Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Silver Screen Cowboys

Saturday mornings in the 1940’s and the 1950’s were special in the lives of Hawkinsville children, girls as well as boys. Excitement raced throughout every fiber of a young person’s body as preparations were made to attend “Picture Show” Thompson’s theater. Typical of the line-up of what would be showing was a great cowboy movie, a good “regular” movie, a cartoon, The Movietone News, previews and the much anticipated serial which was one chapter each Saturday for 15 consecutive weeks.
The serial might be Rocketman, Jack Armstrong, All American Boy, Batman and Robin, or the Lone Ranger and his side-kick, Tonto. Movietone News was how they did the news prior to television and the likes of Walter Cronkite. The cartoon might be a Disney production with Pluto, Mickey or Donald, or it might be everyone’s favorite, Tom and Jerry. The least favorite of all would be the ones where we had to follow the bouncing ball while singing along with a song we were not familiar with in the first place. Listen, this was serious business because it cost nine cents to get into the movies back then. When there was a price increase to twelve cents, boys and girls were going all over town whining and gnashing their teeth about the unfairness of the increase. After all, that was a jump of twenty-five percent in ticket prices. It was no wonder “Picture Show” Thompson could afford to place a wooden likeness of all those cartoon characters on his rolling lawn each Christmas. No one else in town could afford to be so lavish in their decorations. Of course, we all enjoyed the fantasy equivalent of what surely was the Walt Disney Park of the 1940’s.
The Saturday “regular” movie was sometimes Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, sometimes Frankenstein or Dracula, or my favorite Wolfman, and sometimes it might be, the Bowery Boys with Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey, who was a dead ringer for Wendell Greer. We felt a little cheated if it was a “suit” bad guy movie, one where the bad guys all wore coats and ties, like preachers on Sunday. The favorite of all was the cowboy show, which in recent years have come to be called the Silver Screen Cowboys. They were all heroes and some were just more so than others. Roy Rogers was great, but Gene Autry, another singing cowboy was a little on the chubby side, and on more than one occasion, his famous horse Champion groaned a little bit when Gene suddenly mounted his saddle. Mister Autry, who later became the owner of the California Angels baseball team, did not suffer from “missed meal colic.” Another chubby cowboy named Whip Wilson was a cheap imitation of Lash LaRue, the greatest man to ever hold a bull-whip in his hands. In the first place, I could never figure out why anyone would be satisfied with oleo margarine when they could get real cow butter. (That was an analogy, folks!) We did not need another cowboy with a whip! On one occasion, “Picture Show” Thompson arranged for Lash to appear on the stage of the old Thompson Theater. My heart would not quit pounding at the thought of seeing one of my all-time cowboy heroes in person. After all, I, myself, had become Lash on many Saturday afternoons after returning home from the picture show.
Almost like it was yesterday, I still remember making my own whip which would actually crack when whipped with the right motion. It mattered not to me that my whip, unlike Lash’s all leather whip, was made with a short stick from a chinaberry limb and an old scrap of cotton mill rope with a small piece of leather attached to the end of it to insure that it would pop.
Appearing at the Thompson Theater with Lash was one of the “heavies” of the day in cowboy movies. A bad dude named Jack O’Shea. Thinking back on it now, O’Shea was built more like a lineman for our beloved Dawgs in Athens. I can remember wondering how Lash wound up traveling with the likes of such as O’Shea, a notorious crook, who obviously came from very bad parents in the wrong part of Texas. Nevertheless, I got to see what I wanted to see. Lash popped a cigarette from his lips with his whip without so much as touching his mouth. In addition to that, some words led to a shoot-out on the stage and my hero, Lash, won the duel.
The silver screen cowboys always had a sidekick who rode with them.
In the case of Lash LaRue, his sidekick was invariably a man of slight build named Al “Fuzzy” St. John. His face bordered with whiskers, and a hat that had the bill turned upwards, Fuzzy always seemed to be chewing something in the same fashion as a cow chews its cud. His pants hung low, giving him an overall comedic appearance that made it easy to determine who was the cowboy hero and who was the sidekick. Picture John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted television show, with a black western outfit, a black cowboy hat and a black leather whip talking out of the side of his mouth. That was what Lash LaRue looked like, and he was just as fearsome as the man who tracks down killers and the like today.
Saturdays will forever live as wonderful times in the life of my friends and myself. For as little as a quarter, we could be entertained from ten o’clock in the morning until two o’clock in the afternoon including a cold drink and an ice cream on a stick commonly called a “nugget” or perhaps Milk Duds, raisinettes and pop corn. Afterwards, upon arriving home, we became the cowboys we had watched during the time spent at the movies. Once the argument was settled as to who would be Lash LaRue, and who would be the bad guy or the “boss of the crooks,” the game would begin. The word for “play like” would become a shortened and very southern pronunciation that sounded similar to “plack,” as in, “Plack I’m Lash and plack you’re the boss of the crooks!” Sometimes we had to improvise by allowing two heroes in our game such as Lash LaRue and the Durango Kid. Now I know they never rode together on the silver screen, but they did, on occasion, in my back yard.

The bad guys or crooks as we referred to them in the days of the silver screen cowboys seemed to rotate around with the cowboy heroes in those days, but one man, Roy Barcroft, big in stature with a pencil-thin mustache, and mean as a snake was usually the “Boss.” It mattered not whether he was playing opposite Roy Rogers, Sunset Carson or Wild Bill Elliott, who always said, “I’m a peaceable man,” just as he was delivering his final knock-out punch to the bad guy he was fighting. Barcroft was the “Brains of the Crooks” against Alan “Rocky” Lane or a Lane look-alike,
Monte Hale, who went by the name of the “Prince of the Prairie.”

1 comment:

Leon Neal said...

I certainly remember very well when the price for 'child' admission at the Romina Theater in Forest City, NC went from 9 cents to 12 cents. [I don't remember anything about the 'adult' admission on Saturday morning - I never reached the stage of having to pay that - I was 'small for my age' - and even though I might have been a tad older than 12 I was never questioned. I had my quarter expense worked out to the penny for my Saturday entertainment. Also - once inside the theater we could stay as long as we could stand it. To see the Bowery Boys, etc (anything other than cowboys) we had to go across the main street to the Grace Theater and pay another admission charge.