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The Reel West

I’M A MITE PARCHED after riding across Death Valley to Lone Pine, so I ask the barkeep to pour me a dust-cutter while I look over the crowd. I see Buffalo Bill shooting the bull with Doc Holliday. There’s the Lone Ranger twirling his six-guns, showing off for John Wayne. Roy Rogers glides by wearing his crinkly-eyed grin, probably thinking about “That Palomino Pal o’ Mine.” At my elbow, a cavalryman with a droopy moustache is making time with a saloon gal squeezed into a tight satin gown. I would bet my best saddle that she could bullwhip a drunken cowboy but has a heart of pure gold.

These images from my boyhood are passing before me at the opening reception for the Lone Pine Film Festival, a quirky celebration of the Old West—or rather the Celluloid West, when giants in Stetsons roamed the silver screen. Lone Pine, California is a speck of a place with fewer than 2,000 full-time residents, but for one weekend every October it becomes ground-zero for fans of vintage Westerns, and for costumed impersonators who bring bygone cowboy heroes to life. The festival’s modest, idiosyncratic program, put on by local volunteers, limits itself to movies and television episodes that were filmed in or near Lone Pine—a list that includes more than 300 titles.

From 1920 into the 1960s, this was Hollywood’s favorite place to shoot B-Westerns and adventure movies with “foreign” settings such as Gunga Din and King of the Khyber Rifles. Several things attracted movie studios to Lone Pine: it was close to Los Angeles (B-Westerns were made cheaply and quickly, sometimes in less than a week); the Sierra Nevadas provided a magnificent backdrop; and just outside of town, the Alabama Hills were filled with strangely sculpted geologic formations that exuded mystery and rugged character—perfect for horse operas.

Just about everyone who ever starred in a western worked regularly in Lone Pine: Gene Autry, William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, John Wayne—the list goes on and on. Many popular television series from the ‘50s and ‘60s were filmed near Lone Pine too—The Lone Ranger, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Bonanza. More recently “the rocks,” as locals call them, have figured in Gladiator, Dinosaur, two of the Star Trek movies, the remake of Maverick, and various commercials.

But Lone Pine’s heart belongs to the mythic West, and that’s what the festival commemorates. Several thousand people come to watch old movies, take bus tours into the Alabama Hills (“Walk in the very steps of John Wayne and Roy Rogers!”), and listen to faded stars reminisce. This year’s guests, all unpaid, include Jack Palance (Shane and I Died A Thousand Deaths), Dale Robertson (the TV series Tales of Wells Fargo), Ben Cooper (Johnny Guitar), and several former ingénues.

The impersonators aren’t the only ones in Western garb. The town is full of kerchiefs, chaps, six-shooters, big silver belt buckles, bigger hats, and spurs that jingle jangle jingle, with a smattering of petticoats. Most of the visitors are aging Baby Boomers and senior citizens revisiting their youth.

The festival commences on Friday night with a cowboy concert in the high school auditorium. Sourdough Slim sings and yodels about wanting to die wearing his .44 and his boots. He rouses the crowd with a Homeric ballad by Tex Ritter, repeating the unforgettable chorus: “There was blood on the saddle and blood all around, /And a great big puddle of blood on the ground.” It ain’t Cole Porter, but then again that tenderfoot probably couldn’t rope a steer or shoot worth a dern.

Movies run almost continuously. The titles alone make me want to saddle up and ride through the purple sage: Flaming Guns, Stagecoach Kid, Spurs, Comanche Station, Danger Trails, and the ominous Blackjack Ketchum, Desperado. I begin with The Roundup, starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in a silent movie from 1920, the earliest extant feature shot in Lone Pine. The myth of the West was already firmly in place. A subtitle describes the locale as “a land of magic and mirage,” the psychological terrain of most B-Westerns.

When I take a bus tour out into the rocks, the scenery looks vaguely familiar, like the landscape of boyhood reveries. Movie stills, mounted on posts, denote the exact locations where those photographs were taken years ago. I sit on the spot where John Wayne strummed a guitar in Westward Ho, surrounded by other scrubbed yet virile cowboys. I see where Kirk Douglas saved Walter Brennan’s life in Along the Great Divide and where the Indians attacked in How the West Was Won. In the Lone Pine frame of mind, the real world and the reel world are one.

My favorite spot is a perch overlooking a rocky pass, a perfect place for an ambush, where Hopalong dodged a villain’s bullet. As we head back toward town, Red Ryder suddenly materializes on his horse, loping through the sagebrush. He wheels about and waves, in the classic cowboy manner, then disappears into the rocks like an apparition.

On Sunday morning the impersonators gather at the top of Main Street for the parade. The Lone Ranger crouches with his guns drawn, posing for people with cameras. His real name is Rob Archey, and he works as a detective in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

“I see a lot of boys who lack a moral compass,” he tells me. “They’re carrying real guns and their heroes are pro wrestlers. I wanted to teach them how to choose role models, so I picked the Lone Ranger because he was committed to the Code of the West—honesty, morality, responsibility.” Archey visits schools and other places to preach the Code. He's here in Lone Pine for fun.

Don Shilling, from Siletz, Oregon, looks dapper dressed as Paladin, the gunfighter played by Richard Boone in the television series Have Gun Will Travel. Shilling’s reasons for dressing up resembled Archey’s: “We do it to keep the memory of these guys alive. It was a time before television turned into a sewer.”

Shilling joins the other imitators, who are gathering together so people can take a group picture. It is a curiously moving moment. There they all are once again, ersatz icons standing shoulder to shoulder, guns drawn against evil: Hoppy, Gene, Red Ryder, Paladin, Lash Larue, Black Bart, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, a couple of John Waynes, Zorro, miscellaneous cowboys, soldiers, and frilly gals. They are soon joined in the parade by resplendent imitations of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, riding resplendent imitations of Trigger and Buttermilk.

Most of the look-alikes belong to a loosely organized group called Duke’s Hollywood Cowboys, led by Ermal Williamson. He's a well-traveled actor, but these days makes a good part of his living by impersonating John Wayne, whom he vaguely resembles.

When Williamson stepped into Duke’s boots eight years ago, fans began helping him to perfect their mutual fantasy. One man gave him pistol grips exactly like Wayne’s. Another supplied a rifle with a “mitten ring” lever like the one Wayne used. A woman took Williamson's measurements and replicated Wayne’s 7th Cavalry outfit from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Another sewed him the leather shirt from Hondo. A man gave him a gunbelt made by John Bianchi, who made Wayne’s, and someone else inserted a big 45-70 bullet in the middle of it, because that’s what Wayne did.

“People make me John Wayne,” says Williamson. “They aren’t having their picture taken with Ermal; it’s with Duke.”

Lone Pine’s small town hall is filled with vendors selling Western paraphernalia. I fall into conversation with a couple of browsing cowpokes who look like they’ve come straight from a shooting—for a 19th-century fashion magazine. Jim Contreras and J. D. Houston both live near Los Angeles and belong to the Single Action Shooting Society, a club whose 30,000 members dress like cowboys and hold shooting competitions with replicas of old rifles and revolvers.

After 17 years of riding and roping on the rodeo circuit, Houston now works for a manufacturer of frontier clothing whose products he is wearing. Contreras is an executive with Isuzu in Buena Park, California. "I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he says, grinning, “and now I can afford the stuff to be one.” They estimate that their outfits—from boots and spurs on up through chaps and guns to kerchiefs and hats, with lots of accessories in between—had run them each about $4,500.

Hank Williams—not an imitator, a real Hank Williams—is here at the town hall too. He's selling his new book about the old cowboy stars, Those Wide Open Spaces. He was marked for life by the first movie he saw on the big screen in Elizabethtown, Kentucky—Three Men from Texas, with William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. “I watched it over and over and over,” he says fondly, “and when I finally left, it was dark outside. Whatever Hoppy said, I believed.”

The cover of his book shows a rocky defile in the Alabama Hills. He visited the site this weekend. “It’s in Wide Open Town,” he says. “Hoppy comes riding through there real slow, and a woman with a gun comes out and says, ‘Get off your horse!’”

He looks happy, remembering. “You know,” he adds, “I can’t name you a cowboy I’d go see today.”

The last night, to close the festival, there is a campfire in the town park. Cowboy singers warble “Home on the Range” and “Happy Trails.” Cowboy poets celebrate a mule that couldn’t be rode and a high-spirited strawberry roan and a mythical screen hero who once “galloped into every kid’s backyard.”

I reckon that old boy is still riding hard out there through the land of magic and mirage around Lone Pine. He always will be. Reel western heroes never die.

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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