The Ghost of a TV Western

I was nine years old in 1958, and I have a vivid memory of lying awake in bed, listening intently as my parents, downstairs, watched Jefferson Drum.

This TV Western–and there were dozens of them, in those days–had theme music like none other’s. It was a grim, stately drum solo. I fully expected to find it preserved somewhere on the Internet so I could play it for you. Lying up there in the dark, that theme used to thrill me. Frankly, I don’t see how the show could ever have lived up to that theme music.

But, alas, I can find no trace of the Jefferson Drum theme. It is as if it had never existed–a fate that has overtaken many things and places of my childhood. Village of Bonhamtown, gone without a trace. Oppenheim’s estate, utterly erased. Lived here all my life and I can barely find my way around.

For the record, Jefferson Drum (played by Jeff Richards) was a crusading newspaperman in the Old West, before “journalists” turned into organ grinders’ monkeys for the Democrat Party. The show only lasted one season; but I can still hear that drum solo in my mind. I wonder if anybody else remembers it. Was there really any such thing, or did I dream it?

What’s Wrong with This Memory?

Rawhide" Incident of the Pale Rider (TV Episode 1963) - Photo ...

Growing up as a member of America’s first TV generation, I have many memories of what I saw on that black-and-white screen. And one of my most vivid memories was this:

An episode of a classic Western series, Sugarfoot, circa 1959, in which Albert Salmi plays a hired killer, dressed in black, who softly sings “Streets of Laredo” as he stalks his victims. Now, how would a 10-year-old kid ever dream up something like that? And it creeped me out but good, too.

But now, now (!) I know that it wasn’t Sugarfoot, but Rawhide, it wasn’t 1959 but 1963, and Salmi’s character was not a hired killer but rather an enigma–as in, Is this guy even real? flesh and blood? what the devil is he? He does dress in black, though, and sing “Streets of Laredo.” If you’re interested, the Rawhide episode is called “Incident of the Pale Rider,” and we watched it last night on Youtube. Superb! And it was cool to see what Albert Salmi could do as an actor, when given the chance.

But really–why was my memory so far off the track? Now I have to worry about my other memories. Are they all off-base? I doubt it; but then why should this one have been so badly off-target?

Well, there were an awful lot of TV westerns back then, and I watched most of them, and this one with Albert Salmi, I only saw once. His character impressed itself deeply on my memory, but the details got mixed up.

Good thing I wasn’t a witness in a court case!

A Blast from the Past

Sorry! But I couldn’t resist this blast from the past (lots of blasts, actually)–former National League first baseman Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, a classic TV Western from way back when. I wonder what would happen if you showed this on a college campus today.

Two questions for trivia buffs:

How many shots does the rifleman get off in just this brief intro?

And what was Chuck Connors’ real name?

(P.S.–His lifetime batting average was only .238, so quitting his day job wasn’t a problem for him.)

Memory Lane: ‘Tales of Wells Fargo’

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I had to go to Wells Fargo today to do yet more paperwork for Aunt Joan’s very small estate. As I sat there at the banker’s desk, and he ran stuff through his computer, I got to thinking about one of the many TV westerns that I used to watch when I was a kid–including Tales of Wells Fargo, starring Dale Robertson as a Wells Fargo agent who went around having all sorts of adventures and foiling the bad guys. It ran from 1957 through 1962, complete with comic books and bubblegum cards.

I don’t know what I would’ve thought, back then, if I’d found out Wells Fargo is just a bank–a bank!–like any other bank: the last place in the world you’d go to, if you were looking for really colorful adventures. Oh, the crushing disappointment! It’d be like finding out that Tarzan was a greeter at Walmart. Or that Bat Masterson was a sportswriter for a newspaper. (Uh, dude–Bat really was a sportswriter… fap…)

It was all a lot more interesting, the way it was shown on TV.

The Incredible Dyslexic TV Western

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If you’re into 1950s TV, you’ll recognize Paladin’s business card from Have Gun, Will Travel. But how many of you know the show only turned out the way it did because a famous Hollywood producer suffered from a reading disability?

Believe it or not, Have Gun, Will Travel was originally set in East Africa, not the Old West, and Richard Boone’s “Paladin” was originally named “Dinalap” and was not a gunslinger-for-hire, but a safari guide. And the show’s title was Have Gnu, Will Travel.

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Then the script fell into the hands of producer Izzy Kidden, who had dyslexia and didn’t usually read scripts himself. But he read this one, and confused “Gnu” with “Gun” and his imagination did the rest. Westerns were the hottest thing on TV, anyhow–the studio could hardly go wrong, offering another one.

What is not known by hardly anyone is that the associate producers had already gone ahead and obtained a tame gnu, or wildebeest, to co-star with Richard Boone. Boone took an instant liking to the animal, named it “Jambo Jimbo,” and used to drive it around in his car. He threw one of Hollywood’s more famous tantrums when he was informed that the new show would be a Western without Jambo Jimbo in it.

The director, however, who had gotten on Jambo’s bad side and been chased up ladders by the wildebeest several times, felt greatly relieved by the studio’s decision.

“No gnus is good news!” he said.

Memory Lane: ‘Whiplash’

In 1960 something new appeared on America TV: Whiplash, a western, if that’s the right word, set in Australia.

It should’ve been a hit. The star, Peter Graves, had been a success with Fury, a great kids’ show about a boy and his black stallion. Graves would go on to have a huge hit with Mission: Impossible, but at the time, Whiplash didn’t seem to do much for his career. Maybe because the British and Australian co-producers spent a fortune to film the series in Australia, but Graves insisted on filming much of it in a studio once they got there.

Much of the show was written by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to become famous for Star Trek.

You’d think the exotic locale, stories of adventure in the Outback during the Great Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s, and episodes featuring many of Australia’s most successful actors of the era, would have propelled the show to the TV hall of fame. But it only ran for two seasons, 1960-61. Critics are kinder to it now than they were then.

It even had a cool theme song. What’s not to like?

Well, I liked it! I was eleven years old, I’d been a Fury fan for years, and this show made me want to go to Australia and see the kangaroos close up.

I have yet to meet anyone else who remembers it, though.

Memory Lane, ‘Sky King’

Remember this? Sky King–the only TV Western hero who flew his own airplane, which he called, affectionately, Songbird.

Sky King started as a radio show in 1946 and ran on television from 1951 through 1962–quite long-lived for a TV series. It starred Kirby Grant as Sky King, who always caught the bad guys but never killed them, and Gloria Winters as his niece and co-pilot, Penny. I had kind of a crush on her when I was 11. I wonder if my other girlfriends at the time, Jean Simmons and Lee Remick, ever got jealous.

Anyway, this little clip ought to bring back pleasant memories. It was such a can’t-miss idea–a Western with an airplane–you wonder why it took so long to think of it.

‘Incident of the Druid Curse’

How cool were 1950s TV Westerns? “Incident of the Druid Curse” was an episode from Season #2 of Rawhide, vintage 1960. You’re driving cattle from Texas to the market in Sedalia, Kansas, and you run into… an archeologist and his daughter (Byron Foulger and Luana Patten) searching for evidence that Druids were here, 2,000 years ago.

Just another ol’ day in the Old West, right? Try to work around the fact that the daughter 100% believes in all this Druid stuff, but it’s too late to send her back home to Boston. And throw in a little gang of bad eggs, led by Claude Akins, who are too ignorant to recognize metaphor and hyperbole when they hear it, and decide to kidnap the archeologists and force them to reveal the location of this fabulous ancient treasure that does not, in fact, exist.

Thanks to youtube, my wife and I watched this episode a few nights ago and greatly enjoyed it. At one point, even though I knew what I was going to see, I still got a bumper crop of genuine gooseflesh when I saw it. No, I’m not going to tell you what it was: that would spoil it. Suffice it to say that this is a very eerie story, brilliantly written, brilliantly performed, and most definitely not what you’d expect. I’m amazed by the skills of TV screenwriters of that era, how much action, dialogue, and insight they could pack into just 50 minutes of air time–without ever seeming to be rushing things, or jamming too much into it, or leaving out information that they ought to include.

Rawhide–best remembered now for giving Clint Eastwood his big break in acting, and Frankie Laine’s rendition of the theme song–was just another one of dozens of great TV programs from that period. Come to think of it, it also gave actor Sheb Wooley, one of the cowhands on the show, the opportunity to score with a hit record, The Flying Purple People Eater (“It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people-eater…”)

[ Here is the Miller Company’s classic rendition of Sheb Wooley’s Flying Purple People Eater. Are any of you old enough to remember these great toys?]

There’s always the chance that when you look back on things you used to enjoy, long ago in life, you’re looking through rose-colored glasses and remembering things as a lot better than they really were.

Thanks to youtube, I’ve been able to confirm that those old shows that I thought were so great… really were so great!

The New, Improved, Politically Correct ‘Wagon Train’

Our secret agent in Hollywood reports that Schlockmeister Studios is going to remake the classic late-1950s TV Western series, Wagon Train.

“But of course,” says studio honcho J.T. Fidget, “we’re going to update Wagon Train to bring it fully into line with today’s highly-evolved, modern sensibilities.”

So instead of Major Adams leading the wagon train, we’ll have Sister Twonda, a street-smart African-American nun, and her wife, Spike, 450 pounds of towering female fury. Instead of Flint McCullough as the scout, we’ll have a “gay” character named Zooey (“Oh, the Native American braves are just so fabulously brave!”), and Charlie the Cook will be replaced by Imam Khalil, who will make sure everybody on the wagon train eats a proper Muslim diet, or else.

Out of respect for animal rights, the wagons won’t be drawn by horses, mules, or oxen anymore, but only by heterosexual white men. To Save the Planet, the train won’t actually go anywhere. It’ll just go around and around in a circle. The passengers will all be undocumented Mexican immigrants living on checks from the government. And each episode will begin and end with a sermon against the evils of heteronormativity. [Gee, look at that–my computer’s spell-check doesn’t recognize any such word as “heteronormativity.” Obviously it has never been to collidge.]

“A lot of those old classic shows were very good,” says Fidget, “as opposed to most of the shows we produce today, which are crap. All those old shows need, to be popular again today, is drastic modification which will make them grotesque parodies of themselves. And that should be easy!”