If you’re a GEEZER and a BOOMER and watched television as a kid, surely you remember the many westerns televised in the early 1950s. They were like the detective/crime shows are today—the most popular genre on any network. Some shows were more for adults (but most kids watched them) and some were more just for kids. In many ways, I think these shows specifically directed at me had a great deal of influence on how I would later perceive my world. I think it made me a better person. After all, how could you go wrong if you followed Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code also known as the Ten Cowboy Commandments:
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
(Can you imagine if every U.S. Congressman followed this same code?)
None of these shows worried a lot about having a fascinating new plot each week. All the evildoers were pretty standard; they were stealing something (cows, horses, money, gold shipments), causing a women distress, picking on orphans, kidnapping someone, mistreating Indians, breaking out of prison, or just plain taking advantage of the weak. What the villains did drove the show. The hero just responded by stopping them and bringing them to justice.
These basic plots were used over and over by every western series. The plots of each show were so similar it is quite possible they traded or stole story ideas from each other. The thing was, no one cared—the real story was how every week some new set of evil instigators were made to pay by the hero (these guys were the first superheroes [along with Superman who first showed up on TV in 1952]).
All the heroes were also strangely similar:
They never shot anyone. They just handled the criminal by knocking them out or shooting the gun out of their hand.
When shooting, they would fling the gun forward as if slinging the bullets out the gun barrel by hand.
They all word frilly, gaudy, contrasting (only black and white), or fancy dress clothing that no real cowboy would be caught dead in.
The hero’s clothes never got dirty or messed up.
All were good with a rope and could expertly lasso a bad guy and pull him off a horse at full gallop.
If the hero fell off his horse, was punched, or fell down a mineshaft his hat never came off.
Pistols were always bright and shining and kept in fancy, ornamental holsters.
They were in saloons a lot, but never drank.
Many heroes were good with a bullwhip (but only for dislodging a bad guys gun).
The hero’s horse was always better looking than their sidekick.
There were absolutely no romantic entanglements (except for Roy and Dale).
Sidekicks were always a bit quirky and often clueless.
After concluding their hero business, they quickly rode out-of-town (to avoid lawsuits?).
So there is really no reason to talk much about what these shows were about. I’ll just talk about what was unique about each one.
The Lone Ranger (1949-1957)
Star: Clayton Moore
Horse: Silver (white)
Sidekick: Tonto (Jay Silverheels)
Horse: Scout (paint)
The Lone Ranger was one of the first western shows for kids. No one will ever forget how every episode started with a masked man waving his hat as Silver reared up and pawed the air with his hooves. Then you would hear a voiceover, “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty, “Hi-yo Silver.”
The original plot line of the Lone Ranger came about when a group of Texas rangers were ambushed and all killed except one. This man became the “Lone Ranger” and fashion a mask from his dead brother’s (one of the dead rangers) vest (story goes that the eye holes in the mask were the bullet holes that killed the brother) to hide his identity. He then set out to right wrongs using silver bullets to remind him that all lives were precious (this may have started the fad where very few cartridges were expended by any western hero).
At the close of every episode, someone would always ask, “Who was that masked man?” The response was always, “Oh, he’s the Lone Ranger,” whereupon the Lone Ranger and Tonto would ride off (just in front of the lawyers) in a cloud of dust, yelling “Hi-yo, Silver, Away!”
The Gene Autry Show (1950-1556)
Star: Gene Autry
Sidekick: Smiley Burnette and Pat Buttram
Geez, I don’t remember much about this show. I looked up the individual plots for every episode (you can do anything on the Internet) and it was amazing. They match (and I mean exactly) the typical plots I listed earlier. It was so close it was kind of spooky. I’ll try that again on the next cowboy hero.
What I do remember was Gene sitting astride his horse (both legs on the same side–side-saddle) so he could strum his guitar while he rode along. The songs I remember best were Back in the Saddle Again, Jingle, Jangle, Jingle and South of the Border. He was also big at Christmas singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Here Comes Santa Claus, and Up on the House Top. They were some of the most popular songs of the 1950s.
Autry was installed in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969. For many years, he owned the Los Angeles Angels baseball team.
The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957)
Star: Roy Rogers
Wife: Dale Evans
Horse: Trigger (Palomino)
Dog: Bullet (German Shepherd)
Sidekick: Pat Brady, Andy Devine, and Gabby Hayes
I looked up the plots for this show and found: claim-jumpers, murder, smuggling, prisoners, stolen loot, and escaped convict. Apparently, I pretty well nailed the themes for these shows.
Early in his life, Rogers was a singing cowboy and member of The Sons of the Pioneers. They had such hits as Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water. Later, Roy did one of my all-time favorites (and also the only song I ever heard my dad say he liked), Don’t Fence Me In.” Roy and Dale also sang Happy Trails which was the theme song for the show. Roy was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988.
Roy Roger’s nickname was “King of the Cowboys” and his horse Trigger was almost as famous as he was. It is true that when Trigger died in 1965 at the age of 33, Roy had the horse mounted by a taxidermist. A full-sized Trigger as well as Dale’s horse, Buttermilk, and Bullet were also eventually mounted and displayed together at the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri. Seems, however, Roy’s request, “When I die, just skin me out and put me up on old Trigger and I’ll be happy,” was never honored. When the museum closed in 2009, Trigger was auctioned off for $266,500.
The Cisco Kid (1950-1956)
Star: Duncan Renaldo
Horse: Diablo (paint)
Sidekick: Pancho (Leo Carrillo)
Horse: Loco (palomino)
The show always started with Cisco and Pancho riding hard across the screen. The announcement,” Here’s adventure! Here’s romance! Here’s O. Henry’s famous Robin Hood of the Old West—The Cisco Kid!” In checking the episode content, there are no surprises—very similar to the other westerns.
I wondered why I seem to remember Pancho so much better than Cisco, so I took a look a few of the old shows. In them, Pancho was often the main focus of the show. He acted like he was rather simple-minded, but he made one funny statement after the other and his dialogue was more complex and much more imaginative than Cisco’s.
To me, Pancho, with his big sombrero, polka-doted shirts, and yellow bandana, and his witty discourse was easily the most flamboyant of all the sidekicks when he talked it was with gusto and a thick Mexican accent. He ended most sentences with a laugh. Also, Pancho’s palomino horse was much more impressive than Cisco’s paint horse—what’s that all about? Pancho was impossible not to like and I now realize was my favorite character in all the half-hour westerns.
Every show ended the same, Pancho would say something dumb and Cisco would say “Oh, Pancho!” Then Pancho would say “Oh, Cisco! Then they would ride up on the screen, wave to the audience and Cisco would shout “Adios, until we see you again amigos!” followed by Pancho with “Hasta la vista!”
The Hopalong Cassidy Show (1952-1954)
Star: William Boyd
Sidekick: Gabby Hayes
Hopalong Cassidy is as clear a vision to me today as he was on my TV over 60 years ago. A good-looking guy dressed with pure white hair (prematurely). He wore a black hat, black shirt, black holster and black pants tucked into his black boots—in stark contrast to his horse that was pure white. I must have missed it in the shows, but now I read that the name Hopalong came from his being shot in the leg in an earlier movie.
Again, (apparently I’m fascinated with this trivia) I checked the plots for many of the episodes. Same old standards, but also found; locked in a religious shrine, suffering from amnesia, vigilante terrorists (?), counterfeiting Mexican currency, dishonest election, and returned from the dead (ghosts). Either the Hopalong show was very different or I have shortchanged all these shows on creativity.
In the 1950s, Time Magazine said, “Boyd made Hoppy a veritable Galahad of the range, a soft-spoken Paragon who did not smoke, drink, or kiss a girls, who tried to capture rustlers instead of shooting them, and who always let the villain draw first if gunplay was inevitable (and I’ll bet he shot the gun out of their hand every single time).”
In 2009, the U.S. Postal Service issued a pane of commemorative postage stamps honoring early television programs. William Boyd as Hopalong and riding on Topper was one of the selected stamps (The Lone Ranger was also one of the stamps).
I don’t remember many specific things about my childhood. Basically if something didn’t hurt, it was soon forgotten. But I saw hundreds of these cowboy shows at a very formative age and I do think there is a correlation in what I came to feel about how life should be lived. I’ve always felt a person should:
• Be responsible for their actions.
• Never be dishonest.
• Take care of themselves.
• Respect parents, elders, teachers, and police officers (I’ve taken our political leaders off the list).
• Serve their country if needed.
• Mind their own business.
• Help people who need help.
• Work hard.
• Clean my plate.
Thing is, this list just paraphrases Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code. So I guess some of those hundreds of hours of television westerns did have an effect.
Today, I watch children’s television with the grandkids and although I’m not the kind of guy to get appalled, I am. The shows are violent, demeaning, and encourage kids to grow up much too quickly.
I don’t feel I can do much about what television offers my grandkids. I’m glad my daughter limits the time the kids can spend watching the set (and all video material) and offers them a lot of other things to do. As far as I’m concerned you could replace all the kid’s shows today with the westerns of our childhood without changing a single thing and everyone would benefit by it. Problem is, that’s not going to happen unless someone finds a way to make money on it. But deep down, I also believe that “what goes around, comes around” and some day “Hi-yo Silver “ may be shouted on television once more (probably by some biker dude riding his hog he calls Silver).