvis and me from “Clambake”. I asked the artist how long her work would stay there. “Forevermore,” said she. That’s good graffiti. “Come to the ladies room,” they said. Who was I to refuse? How odd: In there a shower stall. “Open the curtain,” they said. Arghhh! A bloody mannequin of Janet Leigh! Surprises galore.
We three were guests of honor for a week of Q and A sessions after our flicks were screened. Good grub, good grog, good groups, good gab, by gar. We were quartered in Shangri-La, a big, comfortable house with a sloping lawn down to Budd Lake, one of Minnesota’s 10,000. First day, we took a pontoon boat excursion of four lakes—9,996 to go. Psst! You can buy a beautiful lakeside home there for less than 200 G’s, but I’m not supposed to spill the beans.
Oh, yes—the main reason for our visit to Paradise was to help re-open the grand old Fairmont Opera House, which had run the gamut from high culture to low bur-le-que over the years. Now, it returned to the originally intended exalted state. Betsy and I had the honor of performing “Love Letters” in this elegantly re-furbished theatre. After the lights went out at play’s end, there was a long hush, then thunderous foot stomping, followed by heavy mitts. The lights when back on for our bows and Betsy’s talk to the audience. They were standing—SRO—Standing O-Socko. Betsy and I have pen, paper, postage—will travel—one of the best things about the world of show biz is the chance to travel America and sample some of the millions of miracles in our great land. You can’t beat it.
I cowboyed up when I was 10. My dad took me to a dude ranch in Colorado to teach me the Four R’s: Ridin’, Ropin’, Riflin’ and Retchin’ at Roundups. I cowboyed up one more time for “Sugarfoot”. Warners sent me to a tough taskmaster at Pickwick Stables, Emile Avery—started me from the ground up. He handed me a shovel. He told me ridin’ a hoss ain’t like ridin’ a bike. It’s hours in the saddle. I acquired cayuse calouses. Emile said when I rode, I brought a whole new meaning to the wide open spaces.
Bab’s uncle was a professional horseman for the Gold Coast Estates of Long Island. He showed their jumpers at Madison Square Garden. He put Babs up on her first pony when she was six. She’s been horsie crazy ever since. Her first crushes were TV cowboys, starting with Buffalo Bob Smith on “Howdy Doody”, all the way to Bob Horton on “Wagon Train”. He’s her special favorite to this day—Hmmm! Well, I taught her to play the “Sugarfoot” theme on the piano, using no more than one finger.
In 1970 Babs made her westward ho! for a two week vacation. She stayed 25 years. I took her to Pickwick Stables on our first date to show her a real live TV cowpuncher in action—Dogies! She sat her western saddle right proud. I put my foot into the stirrup, and my hoss proceeded to move counter-clockwise, Hopalong Hutch in pursuit. I told Babs she was watchin’, first hand, my world-famous merry-go-round mount.
As we rode I pointed out where Emile’s hoss and I were once movin’ along at a pretty good clip when we came to a rope in the trail. Hoss thought it was a snake. Hoss whoa’ed pronto. I kept a’goin’. Where was Dean Smith when I needed him? Half an hour passed. Time to turn back. We reached the stables in five minutes.
Nowadaze, we live in Bab’s 120 year old homestead in Glen Head, NY. Babs dudes-up strictly Santa Fe style. She’s the girl of the Golden Southwest, Long Island’s designated cowgal. Tonight, our spirits are with y’all. Tonight, y’all live in our hearts and pay no rent. See ya ‘round the campfire, compadres, and don’t forget: Never squat with your Silver Spurs on! Yee Hawww!