Remembering heroes of the westerns

Published 12:59 am Saturday, November 12, 2011

“Remember Smiley Burnett?” I asked my daughter, expecting a smile and a nod. She looked puzzled as I added, “You know, Frog, who was in Gene Autry movies.” I had just read a few lines about Smiley, called Frog in some movies. It brought back memories of Saturday matinees I attended in the small town where I lived as a teen.

No, she didn’t even know who Smiley was. It amazed me. It even made me a little sad that she missed the funny cowboy with a beautiful voice. She missed out on George Gabby Hayes, too, another popular sidekick. But then, I thought, how many Gene Autry movies had she seen at a theatre when she was growing up? Guess I was reverting to my own youth. How I loved those exciting Western movies with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy. Roy, Gene, and Smiley were singing cowboys. I read that neither Gene nor Smiley could read a note of music. That was no problem for either of them. Roy had a wonderful voice. The talented Smiley wrote over 100 songs and played many, many musical instruments. In fact, he even invented some for his own use.

Those of us who saw black and white Western movies peak, then gradually fade away, vividly remember the two most famous leading singing cowboy stars, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Both were handsome men. Then there was the slightly older but also good-looking William Hopalong Cassidy, known too as Hoppy. He didn’t sing, although various groups always provided great music in his movies. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers always wore white hats; Hoppy wore a black one. All three had beautiful horses. Gene rode Champion, Roy had Trigger, and Hoppy’s horse was Topper.

Oh, my. What heroes those three brave cowboys were. They always appeared on their horses with a trail of dust behind them at just the right times to rescue damsels in distress, while the audiences sat on the edge of their seats and yelled encouragement. They shot it out with the bad guys, won the hearts of the girls, and then often galloped away into the sunset. They never did kiss those pretty girls either. That would have offended all their little boy fans in the “hate girls” stage. But that was OK, because the little girl fans fell in love with them just the same.

The famous side-kick George Gabby Hayes, who starred as Windy Halladay in the Hoppy movies, portrayed an unkempt old codger, whose expressions made English teachers shudder. Smiley looked much younger than Gabby. If my memory serves me right, Smiley portrayed a character with a pleasanter disposition than Gabby. Both Smiley and Gabby scored several times along with their hero cowboys in the top ten box-office polls of their day.

Each, Gene, Roy, Hoppy, Gabby, and Smiley used their talents in unique ways to entertain and win the hearts of their many fans of that era.