By Nancy Christofferson
When many people think of “celebrities”, they first think of performers, as in “stars.” There are stars of all different forms of music, from opera to country, of film, television and radio. In the past, Huerfano County has played host to its share of them all.
Long before the big screen, or even radio, traveling shows held sway as the favorite form of entertainment. Chautauquas with many educational, spiritual and amusing speakers as well as music made the rounds, circuses on long, special trains, carnivals and, from the 1880s into the nineteen-teens, wild west shows. Walsenburg and Huerfano County residents were thrilled in 1907 to have one of these latter appear, though for only one day. That day was Sept. 17 when Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West and Great Far East Show arrived. What a day! Pawnee Bill was really one Gordon William Lillie from Illinois, but he struck a fine pose dressed in his fringed leather coat and matching trousers, and mounted on his trusty steed. He looked much like a more famous showman and in 1908 they joined forces, when Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill merged their shows. Alas, this show did not come to Huerfano County.
Back when country music was getting a foothold with the public, the genre did not necessarily mean western. Songs included a great deal of yodeling, stringed instruments (and this does not mean guitars) and twangy, nasal vocals.
Possibly Walsenburg’s first live country performance was in May 1939 when the Ozark Hillbillies appeared on stage in the Valencia (now Fox) Theater. They were big radio stars of the time, and played two performances that day.
In 1941 a very well known singer-radio host-actor-songwriter appeared in the Valencia. He was Lester Alvin Burnette, better known as Smiley “Frog” Burnette, and he performed with his Rhythm Wranglers. Like Pawnee Bill, Smiley was an Illinois boy, but after hooking up with a young singer named Gene Autry, he left for Hollywood and never looked back. Smiley mastered 105 instruments and, like Autry, could not read a note of music! He wrote lyrics for many western melodies and performed some in his favorite costume of checkered shirt and tattered cowboy hat. After his film career ended, he joined the cast of television’s “Petticoat Junction” in 1963, but Huerfanos knew him “way back when.”
In 1945 Tex Hall and His California Cowboys appeared in the theater, by then renamed Fox. Another Tex to perform in Walsenburg was Tex Williams, who was really Sollie Paul Williams from – you guessed it – Illinois. Tex was here in September 1945. His most famous recording was Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) in 1947, but he’d appeared in movies, on the radios and had released many singles and albums before his visit to Huerfano County. Not surprisingly, Williams became spokesman for a cigarette company after Smoke!
Another cigarette spokesman was Gordon A. Nance, known to posterity as Wild Bill Elliott. Wild Bill was not from Illinois, but Missouri. He did not sing, nor did he perform for Huerfanos’ enjoyment. He simply made the mistake of stopping in town in 1947, and got besieged by fans. Wild Bill got his name from some B westerns he played in, but his claim to fame was as Red Ryder, a character he played in 16 films.
Red Ryder was the brainchild of Fred Harman, a cartoonist. The comic strip proved so popular it was carried in 750 newspapers. It was turned into a radio show, then movies and television. Harman was one of the original members and founders of the Cowboy Artists of America and was one of the first whose works were exhibited in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He was a personal friend of Walt Disney and an adopted member of the Navajo Nation.
Harman had a habit of turning up in Walsenburg during the early 1950s. Why not? He was raised and lived in Pagosa Springs. Occasionally he was accompanied by his cartoon, radio and television character Little Beaver, actually a child named Bobby Blake.
Another fellow who stopped in Walsenburg and got more than his share of attention was Andy Devine. With more than 400 film appearances beginning in the silent pictures, Devine would have been a sitting duck for autograph seekers. He spent more than an hour in Neeman’s garage, evidently with car trouble. That was 1946, and he had not yet gained fame as Jingles, Wild Bill Hickok’s sidekick on radio and television.
1948 brought a young singer from Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra – the singer who replaced Frank Sinatra. He was called Ken Curtis, and he hailed from Las Animas where his dad was county sheriff. Ken acted in many movies, including the classic, “Mr. Roberts,” as well as fulfilling musical roles. He married the daughter of director John Ford. He is best known for playing Festus for 11 years on TV’s “Gunsmoke.” Curtis gave a matinee and evening performance in the theater that September 2.