Saturday, February 21, 2009

Big Screen Cowboy Love

Me at 4 years old, dressed as a cowboy, in a portrait painted by my mother, Shirley Moskowitz

When I was a kid, I dressed up as a cowboy -- and so did friends of mine in Hungary, England, France, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic.... you name it.

The myth of the American Frontier and Wild West is universal -- everyone feels at home in it.

I came across this column in a North Carolina newspaper describing the allure of movie cowboys.

I loved cowboys. Roy Rogers. Gene Autry. Tom Mix. Lash LaRue. They were all heroes, but Roy Rogers was my favorite. You could always count on Roy when the going got tough. I couldn't wait to see my First Cowboy Movie.
I wanted to warn the rider, to scream, "Watch out!" No words would come out. I thought he was a goner for sure. But out of nowhere, here comes Roy, guns blazing, Trigger pounding the earth, nostrils flaring, sweat glistening on his neck. The Indians scattered before Roy's fists and bullets. When the movie ended, I was a cowboy, too, and Roy had his arm across my shoulders, thanking me for all my help.

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I remember feeling much the same way -- but about cowboys on TV. I can't remember going to see cowboy films at the movies. My favorite, that that of the writer of this column, was also Roy Rogers. But the "Jingles" character played by Andy Devine in Wild Bill Hickock was also a fave -- I recall carrying a cut-out of him from the picture on the box of Sugar Corn Pops cereal with me, en route to kindergarten. Ah, and then there was Hopalong Cassidy, with his picture stuck on the end of Wonder Bread wrappers....and the Cisco Kid, and Sky King, and the Range Rider, and Cheyenne, and all the rest.

Several years ago, I had a visiting scholar fellowship at the Autry National Center/Institute for the Study of the American West. Specifically, I was looking at the creation and marketing of the Western Myth. The Autry has a terrific collection of memorabilia from cowboy movies and TV shows, many of which also were popular in Europe. Gene Autry himself, of course, was tremendously popular -- when he toured the UK and Ireland in 1939 he drew enormous crowds and staged high-profile stunts, such as riding his horse, Champion, into the Savoy Hotel in London. Still, I did find it a little disconcerting when I visited a Czech Wild West theme park not long ago, and, in the lobby of its "Colorado" hotel, the theme song from Bonanza way playing -- sung in Czech.

Karl May Festival, Radebeul, Germany, May 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

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