A Day at Gene Autry's Melody Ranch with the Buffalo Bill, Jr. TV Show
I was first impressed with Dick Jones’s many talents when he costarred on The Range Rider Television Show. He, and the program’s other star, Jack (Jock) Mahoney, were the only cowboy actors I knew of that did their own stunt work.
In the past, I had read that Bob Steele and Crash Corrigan performed their own stunts, but that had been way back in the 30s and early 40s. Mahoney and Jones were of my own, personal generation of cowboys -- the early 50s TV cowboys -- and I felt a much closer bond with them because of that.
Sometime in 1954, my Uncle George was taken off The Annie Oakley TV Show and asked to join a brand new Flying A Pictures production called Buffalo Bill, Jr. This untried Western TV Show starred Dick Jones as a young Texas marshal who is trying to raise his kid sister, Calamity, played by Nancy Gilbert, while living under the watchful eye of their adoptive father, Judge Ben Wiley (Harry Cheshire).
Uncle George was rather impressed when he found that I had heard of Dick Jones -- he had not -- so getting an invite to this new movie set proved much easier than any previous.
Leaving before sunrise, Mom and I made the long drive from Whittier, California, where we lived, to the Melody Ranch in Placerita Canyon. It took us three, maybe four hours. We’d been there earlier that year visiting the Annie Oakley Set and knew the way. We cruised in through the gate this time like we belonged there, stopping professionally at the first blast of an assistant director’s whistle. When the shooting was over and all movement began again, we got out of the car, walking quickly in the direction of where all the activity seemed to be taking place.
The company was in full move. We finally caught up with my Uncle George just as he was being ushered into the stretch-out (an elongated car, similar to a limousine, but with five or six doors on each side). He said that the company was shooting a few pick-up shots that day (scenes from previous episodes already filmed but lacking certain shots) and that they were making a quick move, right at that moment, to an outlaw hideout set called the Walker cabin, still located in Placerita Canyon, but on the other side of the highway. He told us to follow them.
We rumbled across the two-lane blacktop Mom and I had just come in on, one vehicle at a time. This was the small highway that would be replaced by the Antelope Valley Freeway many years later when the entire area would be renamed Santa Clarita and Canyon Country.
After a few hundred yards, the road we were on became dirt. The boiling dust kicked up by the movie company’s truck’s bathed our little station wagon in layer after layer of good ol cowboy dirt as we brought up the rear of the procession.
Today, a paved road runs through, past the Walker cabin, to the next canyon. In those days, the dirt road came to an abrupt halt near the shack. We were way, way out in the country back then. I could tell by listening intently when everyone was quiet. All I could hear were the sounds of nature, nothing else.
Making a company move in the early 50s was a piece of cake compared to a major move made by today’s television show crews. A camera truck (also containing sound), a grip truck (no electric), horse truck, a strechout and a bus for the remainder of the crew. That was it. With present day movie companies, there are twice as many star motor homes in a convoy than that.
Back then, by the time the last vehicle had arrived, the director had already picked his setup, the camera was out already on the tripod, and the actors were rehearsing. Not today. No way.
We parked and walked up to the cabin where the director, George Archainbaud, was huddled with Dick Jones and a couple of the actors who would be working in the shot they were about to film. As soon as the few strategically placed reflectors were adjusted, and sound and camera said they were ready, the scene was shot. One take. Cut and print.
The wranglers hurriedly brought in Dick Jones’s horse, a black one called Chief. Oh boy, I thought, some kind of stunt is coming up.
The camera was moved back, re-set; reflectors readjusted. Dick Jones pointed, telling Archainbaud where he was going, what he was about to do. There was absolutely no rehearsal. The director yelled action -- and Dick Jones did what he did best: He ran to the horse, grabbed hold of the saddle horn, and when the horse was in a full run, Jones lifted both legs off the ground, then vaulted into the saddle -- the Pony Express Mount. Wow! I’d never seen that done live and in person. Another Cut and Print. Another scene in one take.
I lucked out and caught Dick Jones as he was headed for his car. I introduced myself as George’s nephew and Jones made an “in joke” about George that I didn’t understand. He also let my mom take our picture together before climbing into his car and roaring away.
Years later I would realize just how young Dick Jones was back then — closer to my age than Mom’s - and I finally came to understand why he drove off like a maniac that day. He was having problems with his employer -- Gene Autry.
As quick as they had loaded up and moved to the Walker Cabin, the company loaded up again and moved back to Melody Ranch.
When we arrived, lunch tables had been set up for all. It was time to eat. After we had gone through the line, my uncle found us a place to sit. We were squeezed in between a couple of grips and three drivers. I was young and my mother was present but those guys told some of the funniest (and dirtiest) stories I had ever heard.
Like usual, the caterers offered a choice of three entrees, plus potatoes, plus a choice of veggies, salads, rolls & butter, and desserts. “A hot meal under the hot sun,” is what my mom called it. Mom always wondered why they just didn’t serve cold salads and sandwiches – “A much better idea,” she would mumble as we stuffed down our sizzling meal.
The afternoon rolled by slowly. The story they were shooting -- between pick-up shots -- dealt with a Scotsman who had shown up in town. One of the things this character did was toss logs. Tossing logs is a Scottish tradition, or something like that, I’ve been told. An enormous, log, the size of a small telephone pole, is actually lifted by a man, then, with a good run behind him, tossed, actually flung, one might say, through the air. Distance is then compared. Something quite similar to javelin throwing.
I watched as a specialist taught the Scotsman actor how to toss the log. I was amazed at how easy it looked. After they had gone on to something else, I went over to the log they had been using and tried to pick it up. Wow, I lifted it up without any effort -- as easy as pie. The darn thing was made of balsa wood. Movie magic.
One of the bad guys was being played by a favorite of mine, Gregg Barton. Because the scene they were shooting was taking so long, Barton was just sitting around, waiting. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Sitting around and waiting is what most actors do on movie sets. Most of the crew waits around, too. Gregg Barton was used to it. I took advantage of his leisure time and got a picture and an autograph. I was also getting used to waiting around.
As if appearing out of nowhere, Nancy Gilbert showed up. Nancy was about my age. She played Buffalo Bill, Jr.’s kid sister, Calamity. She was only there for what seemed like an instant, shooting a quick scene in the center of Main Street. I watched from a good vantage point, snapping a picture. But Nancy was gone as quick as she had appeared, so I was unable to meet her and get an autograph.
When I was finally able to see the episode of Buffalo Bill, Jr. on TV that they were filming that day, I was amazed to see that a great deal of it had been shot at Bronson Canyon -- a favorite local of film companies for years, positioned directly under the Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills.
It was at the Bronson Canyon location, near one of the caves -- on my TV set -- that the Scotsman would at last be able to put his log tossing to work. He tossed the log onto a pile of dynamite and the resulting explosion helped Buffalo Bill, Jr. capture the bad guys.
Balsa wood. Gee whiz. What a bummer.