Meeting the Cowboy in his Later Years
He was one of the good guys; he wore a white 10-gallon hat; he rode a white horse – actually a palomino, but who knew that in Black and White; he was an accomplished horseman; he had grown up working in rodeos and Wild West Shows; he was a World War I veteran; he became a Hollywood stuntman; he was one of the first singing cowboys; he earned millions of dollars during his prime; and he had lost it all by the end. His name was Ken Maynard, and he was definitely one of my favorites.
Born July 21, 1895, in Vevay, Indiana, Maynard found employment in Hollywood in the early 20s working in silent movies as a bit actor. Some of these were Westerns, but not all of them. To earn extra money he become a stuntman – hard riding, plus whatever else might be required. Before long he was signed by the independent Davis film production company where his roles began to blossom and his career as a Western Star took off. Eventually he was put under contract to Warner Bros., then Fox, and finally Universal. Later on he was connected with other, smaller B-Western movie companies of that era.
Like most kids growing up in the 1950s, I spent a whole lot of my spare time watching those old B-Westerns on television. A number of those sagebrush epics starred Ken Maynard. The older ones, with Ken alone in the lead and co-starring his horse, Tarzan; plus the later Trio Westerns, in which he shared top billing with Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele.
In 1959, I was working for another B-movie cowboy star, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, at his open-to-the-public-on-weekends Western movie ranch, Corriganville, located in the Simi Valley, near Hollywood. We did what today would be called re-creations. Live-action shows depicting historical Western events – The Gunfight at the OK Corral, Billy the Kid Escapes Jail, The Hanging of Henry Plummer, and many, many more. To please the large crowds Corriganville drew on the weekends, Corrigan invited special guest stars to the ranch. Well-known celebrities like David and Ricky Nelson, sons of Ozzie and Harriet; Nick Adams, star of TVs “The Rebel” series; Irish McCalla, “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle”; Peter Brown, of the “Lawman” TV Show; comedian, Lou Costello; Chief Thundercloud; Grant Williams from the “Hawaiian Eye” television series; and others.
One summer day we acquired a new celebrity attraction: none other than my old favorite, Ken Maynard. Ken was just a little too long in the tooth to perform any of his horseback riding feats; a little too out of practice to show off his famous roping tricks; and a little too out of shape to join in the street shows with the younger stuntmen. What Ken Maynard did do, to entertain the audience of tourists, was an old time shooting act. He’d have an assistant, usually one of the stuntmen, throw clay plates into the air – then, one at a time, my old cowboy hero would shoot those plates out of the sky with a lever-action .22 rifle. The clay would shatter in a puff of gray powder causing the crowd to go wild. I remember thinking, What a great shot. Even though Ken Maynard is way past his prime, he’s still one hell of a cowboy.
I happened to mention my thought to one of the other stuntmen, an older guy. I was quickly educated to the fact that what Ken was doing was an old carnival gimmick wherein bird-shot is substituted for a lead bullet, making it almost impossible for the marksman to miss his target. My stomach dropped into the toes of my boots. Why was my old hero scamming the audience into thinking he was an expert marksman? My friend gave me a very sad answer: “Ken Maynard isn’t the same Ken Maynard you used to watch in the movies, son. Them Westerns Ken starred in you saw a few years ago on TV were made a whole bunch a’ years ago. Take a closer look, kid” the guy said, “Ken Maynard’s an old man now. His vision ain’t that good anymore, and he drinks way too much.”
I don’t know why, unless it was youthful gullibility, but I was downright shocked. Here was one of my favorite Western heroes, a cowboy star that had never ordered anything stronger than milk or sarsaparilla in a saloon scene, and this stuntman was telling me he liked to drink liquor. For a while I refused to believe him. Then one day, later on during that wonderful summer of ‘59, when I was starring in a movie for Corrigan that we shot every weekday for the out of town tourists who had never been on a real movie set, Ken Maynard made an unusual, unannounced appearance on the Corriganville Main Street.
It had been blistering hot. Most of the tourists had either packed up and left, or were ensconced at the bar in the Silver Dollar Saloon downing some cold ones. I was in the sheriff’s office, which was the hangout for the stuntmen. It also doubled as the operations center for the street entertainment on weekends. There was no air conditioning like there is today, so we had the front door propped open hoping to catch what there was of a breeze. All of a sudden, from some distance away, the sound of a loud crash was heard. We all scrambled for the front porch to see what was going on.
Looking up the street toward the big red stable across from the hotel-sound stage, we saw a red and white Ford station-wagon moving toward us very erratically. Beyond the station-wagon, we could see that the right-hand porch support on the church building had been completely demolished. Every one of us ducked for cover, some behind watering troughs and barrels, others under hitching rails. I stepped back inside the sheriff’s office with another guy. When the station-wagon finally chugged to a stop beside the boardwalk in front of us, my jaw dropped as the driver’s door opened and a very inebriated cowboy hero of mine stepped out. He was dressed in one of his old Nudie’s Western outfits, except his shirt-tail was all wrinkled and hanging out, and some of the buttons weren't in the proper holes. His famous white 10-gallon Stetson looked like some one had crunched in the top – it sat cockeyed on the back on his head, making his lopsided smile appear all the more comical. He raised a hand, waving to us, as if he were on horseback in a rodeo parade. One by one, we began showing ourselves, stepping out from behind our makeshift barricades. “H-hey, y-you guys,” he slurred, followed by a loud belch. “W-where in the h-hell’s that old fart Corrigan?”
We quickly gathered around, trying our best to talk him into coming inside where we thought we might be able to calm him down. Then maybe we could do something to help him get back to normal. He growled and said he didn’t need any help. He jumped back into his station-wagon, tried laying a donught in the middle of the dirt street, and when he found he couldn’t, he just chugged on out of town.
We stood there in total confusion, trying to figure out what we had all just witnessed. Then someone said sheepishly, “Maybe we better call the front gate ... see if they can stop him before he gets into some real trouble.”
We all dashed back into the sheriff’s office where someone grabbed the phone and dialed. It was too late. The guard at the main gate could only tell us: “Some old codger in a white hat just busted though one of our chain-link gates. Then he took off like a bat out of hell toward the Santa Susana Pass. Do you fellas think I should call the cops?” We told him, no, and that we’d take care of it ourselves.
The following weekend, Crash Corrigan asked us what we had seen on the day Maynard had paid us a visit. We related the same story I have described above. He walked away, shaking his head. He never mentioned the Ken Maynard incident to us again. Later in the day, someone who was quite close to Corrigan let us in on a little secret. Corrigan had called Maynard intending to chew him out about his little fiasco. Before Crash had a chance to go on, Ken Maynard reminded him of just where Crash Corrigan stood in the B-Western pecking order. “I could out ride, out shoot, out fight, out rope, and out do you with the ladies back in the old days ... and I still can today,” he told Corrigan. “So if you’re thinking of suing my old saddle-sore leather ass, you might just as well kiss it. Because I don’t have a last penny left to give you.”
Corrigan never talked about Maynard after that. And Ken never did his trick shooting act at the ranch again. Ken Maynard survived for another 13 years in a San Fernando Valley trailer park, living with his wife, Bertha, in a dilapidated trailer he had once used for touring. Bertha died in 1968. Ken Maynard died five years later. He was still living in that old trailer – all alone, and poverty stricken.
He will always be one of the good guys.