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Movie and television stars of Huerfano

By Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO- While celebrities have come and gone through Huerfano County in the past, spending from minutes to hours, both on purpose and purely by accident, some entertainment greats have stayed long enough to make some degree of an impact.

    There have been at least three movies partially filmed within the confines of our great county, taking advantage of the unique and spectacular landforms and mountains.  The first of these was shot back in 1980, when “The Mountain Men” featured several scenes shot around the La Veta Pass area. The movie was written by Fraser Heston, and his father, Charlton, and Brian Keith starred in it.  The Heston father and son produced and starred in several television movies together.  The impact felt in La Veta centered around the Hestons coming into town for a meal at the long-gone Harry’s Steak House on Main Street, where the chair where Charlton had occupied quickly was emblazoned with a sign reading “Charlton Heston sat here.” The honored chair was admired for years afterward, and questions always elicited a long explanation.

    “Flashback,” starring Dennis Hopper and Keifer Sutherland, filmed some scenes along the railroad toward La Veta Pass back in 1990.  The scenes are easily identifiable in the movie because the West Spanish Peak is shown in all its glory in the background.  This film left some impression on La Veta after the crew did much of their shopping in town, especially in the hardware stores.  One clerk had the distinction of being offered “Dennis Hopper’s very own dead battery.”  Other residents were more aware of the dynamite explosions and the odd fire here and there when the dynamite ignited the underbrush along the tracks and required quick responses.

    Then in 1991 Sam Elliott found a spot out on the plains east of Walsenburg to be a suitable location for the filming of “Conagher,” a Louis L’Amour tale of the Texas frontier.  Costarring in the film was his wife, Katharine Ross, along with Barry Corbin and, visiting again, Ken Curtis.  The film site was fairly open, and some residents had an opportunity to watch as young Italian men came whooping through the junipers on their ponies, playing Indians.  For the purists, the sight of the Spanish Peaks in the background was a bit incongruous in a so-called Texas landscape.

    The “Conagher” crew stayed here and there around the county, but some stayed in the condos at the also-long-gone Cuchara Valley Ski Resort.  Barry Corbin seemed to enjoy his visit enough to take part in a La Veta parade in costume.

    Another time James Garner was at the ski resort hosting some arcane event.  He apparently was not so entertained with the area as Corbin.

    In the early to mid 1960s, none other than Mr. A-one-anna-two himself was an annual summer guest.  Lawrence Welk was a popular visitor to Cuchara where he danced with all the ladies and allowed young performers to give him their often spontaneous musical auditions.  The older women of Cuchara were especially taken with him for his impeccable manners.

    Many Cucharans of the ‘50s on had no idea a television star of great duration was a summer person just like them.  The Dr. C.J. Wagner family of Lubbock, Texas first came to Cuchara Camps in 1931.  There were two daughters, Ruth and Helen. Ruth made her contribution to the resort by having three sons who adored Cuchara, visiting often, but Helen became Cuchara’s most famous resident, or would have been if anyone had realized her profession.

    Helen’s television persona was Nancy Hughes, and her venue was the soap opera “As the World Turns.”  Helen began with the show at its inception in 1956, and her character became the longest running played by one person in the history of TV, with her last appearance just last December – 53 years!  She won a lifetime achievement award for this in 2004.

    Old-time Cucharans remember Helen for another highlight – she and her husband Robert Willey were the second couple ever to be married in the Cuchara Chapel, in 1954.

    Golfers may remember the momentous day when one rather scruffy duffer played a round.  He was Willie Nelson.  Another time former Cleveland Browns player Don Cockroth showed up.  And Mark Brooks of the PGA used to own a home in La Veta.  Brooks was a Texas native who won the 1996 PGA Championship and was a member of the US Presidents Cup team the same year.  He had a seasonal home in town for about three years circa 2000.

    Last but not least was George Robert Phillips McFarland, a big name for a kid who started in movies at age five in 1933.  He was better known as Spanky of the “Our Gang” comedies, later revamped as “The Little Rascals” for television viewing.  Spanky’s least known claim to fame was introducing the phrase “okey doke” and his other least known achievement was helping to convert the old American Legion fairgrounds in Walsenburg into what is known today as Fiesta Park.  He evidently lived in the city during the mid to late 1940s, but left no other legacy beyond his contribution to the park.