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Walsenburg’s near brushes with fame

By Nancy Christofferson

    One might say Huerfano County is “star-crossed” for all the famous and almost famous stars who have crossed its borders.  Alas, few have stayed for any length of time, but Huerfanos love to claim their nearness to celebrity, of all sorts and sizes.

    A favorite story in La Veta was that one Lindley Armstrong Jones, better known as Spike, was born there.  He was not.  However, his father, L.M., was depot agent for the Denver and Rio Grande Western in town, and his mother Ada Armstrong taught in some of the local schools.  They met in La Veta, but married and had their 12-pound son in California.  Spike was said by his father to have developed musical talent early on, but it is hard to tell. His cacophonous music, punctuated by squeaks, squeals, whistles and other shrill noises, made absolutely no sense.  However, Spike was a radio and Hollywood star of the 1930s and ‘40s, and most likely never set foot in the town of La Veta in his entire life.

    Another non-starter was James Cagney.  He was the cousin of Mrs. Charles Buckland, longtime superintendent of the Walsen coal mine.  Though many waited with autograph books in hand, he never appeared, alas.

    A cousin who did appear was actress Dina Merrill, occasionally better known as Mrs. Cliff Robertson.  Ms. Merrill was a sometime guest in the 1970s at the home of Macky McAlpine, Singing River Ranch, which luckily was so far up in the mountains west of Redwing that she was not bothered by celebrity hunters.

    Then there was Hiram Vasquez’s great-granddaughter, one Louise Hansen.  Louise was a La Veta product who went to Hollywood and found success as a prima donna and film actress back around 1930.  Hiram himself was somewhat of a celebrity, being the son of fur trapper and trader with the Indians who established a fort outside of Denver, and was a friend of the ultra-famous Jim Bridger, mountain man and guide.

    Other non-starters, although they probably DID get their start in Huerfano County, were the Popovich brothers, Eli, Adam, Teddy, Marko/Mikey and Pete (who died young).  The family lived in Toltec, just northwest of Walsenburg, in the 1920s, where, one supposed, their father Nicolai was probably a coal miner.  The boys learned their Serbian/Croatian music and instruments from their parents and began appearing regularly in Balkan-themed concerts and performances in the 1930s on radio and in person as the Popovich Brothers Tamburitza Orchestra.  Their career lasted into the 1980s, and influenced many of their Slavic contemporaries to the present day.  There was even a film about them. Rather unfairly, they were known as the Popovich brothers of South Chicago, rather than of Toltec.

    In other circles, former Walsen Camp school teacher Agnes Davis went on to become an opera star, performing with the Philadelphia Opera Company in the 1940s. 

    While not a musician, Col. Tim McCoy appeared in Walsenburg in 1971 with the Tommy Scott Big Country Music Circus.  McCoy was a cowboy star of the big screen, and had served in both world wars, hence the title.  McCoy had had his own radio show, appeared in more than 100 films and had won an Emmy award.  Perhaps his greatest achievement was being pictured on the Wheaties box.

    Sharing Wheaties exposure was Johnny Mack Brown.  After this signature honor in 1927, he went to Hollywood and became a leading man for his good looks, but slipped into B-westerns in the ‘30s until he retired from filmdom in 1953.  Later he did some television work in the ‘60s.  Brown appeared in the Fox Theater in Walsenburg in December 1948.

    And speaking of “big” names, Robert Pershing Wadlow made his acquaintance to the city in September 1939.  Wadlow was at the time the tallest man in the world, measuring eight feet, eleven inches and weighing 491 pounds.  He died less than a year later, at the age of 22, of blood poisoning, but still growing.

    On the other hand, a local family of the Toltec-Pictou area claimed their granddaughter to be the smallest midget then making the circuit.

    You have to feel sorry for one celebrity that passed through.  Much like John Philip Sousa and his band whose train had derailed, this man inadvertently fell into the hordes of adoring fans.  Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry and his band were driving along in December 1959, probably minding their own business, and decided to stop for a snack.  Spying the Safeway at Albert and Sixth streets, they pulled in.  Imagine their shock and horror when they discovered they’d arrived during a Rainbow Girls bake sale!  Berry already had released four big hits, including “Johnny B. Goode” and “Maybellene,” so the teenagers were bound to know him instantly.  The newspaper recorded Berry and his band were “besieged.”

    He was not the only celebrity to visit briefly. Dick Powell and June Allyson made the mistake of having lunch at Shosky’s in 1946; Janet Gaynor dined at the Little Pig Inn (she had the baked chicken); Monty Woolley shopped in Smith’s Grocery with his chauffer and secretary in 1948, Jane Fonda spent the night in Chet’s Motel in April 1970, and Lee Marvin stayed in Chet’s that July.

    Moral of the story: keep your eyes open!