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Monday, July 23, 2018

Carolina Cowboy Circus

Sunset At Sundown

Westerns were once a gateway for film collectors. It was the genre that started them down life's journey of enthusiasm. These were people I knew and learned from during 70's chase after 16/35mm and whatever memorabilia old-timers kept since a Front Row era when they were cowboy kids and I wasn't yet born. Life's moral compass spun on what Buck Jones or Fred Thomson or Hopalong Cassidy taught. Each of elder fans, in fact all of them I met, felt our culture took a plunge once westerns and serials ended and left youth to mercy of changed-for-worse times. Moon Mullins, of whom I've spoke before, lived in the town where I went to college. He had a theatre in back of his house, a dedicated frame building, with booth projection and a pulley system to work the curtains. Moon with his "Camera Club" regaled a crowd of at least forty men (some with wives in tolerant accompany) on weekly basis. I was always the youngest person there. We saw nitrate prints that Moon knew no fear of. One night it was a 30's Paramount called Drift Fence that had Buster Crabbe, a name and face known to everyone in the room. They had been there when he was a first-run Flash Gordon. I envied these elders for upbringing they had. Visitors came from far and wide to Moon, for he had a world-class Indian arrowhead collection in addition to the movies. He'd be a first person Sunset Carson would seek out when the old cowpoke landed in Hickory for autumnal round-up.

Sunset wanted back in the zeitgeist, if there still was one for westerns. Middle-agers were ready to renew hugs from back in the 40's when they grew up and Sunset was hottest. Moon kept a distance for being at least twenty years older and wondering what con the faded cowboy might be working. Sunset, now calling himself "Kit" to further embellish the nickname he already had, was full of ideas as to how Moon's collection might assist his comeback. Moon, whose notion of western heroes was more Bill Hart or Jack Hoxie, was not impressed by Sunset's faded celebrity. Moon had in-bred suspicion of people, not altogether misplaced considering his Jersey origin. They always wanted something, me being no exception. I had got frost reception as a high-schooler (our first meeting) when I tried to sell Moon a 35mm nitrate George O'Brien western bought out of a long-shuttered theatre in Taylorsville, which was scant forty minutes from Hickory. Moon correctly sized me up as an upstart, said as much, and advised that he had known about this print for years and had rejected it several times. Here's where I learned that among backwoods collectors, everyone knew what everyone had, or wanted to sell/trade. I had lots to learn if I was to run in this pack. Fortunately, Moon was willing to guide me.

Moon being from up north meant he dealt with good old boys the way Yankees would. Most had too much regard for him to try many tricks. Moon wouldn't give more than $50 for a 35mm feature no matter what it was. He turned down The Searchers on 35mm IB Technicolor because the guy had nerve to ask for $100. Stuff cleared off National Screen Service shelves came straight to Moon, trailers in grocery bags, posters rolled or folded, generally unused. I was helping him clean film one day and came across a preview for Dracula, which he peeled off and gave to me. Gave to me. For Moon, this was one of thousands he had, so why care? He never went in search of specifics, it being more a matter of who drove up in the yard, and with what. Moon didn't have to go out to collect, for the collecting came to him. He taught me, or tried to, that film acquisition was a game best played cool. Never let the other man know how much you wanted what he had, for therein lay folly and getting your pockets cleaned.

Among Moon's following were locals, more of these than I imagined, who kept 16mm at home-shrines built to B westerns. They'd gather at various sites on Saturdays now that theatres had gone to a dark side. These were the people Sunset Carson reached out to. There was a UHF station where he hosted westerns in the afternoon. An independent filmmaker in Shelby, NC, about an hour's drive from Hickory, used Sunset in a hark-back oater called Buckstone County Prison (1978), aka Seabo, where Sunset played a sheriff. What the fans wanted was for Sunset and other survivors of the range to bring cowboy values back to movies, and again be shining example for a new generation of youth. Fan clubs were based largely on such philosophy. Societal troubles would end if we'd all adopt the Cowboy Creed. That men like Sunset or fellow traveler Lash LaRue should exemplify this was hopeful thinking not supported by messy facts of their lives, Sunset and Lash having come and gone, then gone again, to dark sides of their own.

I've spoken before of the 1975 MacKintosh and T.J. opening in Hickory to which Roy Rogers arrived in person, and reaction he got from fans bringing their young to see how a for-real screen hero comported himself. What I didn't mention was the lineup of local cowboys flanking Roy on stage, all in western garb and full-armed with holsters. Moon was among these, along with whatever collectors could be suited up for the photo-op. I wish I had the group capture from that day. Moon hung one on the wall of his 35mm film vault. I doubt if Roy Rogers saw such an extensive turnout as he got in Hickory. Funny part was, it didn't occur to most of us to watch MacKintosh and T.J. As soon as Roy quit the stage, we split, as did majority of his acolytes who shouted loudest for old-style westerns to come back.

Sunset tied in with a clothing maker in nearby Valdese. They'd offer a line in Sunset fashions ... men's polyester suits, shirts, sport coats, slacks, plus "Trailblazer" T-shirts. You could go dawn to dusk feeling ants in your pants, polyester being what it was in the 70's. All of illustrations here came from a fifty-cent "color book" that went with "Sunset's Circus," an event that presumably happened someplace in NC, but where, or how often, we're not likely to know. Assuming there were such performances as indicated here, it must have been a once-in-an-alternate universe experience for both viewers and performers. Were I more committed to Sunset lore, I'd beat bushes along Hickory-Valdese byways to find anyone who'd recall this Bizarrest Show On Earth. Was there a son of Sunset who did sharpshooting under dad's Big Top? Did "Miss Cinderella Of Country Music" Lisa Adams exist outside this coloring book? Adolescents in the mid-70's who would wear Sunset Carson T-shirts sounds like middle-age wishful thinking, especially in view of Rules To Live By as imparted by SC, ten tall orders for man or boy to observe (though I'm part-way there for pouring milk over daily oatmeal). Sunset Carson lived till 1990, did lots of collector shows, and was unfailingly gracious to fans. Like a lot of B west survivors, he'd ride trails closing fast behind him by a changed culture.


Blogger Robert Fiore said...

There's a question I've been waiting for an opportune post to ask you. In the modern day western the long duster has become a standard issue item in a movie western outfit, to the point of defining what a cowboy wears. I don't remember seeing them used prior to the Sergio Leone westerns in the 60s, but I haven't seen nearly as many westerns as you. Were they ever worn in pre-spaghetti westerns? Do you recall some of the old Hollywood westerns where they were worn?

3:09 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Great coloring book; looks like the sort of thing "National Lampoon" would have done in its early funny years. Especially love the pasted-in photo -- guessing the subject really hated the drawing.

Outside of the ones who jumped to A stardom, were the movies themselves ever a B cowboy's main income? I recall seeing a "Happy Trails Theater" segment where Roy and Dale welcomed Gene Autry; they joked about doing live shows every weekend to supplement low Republic wages. Elsewhere, Roy Rogers Jr. remembered that his parents would eagerly do supermarket openings and the like. Lacking Autry's business savvy they simply worked like crazy to support their large brood.

In a slightly later era, Max Baer Jr. described asking for a raise when "Beverly Hillbillies" became a hit. The producer turned him down, saying that Baer could now make serious money on the state / county fair circuit because of the show. I'm guessing at least some of the B producers made a similar pitch to their stars.

3:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Robert, I seem to remember dusters in some earlier westerns, but no specific titles come to mind. Can anyone else think of any?

4:53 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

In the early '80s, PBS stations ran "Six Gun Heroes," hosted by Sunset Carson, which featured vintage B-westerns, including some of Carson's own. He had a quaint habit of expressing dates as, e.g., "I9-and-45" instead of 1945.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, told me she asked Griffith for a raise, and he told her it would be cheaper getting Barney Fife a new girlfriend. So she remained at the $350 per episode rate.

5:58 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

I remember watching "Six Gun Heroes" back in the early eighties. Sunset would introduce B-westerns from an old movie town set that he said went all the way back to the B-Movie days. I remember at the end he would ride out of town past a building with a bell tower. Does anybody know what studio town that was? I think it was too late for either Iversons or Corriganville.

As far as dusters in old movies, weren't the Clantons and Earps wearing them in the rainy opening of "My Darling Clementine"?

8:23 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Sometimes when I read an article here, I try to find out more. I wanted to find out what happened to Mary K Fashions and look at where the old plant was on Google Earth. Mary K Fashions seemed to have fallen off the world, no references to them on the internets. I did find Alvin Fowler's grave on FIND A GRAVE.

I wonder how much Fowler invested in this circus and if Fowler made some extra money with this.

8:54 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I wonder if the circus was actual, or merely invented for purposes of the coloring book. Sunset evidently had a son named Michael, who was grown by the mid-seventies, so I'd suspect that sharpshooter "Tim Carson" was another fiction.

10:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers Sunset Carson on NC television during the 70's:

I remember Sunset Carson’s TV show from that year I spent between college and law school in Hickory. Aside from the evening newscast, it was the only live programming WHKY did, though the term “live” must be used advisedly. I understood that Sunset would stay at the Holiday Inn, then the best house in town, and do all of his setups in the space of a day. There would be a new movie each weekday, but the audience would be the same group of Brownies or Boy Scouts from Monday on. I wondered if they ever got to see a movie or just Sunset’s introductions. The movies themselves had the Hollywood Television Service logo and featured Republic’s second tier western stars, like Alan “Rocky” Lane, “Wild Bill” Elliot, and Don “Red” Barry, or third tier, if you included Sunset’s own efforts. There were no Autrys or Rodgers among them. Sunset was portly and heavily sideburned in his cowboy outfit, amiable but not offering much in the way of anecdotes or insight into the night’s offering, just a brief synopsis of the story and the star appearing in it. I guess he figured that his presence was enough for the money he was being paid. The studio portion of the show was primitive in the extreme, with harsh lighting and wide contrasts that would have displeased even John Logie Baird, but the image quality of the movies was decent, at least so far as I could tell on my nine-inch black-and-white GE television set. I was a couple of miles from the station’s broadcast tower, however, and even with a UHF antenna dangling from the window of the third floor room I was renting, that seemed to be right on the periphery of their signal.

3:57 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Here's one of the Six Gun Heroes openings - As Tim Carson would say, "Right On!".

At the very end when Sunset last says "Buster Crabbe", he pronounces the 'e'.

8:36 AM  

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