I grew up with westerns. Dad bought our first TV set (black and white) from Sears and Roebuck in 1956 when I was eight years old. Westerns were as thick on that new tube as fleas on The Shaggy Dog — about like detective shows and silly sitcoms now. Most of those old shows didn’t stand the test of time. I still Google some now and then and watch through the eyes of nostalgia. The plots were very simplistic, usually only a half-hour long. But in that day and time, for us, they were awesome. We had only ever heard The Lone Ranger (the real one) and Roy Rogers and other shows on radio before then. To see the visuals right in our living room just blew our minds.
Back then, you could set your watch and mark the calendar religiously by the TV schedule. If you had a favorite show on Tuesday night, it came on Tuesday night, and on time with no repeats till school was out for the summer. We all gathered round in the evenings. Mom and Dad on the couch and the rest of us siblings on the floor. It was a nightly routine and we knew the words and sound of every theme song. And, of course, in black and white. I still love black and white movies.
Some were after school shows. I hurried up the hill when the school bus let us out at the highway. I wanted to get home in time to grab some milk and a snack and watch The Cisco Kid and his pal Poncho. It was aired on WBRC in Birmingham and was part of The Magic City kid’s show The Circle 6 Ranch, hosted by Benny Carle. The Circle 6 Ranch hosted such guests as Gene Autry, Duncan Renaldo (the Cisco Kid), Pat Buttram, Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone, The Lone Ranger, Steve McQueen, and many other stars of the era. And, by the way, our Benny Carle got to do some walk-on roles on Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. The only one I remember seeing him in was Gunsmoke. We were plastered to the set that night for a glimpse of our hometown star.
I remember watching Wagon Train (1957-1965) with, initially, Ward Bond as the wagon master. My favorite character was Robert Fuller who played Cooper Smith and replaced Robert Horton as the scout. Fuller also starred in Laramie as Jess Harper, along with John Smith and the ever-sweet and lovely Spring Byington, and a few years later, as the doctor on “Emergency”. He always seemed so intense in every role. I had a school-girl crush on Robert Fuller, and met him years later at a media event I was covering for the paper.
Throughout my growing-up years, this young scout from Wagon Train had seemed bigger than life. It turned out he wasn’t much taller than me and weighed about the same. Which was not much at that young stage of my life. But it didn’t seem to make much difference. Even though Fuller was a little worse for wear the evening I met him, in my mind he was still my cowboy hero. I had my picture taken with him and Joe Mascolo, who played on Jaws 2 and for several years was Stefano DiMera in Days of Our Lives. Wagon Train episodes were an hour long and I still enjoy watching them occasionally today.
Other favorites were The Texan (Rory Calhoun, 1958-1960), Wyatt Earp (Hugh O’Brian – TV series 1955-1961; the long-lasting Death Valley Days, sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax, continued from 1952-1970, starring Robert Taylor, another western that originated on radio. It also starred the late President Ronald Reagan, who also appeared in many other westerns during his acting years and was host to General Electric Theater.
And, not to leave out Gunsmoke (1955-1975) with James Arness as Matt Dillon and its iconic cast: Milburn Stone as Doc, Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, and, originally, Dennis Weaver (McCloud) as Chester, the deputy with the stiff leg and hokey talk, later replaced by Ken Curtis as Festus. You can still watch Gunsmoke somewhere on TV or streaming today and get your money’s worth in great plot and acting. The same cannot be said of Bonanza or the later-aired Big Valley, though in our simplicity we loved them at the time.
There were so many early TV westerns it would be hard to list them all here, but they brought great enjoyment and entertainment to, not only our family, but to a nation of families of the nineteen-fifties. The TV set changed America for good and ill. It also changed my life in another way. I always lay right in front of the set and mom and dad had to keep telling me to scoot back. It was the first evidence that I was half blind and needed glasses.