Tuesday, February 24, 2015
LESTER CUNEO – THE FIRST ITALIAN WESTERN STAR!
The idea of an Italian western star immediately conjures up the 1960s, and the image of a handsome European, perhaps with an Americanized moniker, riding a horse through the Tabernas Desert. But the first, actually a Chicago-born actor of Italian heritage, started his screen career in 1912 in the United States. Lester Cuneo’s name is largely unknown today, because he died before the transition of films from silents to talkies, and because his films have long been unavailable. But now Grapevine Video has made two of his starring features, SILVER SPURS and BLAZING ARROWS, both from 1922, available. His work is overdue for reappraisal.
Born in 1888, the tall and handsome Cuneo, with dark eyes and a Roman nose, was a stage actor from his teens, and entered movies at the age of 24. He was lucky to be in Chicago, headquarters of film pioneer Col. William Selig, and went to work at Selig-Polyscope Studios. For more information on Cuneo and Selig, I turned to Andy Erish, author of the definitive biography of the man, and history of the studio, SELIG – THE MAN WHO INVENTED HOLLYWOOD.
He told me, “(Cuneo) only made a couple of films at Selig's Chicago studio hub before traveling to Colorado to join the company's Western unit. Ironically, one of the films made in Chicago was a comedy/drama about Italian immigrants in the US called ACCORDING TO LAW, but Cuneo played an immigration cop - not one of the immigrants! Anyway, Cuneo appears to have been assigned to the Colorado unit as a replacement for Tom Mix, who decided not to renew his contract early in 1912 in order to help organize and participate in the first Calgary Stampede. Cuneo played the same sorts of roles Mix had opposite William Duncan - occasionally as the hero, but more often as the villain. When the director of Selig's Colorado troupe, Otis B. Thayer, left after a few months, Duncan took over. Cuneo still alternated playing villain and hero with Duncan.
“Mix rejoined the Selig western unit at Canon City, Colorado around Thanksgiving 1912 after sustaining some serious injuries in the Stampede and the rodeo circuit. Now Mix was often cast in the roles that had been played by Cuneo or Duncan, though all three at various times continued to play hero, villain or henchman. The troupe moved to Prescott, Arizona at the beginning of 1913 where they remained for a year and a half. Duncan directed all of the films and wrote most of them, too, until Mix began writing scripts around September 1913 that more fully integrated his cowboy skills and athletic prowess into his characters and plots. Mix had written a handful of scripts since first joining the company in 1910, and suggested bits of business (physical action) to liven up others' scripts (including those written by Duncan). But the movies written by Mix that were made in Prescott in the fall of 1913 completely transformed the movie cowboy into an action hero whose exploits were an outgrowth of rodeo stunts. Mix had already developed an international following in 1910-11, but the content and success of the films he wrote in Prescott put him in a class by himself.
“Cuneo became the odd man out, serving as sidekick or henchman to Mix's heroes or villains. At the end of 1913 Duncan was reassigned to focus his energies solely on directing Mix - no more acting. Mix had brought a couple of old rodeo and ranch pals into the Prescott unit, notably Sid Jordan, further displacing Cuneo. By the time Selig moved the Western Unit to Glendale, California in mid-1914, Mix had already taken over as director, writer, producer, star, (with) Duncan leaving for Vitagraph. Cuneo seems to have remained behind in Prescott, where he starred in a handful of Selig Western shorts directed by Marshall Farnum (brother of better known actors William and Dustin). Sometime during the summer of 1914 Cuneo left Selig for Essanay, and appears to have relocated to their Chicago studio.”
Lester Cuneo established himself as a star in Westerns, and unlike many of his contemporaries, starred in films of many other genres. A more versatile actor than most, he was screen-tested by Ernst Lubitsch for the title role of FAUST in 1923 (sadly, the film was never made). In 1920 he married beautiful co-star Francelia Billington, and they would produce fourteen movies – and two children – together. Already a notable actress in her own right, the previous year she had what would be her most important film role, as the married woman pursued by Austrian officer Erich Von Stroheim in BLIND HUSBANDS.
SILVER SPURS, co-directed by Henry McCarty and James Leo Meehan – both first-time directors! – opens in contemporary (for 1922) Manhattan, as the very cosmopolitan Lester, a western novelist, is at his gentlemen’s club, kidded by his friends for wanting to escape to the simpler life of the imagined west. They surprise him with a good-luck gift of a pair of silver spurs, and he is on his way.
In the California town of San Vincente he befriends the local padre (Phil Gastrock), and soon becomes embroiled in helping lovely Rosario del Camarillo (Lillian Ward), by inheritance the queen of the rancho, who has been swindled out of her property and position by Juan Von Rolf (Bert Sprotte). Von Rolf is such a swine that although married, he treats his wife like dirt, and flaunts his relationship with cantina-girl Carmencita (Zalla Zarana), who makes a play for Lester, in part to make Von Rolf jealous.
In BLAZING ARROWS, again directed by McCarty, an Indian couple, Gray Eagle (Clark Comstock) and Mocking Bird (Laura Howard) discover a white couple, dead by their wagon, and a helpless baby. The childless couple raises the baby – calling him Sky Fire – as their own. Abruptly the babe has grown into college student John Strong (Lester Cuneo). He is on the verge of proposing to wealthy co-ed Martha Randolph (Francelia Billington), but in a nod to Conan Doyle, she is an orphan being raised by guardian Lafe McKee. Lafe has mismanaged her money, is in hock up to his ears to villainous Lew Meehan (who also co-wrote the script), and will do whatever it takes to keep her from marrying, and gaining control of her fortune.
John Strong is about to reveal to Martha that he is an Indian (he doesn’t know he was adopted) when Lafe announces it, and forbids the marriage. Crushed, John drops out of college, goes home to his Indian family. Distraught, Martha is sent away to the country to ‘get over’ John. And wouldn’t you know it – they end up in the same place where, as luck would have it, Lew Meehan is known and reviled as a crooked exploiter of Indians. Contrived as it may sound, the film is very entertaining.
Although not in the Tom Mix league, Cuneo was a talented horseman, and in both films acquits himself well in the saddle. Both films have plenty of plot-motivated riding and shooting and fighting, and effective villains. Unusually, the SILVER SPURS villain, Juan Von Rolf, is described as a German and Mexican ‘half-breed,’ perhaps carrying some lingering hostility after the recent Great War. Ethnicities, and the views of the period, are important in both stories. In BLAZING ARROWS it is a given that Martha could not marry an Indian. However, in a switch on the old Cavalry pictures, it is the Indians to the rescue when the good guys are hopelessly outnumbered. In SILVER SPURS, Cuneo sees Rosario’s devoted Indian servant, Tehana carrying her mistresses’ laundry, and in a courtly manner carries the load for her – but he doesn’t let her ride! She still walks while he stays on his horse!
Another interesting aspect of Westerns of the early 20th century is that they didn’t think of the ‘old west days’ as over, and happily mix debonair Manhattan parties with Indians in tepees and every westerner on horseback.
Tragically, three years later, the very talented and promising actor would be dead, and by his own hand. He had fallen out of favor as a leading man, and had begun taking supporting roles in poor films. He had begun to drink to excess. Francelia filed for divorce; the decree came in November of 1925. Reportedly, he told his children, “Daddy’s going away,” took a pistol from a closet, locked himself in the bedroom, and killed himself. He was 37. After his death, his widow, who had appeared in 140 films, would make only one more without Lester, before the coming of sound, and four years later would make her one ‘talkie’ movie, a supporting role in a Hoot Gibson western, before succumbing to tuberculosis, and dying at age 39.
But SILVER SPURS and BLAZING ARROWS preserve that moment when Fracelia were young, active, attractive, and full of hope. Each film is available for $16.95 from Grapevine Video HERE . BLAZING ARROWS also includes UNCOVERED WAGONS (1923), a one-reel comedy starring Charlie Chase’s kid brother James Parrott. It features pioneers in Calistoga Model-Ts, and Indians on bicycles, and is an irreverent hoot!
In researching this piece, I came upon an article from the November 1920 issue of Screenland magazine, with Lester Cuneo telling about an adventure in the Mexican desert. The text is below.
There are so many interesting events on the near horizon that it’s time to start marking up your datebook, and making reservations! I’ll have more details on some of these as the dates get closer.
THE PAPERBACK COLLECTOR SHOW – SUNDAY, MARCH 22ND
For decades fans of soft-back books have met annually to buy and sell, and for the second year in a row this event is being held at the Glendale Civic Auditorium, with a paltry admission price of five bucks. More than 80 dealers will be showing their wares. This is a not-to-be-missed event in my book – sorry – and I’ve always had great success filling in missing gaps in my Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Luke Short, and other series here. You can buy very high end, or be a cheapie like me, and buy what are sneeringly called “reader copies”. In addition to regular paperbacks, there are many pulp magazines of all genres.
Earl Hamner signing books last year
Best of all, over 45 artists and authors will be attending and signing their books for free! Sadly, there are rarely Western authors there, but among writers of particular interest are TWILIGHT ZONE writer George Clayton Jackson, TZ writer and THE WALTONS creator Earl Hamner Jr., sci-fi writers Ib Melchio, William F. Nolan, and Bob and Ray biographer David Pollack. You can learn more HERE.
THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL – MARCH 27th THROUGH MARCH 29th
History According to Hollywood is this year’s theme. Turner Classics pulls out all the stops for this annual Hollywood event, which will feature way-more-screenings-than-you-can-see at Grauman’s Chinese with their new IMAX screen, the Chinese Multiplex, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, The Ricardo Montalban Theatre, and poolside at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The Red Carpet opening will feature a restored SOUND OF MUSIC with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and other stars in attendance. The current schedule, still in flux, lists 27 movies. Of particular interest to Round-up readers are the musical CALAMITY JANE (1953), starring Doris Day as Jane, and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok; and the world premiere of the restoration of THE PROUD REBEL (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Alan Ladd, Olivia De Havilland, and David Ladd – and David Ladd will attend!
Among other guests attending will be Ann-Margaret, Dustin Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, William Daniels, Sophia Loren, Spike Lee, Norman Lloyd, astronaut James Lovell, and stunt-man Terry Leonard. You can learn more, and buy passes, HERE.
MONSTERPALOOZA MARCH 27th – MARCH 29th
The Burbank Marriott Hotel and Convention Center will play host to as creepy a bunch of people and near-people as you have ever seen, at this annual event that attracts horror-movie fans from around the world for screenings, panel discussions, and a tremendous dealers’ room. Guests of particular interest to western fans will be Michael Biehn and Julie Adams. Also attending will be NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD director George Romero, Sonny Chiba, Linda Blair, Yaphet Kotto, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Sybil Danning, Richard Anderson and Gary Conway. You can learn more HERE.
MYSTERY AUTHORS’ LUNCHEON – MARCH 29TH
At the Sheraton Park Hotel in Anaheim, Behind The Badge is the name of the event which will feature a talk by LONGMIRE author Craig Johnson, as well as writers Allison Brennan and Robin Burcell. You can learn more HERE.
THE SANTA CLARITA COWBOY FESTIVAL – APRIL 18TH – APRIL 19TH
For the 22nd year, fans of cowboy poetry, cowboy music, cowboy literature, cowboy movies, and art, and clothes, and food, and cowboy everything imaginable will converge on Santa Clarita, an early home to western moviemaking. For several years now the joyous gathering has been at Gene Autry’s old Melody Ranch, but that venerable movie studio, now run by the Veluzat family, has become so busy with the upswing of western movie and TV production that the celebration will take place in the heart of Santa Clarita proper.
The action and entertainment will be at several easy-to-walk venues clustered around Main Street, including The Vu Theatre, The Repertory East Playhouse, The Canyon Theatre Guild, The OutWest Boutique and Bookstore, and there will be three stages and many other exciting escapades featured at William S. Hart Park, once home to one of the greatest of cowboy stars.
In addition to covering the event for the Round-up, I will be for the second year be taking part in events at OutWest, moderating panel discussions and doing one-on-one interviews with writers. There’s no schedule yet, but among the poets, authors, artists and songwriters taking part will be John Bergstrom, Almeda Bradshaw Al P. Bringas, Margaret Brownley, Karla Buhlman, Jim Christina, Peter Conway, Mikki Daniel, Eric H. Heisner, Dale Jackson, Jim Jones, C. Courtney Joyner, Andria Kidd, Stephen Lodge, Petrine Day Mitchum. Audrey Pavia, Karen Rosa, Katie Ryan, J.R.Sanders , Tony Sanders, Peter Sherayko, Janet Squires, Miles Swarthout, and Cowgirl Hall of Fame, stuntwoman Shirley Lucas Jauregui.
Next week I’ll have a run-down of the musical performers. To learn more, and to buy tickets, go .HERE
THAT’S A WRAP!
If you haven’t yet read Andy Erish’s book, COL. SELIG – THE MAN WHO INVENTED HOLLYWOOD, there is likely to be a gaping hole in your movie-history education: there certainly was in mine. The other great movie moguls who outlived him rewrote Hollywood history, and the poor Colonel got largely deleted, but his contribution to cinema is remarkable, and should be known to all who care about our art-form. You can learn more, and buy it,.HERE
All Original Contents Copyright February 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved
Monday, February 16, 2015
Fabio Testi and wife Antonella Liguori
The Tenth Annual Los Angeles, Italia Film, Fashion and Art Fest opened on Sunday at the Hollywood & Highland complex, at the Chinese Theatre multiplex. The second movie shown, at three p.m. that afternoon, was the only actual Western of the week-long event, and a rarely seen one: TWO BROTHERS IN TRINITY, shown to honor its star and co-director (with Renzo Genta), Richard Harrison. Richard Harrison is a unique honoree at the Fest, for he is neither Italian by birth nor parentage. But he was a very popular American star of Italian movies.
Handsome and muscular, he played small supporting roles in U.S. films, usually characters in uniform, until moving to Italy in the early 1960s, where he became a star in sword & sandal films, ala Steve Reeves. He also starred in spy thrillers, crime films and Spaghetti Westerns, and later on a slew of Ninja films. TWO BROTHERS IN TRINITY is a likable Western comedy in the ‘Trinity’ oeuvre, although not an official part of the ‘Trinity’ series that starred Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer. In TWO BROTHERS, two half-brothers from the same mother, Richard Harrison and French-born Donald O’Brien, each inherit half of their mother’s gold-rich property, near the town of Trinity. Very different in outlook, cad Harrison wants to build a brothel, while his Mormon Minister brother wants to build a church, and they have to fight prospectors, outlaws and each other to get their hands on the gold. It’s fast, physical and fun, with a good balance of Western and comedy elements.
Before TWO BROTHERS IN TRINITY screened, an official from the fest apologized for the quality of the copy, explaining that it was the only one available, and was in fact Mr. Harrison’s personal copy. The color was so washed out as to be in black and white, and the image was grainy and not sharply focused, although happily, as you got involved in the story, you forgot the film’s technical flaws. But it served to reinforce the importance of film preservation. When a film like this has been seen around the world and released on video, it’s easy to assume it is ‘safe’ by the sheer number of copies out there; but those copies degrade, too.
At 6 o’clock the Fest red carpet began, and to my delight, the very first man to walk its length was Fabio Testi, star of the astonishing Western FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE, and several others, THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS, and who recently co-starred with Franco Nero in LETTERS FROM JULIETTE. I asked him, “When are you going to do FIVE OF THE APOCALYPSE?”
FABIO TESTI: (laughs) You mean FOUR.
HENRY: You’ve done FOUR so far; when are you doing FIVE?
FABIO TESTI: (laughs) I don’t know. We did four (westerns), and I hope (to do more), but I think the Western movie, more or less, is finished now. Or maybe we can make the new one.
HENRY: We need you to bring it back.
FABIO TESTI: I’m ready. We need money and a director – that’s all!
HENRY: I’ll bring ‘em!
FABIO TESTI: Thank you, thank you!
Moments later, along came Hayley Westenra, a singer from New Zealand, who told me about collaborating on an album with the legendary composer Ennio Morricone.
HAYLEY WESTENRA: An incredible experience as you can imagine, very surreal. I made an album with him, in Rome, a few years back. So we spent the summer there, working with his orchestra, his team of people. And I wrote some lyrics for this album as well, for some of his pieces.
HENRY: In English?
HAYLEY WESTENRA: In English. Gabriel’s Oboe, and some lyrics from a piece from MALENA, one of his films, and La Calipha. It was an incredible experience.
Below is a short video on the making of that album, Paradiso, and a cut from it, I don’t own anything, from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
Then along came John Landis.
HENRY: When are you going to do a Western follow-up to THE THREE AMIGOS?
JOHN LANDIS: You know what? Walter Hill once said to me, and it’s true, “If they knew how much fun it was to make a Western, they wouldn’t let us.” It’s the most fun. I worked in a lot of Spaghetti Westerns. But making THREE AMIGOS was such fun – I mean it was a comedy, but it was a Western. Riding around on horses, it’s the most fun. I love the genre. It’s hard to get a Western made these days.
HENRY: But they are happening, the last few years.
JOHN LANDIS: I hope so, I would love to – I love Westerns.
Next I talked to Graham Moore, who has an excellent chance of winning the Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation for THE IMITATION GAME.
HENRY: How difficult is it to take a story where so much of the action is so cerebral, and try to make it understandable and exciting to watch?
GRAHAM MOORE: That was one of the great challenges of making this film, was trying to recreate Alan Turing’s subjective experience of the war, and of breaking Enigma, on screen. My approach, and all of our approach on the film, was to tell Alan’s story, and to, in each moment, imagine what did this feel like for Alan. So we wanted the code-breaking section, for example, to feel like a thriller, because Alan Turing experienced it as a thriller. You imagine he’s this 27-year-old mathematician, he’s never been outside of a university in his life, and now he’s working alongside the head of MI-6 on extremely high-level espionage work. He’s literally living inside of a James Bond novel. And we wanted to create that feeling on-screen because that was his experience of it.
HENRY: Is this a period, historically, that you were interested in before this project came along?
GRAHAM MOORE: You know, I had been interested in Alan Turing for a long time. I was lucky enough to have been exposed to Alan Turning’s story as a teenager. Growing up I went to Space Camp, and computer programming camp; I was a hugely techy kid, and among awkward techy kids like myself, without a lot of friends, Alan Turing was a source of tremendous inspiration, a great hero. And it always amazed me after I did not become a computer programmer, but became a writer, that no one had a made a film about him. I felt like if anyone’s life story deserved to be told on screen, it was Alan Turing’s.
HENRY: Is this a story that you wrote and brought to people?
GRAHAM MOORE: That’s right: I wrote it on spec. I met our producers, Nora Grossman and Ido Ostorowsky, and they had never produced a film before, and I had never written a movie that had been produced before. So we all jumped together, and spent a year just working on the script on our own, without any money, any corporate anything behind us, because we thought it was such an important story, such a beautiful story that we wanted to be involved in telling.
HENRY: What’s your next project?
GRAHAM MOORE: I’m finishing my second novel. It’s nice to go back to some quiet time in bookland.
HENRY: Do you plan to alternate screenplays and novels?
GRAHAM MOORE: Yuh, my first novel came out four years ago. I had this grand plan that I was going to take six months off, write this Alan Turing script, and then go right back into the second book. (laughs) That was five years ago; for lots of happy reasons it’s taken longer then I might have imagined, but so now I’m very happy to go back to the book, and I might go do a movie after that.
Next up was Rory Kennedy, a documentary filmmaker who is, indeed, one of those Kennedys. Her documentary, ETHEL, was nominated for an EMMY, and her new film, LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, is nominated for an Oscar. I asked her why she chose to make a film about the mass evacuation from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
l to r, Pascal Vicedomini, Antonio Verde,
Rory Kennedy & Fabio Testi
RORY KENNEDY: This is a documentary that I feel very passionate about. It’s a story that many people in this country think they know; it’s an important chapter in our nation’s history, but few of us actually know what really happened during those last 24 hours. I think it’s important. I think it’s relevant today because we’re struggling to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think that this film raises important questions about what happens to the people left behind, and our responsibilities to them. We didn’t do it very well in Vietnam, so I’m hoping we’ll learn a few lessons and do it better as we’re struggling with the same issues today.
When the red carpet was done, we moved into the theatre, for some entertainment, and presentation of awards. The Fest coincides with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Sinatra, and in recognition of that event, opera singer Vittorio Grigolo sang two Sinatra songs beautifully. Robert Davi, a character actor who made a name for himself as cops and crooks in films like GOONIES and DIE HARD, is also a talented singer who specializes in Sinatra music. Working with his sextet, which includes members of Frank Sinatra’s orchestra, Davi performed a terrific set with the classic arrangements.
One of the high points of the evening was Franco Nero, who was presenting an award to Jimmy Kimmel, telling the story of his meeting Frank Sinatra when he’d flown into the country to make CAMELOT.
Jimmy Kimmel flanked by Franco Nero and Kimmel's mother
The Fest continues through Saturday. On Tuesday night at 8:30, MAN, PRIDE AND VENGEANCE, starring Franco Nero, will be shown. Presented in the guise of a Spaghetti Western, it’s actually based on Carmen, the novel that is the basis of Bizet’s opera. (Courtney Joyner and I just did audio commentary for BLUE UNDERGROUND, which will be released shortly.) At 10:15 pm, TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE will play, starring Fabio Testi, who will attend. Wednesday at 3:45 pm, BLOOD BROTHERS screens, and Fabio Testi will attend. At 6 pm, MASTER STROKE, a spy thriller, will play, honoring Richard Harrison, but I don’t know if he will attend. There will be many other interesting Italian movies playing throughout the week, all of them free, on a first come, first serve basis. Here is the link for the full schedule: http://www.losangelesitalia.com/
Remember that the Oscars will be held next Sunday, at the same venue, and streets are already being blocked off, so give yourself extra time for finding your way in to parking – you can get parking validation at the Chinese box office. I would say ‘take the train,’ but check first if you do, as I’ve heard a rumor that the Hollywood and Highland station may be closed.
Franco Nero and Fabio Testi
THAT’S A WRAP!
Have a great week, folks! Happy Presidents Day
All Original Content Copyright February 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved
Monday, February 9, 2015
GENE AUTRY VOL-8 REVIEWED, PLUS ‘KNOTT’S PRESERVED’ AUTHOR INTERVIEW, PLUS ‘KISS OF DEATH’ - MY NEW INSP BLOG!
GENE AUTRY COLLECTION # 8 REVIEWED!
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:
AN INTERVIEW WITH ‘KNOTT’S PRESERVED’ CO-AUTHOR J. ERIC LYNXWILER
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.
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’.
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.
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: http://www.angelcitypress.com/products/knot
COEN BROTHERS’ ‘TRUE GRIT’ SATURDAY AT THE AUTRY!
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.
‘KISS OF DEATH’ – MY INSP VALENTINE’S DAY BLOG
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!
AND THAT’S A WRAP!
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.
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. http://www.movieandmusicnetwork.com/content/movieoftheday
All Original Contents Copyright February 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved