childhood, Culture, Entertainment, Uncategorized

Those Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear

If I could imagine anything better, I would. It just happens that the COVID lockdown has actually delivered an unintended dividend which has captured my conscious state most every day. Cowboys and horses.

I am not much of a daytime TV viewer, but as we are under a house arrest, since March 2020 for the record, I have seen a lot more TV than I ever dreamed. The center of my attention has been a parade of cowboy shows: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Laredo, Alias Smith & Jones, The Virginian, Branded, Rifleman, Palladin.

The Virginian: great viewing while under COVID house arrest.

Now you may think that I have dissolved my brain and body into a bowl of mush after viewing these chestnuts. Not quite, but I have come to discover the glory days of TV-show series productions that no longer grace our screens. The “horse opera”, or “oater” was edged out in the mid-70s. They fell ratings-victims to the more glib sit-coms, pant-suited police shows, and family drama shows.

Bonanza: the family western!

In the 60s, and I mean 1960s, we sat as entranced kids, knees akimbo, or chins on hands, hunched in front of the black and white TV watching westerns like Bonanza. But a decade before that popular series began, we could choose to witness the escapades of Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger, Hop Along Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Rin Tin Tin, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Cheyenne.

The 50s: those thrilling days of yesteryear.

There are plenty more, and just to check them off for you detail-minders: Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, Wells Fargo, Maverick, Bronco, Wanted, Dead or Alive, to name the many.

But by the 70s these had mostly been displaced by shows that deleted three items from our consciousness: cowboy hats, six-shooters and horses.

Instead, we alternately suffered or enjoyed the Partridge Family, Odd Couple, Three’s Company, Jeffersons, 8 is Enough, All In the Family, Brady Bunch, Mary Tyler Moore, Happy Days and Here’s Lucy. There are more, but let this marquee of family-centric shows suffice.

The horse, the hat, the six-shooter: all gone.

In the time that many of us breached puberty, we had lost the thrill of leather, cattle, wagons and corrals. We were deep into relationships.

I realized this as I settled in to a season’s COVID binge of cowboy shows. My realization also cast some light on a lost art and science of TV and movie production. Actors needed to master these techniques: riding a horse, drawing a six-shooter, faking a jaw-breaking punch, managing a team of horses and wagon, staunchly taking a bullet to the shoulder, shooting while galloping, sipping mugs of sudsy beer and bolting shots of bad whiskey frequently. The broader science of running a herd of cattle comes to mind as well.

I mention these activities, because they are gone from sight. Hollywood can’t do it any more. Yet they were at the time, a serious accomplishment, a competency equal in every way to playing professional sports, race car driving, gymnastics and kick lines. You can’t fake it.

As a young kid, I was immersed in these early cowboy shows and learned the swagger, the tilt of the hat, the quick draw, and taking the eventual body shot that required a complete tumble, head over heels and into the dirt.

Budding cowpoke, ranch hand and saddle tramp.

The High Production Quality That Followed

There are two family shows, both from the 70s, which I do admire for their high production quality and diverse, detailed stage production: Little House On The Prairie, and The Waltons.

Little House boasted a full fictional community in Walnut Grove, Minnesota during the 1870-1890s. In 204 episodes viewers were taken into the workplaces of the saw mill, Oleson’s General Store, the church, the ice house, the school, the post office, the bank, Nellie’s restaurant, and Doc Baker’s office. We sat at the table of the Ingalls, the Olesons, the Garveys, Mr.Edwards and the blind school.

Little House On The Prairie–Quality Production

All the while, we followed Laura, Mary, Albert Ingalls and all of their school friends over the fields, through the streets, and to the ponds and streams. Sometimes they rode horses, plowed dirt rows, delivered calves, milked cows, fed chickens and held piglets in their arms. In spectacular scenes they climbed mountain sides, rode railway cabooses, forged steel bells and ran through burning houses. Where do you see that today?

The Waltons took us to the mountains.

The Walton’s gave us a rural mountain picture of life in the 30s to 40s with the same comprehensive production settings: a two-story farm house, a 1929 Model AA Ford truck, a cow named Chance, a working saw mill, Blue the docile mule, Reckless the dog, Rover, the occasional peacock, plus a menagerie of other pets and wildlife. The characters lasted for almost the entire series of 221 episodes. We watched as they worked the mill, cut and dipped fence posts, drove their jalopies to school, visited Ike Godsie’s General Store, hiked the back woods, went to church and college, sat at the kitchen table, circled around the radio, birthed calves… these scenes aren’t happening on TV any more.

For the record, Little House was mostly shot around the Big Sky Ranch in the Simi Valley, all under the direction of Ed Friendly Productions.The Waltons was filmed around Hollywood Hills and Burbank by Lorimar productions. Walton’s Mountain itself was on the backside of the same chunk of granite that displays the Hollywood sign.

I am not criticizing the state of television viewing today. But I am marveling at just how full an education the young actors and actresses of Waltons and Little House received.

And at the same time, what young viewers also learned from these classic family shows. Waltons and Ingalls children took their viewers out of their homes, out of the cities and alleys, and gave them some wide open spaces to enjoy and appreciate.

When this COVID blows away, I hope we get outside some more. Mean time, there’s Wagon Train.

Thanks for reading! Take a preview at my latest book, Norfolk Chronicles, a treasury of 50 tales, sightings and vignettes from the tobacco fields, alleys and roads of Norfolk County, and Delhi, my hometown.

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8 thoughts on “Those Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear

  1. Brian Mawhiney says:

    Another great visit to our childhood. Most of the programs I did watch . A couple I wasn’t familiar with. Those were wonderful programs that didn’t need to be rated . They were for the entire family. I can remember getting a set of six guns one Christmas. You could put a roll of caps into them and have a real shootout. I bought a black Stetson at the Calgary Stampede in July 1959. I was so proud of that. hat. Bat Masterson was the Parade Marshal that year. What a thrill !
    I would have know that was you with the hat and gun even if you hadn’t included it in your article.

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    • Ah Brian! I forgot Bat Masterson! Gene Barry, that suave debonair riverboat gambler who clubbed people with his gold handled baton. A great show! We all had six guns. In that pic I included you won’t see that I actually cut off one of the holsters. The belt was so heavy it dragged down my pants.
      Thanks for writing!

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  2. martin says:

    shot me right in the heart!!
    I loved those shows too. My favorites were the Lone Ranger and “The Range Rider”. But I watched them all and loved every minute.
    Somehow, while emulating, the act of getting shot might cost me a “count to 100” before we could get up and participate again – and yet I never desired to own a real gun or to shoot anyone.
    Mostly I loved the iconic scenes, to watch a guy crash through as second story window, over the saloon, and then roll down the half roof onto a hay wagon……..great stuff…….

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    • Hey Martin! The crash and tumble from the second floor balcony was a work of art, plus science. For me, the western demonstrated two phenomena: shoddy marksmanship and near invincibility. As I watched the predictable shoot outs on Main Street, in the corral and up in the hills, it was clear that the cowboy could not hit the broadside of a cow at six feet. As for a successful wing shot, it was also predictable that a guy could withstand a 45-caliber slug to the rotator cuff with minimal discomfort that would make a dentist jealous for the anesthetic. Never mind in real life that most bullet woundings would see our hero writhe in extreme pain before passing out from shock. We have become physical weaklings! But the shows were western fantasy; loved them all.

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    • Hi Allan! Jay Silverheels was a genuine aboriginal native, who lived on the Six Nations Reserve south of Brantford, and northeast of Delhi, Ontario, my old hometown. I missed him, and he will hold that special place as sidekick, just like Jingles, Pat Brady, Pancho, Chester, Rin Tin Tin, Bullet, Trigger, and Silver. Thanks for writing!

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  3. I’m with you, Phil. I love these older Westerns. My favorites are The Rifleman, The Wild, Wild West, and High Chaparral. I was also a huge Waltons fan (before the kids got older) and actually visited the original Hamner house in Schuyler, Virginia while my family was on vacation (1973?). I also love the cowboy pic of you. (I’m off-camera somewhere, playing the Indian.)

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    • Peter: we lived out on the edge of a huge Christmas tree lot. There was a stone barn foundation and two old milk wagons from the Delhi Sanitary Dairy. Amidst all this were scores of Indians and hombres out there looking for a clear ambush. It was exciting, and a treat that we had roll caps to fire at will. The black powder smell was intoxicating. Thanks for writing!

      Liked by 1 person

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