Monday, April 26, 2010

Top 3 Westerns?

Which three Western movies do you think might be the most popular among real cowboys and cowboy re-enactors? Go on. Have a guess. Then read on.

I've just spent three days at the Melody Ranch Movie Studio with my husband Richard, researching my new series of kids' history mystery books, The Western Mysteries. This is the 17th year they've held the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival and by all accounts it was bigger and better than ever. I chatted to lots of performers, re-enactors and fans and asked most of them what their favorite Western movie was.

I've already mentioned cowboy poets Yvonne Hollenbeck and Pat Richardson in my blog about Cowboy Poetry. Yvonne's favorite Western is Lonesome Dove and Pat's is High Noon. "Gary Cooper was a real cowboy," said Pat. "And they filmed a lot of that film right here on Melody Ranch."

On the last day of the festival, Sunday, Richard and I boarded the trolley at the La Quinta Inn to find a beautiful cowgirl: Miss Catherine Lane. She plays Belle Montana, heroine from dime novels of the 1880's. Her fave Western is The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. YES! That's mine, too.

On the trolley was also a passel of desperados from Tombstone. They are Law Dogs 'N Ladies, a tribute to the movie Tombstone. You'd think they all place Tombstone top but no. Susan plays Calamity Jane. Her fave Western is Quigley Down Under. Tim Fowler is Ike Clanton and his fave Western is Tombstone. Their son Kirk likes Lonesome Dove.

Other fans on the trolley voted: One for Lonesome Dove and one for High Noon.

When we got to Main Street I wandered over to a blacksmith who was personalizing horseshoes. I figured I'd better get one inscribed with the name of the hero from my new series, but blacksmith Wishbone Smith said "P.K. Pinkerton" was too long. While he was hammering out "P.K." on a pony-sized horse shoe, I asked him what his fave Western was. "Lonesome Dove," he replied without hesitation, and proceded to quote Robert Duvall's character Gus. His son's fave Western was Tombstone. I was beginning to detect a pattern here.

David Rainwater the fiddler couldn't choose between Tombstone or High Noon. Lasso expert Dave Thornbury's top flick is Tom Horn and black-clad, bullwhip wielding Doc Durden from Virginia City's is... you guessed it: Tombstone.

There was some great music at the festival: a Civil War Brass Band, Indian flutes, some great rock/blues and of course tons of Western music. Richard and I loved it all. I met Rich Hillworth waiting to hear Celtic Cowboys outside the California Stage on Main Street. He lives near Lancaster and used to drive mule trains across the desert. His fave Western is Lonesome Dove. David Matuszak was selling the "Bible of Western films", A Cowboy's Trail Guide to Westerns, but he loses points by saying Richard's fave Western, Little Big Man it wasn't a Western! David's fave Western is Red River. A fabulously dressed couple named Todd and Holly loved The Big Country and Tombstone, respectively.

Everybody was telling us to get the peach cobbler and bottomless coffee made by the Chuckwagon guys so we got a bowl to share and bought the tin mugs you can refill all day. The cobbler was yummy but the coffee had grounds at the bottom. Now I know why those cowboys in the Westerns always toss the last bit into the sagebrush. We sat at a table with Carol and Dave, who told us about Cowboy Church! It was held that morning at 8.00 and they had some good ol' gospel cowboy worship. Too bad we missed it. They also meet the first Friday of every month at their pastor's ranch in Agua Dulce near the amazing Vasquez Rocks. Carol's fave Western is Tombstone and his is (the newer) 3.10 to Yuma.

By now I was pretty sure of the winner. On our way down Main Street the last time I did a double take. Was that Robert Duvall? Nope. It was Gus Curry. His fave Western? Lonesome Dove of course. He posed for me with the tastefully attired Mary Culver, who loves High Noon. Despite her vote, I think Lonesome Dove was definitely the top Western, followed very closely by Tombstone. High Noon came in a respectable third, according to my very unofficial and random poll.

So here is the answer to the question I posed:

Top Western?
1. Lonesome Dove
2. Tombstone
3. High Noon

The Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival was fabulous and we will be coming back next year, hopefully with lots of copies of the first book in my new series, The Case of the Counterfeit Injuns!

P.S. I forgot to put up a picture of a delicious couple of other Tombstone re-enactors, bad boy Nathan and hurdy girl Colleen. Nathan wears dark blue glasses with a tiny mirror in one corner so he can see who's sneaking up behind him! (I didn't mention to Nathan that buffalo soldier Victor Williams told me blue sunglasses were worn by those suffering from V.D.) No prizes for guessing Nathan and Colleen's fave Western... But Lonesome Dove still moseys in at the top place.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cowboy Poetry

What is Cowboy Poetry?

Yvonne Hollenbeck
I'm in the lobby of La Quinta Inn in Newhall, California, waiting for a shuttle to take me to Melody Ranch open weekend - research for my new Western Mysteries - and I am suddenly surrounded by cowboy poets. Fair enough: the official name of the Melody Ranch and Movie Studio Open Weekend is the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.

So I ask a lady on my right. "What is Cowboy Poetry?"

She is Yvonne Hollenbeck, entertainer, author and 'Cowgirl Poet of the Year'. (

"Well," she says, "cowboy poetry talks about cowdogs, horses, the western way of life, in poetry."

'So it's like Country Western music without the without the music?" I ask.

"And without the country," says Andy Nelson, who is sitting behind her. He is a cowboy poet who has the 'Clear Out West' radio show and has written a book called Riding With Jim.

"We like to think our poetry can stand on its own", says Yvonne. "Some times the best song is a bad poem set to music. I'm quoting Sting," she adds.

On my left is Pat Richardson. He writes poetry, does his own illustrations and is a popular performer on the cowboy poetry circuit, along with Yvonne and Andy. He gives me a signed copy of his book Unhobbled.

I flip through the book and my eye falls on a poem called 'Pony Eggs'. Apparently when Pat was a little boy, longing for his own horse, his dad told him coconuts were pony eggs. "You'll notice they got hair and fur on them, and when they hatch out there'll be a pony in each one!" The poem tells how Pat got his 'revenge' many years later.

Another poem called Five Card Draw has this verse:

One night Ben had a full house,
Bet his saddle, spurs an' rope;
Zeke giggled at his foolishness
and raised three bars of soap.

That poem goes on for stanzas until a humorous and bloody ending.

According to Wikipedia, Cowboy Poetry was told around the campfire, with humor, rhyme and tall tales. I think of Mark Twain, and the tall tales that got him into such trouble in Virginia City.

What is surprising to me as I attend the Cowboy Festival is how popular Cowboy Poetry still is. Probably because in America ranching is still a major industry.

Later that day Richard and I are sitting in a sold out tent of maybe 700 people. Every third head in this place wears a cowboy hat. And most are real cowboy hats. We are all watching a white-mustached guy called Dave Stamey who is obviously a huge star on the cowboy poetry circuit. And deservedly. He is like a singing Sam Elliott: a brilliant musician whom everybody loves. Just outside the seating area, I see two young women gazing at him adoringly and mouthing the words of his songs, including "I'm not old, I just been used rough..." Wow. Imagine having groupies when you're in your 50's and not even Mick Jagger!

I'm sitting next to a woman from New Mexico. She tells me her husband wanted to come but it was his busy season and he had to visit some ranches.

"What does he do?" I ask.

Above the sound of the music it sounds like she says: "He shoots horses."


"He's a farrier," she says. "He shoes horses."

"Ah," I say. But already I am thinking: There's got to be a cowboy poem in that.


High Noon at the Cowboy Festival

I've been looking forward to the Santa Clarita Cowboy festival for over a year. It's at the Melody Ranch where lots of famous Westerns were filmed, but it's only open one weekend a year.

We booked tickets online - our weekend pass was easy to get but the tours of the studio part of the ranch were sold out within the first hour. They only have places for 30 people. (Fix this, organizers!) We DID get tickets for the Movie Night. This is an outdoor showing of a classic Western at the end of main street, following dinner. Hmmm. What would that be like?

I booked us in to the La Quinta Inn, because they have a shuttle to and from the festival. Most people drive to a big car park behind the tracks on 13th Street in Newhall. It turns out that there is no shuttle from the hotel for the Friday Movie Night, but my iPhone tells me we can walk it in just under an hour. When I ask directions at the front desk the La Quinta Director of sales, Michelle Crawford, offers to drive us into Newhall. That's what I call service! It's just after 3.00pm and the weather is warm but not hot. California has been experiencing a cold snap. Michelle drives us to Newhall, which is a really boring name for this charming cowboy-flavored town. The William S. Hart ranch and park are here, plus a Cowboy Walk of Fame. The town should be called something more evocative like Coyote Flats or Buffalo Run. (There are some buffalo on the grounds of William S. Hart's estate).

Main Street is charming, with a very Mexican feel. Richard and I have a drink at the Trocadero, a new establishment among some older taquerias. Then we look for names we recognize on the Western Walk of Fame. Lots of names are unfamiliar but we know Powers Boothe from Deadwood, Bruce Boxleitner from Gods & Generals and Graham Greene from Dances with Wolves. While we are standing over this last plaque we get talking to a nice couple: he in cowboy hat, she in cowboy boots. We enthuse about Westerns for a while, then promise to look out for each other at the festival.

Richard and I wander down to peek into the William S. Hart park, just closing, then trek back to the shuttle pick-up spot for 6.30pm.

It is pretty easy to tell the other punters: most are wearing cowboy hats. I get chatting with Sampitch Kid, who has come all the way from Utah. Two Santa Clarita buses take about a hundred of us down some ranchy residential streets: Placerita Canyon, etc. Then through the gates of Melody Ranch, Spanish style of course, and here we are on the main street of a cowboy town. It looks great, with a bank, a jail, and plenty of saloons.

The sun is low in the sky. We line up to get our seat numbers, then bag a chair at our round, checkered tables and look around until movie time at 7.00. Merchants are already setting up. Pictures of horses, vintage wear, cowboy hats and a saddelry. Gary posed on one of his saddles. They are beautiful and they cost about $9000 a pop. Lots of work, leather and silver go into those.

Richard spots a buckskin dress and I can't resist trying it on. All right, I buyt it! I can do school events wearing it. They call us to dinner. This means getting in a long line but that is fine because you can get chatting to people. We met a fascinating journalist named Mark Bedor who was telling us all about his week learning to spend a week Custer's Cavalry. He also told us the best place to learn to ride a horse: White Stallion Dude Ranch, in Tucson, Arizona.

Food is a choice of chicken or beef, with nice yams, sauteed peppers and salad. Much nicer than any cowboy ever had on the range. The movie is High Noon, and it is introduced by Michael Blake, the son of Larry J Blake, in an uncredited role as the owner of the saloon where Gary Cooper punches a guy. He told us whenever he got bullied at school he would ride his bike home humming the theme to High Noon. It was one of the first films to use a theme throughout, and the famous ballad 'Do Not Forsake Me O My Darling' was in the charts even before the film came out.

(Here is a bit of trivia. Tex Ritter sang the song in the film but Frankie Lane had the hit.)

Everyone is quiet, almost reverent, as the film starts and although I saw about 30 frosted layer cakes for dessert, nobody makes a move to go and get a piece. We all want to watch the film. It is fun watching as people cheer and boo and everybody laughs at the end when a voice from one of the tables remarks 'You're supposed to clap and cheer at the end of a B Movie.'

We are all cold by now and hurry back down to the shuttle buses. Helpful volunteers wave the way with flashlights. Richard and I are the last ones to get on the first bus. 'Can anybody here give us a ride back to La Quinta Inn?' I say in a loud voice to the whole bus. I needn't have worried. Cowboys are all gentlemen.