A Day On the Wild Bill Hickock TV Show Set
One day my mom told Dad she wanted to do something special for her two boys. She put aside her homemaker chores for the time being, hired a sitter for my brother and me, and took a part-time job as a receptionist/secretary for a local real estate broker.
She worked just long enough to save sufficient money for the purchase of an all aluminum, camping trailer -- adding another sleek, silver bedroom-on-wheels to America’s burgeoning highway system. A 12-foot one.
From that time on, the Lodge family became part of a new, loosely organized, mobile, camping fraternity. We began trailering everywhere. At the drop of a hat -- or every time a school vacation or holiday would allow -- we’d hitch up, taking off for parts unknown. We traversed the California Coast from San Diego to Crescent City; inland, from Redding to Mexicali; and the high country, from Yosemite to the San Bernardino Mountains -- Big Bear Lake, in particular. We began vacationing at Big Bear in 1950, and spent every summer there until both my brother, Bobby, and I were old enough to leave home.
After a few attempts at finding the right encampment -- there were only three available for trailers on Big Bear’s south shore back then -- we finally settled on, and in, Beckett’s Trailer Camp, located halfway between the Big Bear Lake Dam and town.
What made Beckett’s so attractive to my parents was its access to the lake and the fishing. What made it inviting to Bobby and me, was a nearby creek where we could swim, plus the park’s access to the mountains directly behind our campsite.
Bobby and I loved to hike. At home in Whittier, we hiked in the hills behind our house on a daily basis. When we stayed in Big Bear, our parents would let us hike to our hearts’ delight -- just as long as we were home in time for supper.
One day, we decided to journey as far as we could. We packed our lunch to make a full day of the adventure, then hiked over what seemed like range after range of pine covered mountains, always going higher, leaving sign for ourselves -- like the Indians and the early pioneers did in the movies -- so we could find our way back.
As we reached the summit of a steep, rocky incline, what lay before us was like a scene from a Technicolor movie. Bobby and I had come across a somewhat small but tranquil, deep blue lake that was set like a jewel in a verdant, thickly timbered, mountain basin.
At one end, by the dam, was an old-time logging mill with a water wheel; at the other, what looked to be a small, Western town.
Bobby and I ducked behind a boulder. Two trappers, in a birch bark canoe, were paddling toward our position. “I think they saw us,” said Bobby. “We’d better get out of here, fast!”
“Hold it,” I whispered, grabbing him by the arm. “Look closer. Those are mountain men outfits those guys are wearing -- trapper costumes. No one dresses like that anymore.”
I squinted. The two men began to turn the canoe. Beyond them, on the distant lakeshore, we could finally see the dazzle of reflectors, and the small figures of the movie crew.
Someone yelled an echoing “action,” and the canoeists began to paddle off in the other direction. “Bobby,” I said. “It’s a movie company. They’re shooting a movie, don’t you see?”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” he said, and then turned, running down the mountainside as fast as he could.
I took off after him, stumbling, then running some more. I don’t think we stopped to catch our breath until we reached the trailer camp.
We messed around for the next few weeks, puttering in our swimming hole, fishing with our mom. Dad had to work for a living back home, so we three, Mom, Bobby and me, could stay in the mountains during the week.
One evening, a few weeks after our lakeside adventure, Mom took us on an outing -- to the little mountain village of Big Bear Lake, where we had dinner and some ice cream after.
We had now heard that the Wild Bill Hickock TV Show was staying in town, shooting a segment or two of the popular series up at Cedar Lake. That little lake Bobby and I had discovered two weeks earlier turned out to be a church camp used quite frequently for filming Western movies. With that knowledge, Bobby and I grew more elated every time we saw a man in a cowboy hat walk by.
One sideburn wearing, Western-type, coming out of a store with his wife, was in real trouble. Bobby and I couldn’t stop ourselves. We approached him excitedly with paper and pencil, asking for his autograph.
The man was more than happy to oblige, scribbling his name -- Bill French. While we ogled, staring wide-eyed at the man’s large hat, big buckle and denim clothing, our mom got to talking with his wife. Within minutes, a lasting friendship was hatched.
It turned out that Bill French was working as a wrangler for the Wild Bill Hickock TV Show Company at night, taking care of and feeding their livestock. During the day, he worked on the show itself, as a stand-in and background extra.
Over coffee for Mom, Bill French and his wife -- and milkshakes for Bobby and me -- we got to know one another better. Later that evening, Bill asked us if we would like to visit the Wild Bill Hickock set at Cedar Lake the next weekend.
“Can we, Mom?” “Please let us.” “You’ll like it, too, Mom.” we shouted.
“But your Uncle George and Aunt Bette are driving up with your father this weekend,” she said.
“That’s okay,” said Bill French. “They can come, too.”
Saturday arrived along with my dad, my mother’s sister, and her husband. Our uncle George was probably a little bent out of shape when he found out the weekend would be a busman’s holiday. He was going to be visiting a movie set, when that’s where he spent all of his time during the working week -- as a script supervisor in the budding television industry. He jumped into the car with the rest of us anyway, as if he were about to experience something for the first time in his life. Bobby and I climbed in all smiles, because we were about to meet our television heroes, Wild Bill Hickock and Jingles Jones.
This time we didn’t go overland to Cedar Lake, we took the old two-lane blacktop. Thank God there was a sign when that winding road eventually ended. We turned off onto a dirt passage that wound around even more than before. While doing so, we passed through some of the prettiest mountain country one might ever see -- overly large pine trees with huge branches shading our way; a pleasant meadow every now and then; skittering squirrels and rabbits crossing our path; and a quick glimpse of Big Bear Lake’s sapphire blue waters every so often in the far distance below.
Cedar Lake, in the early 50s, was unparalleled. The church that owned the property kept the lake, buildings and Western false front street in excellent condition between numerous movie company visits.
In later years, the whole place began to fall apart as Hollywood made its presence felt less and less. But when we drove down that road that day, stopping for a moment so the guard could check off our names before letting us through, Cedar Lake was the most beautiful setting I had ever seen in my life. Uh, except for The Iverson Ranch and Corriganville, of course.
The Wild Bill Hickock TV Show Company had parked all its vehicles on either side of the road leading up to the Western town set where they were filming. We passed canvas-covered four-wheel drive trucks, a long stretched-out car of some kind, and a vintage honey-wagon where the actors had their dressing rooms.
My dad crept along in our old Packard Clipper while the rest of us listened for the sound of the whistle blast that would tell us to stop the car immediately and turn off the motor because they were ready to shoot a scene.
Before that happened, Dad found a parking place and managed to squeeze into it. We all climbed out just as that expected whistle blew. We stopped, all frozen, car doors in half-slam. Every human sound within a half-mile radius was put on pause. We stood there in the emptiness of the forest, caught off guard -- listening.
A voice in the distance yelled “Action.” We could hear some scuffling, some horse’s hooves, and a shot rang out, “Bam!” Finally, a voice shouted, “Cut.”
The whistle blew twice, echoing between the trees all the way to the Big Bear Lake dam, it seemed, signaling all clear. That meant the shot was over and all the human activity could resume.
As we walked toward the Western town, passing several small log cabins that I recognized from the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon TV Show, we came across a man in a T-shirt and buckskin pants as he practiced mounting a horse from the rear -- vaulting over the horse’s rump and into the saddle.
For some reason, I happened to look over, giving the man a closer look as he hit the saddle all lopsided and slid to the ground with a mild curse. Lo and behold, it was Wild Bill himself -- Guy Madison. Uncle George shook his head, put a finger to his lips. I knew that meant it was the wrong time to ask for autographs. Madison moved around to the back of the horse again, took his stance and tried once more. This time he hadn’t put enough oomph into his jump and he hit half way up the horse’s backside.
Letting out a painful howl, he slid to the ground once again. Uncle George hustled us away quickly, whispering to us that stars don’t really care to have their public see them out of character.
At the edge of the Cedar Lake Western town, we again were stopped by the sound of the whistle blowing. This time we were close enough to see the backside of the reflectors, plus quite a few crewmembers as they surrounded the well-lit set before them.
Higher than the crew’s heads -- because they were on horseback -- were two actors, wearing Smokey Bear hats, playing a scene with that more than rotund, raspy-voiced actor of innumerable Western films, Andy Devine. The buckskin and fringe covered Andy played Wild Bill’s deputy, Jingles Jones.
I sat beside my brother watching Devine and the other actors perform their scene. Finally the director yelled, “Cut.” Our parents, along with uncle George and aunt Bette appeared to be in deep conversation with a man dressed in a suit a few yards away. The chair Bobby and I had found for ourselves was broad enough for the two of us to sit in side-by-side. A typical studio folding chair, made of canvas, only this one was double wide, just the right size for my brother and me, or --
“Excuse me,” a now extremely familiar voice said from behind. “That’s my chair you’re sitting in.”
Oh my gosh, I thought -- fearing, at first, to turn around. The voice was just as squeaky as the voice we had been listening to -- a voice that could only belong to, Andy Devine.
“Uh, sorry, Jingles,” my brother was first to say.
I quickly cut in.
“We really are sorry, Mr. Devine,” I apologized, praying I could cover Bobby’s misuse of names. “ We didn’t know it was your chair, honest,” I went on.
“That’s okay,” said Andy. “You two stay put there and I’ll go get you a couple of soft drinks.
Before we could say no, he was gone. “Oh, shoot,” I said to Bobby. “We’re really in trouble now.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” he replied. “He’s bringin us something to drink, ain’t he?”
Bobby and I sat in that big chair for a long time, it seemed. From behind again, came that jarring screech. “Here ya go, young fellas.”
It was Andy. He stood there with that lopsided grin on his face, holding out two bottles of Coca Cola. Bobby and I stood this time. We took the Cokes graciously, bowing slightly, out of respect to the corpulent cowboy who was being so nice to us. “Go ahead, kids,” he continued. “Sit back down and enjoy your cold drinks. I need to go to my trailer to study my lines for a while.” He bent over as well as he could with that well known girth of his and whispered, “And don’t let anyone tell you to move outta that chair, either. Just tell whoever it might be, that you’re best friends with Jingles Jones.
What my parents, aunt and uncle had been up to was getting us invited to lunch. My aunt had recognized a man she had worked with at Monogram Pictures who, it turned out, was now the producer of The Wild Bill Hickock TV Show. We were in like Flynn. The producer, no less.
Our friend, the man who had originally invited us to the set, finally found us. Bill French had been out exercising some of the movie company’s horses when we arrived and was full of cowboy apologies that he hadn’t been there to greet us.
He pulled up a chair and joined us for one of those typical Hollywood movie company, noon-time, hot lunches -- rare roast beef, mashed potatoes, two vegetables, a roll, butter, desert and choice of drink -- all with the blazing sun directly overhead.
Believe me when I say, after you’ve eaten lunch on a movie set, you’re full to the proverbial hat brim. My brother suggested that maybe that was why Andy looked the way he did –- having been in all those Westerns like he had.
After lunch we got down to some pretty serious stuff. Bobby Hyatt, a kid actor, just a few years older than me, was playing a part where he had to shoot a tin can with a slingshot. We had never seen special effects in action before and were quite impressed when young Hyatt fired an empty sling at the can and an effects man, off stage, yanked the can with a wire. This made it look like Bobby Hyatt had actually shot a rock that hit the can, sending it flying.
We spent the afternoon getting autographs, taking pictures, and watching them shoot more scenes. One of those scenes was the continuation of a fight between Wild Bill and a bad guy on a rock beside the lake. After a few punches were thrown, Guy Madison’s double stepped in to take a fall off the rock into the lake.
I watched as they pulled the guy out of the water, weighed down by the heavy wet buckskins that made up the Hickock outfit. It was only in years to come I would learn that stuntman had been Richard Farnsworth -- way, way before he became a famous, two-time Academy Award nominated movie star.
Guy Madison was a very nice man, though he kept a low profile between scenes. Still, it wasn’t difficult getting him to pose for a picture with my brother and me. Years later I would meet Guy again when he was up for a part in the first movie I wrote, The Honkers.
As we were about to leave, they were setting up for the shot where Wild Bill leaps into the saddle from the rear of the horse -- the stunt we had seen Madison practicing for when we were arriving. Guy tried it again and again, always having the same bad luck as before. Eventually he tried a regular mount and messed that one up, too -- more than likely because he was nervous.
Finally, Richard Farnsworth was called in. He made that difficult rear mount in one take -- just like whipped cream.