Visit to a B-Western Movie Set
It was 1950, I was all of seven-years-old when I stepped out of our 1946 Packard Clipper with my little brother, Bobby, at my side--both of us dressed in our spiffy cowboy outfits. It never occurred to me that I was putting my young boot-covered feet on what would become hallowed ground for us B-Western fans--the dust and tumbleweed covered soil of the Iverson Ranch.
My aunt worked in the Publicity Department for Monogram Pictures and had
arranged for us to visit a shooting set. ”It’s somewhere out near Chatsworth,” she said. “Way, way out there, past the boondocks.” We drove through a San Fernando Valley never to be seen again--down Ventura Boulevard, with its quaint, small villages, broken up by peaceful countryside, where mighty skyscrapers stand today. Then up Topanga Canyon Boulevard, not much of a parkway back then, just a two-lane country road lined with pastures and grazing livestock, chiseled into the foothills at the west end of the basin--at present, an unstoppable city of concrete. The directions my aunt had given us were rather vague. All she had said was that we were to turn off on the first dirt road we
came to after Topanga Canyon Boulevard turned into The Santa Susana Pass. It was our very first time on that steep and narrow, winding route--though it would not be our last--and after a few worrisome moments, we were there. No sign; no nothing. Just a deserted, sandy path, it seemed--stitched, almost evenly on both sides, with sparse, wind-whipped weeds and rusted barbed-wire..
Once inside the ranch proper, and without any further directions from my aunt, we had absolutely no idea where we were supposed to go. We felt quite lucky to see an old pickup with a man working beside it. After telling him we were looking for the movie set, he asked, “Which one?” It seems that there were more than just a single movie company shooting on Iverson land that morning. We were more specific, and within minutes we were traversing an area covered with unique and colorful rock formations--Iverson’s Garden of the Gods. We wound around a few more blind curves, perfect settings for stagecoach holdups or a good ambush, and finally saw a configuration of vehicles parked behind some old, wooden buildings. This, as it turned out, was the Lower Iverson
Western Street. And it was there that my brother and I disembarked on one of the most memorable days in our young lives.
A whistle blew from somewhere. A loud voice yelled, “Quiet!.” That stopped us dead in our tracks. It stopped others, too. My Mom was just getting out of the car when a man, one of a few who were close by, shushed her with a finger to his lips. “We’re shooting sound,” he whispered. “Everyone’s got to be reeeel quiet.” So we waited--and waited. We could hear nothing. Another loud voice yelled, “Cut! That’s a keeper.” People began to move again. I grinned to my brother. We were actually on an honest to goodness B-Western movie set.
Television had done it: “ruined us forever,” my Mom used to say. My brother and I had become grade-A, certified, B-Western aficionados in the one short year since our dad had brought home the parts and assembled that one-eyed monster in our living room--it was a 17-incher, quite large for a TV screen in those days. Other things were shown on television back then, but the B-Western seems to have been the easiest--and the cheapest--venue for those early pioneers of local television to run day in and day out. My brother and I watched them all. We knew every cowboy who ever rode off into the sunset. Every outlaw, every crooked banker, every sidekick, every posse member, every horse’s name.
Before Bobby and I even got to the main street, we spotted a very familiar face coming out of a small trailer. The man was dressed like an outlaw and had dark makeup on. Later in life, I found out his name was Lee Roberts--a pretty well-known bad guy in those days. We approached Roberts with caution, he did look rather sinister. He broke into a grin when he saw us coming with our autograph books in hand--he signed them both without or our even having to ask. My Mom was right there with our trusty Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, snapping our picture with Roberts before he was called away. We looked at what he’d written and saw that he had also signed the name of his character--”Slade.” It was as “Slade” that we knew him from then on--whenever we would see him on TV.
Rounding the corner onto main street, Bobby and I had to duck back as two
horses, pulling a rickety buckboard, rumbled by. When the dust cleared, there were cowboys everywhere--some of them smoking, some playing cards, others twirling their guns and joking--waiting between scenes for the next rehearsal. Bobby and I gawked, shaking our heads in disbelief: Wow, was this really happening? So many well-known B-Western faces--Marshall Reed; I. Stanford Jolley; Merrill McCormick; Bud Osborn; Ray Jones; Lane Bradford; Pierce Lyden; Carl Matthews and Herman Hack A couple of stuntmen, too--Whitey Hughes, and a guy called, Danny Sands--men I would later work with as an adult. Mom snapped a few pictures of the group. Marshall Reed was the first
one to notice us. He was dressed in a blue banker’s suit, obviously the head bad guy--my brother and I could spot that easily. He introduced himself and the others. They all shook our hands and signed autographs--one even giving Bobby and me each a bullet from his gunbelt--phony ones, of course, made of wood and painted to look like lead and brass.
On the street behind them, there were men carrying big boards with aluminum foil on them that they used to reflect sunlight onto the actors. Others were in charge of the microphone boom and sound equipment, rolling it all into place for the next scene. And the camera crew, one man carrying the camera itself, a large, black monster with a canvas covering--called the sound barney--to keep the camera noise from being heard on the soundtrack. Men who were measuring distances, setting marks, focusing. A buzz of activity--everyone moving in every direction at once.
We walked around, observing, side-stepping a grip carrying a huge reflector, standing back again as another buckboard was moved into position behind the camera. “Hey, you kids,” echoed a voice. “C’mon over here. Lemme see them guns of yours.” We turned around. There was an older cowboy sitting on a bench--an actor--another friendly face. He motioned for us to join him. We looked to our Mom for advice, she nodded with a smile. Bobby and I jumped up onto the boardwalk and were welcomed with open arms. The man--whom we later found out to be Frank Ellis--checked out our cap guns and told us they looked like mighty fine shootin irons. We got an autograph and Mom snapped a quick picture.
There seemed to be a huddle, of sorts, in front of the camera--about six men whom we couldn’t identify right away. A modern-dressed cowboy led a sleek, palomino horse over to the group, waiting until they finished their conversation. When they finally broke up, a man, dressed in an all brown outfit and wearing a white hat tilted back on his head, mounted the stallion. As he reined around, facing us, my brother and I saw what we had been waiting for for days--
It was Johnny Mack Brown--in the flesh.
He saw us watching him and he smiled, tipping his hat. My brother began to
giggle. “He saw us,” he whispered anxiously. “He really saw us.” Johnny Mack Brown, I thought to myself. There he is, right there in front of us. And not in black & white, either. He was in color! Living color! He was real! He was live! And I didn’t need to pinch myself to know I wasn’t dreaming.
My mother snapped his picture as he sat on the palomino. A woman--his female co-star, we suspected--was led up beside him on another horse. We didn’t really know who she was that day because The Adventures of Superman TV Show would not debut for another year or so. You guessed it, she was Noel Neill, the actress who would eventually play Lois Lane.
Everyone was quiet, the camera was rolling again. Johnny Mack and Noel Neill exchanged a few words, wheeled their horses around, the director yelled cut. That setup was broken and the crew began to prepare for another. We kept our eye on Johnny Mack as he dismounted. Nodding a temporary goodbye to Noel Neill, he began walking in our direction. “Oh, boy,” said my brother. “Now we’ll get to see him close up.” And Bobby was right--really close up!. Johnny Mack Brown, the world famous B-movie cowboy and revered athlete, walked straight down that Western Street and stopped directly in front of
us. And there he stood, towering over my brother and me We craned our necks--he looked ten feet tall. “Howdy, boys,” he said with that deep Alabama accent of his, “My name’s Johnny Mack, what’s yours?” “Uh, Steve,” I said nervously, mechanically holding out my autograph book. “And this is my brother, Bobby.” Johnny Mack took Bobby’s and my book, and with a pencil my mother handed him, signed one for both of us. He spotted Moms camera and taking us gently by the shoulders, turned us toward the lens, saying, “Smile for your mama, boys.” He tipped his hat to my Mom just as someone yelled out that it was lunch time. Johnny Mack Brown excused himself and fell in with the rest of the cast and crew as they all retreated around the corner of the barn.
Suddenly we were alone. The street was completely deserted. Equipment left unattended, horses were still tied to the hitching posts. My Mom said they must all be eating lunch and maybe we should be thinking of doing the same. She pointed across the street to a building with a sign that said “Restaurant”. “You guys want a hamburger?” she asked. Our mouths began to water as we thought of huge piles of french fries and a malt. “You bet,” we said in unison, and began running toward the cafe. Bolting through the door and expecting to see booths and a counter, Bobby and I were stopped by a piece of fluttering canvas, painted to look like a wall. Behind that, nothing but rocks and open country--and the entire cast and crew sitting at one long table, eating. Most of them looked up. We stood there with our mouths agape. My mother stepped through the
door, and seeing that all eyes were on us, announced sheepishly, “We thought this was a place to eat, but it’s nothing but a false front.”
A younger, good looking cowboy got up and walked over to us. He had a silver badge pinned to his shirt, we assumed he must be playing the sheriff. He knelt down and asked if we were hungry. We nodded, our stomachs were grumbling by then. He turned to the others, “All right with you if these little buckaroos and their Mom join us?” Every one of them nodded, actors and crew alike, some even motioning for us to come on over and join them. The handsome cowboy showed us the way to the caterer’s truck where we were given trays and plates which were heaped with hot food until we said we couldn’t handle any more. He led us to some folding chairs at the long table where we were seated. My mother thanked him profusely, at the same time nudging us to do the same. He tipped his hat, Bobby and I tipped ours back. He smiled and went back to join his friends.
“That’s Lucky,” whispered a bearded old prospector who was sitting across from us. He was directing his hushed comment to my brother and me. We looked at him quizzically. “Lucky,” he said again. “You know . . . Hoppy’s Lucky.” Bobby and I exchanged glances. We both knew that Russell Hayden played Lucky in the Hopalong Cassidy Movies. Then it really hit me. The old prospector had his actors mixed up. “Darn,” I said, turning to Bobby. “That is Lucky. I mean, the original Lucky. You know, Bobby--Johnny Nelson, Hoppy’s first pardner.” I was so excited, I wasn’t making sense. “Johnny Nelson, uh, you know, that good looking cowboy with the sheriff’s badge
who helped us get lunch is James Ellison! Jimmy Ellison.” We craned our necks to where he had been sitting and his chair was empty. “Darn,” I said again. “He’s gone.” “Don’t worry, you two,” said my Mom. “We’re not leaving just yet.”
We spent another few hours on the Whistling Hills set, observing from the
sidelines. Watching Johnny Mack Brown and the other actors do more scenes, taking pictures and gathering more autographs. We never did get to see James Ellison again, but when we got home and developed the film we’d taken, there he was, as big as life, sitting beside actress, Pamela Duncan, chewing the fat. My Mom had passed them by earlier that day when she had gone back to the car to get something. Since they were both dressed in Western costumes, she snapped the photo. Thank you, Mom.
The Monogram movie company was still shooting when we called it a day and drove off into the sunset. Bobby and I sat in the back seat comparing autographs. We were both preoccupied when my Mom slowed the car and said for us to look up real quick if we didn’t want to miss something--we were passing another movie company on the way out. We pressed our noses to the glass. Our eyes lit up. There they were: The Lone Ranger on Silver and Tonto on Scout. We waved, hoping we’d be seen. And through the swirling dust of our departure, Tonto and The Lone Ranger waved back.