GAYS MILLS - I’m feeling nostalgic as I write today and that leads me back to my early, early years: the (extremely) late 40s and early 50s and me in my impressionable, single digit youth. I bought whatever adventure was for sale at that time and what was for sale were motion pictures at the Kickapoo Theater in downtown Gays Mills. That building is now 212 Main and it holds a lot of pleasant memories for me.
During the week we would gather around the big, wooden, tube-bearing floor model Zenith radio in the living room. Like other ‘Norman Rockwellesque’ families across the country, we kept up with the numerous evening radio shows.* But the weekends were different. In those pre-TV days, the millions of war babies couldn’t wait to go to ‘the show’ every Saturday and see whatever was playing. There were no movie ratings yet. Anyone who could reach the ticket window with their 25 cents could get in for the double feature of the week, a newsreel and cartoons.
Weekly western dramas had been on the radio for many years by 1950 and many of them made the transition to the big screen. After the advent of television (which must have been as dramatic a change as the later rise of personal computers), several westerns made the further transition down the entertainment trail to the small screen, and others were added. At one point in the mid 50s, there were something like 35 western series on TV every week—and that was when there were only three main stations.
My movie heroes were all the silver screen** cowboys. If the playbill featured a romantic film or a modern police drama, those were merely tolerated to get to the western action picture. Those western movies were also known in the slang of the time as ‘oaters’ because of all the horses in them and the oats they ate and also as ‘sagebrush sagas’ or ‘horse operas.’ There were dozens and dozens of cowboy stars.
My favorite star was Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys. Other standouts were Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Randolph Scott, the Cisco Kid, Red Ryder, John Wayne, Rex Allen, and many others, all of whom had their loyal followers. But I stuck with Roy, AKA Leonard Slye. Roy was a singing cowboy and every film somehow included three or more musical numbers. Some were on horseback, some in the bunkhouse at the old Double R Ranch, some around a campfire, and some were right in town.
All the cowboy stars had a sidekick, most of them comical and colorful. Roy had a whole gang of sidekicks, the Sons of the Pioneers, ready to pitch in at the drop of a hat to help Roy right some wrong or back him up with some great music. They always seemed to have their guitars, fiddles and even a standup base at the ready.
There will be more next week on my Silver Screen Heroes. Stay tuned….
*Great old radio shows still live on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Old Time Radio every Saturday and Sunday night from 8-11.
**Silver screen referred to the actual silver used in the projection screen that the movies were shown on in the early days.