It took Horrie a long time to talk my mother into it. First he had to persuade her that the time had come to move from the frightfully cramped house in cluttered Prahran to the wide open spaces of Moorabbin—then a developing suburb at the far edge of the city. When the settlement was made, there was just enough left over to buy a television set and it was there, waiting, when we finally moved into the new house.
And with all that, the TV, the surrounding paddocks with their market gardens, the nearby swamp and creek and the Drive-in movie screen we could watch if we sat on the roof, what followed was probably the most enjoyable period of my life.
Only gradually did it prise my fingers free of radio, replacing those cosy hours by attrition, and I possibly wouldn’t have noticed the change had it not been for its one conspicuous effect—that something of the old Ranch Night expeditions was restored since Horrie now found his needs satisfied by such video wonders as Roy Rogers, Tales of the Texas Rangers and The Cisco Kid. Ah Pancho! Ah Cisco!
In fact he was actually watching those same B westerns all over again, although he didn’t seem to realise it. William Boyd, in his Hopalong Cassidy persona, started the trend by selling his 100 odd cheap movies to TV producers, and when that was a success, everyone immediately jumped on the wagon train.
In turn, the man who started the B western genre, was revived on the small screen. Tom Mix, the greatest cowboy of them all according to his publicists, was a man so deeply into his movie image that he began to believe he had actually done all the things that he had portrayed in the movies. A great showman, and he wasn’t even fazed when one of his stories—how he really was a sheriff of a frontier town and shot it out with a bunch of outlaws—was published worldwide, with the result that he was vilified when sharp-eyed journalists worked out from which of his movies he had borrowed the incident.
When Tom Mix contemporary Ken Maynard’s drinking problem overwhelmed him, a young extra named Gene Autry replaced him as star of The Phantom Empire serial. In no time at all, Autry was number one star in the world. Imitating the singing cowboy character created by John Wayne (you heard me), Gene maintained a clean image and lived his mother-approved movie character for the benefit of kids everywhere.
Roy Rogers (real name: Leonard Sly) followed the footsteps of Gene Autry everywhere he went. Shorter, lighter, less believable as a hero, an even more highly pitched voice than Autry or even Mickey Mouse, and with a definitely higher moral tone, Rogers lived his persona even beyond the movies. All he really added to the genre was a female clone of himself called Dale Evans, whom he married, but he became the most famous and remembered of them all. Unlike Autry, Mix, Cassidy etc, his name is a household word synonymous with the Wild West. Unlike the others too, he made several attempts to make it in feature movies, and only served to demonstrate what a lousy actor he was.
Forty years after anyone last watched one of his films, he was still living out his persona, appearing on TV in 2000 as a vastly aged man in the fancy western duds, mourning the death of Dale, which was still global news. These days out of LA you can drive the Roy Rogers Highway and you’ll come to the Roy Rogers museum, where every little thing that composed his unreal life has been lovingly exhibited.