On Location With The Gene Autry TV Show
Shortly after our first Iverson Ranch adventure, my aunt called to tell us she had arranged--through a friend of hers at Republic Pictures--for us to visit the set of a Roy Rogers’ feature length Western, also being filmed at the Iverson Ranch. Actually, my mother had encouraged our aunt by telling her of the wonderful time my little brother, Bobby, and I had enjoyed during our time spent on the Johnny Mack Brown Monogram movie set, earlier that year. Roy Rogers was my number one favorite cowboy, and though Bobby preferred Gene Autry, we were both in a state of continual excitement for the days leading up to our second pilgrimage to those very familiar rock-strewn hills of the north-western San Fernando Valley.
I couldn’t keep a secret--I told all my friends. I knew they would now let me play the part of Roy if I was truly going to get to meet our hero in person. For the next few days I was king of the hill, actually allowed by my peers to be King of the Cowboys, while some of the guys acted out the parts of The Sons of the Pioneers and the rest were the bad guys. We had a great spot to act out our Western play. Across the street from my house, at the end of a dirt driveway that ran between two old apartment compounds, was the gully--a natural depression in the earth, set between back yard fences. The gully was more than just a dry ravine with gentle inclines, the basin contained several large mounds of dirt
someone had dumped there; a few scattered trees; thicket-sized clumps of bushes; a lot of big boulders; and for days after a good rain, a flowing creek, though ”crik” was the way we always pronounced it. I’d already filled in my friends about our first trip to Iverson’s, and after my descriptive account, we had renamed the gully, “Little Iverson’s,” in honor of the place where so many of our favorite movies and TV Shows were made.
Driving to Iverson’s that second time was a cinch, we seemed to make it in half the time. My mother was as enthused about going this time as me, though I knew she wasn’t quite the Roy Rogers fan that I was. My brother, Bobby, had wanted to dress up in his Gene Autry outfit--official chaps, shirt, vest, hat, neckerchief, gunbelt and boots. I told him I thought that he was being just a little bit discourteous, considering the circumstances. He just stuck out his tongue, drew his Texan, Jr., and fanned off a bunch of harmless shots at me. I, of course, would wear my brand new Roy Rogers’ fringe shirt and double holsters. But, in the end, our mom decided we should wear flannel shirts and jeans because the weather had been pretty cold. I just hoped and prayed Roy wouldn’t notice that the hat I wore was a re-shaped Hoppy model.
We began to show more even more excitement when we turned off onto the
familiar dirt road--the entrance to Iverson’s. We had been given directions this time to what was called the Upper Iverson Ranch, a new adventure for us as the Johnny Mack Brown Western Town Set had been located on the ranch’s lower acreage. Before we had time to get lost, that old pickup we’d seen on our previous trip came roaring our way, followed by the proverbial cloud of dust. As the truck came to a stop in front of us, the same old man we’d talked to on our first trip got out and shuffled his way over to our mom’s side of the car. “You folks’re the ones that was here a while back, ain’t ya,” he said with a drawl, picking his teeth with a fingernail. “We were here earlier this year,” said
Mom. “To see Johnny Mack Brown,” Bobby cut in. “And Jimmy Elllison, too,” I added, then said, “And today we’re going to see Roy Rogers!” The man’s expression became somber. He removed his hat. He knelt down beside the car window, whispered something to our mother that Bobby and I couldn’t quite hear. When he was finished, he stood, putting his hat back on. Our mother, her mood now as serious as his, thanked the man as best as she could. He walked away slowly, got back into the truck and drove off.
I was the first to ask, “What’s going on?” Our mom turned around, looked over her shoulder. She hesitated before she spoke. In both her eyes, tears were beginning to well. “Something terrible has happened in Roy and Dale’s family,” she said. “One of their children has died.” Bobby and I were taken back by the news. We both felt very sad knowing something awful had occurred in the lives of our favorite Western couple. “I’m afraid the shooting’s been canceled for today,” my Mom continued. “I suppose that means we’ll have to go home.”
We were two very disappointed little buckaroos that day, both of us holding back our own tears as our mother turned the car around and headed back the way we had come. Both of us watched painfully as our favorite Western countryside passed into what seemed at the time to be oblivion, because we had failed to achieve our goal, fallen short in our attempt to meet Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys.
Just before we got to the highway, Mom stopped the car. She pulled the
emergency brake and turned off the ignition. Bobby and I hadn’t a clue as to what she was up to. We exchanged puzzled looks. Both of us shrugged. Our mother was known to come up with some great ideas at the last moment--thoughts that would sometimes save the day. She turned around slowly. She had that smile on her face--a smile that meant: not all was lost. “Now that we’re here,” she said, “how would you two boys like it if we drove on over to Corriganville? It’s not that far from here, and just maybe,” she paused. “Just maybe, someone else will be shooting a movie when we get there.” Bobby
and I went from tears to cheers. In one single instant, Mom had completely lifted us out of our misery and dropped us back into our original “Oh, boy, let’s go!” mode.
We stopped several times for directions to Corriganville. To get to the ranch, we had to follow a dirt road that cut off to the right from the main highway just beyond the railroad overpass. Then we followed the tracks that paralleled the road until we came to a rock wall and some iron gates on the left that had wagon wheels as part of the design. This, we had been told, was the entrance to Corriganville. And interestingly enough, when we arrived on that particular day, someone had left those gates wide open.
Nothing ever stopped Mom when she’d made up her mind we were going to do something. This time was no different. Without hesitation, she turned into the drive, passed between those open gates, and we entered Corriganville--the most famous movie ranch in B-Western history. Just inside, was a small parking area, flanked on the right by a cozy, little ranch house, encompassed by a white picket fence. This was one of the original buildings, used at that time--I was later to find out--as a home by Ray Corrigan and his family. We drove on slowly, not too far. My mother parked. We had progressed just enough so we could see that we were at one end of the Western Street. I have to give our mom first prize, there actually was another movie company shooting there.
We all got out of the car as quietly as possible, closing doors with a push instead of a slam. Remembering all the time what we’d learned on the Johnny Mack Brown set a few months earlier--that when movie companies were shooting sound, we needed to move as silently as possible.
Before we had a chance to plant our boots on a boardwalk, a gruff voice called out from behind. It was a man dressed in modern-day cowboy attire. “I reckon you folks didn’t see the sign on the gate today,” he said. “We’re closed.” His words caused my heart to drop. “No we didn’t see a sign,” our mom replied immediately. “The gates were wide open, so we assumed we were welcome. Besides,” she said with a smugness to her smile, “we do this all the time.” Our mom’s bold reply had caught the man completely off guard. He stepped back, removing his hat. “Sorry ma’am,” he said, almost bashfully. “I thought you was tourists comin ta gawk” He was almost bowing by then, arm outstretched, showing us the way. “I expect you probably know yer way around here as
good as me. Go on,” he continued. “You folks have a fine day.” It was as easy as that. We were in--officially. Oh, by the way,” the man called after us. “If you want a good place to see everything, go on over there across the street. You won’t be in anyone’s way--over there.”
As we approached the street, we had to dodge all the movie company trucks
parked every which way, behind the scenes. Beyond that we could see those shiny boards again--the reflectors--indicating the shooting set. We skirted the trucks, ducking around behind the The Silver Dollar Saloon until we came out on the other side. That part of the Corriganville Western Street had not been built up the way it would be in the years to come, so there was a wide gap left open between the saloon at one end and the trading post at the other. We took up position under a large tree where we could look directly across and see the movie company setting up for their next shot. This was when my brother began to jump for joy. What Bobby had seen was a sorrel horse with a white blaze on its face, tied to a hitch-post just a few yards away. In the horse’s mouth was a very distinctive bit. A bit made to look like two Western six-shooters. Just by seeing that horse--a horse we knew could only be the world famous, Champion--Bobby and I were sure its owner couldn’t be that far away; plus, it wasn’t difficult to guess that the show shooting that day at Corriganville was The Gene Autry Show TV Series.
We watched from a distance as Gene and some other actors played out a scene in front of the sheriff’s office. Mom snapped some pictures. She even got one of me petting Champ when the company was between setups. Before we could sneeze, another deep, masculine voice hit us from behind. “Well, I’ll be darned,” the voice said, “if it isn’t that nice family from Iverson’s.” We turned to see a very familiar and friendly face. It was Marshall Reed, one of the bad guy actors we had met on the Johnny Mack Brown set. He looked different. This time he wasn’t dressed up in a slick, lead heavy’s suit. He was un-shaven and wore a plain old dusty regular desperado’s outfit. Of course, Mom took some pictures. She got a good one of my brother, Bobby, standing beside Reed, actually holding his Colt .45. I think I took my picture with Marshall Reed to school and somebody stole it. Darn! For the next hour or so, between scenes, we were able to meet some of the other cowboy actors and have our pictures taken with them, too.
We heard someone laughing on the other side of a horse truck. A well-known “Har-har” that had Bobby and me running around the vehicle to see if we were right about who it was that was doing the guffawing. Both of us slid to a stop. “Holy mackerel,” said Bobby. “It’s him.” And it was him--Gene’s sidekick, Pat Butram. He was standing beside a water cooler telling a joke to a few of the horse wranglers. Our mom got curious and joined us. With her trusty Brownie Hawkeye, she was able to snap a shot of good ol Pat as he turned toward us with a cup of water in his hand. “Here’s to you, folks” he said
to us, toasting with the paper cup. Then someone called his name from the set, he excused himself, and left.
When lunch was called, everybody, and I mean everybody, went inside the Frontier Cafe--a sturdy looking building with a brick facade, located directly across from The Silver Dollar Saloon. That left our mom, Bobby, and me, alone in the dusty street. Having been fooled once before by a studio sign on the exterior of a movie set building, my mom was somewhat uncertain about taking us inside what appeared to be another false front. We walked over cautiously and stood on the porch. Sounds from the building’s interior appeared to be those of people enjoying themselves and having a good time. Mom went over to the door and peeked inside. She turned around with a laugh. “This is a real restaurant, boys,” she said. “How would you like to have some something to eat?” Of course we agreed. We went on in, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. We could see that lunch, as it were, was being served cafeteria-style, in the rear of the cavernous room. My mother--even though we hadn’t been invited this time--led both Bobby and me to the serving area, where we got in line behind some of the cowboys and crew and waited our turn. No one asked us a thing about who we were or why we were there--though we were actually intruding on the movie company for a free lunch. The servers piled our plates high, just like the others had done on the Johnny Mack Brown set. We found an empty table as far away from the movie folks as we could. While we ate, we didn’t talk
much. Bobby and I could tell by our mother’s inexpressive look that she didn’t want either of us to draw any attention to our table. We just ate our lunch and watched the others--famous cowboys and the not so famous--consume their “vittles”.
Suddenly the front doors were opened wide, letting in the blinding sun.
Silhouetted in this backlight was a large, masculine figure, topped with a huge, ten-gallon, Western hat. As the doors closed and the brightness dimmed, everyone in the room could see that it was Ray “Crash” Corrigan, the famed B-Western Cowboy Star, in person. The flamboyant owner of Corriganville was dressed in his usual cowboy garb from hat to waist. Below that, in a drastic contrast, he wore bright, lime-green Bermuda shorts and a pair of old, ragged, red tennis shoes. Corrigan held up a hairy leg, wiggling it for all to see. “I’ve got my Screen Actors Guild card right here,” he said, patting his wallet. “Can I be in your movie?” Everyone laughed. Bobby and I knew Crash Corrigan could be pretty
funny on screen, now we saw that he was that way in person, too.
As daring as my mother was, she couldn’t have been bolder in what she did after lunch. We were back in our old position under the tree by the saloon, when she handed me the camera, then marched across the street, where she walked right up to Gene Autry, and asked him outright if he would come over and meet her children. Believe it or not, Gene Autry obliged. He excused himself from the rest of the movie company and, with my mother beside him, crossed the street and came right over to my brother and me. “Howdy, boys,” he said, with that distinctive Texas twang of his--the same, comfortable voice that had been singing Bobby’s and my favorite, Rudolf the Red Nosed Raindeer, for the past several Christmases. Gene talked with us for awhile. He asked most of the questions. He wanted to know where we lived; how old we both were; what was our dog’s name; and who was our favorite cowboy. Bobby immediately shouted, “You are, Gene!” I had to do some quick thinking. Mom and Dad had always taught both Bobby and me not to lie. But they had also told us never to embarrass a person if we could really help it. “You - are - Gene,” I fibbed, hoping he wouldn’t notice my hesitancy. But he did. He put a gentle hand on my shoulder, saying: “I’ll bet you’re a Roy Rogers fan, aren’t you, son?” I shuddered. He’d seen through my fabrication. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he continued. “It don’t bother me none. Roy and I are pretty good friends. My horse, Champ, and Roy’s horse, Trigger, got to know one another pretty darn good over at the Republic Pictures Barn. So Roy and I couldn’t help but be friends if our horses were such good pals.” “Yeah,” I said, still not able to look him in the eye. “I like Roy a lot. But,” I quickly added, “you’re my second favorite cowboy, Mr. Autry” His gloved fingers patted my shoulder. “You should always tell the truth, son,” he winked. “No matter what.” Someone from across the street came to get him. With a tip of his hat, he went back to movie making.
On our way home that evening, winding down the Santa Susana Pass, my brother looked over to me and said, “Gene’s a pretty neat guy, isn’t he?” I started reminiscing about our day, about how thrilled I had been that morning to be meeting my favorite, Roy Rogers. How everything had changed so abruptly, how our mom had saved the day by thinking about nearby Corriganville, and how lucky we had been that someone had left the gates open. And for Gene Autry, of all the movie cowboys in the world, to be there making his TV Series. What a nice guy I thought, remembering Gene’s wise words to me that afternoon. “Yeah,” I finally answered. “Gene is a real neat guy, Bobby. And I’m sorry for all those times I made fun of you when you said he was your favorite cowboy.”
What had I said? Had I actually made an apology to my little brother? Wow, I thought. Gene Autry must have really made an impression on me. He had turned out to be the same straight-shooting, genuine, honest-to-goodness good guy in person that he was in the movies. I settled back in my seat, I knew I’d get to meet Roy another time. And I did, a few years later, on the set of his own TV Series.
Our time spent at Corriganville had left a warm feeling in my heart after that day of fun and enjoyment, meeting the delightful people who made up the Gene Autry TV Show cast and crew.