Surviving Festival of the West

The Rockin’ M Wranglers don’t really look like wranglers, and Jim and Jeanne Martin certainly don’t sound like most wranglers I’ve known.

The couple is yodeling away on the main stage. Most wranglers I know don’t yodel and don’t even try. Yet the crowd is tapping its collective boots while I make my way to the talk and autograph session.

It’s standing-room only there. Robert Fuller, best known for his starring roles on TV’s Laramie and Wagon Train, is telling a story about actor Jack Lord. Lord is best known as Steve “Book ’em Danno” McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O, but years before that, he played guest parts on TV shows such as Wagon Train. In fact, this seems to be a gripe session about Lord, who, if these stories are true, was one big prima donna.

The crowd laughs at Fuller’s story. I move on to where so many people are hoping to shake Clint Walker’s or Hugh O’Brian’s hands that I can’t even see Cheyenne Bodie or Wyatt Earp.

This is the National Festival of the West—organizer Mary Brown’s heartfelt tribute to just about everything Western, though mostly TV and movies—which celebrates its 20th anniversary March 18-21 at WestWorld in Scottsdale, Arizona. The festival brings together a who’s who of Western stars, or maybe that should be a who was.

Ty Hardin’s sitting at his table. Alone. He doesn’t look happy watching Walker and O’Brian sign all those autographs. Then again, he hasn’t had too many jobs since Bronco went off the air back in 1962.

I drop by Wyatt McCrea’s table. He’s smiling. Wyatt’s grandfather was Joel McCrea. I’d smile too if I were kin to Joel McCrea. I’d smile if I were as handsome as Wyatt, who is an actor, rancher, horseman and a nice guy.

I turn back, passing Buck Taylor’s booth. Buck’s an artist and actor whose repertoire ranges from starring as Newly O’Brien on CBS’s Gunsmoke to Turkey Creek Jack Johnson in 1993’s Tombstone. He’s smiling, talking to fans while he paints. I’d smile too if I were Buck Taylor, even though Buck’s starting to look more and more like his dad, the late Dub Taylor (who’d never be mistaken for Wyatt or Joel McCrea). Buck’s an amazing artist, who can paint, talk to fans and listen to Robert Fuller’s Jack Lord stories at the same time.

I wander outside, past the food vendors, down the hill and past the Mountain Man Rendezvous and Sutler’s Row. The 9th Memorial Cavalry re-enactors are talking to a family about the buffalo soldiers. No Jack Lord-type stories here. These stories are full of pride, even though these troopers seem a little long in tooth and a little wide in paunch to be riding across Arizona chasing Apaches. But that’s okay. They’re doing what they want to do, spreading the knowledge about the buffalo soldiers who helped bring civilization to the West.

I’m off to hear Buck Taylor tell some stories about working on Gunsmoke, but I stop at the music stage. An old man dressed in black is standing in front of the mic. He starts singing. I’m amazed. Johnny Western has to be well past 70, but his voice doesn’t show any age. Man has a set of pipes on him. He shares a story about how Dimitri Tiomkin called him one morning, said he was recording a theme song for a TV Western but the singer couldn’t read music. Tiomkin asked Johnny if he could get to the studio and cut the song so that the singer, who turned out to be Frankie Laine, would know how to sing it. Johnny grabbed his chance.

“I didn’t tell Dimitri,” Johnny says, “that I couldn’t—still can’t—read a lick of music.”

A few minutes later, he’s launching into the theme to CBS’s Rawhide.

My feet start tapping. Buck Taylor will have to wait—as long as Johnny Western isn’t yodeling.

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