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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.