Monday, May 23, 2016



Anyone growing up in the 1950s or 60s remembers watching DEATH VALLEY DAYS on Sundays.  Sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax, the detergent booster that I still use in my laundry, the show actually dated back to 1930, when it began on radio, and continued until 1951.  The television version began in 1952.  The original host, Stanley Andrews, would look directly into the camera as he greeted viewers. “Howdy, I’m the Old Ranger, and Death Valley’s my stamping ground.  Many’s the tale of adventure I’m going to tell you ‘bout the Death Valley country.  True stories, mind you.  I can vouch for that.”  I don’t know how true they all were, but they were entertaining and plentiful – nearly 300 episodes in eighteen seasons.  Shout!Factory has just released all eighteen episodes of Season One in a set that is exclusively available from WalMart, and the response has been so enthusiastic that a Season Two set is said to already be on the way. 

Ruth Woodman, who created the radio series, has long been acknowledged as one of the great authorities on Death Valley history and folklore.  She wrote every episode of the first TV season – in fact she wrote every episode for the first five years.  Stuart E. MacGowan, who directed the entire first season, started out writing two-reel talkies for Mack Sennett, then scripted scores of Republic Westerns and musicals before switching to directing in 1950. 

An anthology series, there are occasional modern-day plots about prospectors, but the vast majority are set in Death Valley in the eighteen hundreds.  Some are clearly based on historical fact. The comedies are whimsical, the dramas melodramatic – few prospectors strike it rich, and many have their hearts broken.  Men lose their limbs (THE LOST PEG-LEG MINE) and women lose their minds (CYNTHY’S DREAM DRESS).  Contemporary to the rise of GUNSMOKE and the ‘adult western’, these shows were defiantly old-fashioned family entertainment, and an eighteen year run proves that they found a loyal audience. 

The early seasons were produced through Gene Autry’s FLYING A PICTURES, and several of Gene’s stars from other series turn up – ANNIE OAKLEY stars Gail Davis and Brad Johnson both appear twice, and Jock Mahoney of THE RANGE RIDER stars in a particularly interesting episode, SWAMPER IKE, playing an Indian whose love of a white girl could lead to his murder by jealous Denver Pyle.  Amusingly, the girl is played by his actual wife, Mary Field, mother of Sally Field.  Among other familiar character actors in the series are Lyle Talbot – 3 times, John Ford stock company member Wallace Ford, and Gloria Winters, SKY KING’s niece Penny.

The season closes with a daring episode, LAND OF THE FREE, in which a pair of slaves get permission from their kindly ‘massah’ to prospect in the California gold fields, to earn enough money to buy their freedom! 

A beautifully restored, historically informative, enjoyable series very much of its time, DEATH VALLEY DAYS season one can be purchased from WalMart HERE.


Byron Cherry, Kevin McNiven

I recently went to the Van Nuys Elks Lodge to attend the premiere of a Western that was only three and a half minutes long.  Entitled SCATTERED DESTINATIONS, it’s written and directed by singer/songwriter, novelist, poet and horseman Troy Andrew Smith, and it’s a proof-of-concept film for a feature.   Of course you don’t get the whole story in 3 minutes, but there was a lot of plot, several scenes, action, lots of horse-riding , and stunning cinematography.  And it was all shot in one day, for $1,500!    

Troy and wrangler/actor/singer Kevin McNiven 
entertain after the screening.

The shoot was done at Caravan West Ranch, but Troy hopes to shoot the feature in Wyoming.  After the screening, Troy gave me a run-down on the plot. “Jack is an old cowboy that’s been busted up by a big steer, and he’s searching for his runaway daughter and wife.” 

I told him I was amazed that they’d shot it all in one day.  “We actually had daylight left over.  There wasn’t a lot of time wasted.  We started filming about 8 o’clock in the morning, and finished up 6:30 that evening.  My cinematographer, Eric Scott, did an excellent job.  The whole crew and actors – everybody came to work and everybody knew their parts, the weather was perfect – it was one of those days where God was smiling on us in every direction. ”

Mike Gaglio

While this will be Troy’s first experience directing a feature, he’s no stranger to the film set.  “I’ve studied directors, sitting and watching them on the set for twenty-plus years.  The first (movie) job I had was as a stand-in for Richard Crenna in MONTANA (1990).  The cinematographer on that, Dennis Lewiston, he really liked me, and I liked working for him, and he kept me on the whole movie.  That was a good place to start, because being a stand-in, I could stand there, watching everybody else working, and see what the grips did, what the best boy did, what the prop people were doing.  Then I got some acting parts in DIGGSTOWN (1992), THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO (1993) and A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1992).  I’ve done a lot of set construction and props.  Then I got into wrangling and riding background.  I worked on all three seasons of DEADWOOD, riding horses and driving wagons.  I’ve done a lot on a movie set besides just being a pretty face.”   

Knowing they’re looking for investors, I asked what sort of budget he has in mind.  “We’re hoping to go from $400,000 to a million.  If we keep it in that million dollar budget range, it’s a lot easier to recoup your money and make some money for the investors.”  If you’re interested in being one of those investors, you can contact Troy at


The Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, held on April 23rd and 24th at William S. Hart Park, was once again a roaring success, bringing the West-loving public together with musicians, authors, performers, historic re-enactors, merchants – make that sutlers, grub vendors, and more.  I first ran into Joey Dillon who, as you can see, was spinning his sixers so fast that you could hardly see ‘em!

A champion pistol manipulator, he’s taught many of the stars to look proficient, and recently was working on full-auto guns on STARZ’s SURVIVOR’S REMORSE, and was training a large cast with a dizzying array of period weaponry on HBO’s upcoming WESTWORLD.  I asked him if the new show would much reassemble the 1973 film.  “No, they’re taking it to an exciting, huge new level.  It’s going to blow your mind, I think.”

Next up I visited the Buckaroo Book Store – where Jim and Bobbi Jean Bell had so much going on they had to hold some events at their OutWest boutique a block away.  Among the authors taking part were --

Dale Jackson and Andrea Kidd --

Eric Heisner and Al Bringas  --

Andrea Kidd, Peter Sherayko, Don Edwards,
 and my radio buddies Bobbi Jean Bell --

and Jim Christina.

Stopping by a tepee --

I spoke with Paul Kicking Bear, who was amused that I thought his displayed headdress was decorated with owl feathers.  

“They’re prairie chicken,” he told me.  “The Lakota people would never decorate with owl feathers, because they’re associated with death.”  

I looked in on the Buffalo Soldier encampment --

 -- the new-this-year cowboy encampment --

--  and caught musical performances by The Old Salt Union --

-- The Devil’s Box String Band --

--  and the Band of the California Battalion. 

Among the entertainments for the little cow-punchers were gold-panning --

 -- a mechanical bull --

-- a stagecoach-shaped bounce-house --

 -- and for kids and adults, a genuine tomahawk toss!

Sadly, I’d heard that the Visalia Cowboy Cultural Committee, who celebrated their 25th anniversary last year, and whose peach cobbler and cowboy coffee are a grand tradition at the SCCF, had gone under.  

Happily, a local Rotary Club purchased their equipment, and provided cobbler and coffee in their stead. 

A very welcome addition to the SCCF was located in the historic Pardee House.  Silent Westerns starring William S. Hart and others were running continuously, thanks to Tom Barnes, who runs the Retroformat silent screenings at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre.  

And as at the Egyptian, the films were accompanied by the keyboard virtuosity of Cliff Retalick (076).  Using Pardee House, built in 1890, as a silent theatre was wonderfully appropriate, since it was used at times as a filming location by Tom Mix, Harry Carey and John Ford!

As always, one of the high points of the Festival were the Indian dancers.

The Art Directors Guild always has an informative and entertaining presentation.  This time it featured a model posing for sketchers --

--  as well as designs from the movies – this is from one of the train sequences from the recent LONE RANGER (89).

After a little shopping --

 -- it was time to hop on your favorite form of transportation --

-- or --

-- until next year.  In the words of William S. Hart, “The thrill of it all!”


Just back from my local 7/11, where I looked at the Redbox machine in front, and was delighted to see featured on the front were THE REVENANT, JANE GOT A GUN, THE HATEFUL 8, and FORSAKEN.  When I peeked under the curtain at the rest of the films available, I spotted THE TIMBER, KILL OR BE KILLED and DIABLO.  Seven recent Westerns available from one vending machine!  Next time someone says to you, “Gee, are they still making Westerns?” send them to Redbox.  By the way, I’ve reviewed all of those films here in the Round-up except for THE TIMBER, and that’s coming very soon!


Tim Tomerson & Helen Hunt

On Saturday I went to a TRANCERS soundtrack signing and cast and crew reunion at the Creature Features bookstore in Burbank.   For the uninitiated, the TRANCER films, which started in 1984 for the tiny indie Empire Pictures, were noir-ish stories about time-travelling detective Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson), and co-starred the very young Helen Hunt.  It was particularly nice that Helen Hunt, who could easily have said, “I’m too busy polishing my Oscar to attend,” was there with Tim, co-stars Richard Herd and Andy Robinson, writers Danny Bilson and C. Courtney Joyner, and composer Richard Band.  And remember, Helen Hunt’s first film, when she was around 10, was the Western PIONEER WOMAN (1973)!

Happy Trails,

Al Original Material Copyright May 2016 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved


  1. Henry, this is a great one. Lots of good info. I clicked on the Death Valley Walmart link- the disc is only 15 bucks. Excellent! I like that show. Good stuff. Thanks Henry!

    1. Thanks MIke! It is a great sale price, and I don't know how long it'll last, so if you want it, I'd buy it now!

  2. As always - an entertaining, educational, and thought provoking read with a touch of humor, a dash of wit, and a pinch of fun! Thanks for the "shout out" of the Buckaroo Book Shop and everyone at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival- we had a blast!