Monday, February 9, 2015



I’ve always loved the song Ghost Riders in the Sky, as well as the movie-within-a-movieof Gene Autry singing it, so I was very excited to receive GENE AUTRY COLLECTION #8, which features the movie RIDERS IN THE SKY (1947), plus TRAIL TO SAN ANTONE (1947), RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING PINES (1949), and SAGINAW TRAIL (1953). 

A mix of Republic and Columbia titles, the first three are directed by Republic action specialist John English.  TRAIL TO SAN ANTONE is a modern-day western utilizing Gene’s career as a flier.  He’s out to help crippled and discouraged jockey Johnny Duncan (Robin in Columbia’s 1949 BATMAN serial) get the confidence to get back in the saddle.  He’s helped by lovely horse-breeder and pilot Peggy Stewart, Republic’s serial queen.  The comedy is provided by Sterling Holloway, and the film makes wonderful use of the Lone Pine, Alabama Hills locations, from the land and the air.  More dark in tone, RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING PINES finds Gene framed for an accidental killing – it’s actually murder, done to keep a lumber infestation under wraps.  It features one of the great Hollywood villains, Douglas Dumbrille, and keep your eyes open for Clayton Moore as ‘Henchman Pete’, the same year he would don his mask and gain fame as The Long Ranger.  RIDERS IN THE SKY weaves a myth about those saddled spirits, and skillfully mixes noir and supernatural elements into the western form.  Pat Buttram is along, plus Gloria Henry, Robert Livingston, gangster specialist Ben Weldon, a very young Alan Hale Jr.  Most notable is Tom London, in perhaps his finest role (out of 600+) as an intimidated crime witness who sees the Riders in the Sky.  Finally, SAGINAW TRAIL reunites Gene with his original sidekick, Smiley Burnette, and tells an earlier story than most, set among Indians and fur-traders in 1827.  Gene was concurrently starring in his TV series, and this would be his second to last feature, and includes his only sword fight!

As with all the previous volumes, this delightful addition joins each feature with Gene and Pat Buttram’s introduction from The Nashville Network’s Melody Ranch Theater, an episode of the Melody Ranch Radio Show, photos & posters, and notes by film historian Alex Gordon.  You can order GENE AUTRY COLLECTION 8 from Shout! Factory HERE.

And here’s that wonderful ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ number I told you about: 


Last week I reviewed the excellent KNOTT’S PRESERVED, Christopher Merritt’s and J. Eric Lynxwiler’s fascinating history of Knott’s Berry Farm.  If you missed that review, HERE is the link. 
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lynxwiler, over the phone, while he was at Knott’s, so although I couldn't put it on the page, I could hear the train whistle in the background from time to time to set the mood. 

HENRY: KNOTT’S PRESERVED is a remarkably detailed history of Walter Knott and his farm and fruit stand that gradually became a world-class theme park.  Obviously a tremendous amount of time and work and research went into the book.  What made you want to write it?  And how long did it take?

ERIC: I have to give a lot of credit to my co-author, Chris Merritt – it was his passion that began it, and that goes back to his time as an Imagineer for Disney.  He had the opportunity to go to Knott’s Berry Farm and dig through their archives, with a computer and a scanner.  He wound up scanning a lot of their historic documents, historic photographs, blue-prints and water-colors for attractions and Ghost Town, going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Because of that beginning, he started interviewing some of Knott’s Berry Farm’s old-timers, and Walter and Cordelia Knott’s children, with the hope of actually putting together a book sometime in the future. With that as a basis, he started putting the book together, and I was on the sidelines for many years, pushing him and encouraging him.  The big reason that I got involved is because Chris was called away to work at Universal Studios Singapore.  So he moved his family across the Pacific Ocean, and my publisher called me in to help with rewrites and editing while Chris was away.  It took Chris maybe nineteen to twenty years from start to finish, and I was only involved in the last two or three.

HENRY:  It’s fascinating, the connections, the idea that someone working for Disney Imagineering, going to Knott’s, who was a competitor, and then working for Universal.    

ERIC:  In the 1950s, Knott’s and Disney were great neighbors.  But as the companies lost their patriarchs, it became more corporate and more divided.  And there was a wall between the two companies, Disney and Knott’s.  I think that there’s a lot of borrowing going on, across the entire global theme park industry.  I’ve said it before: Knott’s Berry Farm was a great basis for Disneyland; Disneyland’s learned a lot from Knott’s Berry Farm.  Knott’s has been around for 95 years, and of course, Disney and other companies would just borrow from what Knott’s has learned and tried out.  But that’s a whole different topic.

Sailors & friend visiting Knott's in 1953

HENRY:  You said that your co-writer, Mr. Merritt, had been going through the archives of Knott’s Berry Farm.  Is that currently housed at Knott’s, or someplace else, where it can be accessed?

ERIC:  I wish it were true.  The archive that Chris accessed so long ago was thrown away.  Knott’s Berry Farm’s new corporate owners didn’t know what they had, and they trashed it.  Some of it did go to the Orange County Archives, and a chunk of it does remain at Knott’s Berry Farm, they do have some files of historic resources.

HENRY:  So some of what is in the book only exists there?

ERIC:   What Chris recorded, may be the only image of that item in existence.  They may have been completely destroyed.

HENRY:  I’d hate to tell you how many times I’ve heard the same story at movie studios, where all that remains is what people salvaged from dumpsters.  People use ‘amusement park’ and ‘theme park’ as interchangeable terms, but Knott’s is truly a park with a theme.  What is that theme, and how did it start?

ERIC:  Knott’s Berry Farm claims to be America’s first theme park.  That initial theme was something of the Wild West.  It was Walter Knott’s mother, who came across the western mountains in a covered wagon.  What she went through was never forgotten by him, and he cherished and celebrated America’s western history: the fun of it, the highs of it, the lows of it, and the disappearance of it as we entered the 20th Century. 

HENRY: Am I correct in saying that Knott’s Berry Farm, as an amusement park/theme park, grew out of a way to keep people in line to eat Cordelia’s fried chicken dinner?

ERIC:  That’s absolutely true.  We wouldn’t have Knott’s Berry Farm if it weren’t for Cordelia’s chicken dinner.  Walter Knott brought the boysenberry to the table.  People came here to buy berries, but they stuck around for the chicken dinner.  There were crowds waiting hours and hours and hours for a chicken dinner; and you can only entertain them with berry fields for so long.  He had to find ways to entertain these people, and keep them from wandering through his farm.  So he basically said, if it amuses me, I’m going to do it, because maybe it will amuse someone else.  He wound up building things like a replica of George Washington’s fireplace.  His son Russell had a collection of phosphorescent rocks that glowed under black-light, and he put them on display.  As the story goes, he went out to the Mojave Desert, where he found the last active volcano in California.  And he picked up that volcano, and moved it to Knott’s Berry Farm, where it remained active.  He found western bits of ephemera like wagon wheels and logging wheels, and he bought wagons from people and put them on display.  He had his own livery –

HENRY:  Now I have to stop you here, just a second.  I understand you can find a wagon wheel, or a wagon, and transport them anywhere you want.  But you can’t transport an active volcano, and keep it active.

ERIC: Well….Walter did.  (laughs)  I have to admit that there is a dividing line, but this is something that I find very interesting about Knott’s Berry Farm.  Walter Knott did celebrate the American West.  He did celebrate history, and truth.  But if you’re talking about cowboys and the West, there is also the tall tales and legends that go with them.  And that is something I admire about him.  Because sure, that volcano that he moved here wasn’t a real one.  But it just sort of goes along with the bizzareness of the place.  One of my favorite characters is the Catawampus, which has been a part of Knott’s since the late 1930s.  The Catawampus is basically a ‘wood-imal’, it is a wooden tree-branch creature that Walter Knott stuck some ram-horns on top of, put him in a small corral, with a sign saying, ‘As soon as this Catawampus dies the species will be extinct.’  It was just a tiny little amusement that went along with that wacky volcano, that made people smile, because people knew it was ridiculous, but it was a part of our ‘cowboy truths’.

HENRY:  Is that Catawampus still there?

last of the Catawampus

ERIC:  We no longer have the volcano, but the Catawampus is still there.  He actually has his own Facebook page.  Beyond that, Walter Knott also gave us ‘Ghost Town’.  It began in 1940, and finished in 1941 for the public.  And that Ghost Town is the same one that we have today – it’s just grown like Topsy, as Steve Knott said.  It was a very organic growth.  It started out with just one small street, Main Street.  Made up of one historic structure, and pieces of other historic structures that were assembled by Walter and his artistic designer, Paul Swartz, to resemble a small western town.

HENRY:  Then it’s not true that Walter Knott bought Calico Ghost Town and moved it to Anaheim, as I’ve always heard?

ERIC: (laughs) That’s a horrible statement, and I cringe every time I hear it!  That’s one of the biggest myths about Knott’s Berry Farm.  Walter Knott did buy Calico Ghost Town – he actually worked there years and years prior.  And eventually he became rich, and bought it, and began to restore it with his theme-park ideal in mind.  But he never moved a single structure from Calico to Knott’s.  They still have a strong tie to Knott’s, but the Knott family gave up Calico a long time ago.  Ghost Town as we know it here at Knott’s, does have a few historic structures, but all in all, it’s replica’s, with parts that got saved from barns and houses around southern California, and out in the desert.  He used windows with rippled glass inside of them, and he used square-peg nails in order to make the most authentic ghost town possible.  And because he used new framing with old wood on top, many people think it’s an authentic, historic ghost town.

HENRY: How old were you when you first visited Knott’s?

ERIC:  I’ve been coming to Knott’s Berry Farm as long as I can remember.  My family is a Southern California family.  And as I say, Disneyland belongs to tourists; Knott’s Berry Farm belongs to every Southern California family.  Some of my earliest memories are from Knott’s. 

HENRY:  What were your favorite things at Knott’s when you were a little kid?

ERIC:  I have great memories of Knott’s Beary Tales. I remember riding the stagecoach when I was little.  It was very scary for me, because it was high up, and I was afraid I’d fall off of the stagecoach – because there’s only one place to ride when you’re on a stagecoach, and that’s on top – you don’t get inside.

HENRY: I always rode inside – is that a mistake?

ERIC:  Ahh—you’ve got to get on top.  It’s a better experience on top – it’s very cramped and uncomfortable in there.  And the Corkscrew was my first roller-coaster.  They had a ‘loop-trainer’ for the kids, where you could actually get in and test out riding upside down before you got on the coaster.  As you know, I’m a huge fan of neon, and I work at the Museum of Neon Art.  And some of my first memories of neon are from Knott’s Berry Farm, from the Roaring Twenties section. 

HENRY:  Am I correct that the Roaring Twenties section, which is now gone, wasn’t part of the original Knott’s?

ERIC:  Definitely.  At first the Ghost Town and the farm were completely wide open; there was never a fence around it.  And it was free to the public; anyone could go in and enjoy Knott’s Berry Farm.  That actually became a problem in the late 1960s, when hippies were taking over.  There were a bunch of hippies that were living on the property at night, breaking into buildings and wreaking havoc.  Because of the hippies, they had to put a fence around the property and start charging admission.  All the other theme parks were already doing that, but Knott’s had always been free.  To charge admission was a big, difficult step for them to take.  They did it, charged one dollar admission, but they had to give the public something more.  They couldn’t just be a ghost town; they had to increase their entertainment offering.  They had to add a new themed land, Fiesta Village, in order to make people feel that that one dollar admission charge was worth the price.   And in the 1960s, Walter and Cordelia were handing over the running of the park to their children. 

HENRY:  I understand you worked at the Knott’s shooting gallery while you were in college.

ERIC:  Yeah, the shooting gallery was my favorite.  I did all sorts of jobs for the game department, I worked every game, but the shooting gallery was my favorite. And they put me there because I was geeky enough that I wound up maintaining the gallery while I was working.  So on downtime, when there was nobody playing, I would sweep and dust and wash the plastic flowers and change the light-bulbs, because I really did give a damn about this place.   I miss the shooting gallery – it was ripped out years ago.

HENRY:  Was this the sort of shooting gallery with .22s?     

ERIC:  No.  It was a rifle-shot, but it was not a pellet.  It was a breakthrough actually.  They claimed it was the world’s first electronic shooting gallery.  Instead of shooting projectiles, you would shoot beams of light at targets.  And when the beam of light hit a target, it would cause a reaction.  That was a big deal.  It was run by a man named Carlo Gianetti.  It was dimensional, not just a bunch of flat animals. 

HENRY:  Did you have any contact with members of the Knott family?

ERIC:   I was too shy to say hello, but I would see the Knott children walking around occasionally.  The family was involved in day-to-day operations, and they would walk the park.  They would have meetings with the departments.  I saw Knott’s as historic back when I worked there.  What I really remember about working at the farm was it was homey back them; and even today, it’s much more corporate now, but it still feels like a home to me.  I don’t know if you know this, but Walter and Cordelia Knott did live here on the property until the days that they died.    

HENRY: There’s such a clear interest in American history, and western history, at Knott’s.  Was this something Walter Knott simply saw as entertaining, or was sharing this more of a mission?

ERIC:  I think that Walter Knott’s wanted to make sure that he was preserving this piece of American history that was rapidly disappearing.  He even bought a train, a working train from Colorado, and had it shipped to Knott’s Berry Farm.  Because trains were disappearing, and he wanted to make sure that a child could ride on a train and have that experience.  He was trying to educate the American public to what the Wild West once was.

HENRY:  Walter Knott started out as a farmer and a businessman, and somehow became an artist and an entertainment entrepreneur.  What kind of man was he?

ERIC:  A very humble man.  And I could say the same thing about his wife.  They were farmers with high school education.  And they worked so hard.  There was not a morning when they didn’t wake up before dawn to plow a field and pluck a chicken.  The whole family was trained to work the same way, to work their butts off, and they achieved what he called The American Dream.

HENRY:  Where did Walter Knott gather the elements of his ghost town from?

ERIC:  When Walter Knott was building Main Street, the first street at Ghost Town, he only had one historic building, and that was the blacksmith shop.  He bought it from a neighboring farm, and moved it lock stock and barrel to Main Street; it dates to the 1800s, and it’s still functioning today.  He bought a church from the city of Downey, and that became his own subsidized church, where the Knott family went to worship on Sundays, and anyone was welcome to worship there.  He also bought a Downey Post Office, a Redcar station from the city of Stanton, a barn that Jim Jeffries used to work out of in Burbank – it was going to be demolished until he bought it.  There’s even an old school-house he bought at auction from Kansas. 

HENRY:  A couple of summers ago my wife and I visited Tombstone, Arizona, and the famous Birdcage Theatre.  When we show pictures to friends, we often throw in a picture outside of the Knott’s facade of the Birdcage, and no one ever knows the difference.

ERIC:  That crack’s me up, and it’s absolutely true.  That was something that Paul von Klieben had planned – he wanted to do a replica of the Birdcage Theatre, in order to have an indoor performing space at Knott’s.  But World War II postponed that idea for a while.  That façade is a true adobe brick façade.  But they only had enough money to do the exterior, so they just pitched a tent behind the exterior.  And at this point (the interior) is never going to happen.  That tent is now historic as it is.

HENRY:  I know that Walter Knott wanted to be true to Gold Rush history; I love the fact that he was so true to it that he included that which people entertaining families would always leave out, which is the house of ill repute.

ERIC:  (laughs) Yes, before Walter Knott ever built a schoolhouse, he built a whorehouse! And as religious and as prudish as the man was, it blows me away.  And it’s still there.  Goldie’s whorehouse is built right on Main Street.  It’s got an interior you can look in – you can view the women of the night on the first floor.  There are two women upstairs under a red light, looking for johns.  There’s even a leg hanging out one of the side windows, that will occasionally kick.  Knott’s Berry Farm must be the only theme park in the entire world that has a gun shop, a knife shop, a functioning church and a whorehouse.  I resent that people don’t take the time to learn and explore Ghost Town more.  Because it has so many beautiful details; simple and elegant surprises.  For example, there’s Sad-Eyed Joe, Orange County’s longest incarcerated criminal.  He’ still behind Main Street in his jail cell, and he talks to people.  And if you know how to work Sad-Eyed Joe properly, you can walk up to him and he’ll know your name.  There’s a person buried in Boot Hill who’s still alive under the ground.  If you stand over Hiram McTavish’s grave, and feel his heart beating, you’re going to have good luck today.  

HENRY:  Now, Sad-Eyed Joe was the work of a man who became a much-respected humorous western artist, Andy Anderson.

Artist Andy Anderson & Sad-Eyed Joe

ERIC: Andy Anderson was a caricaturist at Knott’s Berry Farm.  I believe he was one of the cowboys who entertained the crowds before there was a Ghost Town.  And he was a carver – he would sit and whittle, and sell his carvings to the visitors.  In order to populate Ghost Town, fill in the empty facades, he created all of these little vignettes, and characters within them.  So when you peeked into the assay office, you would see an assayer, and he’d be standing there with his weights, and you could hear a little mumble from a speaker – maybe he’d be talking to you. And this cartoonish, hand-carved character, if you used your imagination, would come to life before your eyes, and there’d be this character ‘living’ in Ghost Town. Right next door to the assay office is Hop Wing Lee, the Chinese laundry.  And this little Chinese guy with one hand on an iron would just stand at his ironing board and iron all day, with an animated arm.  And you could hear him singing western songs in Chinese.  Sadly, that’s gone; someone actually complained, and said it’s racist for him to sing western songs in Chinese, so they turned off the soundtrack.  There’s all these little characters and peek-ins that Andy Anderson created.  These are things that you can walk right by, and completely ignore.  And I think too many people do that today; they walk from roller-coaster to roller-coaster, and they don’t take the time to really explore these adorable, free, unpublicized details that make Knott’s Berry Farm so much fun. 

Hop Wing Lee silently ironing

I hope to be revisiting Knott’s soon, and I’ll be seeing it with new eyes.  I expect to spend a lot less time on the thrill-rides, and a lot more checking out the historic Ghost Town.  And I still expect to spend a couple of hours in line for Cordelia’s chicken.  You can order KNOTT’S PRESERVED here:


January’s ‘What is a Western?’ screening was the 1969 TRUE GRIT, and this Saturday, February 14th at 1:30 p.m. it will be the 2010 version.  I’m a big fan of both films, and even though I’ve got ‘em both on disc, I relish the chance to see this one on a bog screen, in 35mm.  Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld (who just did her second Westerns, THE HOMESMAN), Matt Damon (who previously did GERONIMO, THE GOOD OLD BOYS and ALL THE PRETTY HORSES), and Josh Brolin, who cut his teeth as Bill Hickok on THE YOUNG RIDERS, it was nominated for ten Oscars.  TRUE GRIT will be introduced with a discussion led by Jeffrey Richardson, curator of Popular Culture and of the Gamble Firearms Collection. 


The good folks at INSP asked me to write another guest blog for them, and I chose as my topic the ‘Kiss of Death’ – not the Mafia one, but the one a girl would get from a Cartwright son, guaranteeing something bad would happen to her before the end of the BONANZA episode (or THE BIG VALLEY, or THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, or THE VIRGINIAN).  And they’re running it for Valentine’s Day.  Appropriate, no?  HERE is the link.  Please leave a comment if you like it!


Laura Ingalls Wilder

There were a few big birthdays this week.  Author Laura Ingalls Wilder was born 148 years ago.   My sister read the LITTLE HOUSE books as a kid, but I wouldn’t: the Garth Williams  covers, with kids in bonnets, holding dollies, were way too girly for me.  I didn’t start reading them until I was in my thirties – then I devoured them.  I even got to like the illustration.  They’re the most beautifully written memoirs of growing up in the old west and the new frontier that I have ever read.  They’re so wonderfully detailed, capturing moments of American transition unpreserved by other writers, that you can see their influence not only in the series that bears the LITTLE HOUSE name, but in HELL ON WHEELS and elsewhere.  It’s like Jimmy Stewart said to Peter Bogdanovich, about “giving people... little, tiny pieces of time... that they never forget.”  Laura Ingalls Wilder gives you hundreds of those pieces of time in each book.  When you can, read them all.   And read them to your kids. 

Jock Mahoney

Also, this weekend marked the birthdays of two fine actors, both fine athletes, who both excelled in westerns, and in portraying Tarzan, Jock Mahoney and Buster Crabber.  As a gifted horseman and stuntman, Mahoney’s gifts were well-known.  But few remember that Crabbe was an Olympic swimmer.  In the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam he won bronze in the 1500 meter freestyle.  In Los Angeles, in the 1932 Olympics, he won gold in the 400 meter freestyle, setting a new world record.  I don’t know how much longer it’s running, but the Movie & Music Network posted a free Buster Crabbe western for at least the weekend, BILLY THE KID TRAPPED.  HERE is the link.

Buster Crabbe

Happy Trails,

All Original Contents Copyright February 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

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