Along the Hollywood Trail
"Your mother and I have decided to buy a television set."
This was sweet news to my six year old ears. We were living in Arlington, Virginia and my father was stationed at the Pentagon. It was 1954, and televisions were finally affordable for the average American family. When, a week later, Dad wheeled in a 21" Philco mahogany console model, I knew life was going to be glorious. The omnipresent "idiot box" was now a staple of our suburban lives.
My imagination had allowed me to picture the Lone Ranger and Tonto on the weekly half hour radio show, but now I could watch the TV version with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in glorious black and white. I wore my complete cowboy outfit and strapped on a pair of pearl handled revolvers as I sat in front of our new luminescent window to watch horse operas and attendant adventures. There was also Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry, but I was a masked man fan through and through.
A lone stagecoach traverses western expanses. The 1939 version of Stagecoach was the first movie I remember watching on early television, with John Wayne, Claire Trevor and Thomas Mitchell. Wayne as "The Ringo Kid" epitomized the "good" outlaw who matches up well romantically with Trevor as the "soiled dove" who will gladly mend her ways. Totally enthralled by the storyline and by the palette of craggy buttes, wide open spaces and big skies, I vowed that, one day, I too would travel west to dusty trails in search of great adventure.
A few years later, my family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Army officers learned tactics and where black regiments, the "Buffalo Soldiers," were formed in 1866 to help control the American Indian tribes on the Western plains. 1960 was the height of cowboy shows dominating TV. The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Maverick, Bonanza, Rawhide, a few of the many "oaters" that could be seen any night of the week. For the Saturday matinee, the Fort's dingy threadbare theater was showing The Magnificent Seven, one of the great films of the Western genre. Shot in Cinemascope with blazing color, the seven heroes ride to the rescue of a Mexican village besieged by scores of banditos. The soaring soundtrack rocked our little theater until a tornado warning was sounded, and we all headed to the theater's basement. After the all clear, we resumed our seats and cheered the final downfall of the bandit scourge. It was a great time to be a child.
The rococo design of the historic Empire theater in Kansas City was a delight to behold. Its red velvet seats, fancy bric a brac and ornate sconces harkened back to the golden age of Hollywood movies. An important renovation had expanded the large screen to a three panel affair, ripe for the film fad that was Cinerama. 1963 brought the epic How the West Was Won. My father and I, immersed in male bonding, drove for two hours to see this paean to the glories of manifest destiny. With a formal intermission and an elaborate souvenir booklet, the experience fully lived up to its billing. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and Debbie Reynolds made this politically incorrect version of U.S. history go down easy.
1969 and, while Woodstock was on the horizon, many in my ROTC unit prepared to be thrown into the maw of Vietnam. College campuses were on fire. Even our quiet Florida town was touched by "revolution." One of the few brief escapes for stressed out students was to be found in the dark environs of the local movie theater (with the constant smell of marijuana hanging in the air). Usual fare featured such foreign nuggets as Fellini's 8 1/2 or Bergman's The Seventh Seal, but this was the year of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. While Paul Newman and Robert Redford joked their way across the American Southwest and through the interior of Bolivia, William Holden and crew soaked the screen in blood as they fought off Mexican Federales in a spectacularly doomed last stand. Both sets of outlaws were outside society's bounds, but you could imagine bringing Butch and Sundance home for dinner while The Wild Bunch crew could only remind you of some forlorn mountain firebase being overrun by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
My wife and I are finally escaping the East coast and heading out to "cowboy country." With everything crammed in a tiny U-Haul trailer, we are heeding Horace Greeley dictum to "Go West, young man!" In 1973 we're a hundred years too late, but you take what you can get. We break down in Pecos, Texas, a god forsaken oil stain next to the interstate, but finally roll into the land of cactus and imposing mountain ranges. Settled in at Tempe, Arizona, and tricked out in new cowboy duds, we take in the Apache Drive-in where a neon Geronimo endlessly climbs on and off of his painted pony. The movie is Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and listening through tinny speakers, we watch Billy, a too old Kris Kristofferson, terrorize Lincoln County, New Mexico before receiving his just desserts at the hands of Pat Garrett. Screaming kids in the car next to us make the scene where Billy dies on a Mexican serape all the more poignant.
The cowboy left behind, I now sport a frayed top hat and ruffled shirt as I read my poetry at coffee houses in Berkeley and San Francisco. On the radio I listen to Grace Slick wail away in the 1977 version of Jefferson Starship. My marriage is on the rocks due to self-inflicted wounds by both parties. I attempt to apply salve to the situation by going alone to see Charles Bronson (Wild Bill Hickok) in a B western, The White Buffalo, at the Great Star Theatre in Frisco's Chinatown; golden dragons staring down at me from the balcony. My fortune cookie says rough times ahead, and as a frenzied Bronson and Crazy Horse chase their mythical white buffalo, I know my empty life has had its own reality check.
It's 1980 and Ronald Reagan is on the cusp of making it "morning in America." I've braved rough waters, avoided the shoals and landed back in cactus land, Tucson, Arizona. Reclaiming my cowboy duds, a new woman in my life, we are off on our first date to the El Dorado Theatre. One of the last of the single screen theaters, this 725 seat jewel was the perfect place to start a potential relationship. The movie is The Electric Horseman; Hanoi Jane (sorry, Jane Fonda) and Robert Redford are playing kissy face while trying to save wild horses in the vastness of Nevada and Utah. The contrived plot and popcorn are secondary to discovering if my lady friend and I can become significant others, but something must have worked since we are now at thirty-five years and counting.
Early '85 and our first kiddo has just popped out. Too much trouble to go out to the movies, so I rent this new fangled VCR, plug it into a thirteen inch color TV and prepare to watch three tapes for a late night binge. While the terminally exhausted wife snores softly next to me, I bond with Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good the Bad and the Ugly. There is so much spaghetti in the apartment that it is hard coming up for air. During intermission I have to change poopy diapes and warm up a bottle, but somewhere out there, the Man with No Name is taking care of business.
The narrow road to Tombstone runs through mesquite bosques, palo verde trees and scrub brush. I have visited the small town several times, largely because it lacks that tacky tourist feel. The 1880s still hang in the air. Now, I want to see if the '93 film, Tombstone, does both the town and the legend justice. The theater is a narrow cracker box, one of those first generation multiplex monstrosities with lousy seats, no surround sound speakers, a cheap screen and noise that intrudes from the movie being shown in the cracker box next door. Fortunately, Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday are up to the task of showing that destiny and death are all too common companions. The OK Corral goes down with the requisite amount of bloodshed, and the lingering bad guys are eventually dispatched with heartless revenge. Just what is needed in the modern retelling of an iconic fable.
The rain is drumming hard on the theater’s metal roof, and lightning strikes sound as if they're right on top of us. Our young kids are loving it. In the movie, after intense training, when Antonio Banderas is about to become the successor in The Mask of Zorro, the power goes out and we, the audience, are left in true darkness to contemplate the meaning of life. In a week I will be going down to Ft. Huachuca for my last roundup. 1998, and I have given Uncle Sam twenty-eight years of wearing the uniform. This Lieutenant Colonel will finally be riding off into the sunset; the third generation to serve at that dusty outpost. The power returns; the film continues, and Anthony Hopkins, about to die, passes the Zorro mask to Banderas. In a few years my oldest son will also heed the call to the colors. Duty, honor, country ‑ the way to the straight and narrow.
I take my teenage son to see Open Range, a 2003 throwback to the cattle drive films of the 40s and 50s. Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall battle saddle sores, rain storms and bad guys who want their beef. In the end, the big shootout in town uses up a lot of ammunition and leaves the cattle stealing reprobates full of holes. The old theater we are in is to be bulldozed in one week to make way for a multi-store complex selling faux antique furniture, kids shoes and women's lingerie. Ain't progress something. Costner and Duvall have a drink, dust themselves off and get back to the open range as fast as possible.
It's already the second decade of the 21st century; time flies when you're getting long in the tooth. We visit our Army son in Tampa and go to one of those new concept theaters with big lounge chairs and side tables where you can stuff your face and drink beer while the movie is playing. The flick is Two Guns, a postmodern western set on the U.S./Mexican border. It's about the corruption of those employed by acronyms such as ICE, CIA, NCIS and ATF; your basic stew of testosterone fueled government agents. Denzel and Mark Wahlberg do the buddy movie thing as they screw the bad guys out of millions and millions. I decide to order the western bacon cheeseburger and ranch fries with a little Dos Equis to wash it down. Vaya con dios, muchacho.
A refugee from the local twenty screen, over priced, stadium seating multiplex, I settle into my own home theater, a far cry from our 21 inch Philco of sixty years ago. Firing up the blu-ray player, I insert the DVD and prepare for drop dead surround sound with that woofer pumping out the bass. As I burrow into the Lazy Boy, the large LED screen comes alive, and a new version of an old tale begins to unfold, The Lone Ranger. Armie Hammer and a freakily attired Johnny Depp reprise the roles of the Masked Man and Tonto, thundering across the vast landscape as they promote truth and justice. At the climatic moment, the Lone Ranger does the Hi Ho Silver! stance, and once more it's a sleepy1954, the light from the flickering screen reflecting off two shiny six guns and a pearl buttoned shirt, my smile as big as the country itself.
Robert Matte Jr.