Today’s film industry might provide an occasional Western, but in Hollywood’s Golden Era Cowboy films were a profitable and necessary staple. And Cowboy Stars ruled.

Oh yes, we all remember Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. But we’re not talking all singing cowboys.

Think Tom Mix, (above) William S. Hart, Johnny Mack Brown, Buck Jones, (below) Hoot Gibson, William Boyd (aka Hopalong Cassidy), Tex Ritter, Rex Allen. These guys filled theater seats all over the country in small towns in the 1930s.

By the 1940s and 50s these men were replaced by “stars” who made Westerns. John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea.

Today we want to remember one of THE biggest of the Cowboy Stars.

…. Ken Maynard!

Born in 1895 in Indiana — and not Texas, as studio publicists insisted — Maynard was the genuine article, a real cowpoke with trick horseback riding skills featured in Buffalo Bill and Ringling Brothers Wild West Shows of the 1920’s.  He also was a champion show competitor, and excelled in rodeos before and after his movie career.

After serving in the Army during World War I, Maynard broke into silents in 1923, and after successfully making the transition to talkies, he continued until the mid-Forties. He appeared in nearly 100 pictures.

He also occasionally produced his own titles with at least one (1933’s Gun Justice) receiving big studio distribution (Universal).

Maynard developed himself into a genuine cowboy star, drawing a youth audience with his antics (he had started out as a stunt rider) on his signature horse — Tarzan. Perhaps more significantly, he is regarded by horse opera buffs as the movies’ first singing cowboy who introduced songs into westerns long before Gene Autry and Roy Rogers arrived.

In fact,  Autry (who really was born in Texas in 1907) made his screen debut in Maynard’s 1934 outing, In Old Sante Fe. While he was a 20-something fresh singing face, Maynard by then was a grizzled 40-year-old veteran who had been riding the range onscreen for more than a decade.

At the peak of his career, Maynard was right up there in the star department with the likes of Hart, Mix, and Jones. He was once ranked among the top 10, most highly paid Hollywood personalities of the 1930’s.

Maynard’s final years were difficult.  He worked outside the movies from 1944 on, at rodeos, state fairs, personal appearances, you name it. His finances were drained by a number of business investment misfires.

He managed to pop up in a couple of bare-bones-budget independent films in the 1970’s (1970’s Big Foot with John Carradine and with fellow singing screen cowboy Tex Ritter in 1972’s The Marshal of Windy Hollow)

But his long losing battle with alcoholism and severely straightened finances took a toll. At the time of his death, in 1973 at age 77, he was living in a trailer in rural Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles.

And finally, let’s not forget…

He was a dapper man in real life. And often his fans didn’t recognize him. But one peek at the picture above spells Gabby Hayes.

He was indeed Hollywood’s favorite sidekick to various western stars — notably Hopalong Cassidy — and one who emerged as a force at the box office and something of a star himself.  He was an immensely popular figure of family entertainment on two tv networks in the Fifties.

He worked a ton (amassing a whopping 190 movie and tv credits over some 20 years), and was hugely popular in Westerns of the Thirties and Forties. In the Fifties he successfully plunged into tv with The Gabby Hayes Show — which ran over four years on NBC and then two on rival ABC — and found himself the inspiration for a popular comic book series.

By comparison, he made Walter Brennen look like a male fashion model. He didn’t usually present himself as a drunk or a reprobate, but mostly as a benign, toothless old cuss given to lines such as “yer durn tootin” and “young whipper snapper.” And it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say he was a beloved onscreen figure.

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