A Gang of Young Wannabe Cowboys Have Lunch on the Set of a Well Known TV Show
I finally got my life-long wish when I turned 15 – the object of every Western fan’s desire. It was something every kid who grew up watching old B-Westerns prayed for. She was a palomino quarter horse; I named her Sundown. Oh, she wasn’t a “Wonder Horse” like Gene Autry’s Champion, nor was she “The Smartest Horse in the Movies, as Roy Rogers’ Trigger was dubbed. But that didn’t matter to me; all that I cared about was that Sundown was mine.
Like all kids who grew up in the 1950s, I spent the majority of my free time watching Westerns. B-Westerns on TV mostly, those cowboy thrillers made in the 30s and 40s that were bought up cheaply by the burgeoning television industry then used to fill all that vacant time between their adult-themed shows. Since those grown up shows were almost always televised in the evenings, that left most of the daytime hours – and especially Saturday mornings – for us kids. We all became Movie Cowboy fans overnight. And there were plenty of cowboys to go around – Bob Steele, John Wayne, Crash Corrigan, Lash LaRue, Eddie Dean, Don “Red” Barry, Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Sunset Carson, Tex Ritter, Hoppy, Roy and Gene of course, and many, many more. An entirely new generation of B-Western movie lovers were created through television; plus we could still catch our latest cowboy heroes – those like Monte Hale, Allan “Rocky” Lane, and Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid, at our local theater’s Saturday matinee.
Like all the other children I knew I had begged my parents for a horse ever since I’d stepped into my first stirrup at the Griffith Park Pony Ride when I was four. We got our first TV set around that same time, in the late 40s, and my brother and I were inundated with Western after Western after Western. It seemed like we just couldn’t get enough of them. And watching those wonderful old Westerns only made me want a horse even more.
Every summer when we’d vacation in Big Bear with our parents, my brother Bobby and I would trek over to the local stables whenever we saved up enough money and rent some horses. Then we’d ride around in the open spaces between the lake and the main highway, pretending we were our favorite heroes out tracking down outlaws. We did the same thing in all the other vacation spots we visited with our mom and dad, while towing our 12-foot trailer behind us.
When I turned 12, we moved to the San Fernando Valley. We settled in a small, rural community called Northridge. Around that time I started taking acting lessons, and it was suggested by my drama coach that I learn how to ride a horse. There were a lot of Westerns being made for TV at that time, and he thought I should be proficient as a rider just in case I ever got a part requiring horsemanship.
My mom found me a professional instructor at a place called the Spahn Ranch, located in the Santa Susana Pass, about a mile north of Chatsworth. Years later, the Spahn Ranch would become a hangout for the notorious Charles Manson and his fanatical followers. I can’t remember the instructor’s name, but he taught me well. He yelled and screamed a lot, but after the few months of lessons were over, I had mastered everything to do with riding except for holding the reins in my left hand. Even today, some 50-years after the fact, I still hold the reins in my right.
A few years later, we moved into a new house nearby that sat on a half-acre lot. There would now be plenty of room to keep a horse. I kept on begging, and finally my parents gave in. I began searching the Livestock for Sale section of the classifieds immediately. I finally found Sundown through a horse sale at a rundown ranch near Chatsworth.
My father liked to think of himself as an “old horse trader,” and because of that, he was able to get a saddle and bridle thrown in for nothing
“I can trailer her fer’ ya’,’ said the old one-eyed cowboy Dad had just dickered with for the horse, “I’ll do it fer’ five bucks.” My dad was from the old school and never particularly liked parting with his hard-earned cash unless it was absolutely necessary. So when I blurted out, “I’d kinda’ like to ride her home myself,” he told me to go right ahead.
By paved road, our house was about five miles away. As the crow files, or as the horse walks, I reckoned it was a little under two. I bid everyone adios, and then trotted off across an alfalfa field, heading for a line of eucalyptus trees I knew were angled approximately in the same direction as our half-acre spread. Learning how to ride in a small oval arena like I had, and riding for real over brush-covered trails and through inconsiderate thickets, are two entirely different things. My two-mile jaunt took me just under four hours. My parents were about to call the authorities when I finally showed up – dust-covered, sweat-stained, and totally frazzled. Sundown, by the way, acted as though the whole frustrating adventure we’d both just been through was nothing new to her at all.
Living in a small town, like Northridge was back then, it didn’t take long before I became friends with quite a few other kids who rode horses. That entire summer we would all meet each day then ride, ride, ride – usually resting our horses where we hung out, in an old dilapidated barn on the outskirts of town.
One day, one of the guys came up the neat idea we take an overnight camping trip – a horseback camping trip. We’d carry our own grub and tie our bedrolls behind our saddles, then have ourselves a good ol’ cowboy campout. While we were all congratulating the guy for coming up with the idea, another kid innocently asked, “Where will we set up camp?” All conversation stopped. No one had given any thought to where we might have this little campout. We all put our heads together and decided we’d ride into the hills north of Chatsworth and camp somewhere in Devil’s Canyon – a desolate gulch with a small trickle of water that, like the Spahn Ranch, would one day become a hideout for the Charles Manson Gang.
When we told our parents about our overnight adventure plans, they were immediately squelched. Every parent agreed that camping out alone was a definite no-no. Then my mom had one of her brilliant ideas. We had some friends from church who had recently moved into a home in the hills west of Chatsworth, in a more populated area called Bell Canyon. After a few phone calls, our friends agreed to allow us to camp on their property. They told my mom to tell all the other parents not to worry, that there was plenty of room on a plateau directly in front of their house, and that they would keep an eye on us in case someone got sick, frightened, or whatever else.
My friends and I were happy as all get out when we finally met up at my place, our horses saddled and ready for our adventure. I had been chosen to be “wagon master,” so I led off with a professional sounding, “Fore-ward ... Ho!”
We took off in mid-afternoon but we’d not figured on encountering barbed-wire and other unknown obstacles, so it was dark by the time we reached the entrance to Bell Canyon. Every one of us had brought along food – cereal and milk for our breakfast the next morning, bags of Fritos, cookies, and such, to snack on along the way. But the one thing everyone went crazy for were the dried apricots our Turkish friend, Adnan, shared with us all.
Riding single file, all of us holding flashlights to warn oncoming traffic of our presence, we sang old cowboy songs and exchanged crude jokes as we made our way up the asphalt switchback that led to our destination.
My parents’ friends were very excited to have us as their guests. After several phone calls to assure our families that we made it all right, we thanked our hosts then went about making up our campsite.
The night was long and chilly, with the usual eerie sounds wild animals make. Some of the guys were frightened; others were so dog tired they fell asleep before they unrolled their sleeping-bags. As for myself, I knew we weren’t that far from the Bell Ranch, a movie location that I had never been to before. I wanted to show the guys what a real Western Movie Set looked like.
The next morning after breakfast, we saddled up, thanked our hosts profusely, and then headed up the road to find the Bell Ranch. Our hosts had given us good directions, and before long we were trotting up a winding, dirt road, looking like a trail worn cavalry column searching for wild Indians.
“Hey, look over there,” someone shouted.
We all turned to see a small Western town tucked in among the boulders. There seemed to be a lot of activity going on, so we rode over.
I could tell by the trucks and the honey-wagon (dressing-room trailer) that it was a functioning movie company. When we got there, the crew gave us nice reception. One of them told us they were just setting up, but if we’d like to come back later and watch the filming, we were welcome. We thanked the guy and told him we’d be back. Then we rode off to survey the rest of the ranch.
I don’t remember how many hours had passed, but most of us were getting pretty darn hungry. I’d been on movie sets a few times in the past and thought I knew everything. So I suggested we head back to where the movie company was set up. Since the crew had been so nice to us, I figured they just might invite us to have lunch with them.
We rode to the top of a small rise overlooking the Western town and could see the cast and crew were now gathered around a small truck, some of them were even lining up. This told me they were not shooting anything at that moment. I became even more certain when I saw the camera standing alone some distance away, shaded by several beach umbrellas.
“C’mon, you guys,” I said grinning. “Let’s ride down on those folks whooping and hollering like a bunch of drovers racing into town after a three-month-long trail drive.” With that, I produced a terrifying rebel yell then spurred Sundown into a full run. The others followed; all of them whooping and hollering like I’d suggested they do. If somehow we’d all had Colt-.45s, we’d have been firing those into the air, too.
We slid to a stop in a ball of swirling dust. We were all laughing and shouting back and forth. Then we realized no one from the crew had spoken a word. As the last of the fine silt sifted to the ground, a small, balding man approached us. We would figure out later he was the assistant director.
“Just who in the hell do you kids think you are to come storming down here like that?” he shouted.
All rowdiness ceased immediately. Our eyes fell on the dust-covered roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy on the just-as-filthy tray the man held in his hands.
“Now get out of here, damnit. Scat! And don’t you dare come back here again.”
We looked around at the other crew members who, with disappointed looks on their faces, held what were beginning to look like soupy mud-pies on their trays.
With a sheepish grin I turned to the guys behind me and said, “C’mon, fellas, we better be going.”
We reined the horses around slowly then started walking them out of town. We hadn’t gone that far when a voice called out: “Hey ... are you boys hungry?”
We turned to see the figure of a man sitting on a wooden box, leaning up against one of the store front facades. He motioned for us to come over with a fork-filled hand. We dismounted and tied off.
“Sit down,” he said, in a deep, pleasant-sounding, gravelly voice. He was an extremely good looking man with dark, curly hair. “Here ... who’d like some beef?” he asked, picking up a piece of his roast beef then tossing it to Chuckie, the youngest boy in our group. “How about cheese?” the man wanted to know. “Anyone want a piece of cheese?” He handed me the slice of cheese he was offering. I accepted graciously. It wasn’t that long before he’d given away most of the food on his tray.
We honestly didn’t know who this man was, but we could tell he was one of the actors by the costume he wore. He was dressed in a frilly-front light blue shirt with a loosened string tie. His dress coat was folded neatly beside him; a derby hat perched atop the coat. None of us said much while we broke bread with the man. He didn’t say much either.
Suddenly we heard Chuckie say, “Hey, what’s this?”
We turned in his direction and saw that he was holding a sleek black cane with a sparkling gold knob at the top.
The man told us the cane was a prop he was using in the film: a pilot for a new television series. Before we could ask him anything more, he stood up, brushed himself off, picked up his coat and hat, took the cane from Chuckie, grabbed his now empty tray, then turned and walked back toward the rest of the cast and crew.
We, of course, mounted up and rode off to the many other adventures we would have that summer.
Later on that same year, after we’d all started back to school, the new television season premiered. The hero of one of the new shows was described by TV Guide as: “Dressed-up dandy (derby and cane), a gambler and lawman roams the West, charming women and defending the unjustly accused. His primary weapon is his wit (and cane) rather than his gun.”
By now, I’m sure you’ve guessed. We had lunch that day with Gene Barry, star of the legendary “Bat Masterson” TV Series. One of the most genuine, humble and unassuming stars of Motion Pictures and Television I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting – and dining with, too