Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rattlesnake Annie -- Japanese country music fusion. The far reach of the imaginary wild west

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Rattlesnake Annie is an American country blues singer, now in her 60s, who made a career in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s dueting with the late Czech country star Michal Tucny. I met her, in fact,  2007 at a country mustic festival in Prague that was dedicated to Tucny's memory on what would have been his 60th birthday. In recent years Annie has spent much of her time in Japan -- and recently produced this song, an English-Japanese country fusion  that provides a fascinating visual (and sound) record of the country music scene in Japan.

I knew about the rich and longstanding bluegrass scene in Japan, but I didn't know much about the "mainstream" country music scene and fan base.

BTW -- here is my favorite Michal Tucny video, a song called The Last shows how country-western music and self-identity played a role as an escape (and defense) from the dreary communist reality...part of the widespread "internal exile" practiced by many in their weekend houses and around their tramp settlement campfires.

Monday, December 13, 2010

USA -- Interesting Private Real Imaginary Wild West in Arizona

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Los Angeles Times reports on a private Wild West town in Arizona.....Cowtown Keeylocko: "An odd mixture of the real and the fanciful, this 'town' is technically a working ranch in the middle of the desert. But to its founder it's a cowboy's paradise."

The article, by Nicole Santa Cruz, is about Ed Keeylocko, 79, who is:
the founder of Cowtown Keeylocko, an 80-acre spread with handmade buildings of wood and tin. Founded in December of 1974, it's and located about 40 miles southwest of Tucson, it lies at the end of a bumpy dirt road where a sign greets visitors: "Population 5 — most of the time."

Technically, it's a working ranch in the middle of the desert, with a Tucson postal address. But to Keeylocko, it's a Wild West town — his town — and folks around this part of the state tend to view it the same way.

The town is an odd mixture of the real and the fanciful. There's a "library" with books, and a barn with real cows, pigs and chickens. But the "general store" is essentially a wooden building filled with stuff that no one would buy.

There's even a cemetery where friends' ashes are buried, and a mesquite tree festooned with various discarded boots. And, of course, there's the Blue Dog Saloon — the main attraction — which feels more like a large barn, with dirt floors and a heavy coat of dust. A weathered green baby carriage hangs from the rafters, though it's not clear why.

For decades, word of mouth has brought Tucsonans to the his ranch for parties, some opting to sleep at on the property campgrounds — if they sleep at all. Producers have staked out the grounds for movies, but usually the only residents are Keeylocko and one or two ranch hands.
 The story reminds me very much of the private wild west towns I have visited in Europe, founded by individuals who wanted to "live their dreams."

There's the private Old Texas Town in Berlin, and of course Pullman City -- which went commercial.

But they also include Halter Valley, in the Czech Republic -- whose founded told me he had been rejected for a U.S. visa five times and had never visited the States.

Sikluv Mlyn, also in the Czech Republic was founded by a man who told me he wanted to created his "own America" -- he went commercial and now has a branch in Slovakia, expanded into a fullscale theme park.

Wild West City outside Boskovice, in the CZ,  has also gone commercial. But nearby Beaver City  has remained a private Wild West enclave.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Oh No! Pullman City files for bankruptcy!

Pullman City, during Christmas market, December 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Oh no! According to news reports, Pullman City in Eging a. See, Germany, one of Europe's premier Wild West theme parks, has filed for bankruptcy.
Am Montagnachmittag hat die Pullman City Betreiber GmbH beim Amtsgericht Passau Insolvenz angemeldet. Der Betrieb soll auf alle Fälle aufrecht erhalten werden. Rechtsanwalt Oliver Mühlberger, der zum vorläufigen Insolvenzverwalter bestellt wurde, kündigte auf PaWo-Nachfrage an, dass alle kommenden Veranstaltungen wie geplant stattfinden sollen und bittet um „zahlreiche Besucher”[...]
Wie kann es sein, dass dieser Besuchermagnet in finanzielle Schieflage geraten konnte? Darüber wird momentan gerätselt. Liegt es daran, dass es wegen des verregneten Sommers nicht so lief, wie es eigentlich hätte laufen sollen? „Keiner hat mit einem Insolvenzantrag gerechnet, ich bin selber überrascht”, erklärt Insolvenzverwalter Mühlberger, der momentan dabei ist, sich in die Materie hineinzuarbeiten. Für ihn steht schon jetzt fest, dass die Westernstadt als „führender Freizeitpark” in der Region auf alle Fälle Zukunftspotential hat. „Der Betrieb soll wie eh und je weiterlaufen”, betont Mühlberger.
Die ganze Region drückt jetzt Pullman City die Daumen und hofft auf das Motto: „The Show must go on!”

Read full story on web site

Pullman City, located near Passau in Bavaria, was founded in 1997 by a group of Wild West enthusiasts who had already staged wild west shows and competitions -- I first wrote about Pullman City in a 2004 article in the New York Times. A second Pullman City now operates in central Germany near the small town of Hasselfelde. (A third one, near Vienna, Austria,  closed several years ago.)

So far its web site does not reflect any changes -- the program for the German-American Christmas market (which I attended last year) and other events is up.

Bonanza -- international appeal

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Autry Museum's Libraries blog runs a revealing post illustrating the international appeal of the TV show Bonanza.

It is based on material in the archives of David Dortort, the pioneering creator and produce of Bonanza, who died in September and who left his papers to the Autry National Center's library.
International magazines also celebrated Bonanza’s popularity and high quality production. Belgian weekly radio and television magazine Humo rated the show #1 in its 1966 annual poll. The David Dortort Archive is packed with magazines from around the world, with a particular strength in publications from European countries.
 The blog post features magazine covers in languages including

From the Autry Libraries  blog: A Cartwright for Every Woman

And Vietnamese:
From the Autry Libraries blog: 1969

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Line Dancing -- AKA "Redneck Aerobics"

A line dance team at a competition in Austria, 2005. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Reuters runs a feature on the line dancing phenomenon -- and how it is used now as a "redneck aerobics" exercise... (I once sat through a line dance competition in Austria, where each group had to perform to Achy Breaky Heart....)
Though deeply rooted in Irish and German folk traditions, line dancing was off most urban grids until 1992 when Billy Ray Cyrus, father of teen idol Miley, stomped upon the stage with his megahit "Achy Breaky Heart."
Today line dancing is a worldwide phenomenon. Devotees have formed organizations as far away as Singapore and Australia.
Adam Herbel, a.k.a. the Dancing Cowboy, teaches country line dancing at The Rodeo Club in San Jose, California. He said some come for the exercise, some for the music and atmosphere.

"We have a funny thing called redneck aerobics," said Herbel, described as a series of five or six upbeat line dances strung in a row.
"When the DJ calls out 'its redneck aerobics,' everybody knows what's coming," he said. "Sometimes the fitness gals will do pretty advanced line dancing."

Line Dancers in Berlin, March 2009.

Monday, December 6, 2010

USA -- Wild (and sometimes Imaginary) Wild West in Harrisburg, PA

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My cousin in Harrisburg turned me on to this fascinating story of a former mayor amassing, with taxpayer money, a cache of wild west artifacts -- some of them fake -- for the city of Harrisburg (Pennsylvania's capital) for a not completely determined purpose....


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Music -- Nice piece on the multi-ethnic background of cowboy songs

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

NPR runs a nice piece (with music) about the surpisingly multi-ethnic background of classic cowboy songs, from The Streets of Laredo to Cotton-Eye Joe.
a close examination of early cowboy music reveals details about some of the very first cowboys that don't fit the usual stereotypes. [...]

No one is sure how many African-Americans worked as cowboys in the trail drives, but estimates run as high as 1 in 4. [...]

The trail drives were a unique moment in history that brought together a diverse lot of men, including freed slaves and confederate war veterans. And, while some cowboy crews were segregated, photographs of others show black and white men working side by side in [...] "range equality."

Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West" Centennial Celebrations


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This week marks the centennial of the world premiere of  "La Fanciulla del West" -- the opera by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini based on the play "The Girl of the Golden West" by David Belasco... and celebrations are under way to mark the occasion.

The opera is set during the California Gold Rush, with a wealth of wild west figures, stereotypes and iconic situations and atmosphere: the Imaginary Wild West as high culture. (I described my own visit to the Gold Rush country in October in a blog post on this site.) Puccini was inspired to some extent by Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which he saw in Italy when it made one of its tours of Europe. Puccini also owned a copy of a 1907 book on Native American music, which he used in composing the opera. He also owned a copy of Alice C. Fletcher's 1906 book  "Indian Story and Song from North America."

The premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on December 10, 1910 with Enrico Caruso and Emmy Dustin in the leading roles as Dick Johnson and Minnie, and Pasquale Amato as Jack Rance.  Arturo Toscanini was the conductor. The event merited a front page story in the New York Times.

Here's a clip of a young Placido Domingo singing an aria from it:

A web site has been launched for the centennial, and a symposium is taking place this week at Boston University.
The Metropolitan Opera will present La Fanciulla del West conducted by Nicola Luisotti and starring Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani, and Lucio Gallo, beginning December 6 and running through January 8, including a performance on December 10 one hundred years to the day of the premiere. Simonetta Puccini, the composer's granddaughter, and Walfredo Toscanini, the maestro's grandson, are expected to attend. The final performance on January 8 will be seen in more that 1,500 movie theaters around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series and broadcast live over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

Here is a synopsis of the opera from the web site

Act I. The interior of the Polka Saloon
A group of Gold Rush miners enter the saloon after a day working at the mine. After a song by traveling minstrel Jake Wallace, one of the miners, Jim Larkens, is homesick and the miners collect enough money for his fare home. A group of miners playing cards discover that Sid is cheating and want to attack him. Sheriff Jack Rance quiets the fight and pins two cards to Sid's jacket, as a sign of a cheater. A Wells Fargo agent, Ashby, enters and announces that he is chasing the bandit Ramerrez and his gang of Mexicans. Rance toasts Minnie, the girl who owns the saloon, as his future wife, which makes Sonora jealous. The two men begin to fight. Rance draws his revolver but at that moment, a shot rings out and Minnie stands next to the bar with a rifle in her hands. She gives the miners a reading lesson from the Bible. The Pony Express rider arrives and delivers a telegram from Nina Micheltorena, offering to reveal Ramerrez's hideout. The sheriff tells Minnie that he loves her. But Minnie is waiting for the right man. A stranger enters the saloon and asks for a whisky and water, who introduces himself as Dick Johnson from Sacramento, and whom Minnie had met earlier. Johnson invites Minnie to dance with him and she accepts. Angrily, Rance watches them. Ashby returns with the captured Ramerrez gang member, Castro. Upon seeing his leader, Johnson, in the saloon, Castro agrees to lead Rance, Ashby and the miners in a search for Ramerrez, and the group then follows him on a false trail and in what turns out to be a wild goose chase. But before Castro leaves, he whispers to Johnson that somebody will whistle and Johnson must reply to confirm that the place is clear. A whistle is heard, but Johnson fails to reply. Minnie shows Johnson the keg of gold that she and the miners take turns to guard at night and Johnson reassures her that the gold will be safe there. Before he leaves the saloon, he promises to visit her at her cabin. They confess their love for each other. Minnie begins to cry, Johnson comforts her before he leaves.

Act II. Minnie's dwelling

Wowkle, a Native American squaw who is Minnie’s servant, her lover Billy Jackrabbit and their baby are present as Minnie enters, wanting to get ready for Johnson’s visit. Johnson enters Minnie's cabin and she tells him all about her life. It begins to snow. They kiss and asks him to stay till morning. He denies knowing Nina Micheltorena. As Johnson hides, a posse enters looking for Ramerrez, revealing to Minnie that Johnson himself is the bandit. Angry, she orders him to leave. After leaving, Minnie hears a gunshot and she knows Johnson has been shot. Johnson staggers in and collapses, and Minnie helps him by hiding him up in the loft. Rance enters Minnie's cabin looking for the bandit and is about to give up searching for Johnson, when drops of blood fall on his hand from the loft above where Johnson is hiding. Rance forces Johnson to climb down. Minnie desperately makes Rance an offer: if she beats him at poker, he must let Johnson go free; if Rance wins, she will marry him. Hiding some cards in her stockings, Minnie cheats and wins. Rance honors the deal and
Minnie throws herself on the unconscious Johnson on the floor.

Act III. The Great California Forest

Johnson is again on the run from Ashby and the miners. Nick and Rance are discussing Johnson and wonder what Minnie sees in him when Ashby arrives in triumph: Johnson has been captured. Rance and the miners all want Johnson to be hanged. Johnson accepts the sentence and only asks the miners not to tell Minnie about his capture and his fate.
Minnie arrives, armed with a pistol, just before the execution and throws herself in front of Johnson to protect him. While Rance tries to proceed, she convinces the miners that they owe her too much to kill the man she loves, and asks them to forgive him. One by one, the miners yield to her plea. Rance is not happy but finally he too gives in. Sonora unties Johnson and set him free. The miners bid Minnie farewell. Minnie and Johnson leave California to start a new life together.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

France -- Where to eat Western and buy western duds and other


Here's a link to "American Shop Avenue" -- an online one-stop shop for everything Americana...clothes, CDs, accessories, you name it.

It's run by the folks behind a chain of Country-western restaurants in northwest France called "Oncle Scott's country restaurants" -- a joint venture between Frenchman Laurent Marie and a former trucker and country singer Scott Randall Rhodes.

According to the Oncle Scott's web site, the two met in 1996 when Marie
was realizing his dream of exploring America. He had landed in New York, his backpack his only companion. Not seeing any cowboys in the city they call the “Big Apple,” Laurent decided to head for Texas. First by bus, then by car, Laurent crossed many states, including the state of Tennessee.

He stopped in Nashville, then in Memphis, and discovered the cultural richness there was to be found in America’s short history. Rock ‘n’ roll and country music were everywhere, and Laurent was already getting ideas for his future business.
Arriving in Texarkana, Texas, the young Frenchman was overcome by a fever so severe that he decided to discontinue his journey. He turned back towards the east, and it was in the town of Vicksburg, on the border of Mississippi and Louisiana, that Laurent pulled into a rest stop alongside the highway. Parked next to him was a cowboy polishing his four-wheel drive, so typically American. This is the beginning of the story, a story of friendship…

After brief introductions, Scott invited Laurent to have a drink and get to know each other better. Their conversation lasted three days! Three days during which Scott explained the heart of America and, especially, the heart of Americans. "With Scott, hospitality is written with a capital H," recalls Laurent. "He is the nicest and most sincere man I’ve ever known, he is always in a good mood and always ready to socialize …"

A while later, Scott was invited by Laurent to discover France…

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tonto Revisited (Geographically off Topic)

Sign at a "western town" near Ilz, Austria. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I just linked to a post by my brother about images of Native Americans in art and architecture in Syracuse NY... Sam's post was pegged to an exhibition at the ArtRage gallery in Syracuse called "Tonto Revisited" about stereotypes of Native Americans in advertising and elsewhere. I have posted pictures from Europe of such stereotypes, which are widespread around the world. (The exhibition on American Indians at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin, curated by Peter Bolz, displays a collection of such Indian kitsch as part of its focus on "North American Indians: From Myth to Modern.")

What do Land ’o Lakes, Argo Cornstarch and Syracuse minor league baseball have in common? Stereotyped images of Native Americans. This exhibit is curated by Tom Huff, a Seneca/Cayuga artist living on the Onondaga Nation. It exposes the cultural mythology surrounding Native Americans. The images and objects associated with “Indians” are dictated and defined by the dominant non-Indian culture. Many of the resulting representations are culturally and socially incorrect, even racist, with exaggerated misrepresentations of Native Americans.
Huff’s collection of portrayals of menacing warriors wielding tomahawks, knives and bows and arrows found in posters, advertisements, toys, sports logos and more will be on display. He has been collecting “Indian Kitch” for over 25 years. While many may not think of them individually as destructive, this exhibit helps to illustrate how these pervasive negative preconceptions trivialize the tragedy wrought on indigenous peoples everywhere. We hope to both dispel the myths surrounding Native Americans and to encourage a new understanding of native peoples.
Tom Huff is primarily a stone sculptor working in a variety of stones, styles, and themes, traditional and contemporary. He is also a member of the CORA Foundation’s Board of Directors and has curated the November/December ArtRage exhibition, TONTO REVISITED: Native American Stereotypes. He has also curated The Nuclear Indian Series,  a solo installation and group exhibitions of contemporary Iroquois artists from the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy.
You can also view artwork and sculpture created by Tom Huff beginning in November at the Everson Museum, Oñgweson gyastoñh – Haudenosaunee: Elements, 11/13/10 thru 1/16/11 and at the Warehouse Gallery, Tom Huff: The Window Projects at The Warehouse Gallery, 11/18/10 thru 2/19/11.

(Geographically off-topic) -- Native Americans in Art and Architecture
Sculpture in Syracuse by Luise Kaish. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My brother Sam Gruber has posted a thoughtful reflection about images of Native Americans used in art and architecture in Syracuse NY, on his blog about central New York state. He posts a selection of photographs showing Native Americans as heroic and submissive.
This month there are several local exhibitions related to art by and representations of Native Americans. New art of Haudenosaunee artists is on view at the Everson Museum in the exhibition Haudenosaunee: Elements. Popular and especially commercial and advertising images American Indians fill the walls of ArtRage Gallery in an exhibition of the collection of artist Tom Huff, entitled Tonto Revisited. Tom, a Seneca/Cayuga artist living on the Onondaga Nation, has been collecting “Indian Kitsch” for over 25 years.

Images of Indians are hardly new in Syracuse, a city situated in the center of the Onondaga Nation at the heart of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. These exhibitions should make people even more attentive.
Read full post HERE

Monday, November 8, 2010

Movies -- New Canadian Documentary on Hollywood Indians

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

There's a new (or newish -- I think it came out last year) documentary out about the depiction of Native Americans in the movies. It's called Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian. It's made by a Cree filmmaker with the (iconic? ironic?) name of Neil Diamond.

The movie goes over territory treated in several books, including the landmark "Playing Indian" by Philip J. Deloria.

From first glance at the web site and trailers, it looks interesting (and fun) but seems not to touch the important depiction of Native Americans in the West German Winnetou movies -- or the East German Indianer films (or any other European contruct).

The National Film Board of Canada, which sponsored the movie, has a more sober trailer:

Interestingly -- the National Film Board also sponsored an earlier documentary -- "If Only I Were an Indian"  (1995)-- that looks at Native American hobbyists in the Czech Republic.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

France -- Country Music from France; Steve & Heather

My friends Steve & Heather, a country music act in France, have a new video with excerpts of their Country Party shows, filmed at several leading country venues in France. (Heather is American; Steve is French.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

More on David Dortort, the Creator of Bonanza

"Bonanza" snack bar, train station, Lodz, Poland, 2005. photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I have an article in Tablet Magazine today, in which I write about David Dortort, the creator of the iconic TV show Bonanza, who died in September -- I wrote about his death in an earlier post -- and tell the story the related to me about how his Uncle Harry fought with Pancho Villa....
Some years ago, when I first visited Sikluv Mlyn, a Wild West theme park in the Czech Republic, I was startled by the music piped in to the lobby of my hotel. It was the unmistakable theme song from the iconic TV show Bonanza–sung in Czech.
Bonanza, which ran from 1959 to 1973, recounted the adventures of the tight-knit Cartwright clan—the patriarch Ben, his three sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe—and the goings-on at their sprawling Ponderosa ranch. Syndicated to dozens of countries and dubbed into languages ranging from German to Japanese, it was one of the most popular and widely watched television shows of all time and has had a tremendous impact in honing the image of the American West around the world.
But few viewers realize how deeply rooted the show was in, well, Yiddishkeit (and not just because two of the stars—Lorne Greene as Ben and Michael Landon as Little Joe—were Jewish).
Bonanza was the brainchild of David Dortort, a pioneering television writer and producer who died in September at the age of 93. The Brooklyn-born son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Dortort had a lifelong commitment to Jewish causes; among other things, he and his wife Rose, who died in 2007, endowed cultural programs at the American Jewish University and Hillel at UCLA.
I discussed the Jewish underpinnings of Bonanza with Dortort during a lengthy interview at his home in Los Angeles in December 2004, as part of my ongoing research on the American West in the European imagination.
Read full story HERE

Hermann the German's new Album

"Hermann the German" at the Country Music Messe 2010. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The German country-western singer Hermann Lammers Meyer has sent me links to information on his new CD, "Nashville is Rough on the Living"-- including to this video clip of the song Honky Tonk Hearts.

I've seen Hermann, who sings, plays guitar and pedal steel guitar, perform many times -- mainly at the annual Country Music Messe in Berlin.

He has one of the longest careers in German country western music, dating back to the 1970s, and he has toured and played in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. One of his most recent tours was eve further afield -- to New Zealand!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Country Music -- Internet radio from France

Hey -- I just added a link in the sidebar to Big Cactus Country, the Internet country music channel from France.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

There's gold in them thar hills! The discovery of gold by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in what is today California, on January 24, 1848 sparked the extraordinary migration of as many as 300,000 people who "rushed" to the region by land and sea to seek their fortune in search of the yellow metal.

The Gold Rush and fabled Mother Lode captured the world's collective imagination, inspiring songs and stories, literature and tall tales, as well as attracting fortune-seekers from all directions. Boom towns grew up, and prospectors and gold-panners became Wild West archetypes, part and parcel of the set of Frontier characters that ranged from Native Americans in feathered headdress to cowboys, trappers, schoolmarms and whores. Indeed, gold-panning ponds are de rigeur features of some of the Wild West theme parks in Europe, and there are gold-panner hobbyist/reenactor groups. One of these hobbyists taught me to pan for gold when I visited Beaver City, a private wild west town in the Czech Republic.

I learn to pan for gold in Beaver City

Last week, I spent a day in the "real" Gold Rush country, partaking in a mash-up of experiences that blended today's realities with the romance of the Imaginary West.

I visited Sutter's Mill itself, where a nicely laid out museum park tells the Gold Rush story through monuments, mock-ups of old buildings (reminiscent of stage-sets, theme-parks or European skansen open air museums) and preserved original sites. From the top of a hill, a monument to Sutter surveys the scene.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The park includes two fascinating pioneer cemeteries, one Protestant and one Catholic, whose tombstones and epitaphs told the story of European fortune-seekers who ended up in this corner of California. (I also visited the tiny Jewish cemetery in Placerville - I posted about this on my Jewish Heritage blog.)

What was particular interesting at the cemeteries was to see the stones on which was inscribed as part of the epitaph the origin of the deceased: "A Native of Germany," "A Native of Ireland," etc etc: all drawn, one way or another, by the lure of gold.

Catholic cemetery. photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Protestant cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
I stayed (natch) at the Mother Lode Motel in Placerville,  a tourist town in the heart of the region, where Wild West kitsch similar to that found in Europe is on sale.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
There is a historic 19th century hotel in town, the Cary House.

Cary House. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
But the Mother Lode was more my price range -- and it had free WiFi, too.

Mother Lode Motel, Placerville. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

What brought me to the Gold Rush territory also formed part of the real imaginary mash-up -- my friends, the  Czech bluegrass/country/acoustic rock band  Druha Trava, were giving a concert in Placerville on Oct. 6. (I toted my newly purchased ukulele to the gig -- I don't know how to play yet, though -- and wore, of course, my cowboy boots....)

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Here's some video from the show:

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

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Italy -- Line Dancing and Imaginary Wild West near Rome

Just in time for my lectures in LA next week, I've found out about some Line Dance and imaginary wild westers in Italy. These include Etna Country Style and Tweety Country in Sicily, which have ample youtube sites with lots of videos.

There's also "Wild Country Roma" --  line dance and imaginary wild westerners based near Rome.... the line dance movement in particular is spreading now to "il bel paese", it seems.....

Will have to check the out when I get back from the Real American west.

Oh -- and I found out about  Wild Country Roma  from a country music Facebook friend in France.... and here they are in a Line Dance competition in Spain....

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sauerkraut Cowboys -- My Public Lecture in LA

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

Heads up to any readers in Los Angeles --  I'm giving a public lecture at UCLA on Sauerkraut cowboys at UCLA on Sept. 30

Sauerkraut Cowboys: Sturm, Twang, and the Imaginary Wild West in Europe

A public lecture by Ruth Ellen Gruber, award-winning writer, photographer, editor and independent scholar

Thursday, September 30, 2010
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Slovakia -- Silver Lake Ranch -- a Dude Ranch and Rodeo Arena near Bratislava

 Photo: Ranc na Striebornom jazere web site

Take a look at "Silver Lake Ranch" -- or Ranč na Striebornom jazere -- a dude ranch and rodeo area near Galanta, in southeast Slovakia.

The web site is in Slovak, but you can get an idea of what's what by looking at the pictures. The ranch offers guest accommodations, rodeos and other horse-riding competitions, "horse therapy" and other activities.

The name, "Silver Lake," harks back to one of the bestknown Winnetou tales by Karl May, the Treasure of Silver Lake (Der Schatz im Silversee). This was the title of the first Winnetou film starring Pierre Brice, Lex Barker and Herbert Lom, release in 1962.

Here's the original German trailer:

 And here's the English trailer:

"Silver Lake City" was the name of a short-lived wild west town near Templin, north of Berlin, Germany (which currently operates as Eldorado).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Obituary -- David Dortort, creator of BONANZA

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo: Autry National Center
David Dortort, the pioneering television producer who created the iconic western show Bonanza, died Sunday at the age of 93.

The Autry National Center runs a lengthy obituary of him on its blog. I had the pleasure and privilege of conducting a lengthy interview with Dortort when I was a Visiting Scholar at the Autry -- I do not have a copy of the interview with me at the moment, but when I do I will post some excerpts. Meanwhile, you can watch a three hour interview with him conducted in 2002 for the Archive of American Television by clicking HERE

Bonanza, a ground-breaking "adult western" that focused on the life of a family of men on the Ponderosa ranch near Virginia City, was one of the most popular TV westerns of all time -- shown in dozens of countries and dubbed into local languages.
Considered Dortort’s most important work, “Bonanza” became one of the most popular and the second longest-running western on television, with 425 episodes airing from 1959 to 1973. The family saga of thrice-widowed Nevada rancher Ben Cartwright, his disparate sons, and their vast landholdings also was the first of a new genre at the time — the adult western.

“Prior to that particular time, most of the Westerns that you saw on TV were geared toward children,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s associate curator of film and popular culture. “These were shows like ‘The Gene Autry Show,’ ‘Roy Rogers,’ ‘Sky King,’ those types of shows, which were very simplistic in their message.”

With the adult Western, Richardson said, television was able to tackle more controversial issues and social themes — topics that resonated more with what was going on in the United States in the1960s, rather than in the 1870s.

“The issues that they’re dealing with in the standard ‘mission of the week’ were issues that were relevant to people in the 1960s,” Richardson said. “Gender was one. Race. Society and the role of the ‘big guy.’ “

I remember that when I checked into the "Colorado" hotel on my first visit to the Skluv Mlyn wild west town in the Czech Republic, the theme song from Bonanza was being played in the background -- sung in Czech.

Similarly, Dortort's papers, which he donated to the Autry, include fan letters -- one of them is from  a German filmmaker in Berlin
"who tells Dortort he was walking along the Wall on the West side one day when he heard someone on the East side whistling the theme to “Bonanza.” “He talked about the irony of it,” said Marva Felchlin, director of the Autry Library. “That says something about the allure of the West.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Germany -- Karl May Fest in Bad Segeberg has hugely successful season

 Eine Rose für Winnetou und Möhren für Iltschi gab es in der Erol Sander meets fans. Photo:  

The summer Karl May festival season is ending, and the biggest and oldest KM Festival, in Bad Segeberg in northern Germany, reports that it had its third most successful season ever --  307,787 visitors came to see its open air production of "Halbblut" starring Erol Sander  as the Apache chief Winnetou, Eva Habermann  as Kitty LaBelle and Ingo Naujoks as Charles Leveret.

The season, as always, ran from late June into early September. The number of spectators was a bit lower than the record set last year, when The Treasure of Silver Lake drew 320,339 people. It was the first time in the nearly 60-year history of the festival that the audience has topped 300,000 two years in a row. (The person who bought the 300,000th ticket sold this year received a prize of €3,000.)

Next year the Bad Segeberg festival will celebrate its 60th year jubilee, premiering a production of The Oil Prince on June 25.

Bad Segeberg is the most venerable of about a dozen summer festivals in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in central Europe that feature open-air productions of plays based on the stories and characters of Karl May, the German adventure writer who created the most enduring Wild West characters in Europe. May died in 1912 and never visited the American west -- on his one trip to the USA, in 1908,  the furthest west he got was Niagara Falls.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Russian-American bluegrass jamboree

Pete and Joan Wernick and Justin Hoffenberg have returned from headlining the first-ever Russia-America Bluegrass Jamboree. The event took place July 20 and 21, 2010 in the cities of Vologda and Semenkovo in "deep Russia", an overnight train east from St. Petersburg. See their report, with links to video, on  the web site.
Our trip was arranged expressly for the purpose of bridging the gap between Americans and Russians. Thanks to all the positive attention we got, from concertgoers, from the media, and from the various officials in the Consulate world, both American and Russian, it seems it was a successful effort. I felt a serious responsibility, representing America to such a large number of Russians, and representing bluegrass music as well. The main Jamboree event we played was in the town center of a sizable city amid ancient buildings. Vologda is in a farming area, famous for butter, ice cream, linen, and lace (not bad!). The people there are used to long winters, hard work, and quite a lot of loss. They can be high spirited, and really believe in festivities, and in their kids. So we got some good tastes of those aspects, and enjoyed three very elaborate "official" type meals with Russian and Consul hosts. A second performance took place at a historical museum comparable to Williamsburg.

There has been some interest in bluegrass and country music in Russia for some years. Best known was the group Bering Strait, which I think disbanded a few years ago -- and tried to break in to Nashville. The band was the subject of a documentary film that can be viewed online.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Australian Country Music

There's a long and insightful article about the state of Australian Country Music at

The article, by Lars Brandle, argues that Australian country music need to find a younger audience to survive and grow.

The quality of Australian artists isn’t an issue. Australia’s current crop of country talent is arguably as strong and relevant as the market has ever produced. Caboolture’s golden boy Keith Urban opened at No. 1 on The Billboard 200 with his 2009 Capitol Nashville album, Defying Gravity. While two rising stars Adam Brand and The McClymonts are carving out their own paths to the U.S., striking deals with Arista and Executive Music Group respectively.


However, to the ordinary Facebook fixated Australian teen, Urban is best known as the other half of Hollywood star Nicole Kidman. And without such famous partners, the likes of Brand and the McClymonts are largely ignored outside country circles.

Smashing the time-worn perception of Australian country music will take some time, and some doing. It’ll require a retooling of the business. Australia’s country scene must tackle the online space and network TV, say executives, but save its biggest shakedown for the traditional Tamworth Festival and the annual Country Music Awards of Australia Awards.  
Tamworth has come to epitomise the issues facing Australia’s country scene.

“If the Tamworth festival had any mind to grow the festival, it would make it appealing to young people and restock the fanbase,” argues CMC Program Director Tim Daley. Currently, more than 44% of the core audience of the festival is 55 year of age and over. According to Daley, only 14% of the CMC audience is over 55, whereas 42% is 24 and under. “It’s pretty simple,” says Daley, “you make it appeal to young people, and you restock the fanbase.”

Sunday, August 22, 2010

European Bluegrass -- Survey to help organize new EBMA magazine

The European Bluegrass Music Association has launched a survey to help it revamp its magazine Bluegrass Europe.

The new magazine is set to launch in April.

Meanwile, the EBMA web site is constantly being expanded, and the European Bluegrass blog provides a continuing flow of information, including gig dates, festivals, band profiles and other material.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Imaginary Wild West: Michael Jackson's Western Style

The Autry National Center in Los Angeles has just opened a special exhibit on How the West Was Worn... by Michael Jackson.  

It's a sartorial Imaginary Wild West that traces its way back to the glamour clothes of Buffalo Bill, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and a host of rhinestone cowboys and glittery country and western singers.

In the world of style, pop icon Michael Jackson’s willingness to try different patterns and designs made him truly unique. Millions of people around the world saw his elaborate costumes, but very few realized the Western influence in the design. The Autry National Center’s installation shows how Jackson’s use of Western wear evolved over the years, reflecting his ability to use classic Western styles in distinctive ways.
 The Autry is a wonderful museum that pays particular attention to the West of the Imagination as well as the reality of the American frontier experience. I had a fellowship there a few years ago to study the creation and marketing of the western myth, and I have a date to speak to museum docents there next month.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Italy -- Italian country-western: George McAnthony, the Cowboy of the Alps

George McAnthony, the "Cowboy of the Alps," was, if I recall correctly, the first European I met who was involved in the country scene. I first saw him perform in, I believe, 2002 -- at a rural inn in central Italy that was sponsoring a “Country Festa” at which guests sported paper Indian headdresses and called each other “pardner.”

His 14th album, "Dust off My Boots" was just released; recorded in Nashville.

McAnthony was born Georg Spitaler in 1966 near Bolzano/Bozen in the Dolomite Mountains of the mainly German-speaking South Tyrol (Alto Adige) region. He grew up an avid fan of the European-made western movies based on the popular “Winnetou” novels of the 19th century German author Karl May.

As a little boy, he was photographed dressed up as a Native American. He wore a fringed leather costume and feathered headdress, had “warpaint” on his face, and was beating a drum slung around his neck.

When Georg was a teenager he fell in love with American country-western music and began roaring around his village on a motorcyle, blasting country music from its loudspeakers and wearing a cowboy hat and boots.

More than 20 years ago, after working as a carpenter and spending a couple years as a volunteer aid worker in Ethiopia, Georg reinvented himself as George McAnthony and went on the road fulltime as a country-western singer. He chose McAnthony as his stage name in honor of his late father, Anton. “I wanted a name that sounded American,” he told me, “and this made sense.”

McAnthony tours Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland as a "country one man band," complete with black Stetson, leather fringes, painted stage backdrop of Monument Valley and a souvenir stall selling cheap turquoise jewelry, “George McAnthony” bolo ties, cowboy hats and his own CDs. He plays street fairs, horse shows, beer festivals, and outdoor summer fêtes in medieval village piazzas.

McAnthony writes much of his own material, in English, and his songs stress what he describes as socially engaged, “positive images” – racial harmony, animal rights, world peace and safeguarding the environment. “I live the country way of life, and I love country music, and this is the way I do it,” he sings, with a distinct non-native accent, in his song “Country Way of Life.” He goes on, “You don’t have to kill the Indians, or the people of Africa...”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lebanon (!) - The Imaginary Wild West near Beirut!

I just came across this web site for "El Rancho Western Park"  -- a sort of Wild West theme park  or resort ranch near Beirut, Lebanon! It will host what it calls the first-ever rodeo in the Middle East next month -- August 17-21!
For an authentic TexMex experience, set off on a dude ranch escape at El Rancho! Located in the magnificent Ghodras Hill in Keserwan, just forty minutes away from the heart of Beirut and few kilometers up the Casino du Liban, El Rancho is the ideal place for family vacations, ranch holidays, friends reunions, weddings and birthdays, or just to get away for a Texan day or under the stars for a wild west evening meal. Meandering to reach beautiful Lebanese scenery in a western breathtaking setting, El Rancho has a great cowboy ambiance, old time saloons and plenty of cowboys and cowgirls ready to serve you at best.

Situated in the middle of the 250,000 square meters of El Rancho’s estate, bungalows, tipis, and tents are on hand to have a natural, casual stress free break or to enjoy a great weekend with your family and friends. Exquisite steaks, mega burgers, healthy barbecues and “toss your own salad” are on the menu.

El Rancho offers a myriad of activities starting with horseback riding, paintball, tennis, archery, children playground, animal feeding, vegetable picking, campfires, mountain hiking and much more. Fill your day with many activities or just relax out in the arms of nature.
 I found out about El Rancho while perusing the web site for the National Day of the Cowboy -- which this year is this coming Saturday, July 24 -- which ran the following account by "Hotshot Johnny,"  one of the cowboy performers at El Rancho:

The Wild West in the Middle East!
(By Hotshot Johnny)

Bethany here at the NDOC asked me to put some words down about my recent adventures, cowboyin' in the Middle East. So... let me give you a little news from the Perpetual Motion Ranch.

My travels have taken me all over this beautiful globe. The rock we're on is an amazing place and everywhere ya go, people love cowboys. For the last 9 months I have been performing at a ranch outside Beirut in Lebanon. Yeah, I know! Wild, huh? Lebanon is a beautiful place with great people, friendly and welcoming in every way. It is kind of party-central for the Middle East during the summer, almost doubling in size as tourists come from all over Arabia, Europe and Asia.

The ranch I work on is up in the green mountains about 40 Minutes from Beirut. As you go north from Beirut on the coast, it looks like California - beach towns and green covered mountains. El Rancho Western Park is a working ranch with horses and cattle, a resort with luxury camping and bungalows and a theme park with steak house, games and entertainment. All this rolled into over one hundred acres of mountain terrain. And it is more of a ranch than many of the ranches I've worked at in the states. Producing raw-milk cheese, quail and quail eggs, chicken eggs, doing trail rides, arena shows, rock climbing, archery, paintball, dinner shows, etc. I was hired to do a show and quickly became Entertainment Director, helping them develop the venue as a tourist attraction. Last summer we produced a popular 3 day Wild West Festival and this summer we are adding a 5 day rodeo to the festival. The Cedar Stampede will be the 1st rodeo in the Middle East, ever. For a region that has such a long and rich tradition and history with horses, this proves to be an amazing prospect.

Contrary to what you might see on the news, Lebanon is a fun place, safe and friendly. If there are any riders out there that would like to compete in a once in a lifetime rodeo experience, please get a hold of me and I'd be happy to give you more info. In fact, depending on yer skill level, we might even take care of your expenses here in Lebanon if you can get yourself here.

The Cedar Stampede Rodeo & Wild West Festival is August 18 - 22, 2010. We are inviting riders from the USA, Europe and anywhere else to come. If you can swing the travel cost we will take care of you. Come early and prep on our horses and compete in the 1st western rodeo in the Middle East!

You can learn more at and email me at I will also be performing at End of Trail if you can stop by. See ya down the trail on the Perpetual Motion Ranch folks.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Imaginary Wild West.... in Texas

The New York Times runs a story about a retired dentist who built a private wild western town in Texas.

IT’S a rite of passage for many Texans to retire to a home on the range. But unlike other wannabe cowboys, Jimmy Helms, a retired dentist whose patients included former President George H. W. Bush, wasn’t content with just a herd of cattle and a stocked fish pond. He built his own old Western town that recalls the days of lawmen and gunslingers on his 105-acre ranch.
“I guess I watched too many Lone Ranger movies as a kid,” said Dr. Helms, 70, who first thought of building the town in 1982 when his wife, Carol, suggested that he spruce up four decrepit barns on their recently purchased ranch, which was then their weekend getaway from Houston but is now their permanent residence. “I looked at the old barns and I thought, hmmm, maybe I could have me a town.”
Because he was still busy with his dental practice and he didn’t have the money to do it all at once, the town grew incrementally. It took three years just to get the rotted hay out of the barns and another decade or so to put new facades on them and renovate the interiors. He did much of the work himself but had help from a local handyman who built a mockup of the town out of birdhouses to guide them

This is news? I know a variety of people who have done this in Europe.... at private western towns that, in the Czech Republic alone include Halter Valley, Beaver City, and the now commercial Sikluv Mlyn. I have visited other private western towns in Austria and Germany -- Old Texas Town, for example, in Berlin. And they also exist elsewhere. Some people say they are building their own America, because they can't -- or won't -- travel to the States. The man who built Halter Valley told me he had been rejected for an American visa five times!

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Brazil -- country and western rodeo culture

This is another geographically far-flung post -- Reuters runs a piece about U.S.-style wild west culture in Brazil. It's everywhere!

By James Matthews
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 3:22 PM

GUAXUPE, Brazil (Reuters Life!) - From close up you can hear the rasping breaths of a 450-kilogram (990-pound) bull as it bucks and whirls under the bright arena spotlights and struggles to unseat its plucky rider. Stand even closer to the rodeo and you might get a showering of grit scooped up by a large hoof and flung through gaps in the sturdy metal railings.
Guaxupe is a sleepy agricultural town in Brazil renowned for its yearly ten-day rodeo festival that brings together some of the country's most skilled professional cowhands and popular Brazilian country music singers. The town is in southern Minas Gerais state, the heart of Brazil's coffee growing region, and home to the world's largest coffee cooperative, Cooxupe.
"It's the craziest week of the year," said Ana Paula Chagas, a resident and employee of Cooxupe. "We are mid-way through the coffee harvest and everyone has money to spend." The rural festival in Guaxupe underscores the vast cultural differences across Brazil's enormous land mass.
From abroad, the country is often stereotyped as a destination for sand, samba and caipirinhas, but it is also a land of tough working cowboys and millions of passionate country music fans.

Read full article here

Monday, July 12, 2010

Italy -- Coming UP -- OWSS/SASS European End of Trail

The annual European "End of Trail" cowboy action shooting championship will be held in northern Italy August 9-14. Organized by the Old West Shooting Society (OWSS), which is the Italian branch of the American Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), it will gather competitors from France, Germany and other countries.

The meet will also memorialize "Martex" -- the president of OWSS who died last summer of a heart attack at the opening of the SASS End of Trail in Nevada.

The meet will take place at the shooting range in Gualtieri, between Parma and Mantova.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Great Britain -- resources and western theme towns

A good resource for information on country and western music and westerner scene events in the UK is the web site   It also has a Facebook page

Recent posts include material on two Wild West theme towns in Britain:

Laredo Western Town

Laredo is situated in Kent, 25 miles from the center of London.

Contact us by E-mail Click

Tel: Cole on 07947 652771 or Tel: J.T. on 07947 645506

From the web site:

The town portrays the American Wild West, as it would have been in 1860 to 1890. The town has 24 buildings including Hotel, Saloon, Marshals Office, Courthouse/Church, Blacksmith, Livery, General Store, Gunsmith, Wells Fargo, Photographer, Assay Office, Bank, Doctor, Undertaker, Texas Rangers, Mining Company, Dentist, Printer, Eating House and more, Complete with Boardwalks Hitching rails and Western Street.

Inside the buildings the decor is all Western, Lighting is by oil lamps and candles, wood burning stoves for cooking and heating, using all the equipment which would have been used in this period.

At Laredo Town a group of 30 / 40 Western enthusiasts meet regularly at weekends and dress in authentic western dress of the period. Laredo Western Town is claimed to be the most authentic in ENGLAND & EUROPE . In Town there is a Stagecoach, Wagon, Chuck Wagon, Canons, and all types of Western Props and items that would have been used in this period.

Deadwood Western Town

'Wattlehurst Farm' Kingsfold Horsham West Sussex RH12 3SD

Tel : 01306627490 email:

From the web site:
Deadwood town members are proud that ' Brian Betchley ' the farm owner has kindly given his permission to have the town on his farm , and look forward to many many happy years at wattlehurst. You can visit Deadwood on open weekends between 10 am and 5 pm, and look around inside the buildings and meet the towns folk, who love to chat about the history and creation of the town . There are also some Authentic weekends at Deadwood, when westerners camp in authentic tents on a field just outside the town. Wattlehurst Farm Also Has Dance week-end's , where visiting band's provide entertainment for all in the barn All visitors are made welcome and invited to camp over night with their authentic tents on the authentic field