WB's Yellowstone Kelly Push
Warner fanfare still raises my gooseflesh. Was there any sound that resonated so forcefully out of 50's televisions? We could barely pull ABC programming off signals Channel 13 dispatched, Asheville a couple hour's distant and ringed with mountains to break up already weak signals. Seldom was this network visible except through snow, yet it was home to Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip, and offshoots front and center at newsstands and record stores where WB stars loomed large. We got that message despite Clint Walker's being a fuzzy transmission, his face and others of WB origin plenty clear, however, on fan mags sold by pallet-loads. Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb was a 1959 novelty song on Warner label I spun repeatedly at age five despite barest acquaintance with the series inspiring it. That year was highest point of Warners' home screen dominance, partnership with ABC yielding a hit series for any night you'd tune in. Routing these vid stars to movies was plain application of common sense, for what then-teen wouldn't spring quarters to see home favorites on large projection? Being this was Warners, few surveys were taken among talent to find how they'd prefer being feature-used. Clint Walker had toplined a 1958 western, Fort Dobbs, sort of a Cheyenne on 35mm, and in the series' accustomed black-and-white. There was $398,000 in profits to confirm that idea was a sound one. Walker looked to do more features and was particularly drawn to one that had been in development, Yellowstone Kelly, but WB said no and he struck ... for eight months ... which in TV terms was eternity.
I wanted more lowdown on Big Clint's walkout --- he was absent a whole 1958-59 season --- that ended with reconciliation and Yellowstone Kelly, itself a last stand for old-style Hollywood westerns before revisionism grabbed hold. Some good folks at Warners made possible my telephone chat with the man himself, who's blessed with recall sharp as YK's frontier knife. Walker's been a boon to fans for years with numerous stops at autograph shows and an official website brim-full of info, photos, and neat merchandise. Walker's also been a prime mover for DVD release of his 1961 Gold Of The Seven Saints and newly available Yellowstone Kelly. If all celebrities were as gracious as Clint Walker, I'd aspire to being a Hollywood columnist (never mind there's so little Hollywood left). As a full career chat would fill books, we focused on the selling tour he did for Yellowstone Kelly in August 1959. Having seen many trade references to that, I wondered just what it was like hopping a plane to canvass theatres across the land, a fan swarm waiting at each stop. Walker said the whole experience really opened his eyes to number of people watching Cheyenne and knew him from said weekly fix: I remember flying over cities and seeing all those television antennas on houses. This was where I really came to realize just how popular the show was and the power of that little TV box. Warner bosses were already on to that truth and mindful of extended profit potential in selfsame box. They'd cast Edd Byrnes, Sunset Strip's Kookie, as sidekick to Walker's Yellowstone Kelly, cinching the deal with Lawman's John Russell as Indian antagonist. All-media saturation had reached apex by 1959, so the three seemed everywhere on Yellowstone Kelly's behalf.
When I came back in early 1959, it was with the understanding that I play Yellowstone Kelly. That was as important to Clint Walker as getting wages up to levels his Cheyenne success justified. The project had floated around Warners since early 1956 and word was John Wayne might play it under John Ford's direction. Walker liked Jack Warner personally and took meals with him from time to time, but entreaties to do Yellowstone Kelly fell upon deaf ears. The star's walkout was necessary to get this venture off the dime. Once he was back, it moved fast. That was in January, with Yellowstone Kelly announced for him the following month, and by April, they were on location in Arizona with plans laid for August 15 release. The director was fast and efficient Gordon Douglas (as good as any I ever worked with, said Walker), and dialogue came via sure hand of Burt Kennedy, late of Randolph Scott's stellar westerns. A Denver premiere would launch Clint Walker's twelve-city tour of Midwest territories, his plane loaned by the president of American Airlines. They painted "Yellowstone Kelly" across it, recalls the actor, and Warners lined up staff and representatives to receive us at every stop, in addition to those who travelled with the party. Leaving no promotional stone unturned, they also put Edd Byrnes on a plane headed Northeast where teen girls rushed Kookie for giveaway combs paying tribute to his recent hit song with Connie Stevens.
I asked Clint Walker if he actually dressed in Yellowstone buckskins during the trip as the above trade ad implies. Not quite, he said, though western wear was garb of choice for stops he made in Texas. Appearances were spread among theatres, luncheons, radio and TV stations. There was a "Howdy Doody Show" I appeared on, and one program where they featured live animals. On that occasion, I was introduced to a sixteen foot python that wrapped himself around me, then looked me straight in the eye, which was pretty unnerving. There was also a black leopard the hosts wanted me to sit with, but he'd been scratching up his handlers that morning, so I passed. What would Clint Walker do once he stepped upon stages before a packed audience? Louis Quinn (accompanying CW as Master Of Ceremonies for the live spots) was a great asset to my theatre appearances, said Walker (Quinn was much-liked "Roscoe" on 77 Sunset Strip, a comic relieving figure he'd based on Ted Healy). Louie kept things moving on stage and told jokes to the audience before I'd come out. On one Lone Star occasion, Clint took the spotlight and was unexpectedly greeted by the viewing crowd's rendition of The Eyes Of Texas Are Upon You, perhaps his happiest memory of the tour. Being this was a new experience for Walker, stage work was limited to fielding questions from patrons, though later rodeo tours would expand his repertoire to skits and song.
Yellowstone Kelly's sweep widened over Labor Day weekend. Small exhibitors embraced the Kookie comb gag on realization they could buy cases of the things cheap as un-popped corn. YK interest extended broader thanks to Walker's femme lure and interest he'd generate among grown-up customers. This star's base was more mature than pony-tails chasing Kookie, thus placement of Walker in the lead with Byrnes in support. Still, one hand washed the other. These two plus John Russell's following netted $1.8 million in domestic rentals and another $1.3 foreign. Showmen didn't mind cross-plugging the tube when favorites off it brought crowds like this. I was too young to watch closely that summer, but can imagine non-stop ad saturation Yellowstone Kelly received on free-vee. Sure it's no Rio Bravo, but Kelly got raves from happily expectant trades. Said Boxoffice ... the trio (Walker, Byrnes, Russell) spells the answer to an exhibitor's dream, that capping accolades to make a Warner publicist blush. We're not so generous today thanks to fifty year's distance robbing most of awareness as to happy (and profitable to WB) days when television and movies walked hand-in-hand with magazines, comic books, and 45 RPM platters getting the YK message out to all who could buy tickets. Watching Yellowstone Kelly with those dynamics in mind doubles the pleasure of an already enjoyable show, however, and this is one I'd strongly recommend grabbing from Warner's Archive.
A Footnote To My Conversation with Clint Walker: The above still with Errol Flynn was one I just had to ask about. Upon my mention of a big star Clint had met at a costume party in 1957, Mr. Walker exclaimed, Errol Flynn! Being a fan, he regarded Flynn as a first-rate actor (still does), and remembered the encounter very well. It was the annual Ballyhoo Ball held on October 19, 1957. Seems Errol (sans festive duds) approached Clint in his costume (Sinbad? Gaucho?), remarked So You're Clint Walker, casually walked a circle around the younger man inspecting his outfit, then said, You'll do as he reached for another drink (Flynn's date is holding a program with what looks like a caricature of Red Skelton on the cover --- was he host at this shindig?).
Many thanks to George Feltenstein at Warner Home Video and Clint Walker for Info and Assist with Yellowstone Kelly.