Things Left Unsaid

Last weekend's blog entry, “Have Gimmick, Will Televise,” must have left readers more confused than usual.  It contained a graphic showing the cover of Alvin Marill’s book “TV Westerns: Six Decades of Sagebrush Sheriffs, Scalawags, and Sidewinders,” but never mentioned what it was doing there.  I was going to get around to it, but having reached my self-imposed thousand-word limit, it was time to call it a night.

Although the book is a formidable store of television miscellany, very little of my information for the blog was culled from it, except for the news that 1959 was the banner year for TV Westerns, with more than thirty of them stampeding across prime network turf.  I gleaned that morsel of information from the generous preview available on Google Books, since a physical copy goes for nearly $50 on Amazon.  At the bottom of the page where it’s listed for sale there were four reviews for the book, all of them harping on the steep price and the fact that buyers get surprisingly few pages for their money and no pictures at all.  It works out to about 28¢ for each page of content, not counting the foreword, bibliography, and the other stuff no one reads.  Yet, I’m sure that people who are devotees of TV Westerns will, however grudgingly, shell out the dough and soak up every costly page.

I won’t, because I was never really a fan.  Yet I’m still amazed at the number of them I had access to while I was growing up, and the ingenious variety of gimmicks that set each one apart.  Besides the shows I listed before, I wanted to say something about “Tate,” a series about a gunfighter with one good arm.  The other arm was kept wrapped in a black leather sheath and cradled in a sling.  The show might have been suggested by the post-Tombstone career of lawman Virgil Earp, although the hero of “Tate” was supposed to have suffered his disabling wound during the Civil War.  

There was also a series called “The Man from Blackhawk,” burdened with what always struck me as the lamest premise ever for a TV Western:  the hero was an insurance agent, who, instead of riding a fiery steed, drove a buckboard.  Actually it turns out that the character played by Robert Rockwell was an insurance investigator, and his cases took him from Chicago to New Orleans to Montreal.  The series was dreamed up by “Route 66” creator Sterling Siliphant, and was probably quite good.  I didn’t realize any of this at the time because the show lasted only one season and I never saw a single episode.  I doubt that I watched a full episode of more than a handful of Westerns titles, and cannot clearly recall the storyline of any one of them.  What is seared into my memory is the relentless ad campaigns the networks ran when they were ready to roll out their fall lineups, and the weekly promos for each thrilling upcoming episode.

“The Tall Man,” a completely fictional treatment of the supposed friendship between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a series that remains vividly stuck in my brain because of a single episode - another one I never really saw.  Any young lady who became romantically involved with the star of a TV Western was doomed just as surely as the poor red-shirted devil who later beamed down with Kirk and McCoy.  An episode called “Bitter Ashes” concerns Garrett’s marriage to a dark-haired beauty who is gunned down by one of the marshal’s enemies as the couple leave church.  I used to think I had seen that one, but after reading a synopsis realized that I was only remembering clips used in the endless barrage of promos, which aired during the afternoon soaps my grandmother watched.

If I didn’t particularly care for TV Westerns back then, why do I go on writing about them now?  Because they were part of the cultural landscape of our past, just as much as the frosting of crushed limestone that topped Omio Road connecting Formoso and Lovewell, or that rusting and rickety truss bridge that spanned White Rock Creek on the way to Superior.  

On summer evenings my family sometimes dropped in to visit an aunt and an uncle who lived about a mile from Lovewell.  When we entered the house the TV in their living room always seemed to be tuned to a Western, usually either “The Californians” or “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.”  When “Wyatt Earp” was on, the man of the house seldom took his eyes off the screen.  He was reputed to have been an Arizona Ranger in his youth, and as if to offer mute testimony in the affirmative, a holstered six-gun and an ornate metal powder-flask hung from the wall. 

I put off doing the math until very recently.  My aunt’s husband would have turned 21 the year the Territorial Arizona Rangers were disbanded.  There were only 107 of them in all, an exclusive legion whose history is venerated to this day, and his name is missing from their roll of honor.  His alleged kinship with the Rangers could have been an idle boast or an exaggeration that snowballed, one of those family stories that turn out to be technically true at the core, but true in some unremarkable way.  My uncle could have been a teenager performing odd jobs for the men who kept the peace in Arizona Territory, or he might have been a park ranger there in the years following statehood.

I was also surprised to realize that he would have been in his early forties when the real Wyatt Earp died.  Although the Earps liked to spend their winters in California, Wyatt spent much of his final years working the couple's Happy Days Mine near Vidal, Arizona.  Even if my uncle hadn't ridden the range meting out justice, he was part of a generation that had witnessed the last glowing embers of the Old West, not long after the flames went out.

Television managed to stoke the era into a flickering bluish afterlife that reached its zenith in 1959 and then slowly dimmed, until the small-screen Western finally died and went to cable.  

© Dale Switzer 2023