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  All-Star Western Theatre - 10 hours [Audio CDs] #RA174



 
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10 hours - Audio CD Set


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All-Star Western Theatre



Robert LivingstonWhen movie critics or film students get together, the talk will sometimes turn to a discussion of the "Great American Western" - those sweeping, dramatic, and often poetic tributes to the pioneers, the cowboys, the lawmen, and the settlers who won the west. The conversation can often grow heated, as some rise to proclaim John Ford's westerns as being the best while others put forth such names as Howard Hawks or Henry Hathaway as the directors who best presented the American west on the silver screen. Actors, too, come into the discussion - everyone from John Wayne and the rest of the Ford "stock company" to James Stewart and his work with Anthony Mann - and they, too, are argued about and debated.

No matter how heated the conversation, however, you can be sure that it will never touch on those whom many believe to be the true screen icons of the Old West: Gene Autry, Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, Don Barry, Tex Ritter, and directors like William Witney and Lesley Selander, the backbone of such studios as Republic, Monogram, Universal, Columbia, and Grand National. Western films that featured these stars and made by these directors are often written off as "oaters", "shoot 'em ups", or "Saturday afternoon kiddie shows", made cheaply and sold "by the yard" to fill the needs of small movie houses and double bills from the early 1930s until the mid-1950s. They were, they say, products made to fill a need, nothing more, and aren't deserving of much attention or analysis. Never mind that these films were frequently more successful than their big studio counterparts, made more money at the box office, or entertained more people than practically any other form of big screen entertainment.

There's something to the argument, of course. B-Westerns, as they quickly came to be known, were indeed made for specific audiences and generally cost less than a third to a tenth of what a western cost to produce at a major studio. Tight budgets and specific audiences generally meant that B-westerns were made in formula fashion - a handsome hero (who might or might not also sing), herds of galloping horses, black-hatted bad guys, the crack of six guns, a couple of good solid fights, and sometimes a pretty damsel in distress to fill out the package. The scripts employed a series of familiar plots - cattle rustlers or land grabbers who needed to be caught, bank robbers and bandits pursued by the law, the hero mistaken for a bad guy who must prove his true worth - but all with a solid moral center, constantly demonstrating that good always beats evil and real heroes only use their guns as a last resort.

Dale EvansThe audiences for these films were, it could be said, easy to entertain - particularly when the same plot (and sometimes even the same stock footage) was used again and again. Whether it was a Saturday matinee in a theater packed with kids or a low-priced double-feature bill to an audience of adults simply wanting to escape the worries of the day, B-westerns were undeniably predictable - but there was also something unpretentious and immensely satisfying about a film genre that was guaranteed to deliver a mix of action, excitement, music, and a happy ending.

By the early 1940s, B-westerns were a staple of theatrical entertainment in thousands of movie houses around the country and had also unveiled a new phenomenon: the singing cowboy. The surprise movie success of a folk singing radio performer named Gene Autry started the trend - and it wasn't long before crooning cowpokes (and their accompanying musical combos) became a staple of the B-western. Naturally, once an audience had heard their favorite cowboy star vocalize, they would be interested in hearing more - so western stars like Autry and, later, Roy Rogers, Eddie Dean, and Rex Allen became recording stars too, known as much for their musical skills as for their roping', ridin', and shootin'. It was this talent, rather than any particular acting skill, that led Autry to radio - and it was radio, in fact, that allowed him to go from B-western favorite to Hollywood superstar practically overnight.

Premiering in 1940, "Gene Autry's Melody Ranch" became a major success on CBS Radio thanks to the genial nature of the star, his top-notch musical sidekicks (including Frankie Marvin, Carl Cottner, and Johnny Bond), and a unique blend of music and western action. The formula for the program was simple: open with a musical number, segue into a bit of comedy banter with the announcer, the musicians, and Autry's Republic Pictures' cohort Pat Buttram, then offer twenty minutes or so of dramatic content in the two-fisted manner of his screen adventures. Conclude the drama with a happy ending, go into a closing musical selection, encourage the listeners to chew more Wrigley's Gum, and invite them to tune in again next week. As predictable - and as entertaining - as a Saturday matinee double-feature, "Melody Ranch" proved itself to be the perfect showcase for a singing cowboy - and, since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it wasn't long before other shows began to copy Autry's formula.

An early success, premiering in 1943, was "The Hollywood Barn Dance", hosted by down-home announcer Cottonseed Clark. Clark (real name Clark Fulks) was born in Paris, Texas and began his announcing career at local radio stations. Moving to New York in the mid-1930s, he became a writer-producer for various advertising agencies but, though successful, he missed the pleasures of performing. So, in the early 1940s, he relocated to Los Angeles and spent time writing for and occasionally appearing on Autry's radio show. When Autry left "Melody Ranch" in 1942 to join the armed forces, CBS was left with a hole in their broadcast schedule - a hole that Clark was more than happy to fill. Written and hosted by Clark, "The Hollywood Barn Dance" introduced listeners to a wide range of western-based musical entertainment - much of it performed by the same singers and musicians whose talents were featured in the B-westerns of the time. Blessed with the same likability as Autry, Clark's comfortable "welcome, friends and neighbors" greetings to the listening audience made him a popular personality - but even more popular were the musical groups that appeared on his show. Thanks to the influence of such nationally known groups as Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, audiences had recently been introduced to something new in "hillbilly" music: country swing or "honky tonk". A highly danceable mix of traditional fiddle music combined with the infectious rhythms of the big bands, this new type of country music quickly swept the nation and even influenced such mainstream performers as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Country swing came to both radio and the movies in hit recordings by Wills and Al Dexter and his Troopers, whose "Pistol Packin' Mama" was smash hit in 1943 - but also through smaller musical groups like Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage. Clark realized that, like "Melody Ranch", his "Hollywood Barn Dance" show would need to feature a top musical group as regulars and accompanists - and that the Riders would fit the bill very nicely.

Foy Willing and two of the Riders of the Purple Sage in a still from one of their films for Columbia PicturesBorn Foy Willingham in Iredell, Texas, by 1943, Foy Willing was already known as something of a musical prodigy. Blessed with a rich and smooth baritone voice, Willing was also a successful songwriter whose melodies had frequently made their way to the soundtracks of many a B-western. Relocating from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, Willing and his friend Al Sloey teamed up with singer Jimmy Wakely as a member of Wakely's Saddle Pals band. But it wasn't long before Wakely got too busy with his career as a singing cowboy to continue performing publicly, so Willing took over, adding Kenny Driver and singer Eddie Dean's brother Jimmy to the group. Willing rechristened the ensemble "The Riders of the Purple Sage", after the novel by Zane Grey, and fashioned their overall sound after another similar musical group, the Sons of the Pioneers. The newly formed Riders debuted on the "Hollywood Barn Dance" and quickly found their music in demand for both recordings and personal appearance tours.

Fast forward to 1946. Gene Autry has returned from the war and has also returned to his "Melody Ranch" show. "The Hollywood Barn Dance" has proven itself successful and the Riders have made a couple of featured appearances in motion pictures. Thanks to their guest appearances, Cottonseed Clark and Foy Willing have become friendly with many of the cowboy stars of the movies. Why not, they thought, emulate Autry once again and create a new show that would be a virtual Saturday matinee in itself (albeit on Sundays)? And, with this inspiration, the "All-Star Western Theatre" was born.

Wild Bill ElliottIf the formula was familiar, many of the guest stars weren't - at least to radio audiences. Western-based actors who were also vocalists had, of course, made appearances on the "Barn Dance" and other programs, but others - such as Johnny Mack Brown, Tim Holt, and "Wild Bill" Elliott - had only stopped by to greet the listeners. Unable to sing, these movie cowboys had had limited experience with radio - but were definitely interested in what the medium could do for their careers. So, when it was suggested that they star in vest pocket versions of their shoot 'em up adventures, most quickly lined up to make an appearance. And so, in June of 1946, the "All-Star Western Theatre" made its debut over the CBS Pacific Network. Originating at KNX, the CBS flagship station based at Columbia Square in the heart of Hollywood, the series enjoyed two years of popularity - first on CBS and then, in 1948, moving to KHJ and the Mutual Radio Network. (The "Hollywood Barn Dance" continued to be heard on Saturdays, now hosted by John "Dusty" King.)

Over the course of two years, "All-Star Western Theatre" featured many a movie cowboy as a guest star but also occasionally expanded the format to include comedians Smiley Burnette and Jerry Colonna, radio stars like Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, and other featured players like Preston Foster and Virginia Mayo. Being based in Hollywood, the dramatic portions of the program often benefited from the talents of the West Coast's wide array of multi-talented radio performers, including Virginia Gregg, Harry Lang, Howard Culver, and Harry Bartell. But throughout the run, the real stars remained Cottonseed Clark and Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, a fine combination of a warm and welcoming host with some of the best and most swinging close harmony musical selections ever to hit the airwaves.

It's a lucky accident that much of "All-Star Western Theatre's" two-year run still exists to be enjoyed today - but its luckier still to discover that, in addition to airchecks made when the show was being performed, the series was also at the same time professionally recorded by the Universal Broadcasting Company with the intention of syndicating it into other broadcasting markets. When aired for the West Coast, "All Star Western Theatre" was sponsored by Weber's Bread - but, in the recordings contained in this fully restored collection, the programs contain no commercials; their airtime is taken up by musical breaks that would allow a local radio station to advertise a local sponsor instead. Clearly, the producers of the series were thinking ahead - and the fact that some of the original disc labels indicate airings as late as 1955 mean that the series had a life far longer that its two-year stint on the networks.

Heard today, the "All Star Western Theatre" remains great entertainment for all ages. Coming from a time when most movies - and all B-westerns - were suitable for family audiences, the music, the comedy, and the drama remains just as delightful as it was over 60 years ago. It's great to hear the cowboy heroes of another era brought back to life in sparkling audio fidelity - and particularly wonderful to hear the truly timeless talents of Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage at their absolute peak of performance. If you ever thrilled to an exciting chase on horseback across the silver screen, rooting for the hero and booing the bad guys, you're going to love the "All-Star Western Theatre" from Radio Archives.


#7 "Miss East Goes West" with guest star Jean Rogers
1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#8 "Drifting Along" with guest star Eddie Dean

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#11 "Dude Ranch Serenade" with guest star Dale Evans

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#12 Guest stars Ken Curtis and Griff Barnett

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#14 "Drifty" with guests Jennifer, Tim, and Jack Holt

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#15 "Goodbye to the Red River Valley" with guest Don "Red" Barry

1946/47 - KNX-30:00 - CBS Pacific Network

#16 "The Beginning of Bill Barlow" with guest star Bill Elliott

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#17 "I Came from Texas" with guest star Tex Ritter

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#18 "The Man from Alabama" with guest star Johnny Mack Brown

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#19 "At Sundown" with guest star Alan "Rocky" Lane

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#21 "Good Acting Done Cheap" with guest star Smiley Burnette

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#22 "Down Mexico Way" with guest star Jimmy Wakely

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#23 "From East to West" with guest star William Marshall

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#24 "The Voot Cowboy" with guest star Ken Curtis

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#25 Guest star Jimmy Wakely

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#26 "The Feud" with guest star Eddie Dean

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#27 "The Phantom Rider" with guest star Dennis Moore

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#28 "Cowboy Goes West" with guest star Jimmy Lydon

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#29 "The Smell of Cologne"

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network

#30 "The Streets of Laredo" with guest star Tex Ritter

1946/47 - 30:00 - KNX-CBS Pacific Network


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