Sunday, September 26, 2010

Imaginary Wild West: A Point of Origin..... (and a childhood heart-throb)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Yesterday, I went to the festivities celebrating the 75th anniversary of Republic Pictures, the old movie studio that produced Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies, as well a host of other cinematic B-westerns -- and thus and major point of origin in the creation and marketing of the imaginary Wild West.
Founded in 1935 by Herbert J. Yates, Republic Pictures was an independent film production-distribution corporation with studio facilities. Republic exploded into national prominence with its focus in westerns, movie serials and B-films emphasizing mystery and action, the staples of Saturday afternoon matinees. The studio launched the careers of John Wayne, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Roy Rogers, and rocketed serials like The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe into the public imagination. Notable Republic Pictures include Under Western Stars (1938), Flying Tigers (1942), Macbeth (1948), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Red Pony (1949), The Quiet Man (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954).
It was a sort of fair/festival set up at the studio, now CBS studios, in Studio City. Oddly, there seemed to be very little publicity for the event, and it was even hard to find where to enter -- there did not seem to be any signage pointing the way.

It was a brutally hot day -- 104 degrees F -- and that may have deterred people from attending: I was surprised at how empty it was (though the air-conditioned panel discussions and memorabilia/autograph hall were crowded).

The actor Hugh O'Brian (AKA TV's  Wyatt Earp) waits for fans to buy his autograph or picture. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Much of it reminded me of western festivals in Europe -- though on a smaller scale. There were people dressed up in old time western costumes, and  stands selling western goods and duds

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

And a couple of country-western bands

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My biggest thrill, though it was sort of poignant, too, was to come across Hugh O'Brian, the actor who portrayed Wyatt Earp in the icon TV show of my childhood, sitting in the autograph/memorabilia hall, selling his autograph, autographed pictures and other material. He was a Wild West hero of mine, and it was all I could do to stop myself from bursting out into the Wyatt Earp theme song...."Long may his fame and long may his glory and long may his story be told!"

O'Brian is about 85 now, and looks great; but he was surrounded by the glory of his swashbuckling youth, and I find myself rather squeamish at the sight of one-time stars, in their "twilight years", selling their signature for $20 a pop. Of course, why shouldn't they?  (O'Brian also has a web site where he sells memorabilia and also offers to make personal phone calls.)

Hugh O'Brian. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

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