“Howdy Kids: A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup” ought to be called “Howdy Boomers,” because the people most likely to grab a copy are the ones who grew up watching these half-hour TV Westerns. To be accurate, while some of these aired on Saturday afternoons, others aired on Saturday mornings, while a few were prime time series. This 3-DVD set contains 24 episodes from 14 TV Westerns from the Fifties, many of which were popular enough to spawn product tie-ins like lunch boxes, coloring books, toy guns, and Viewmaster reels.
The Lone Ranger (2 episodes included) aired from 1949-1957 and was without a doubt one of the most popular Westerns with children. It starred Clayton Moore as the masked man, a Texas Ranger who survived a massacre and donned the mask to fight for justice ever after. Jay Silverheels played Tonto, his faithful Indian companion, and yes, racist dialogue and situations abound. In the span of five minutes or so you run across practically every Indian spoken cliché (“Ugh,” “How!” “Heap big,” “Many moons,” “Great White Father in Washington”) and the action is more like a playground fight. But there’s still some magic left when The Lone Ranger hops onto his horse and shouts “Hi-Yo Silver . . . Away!” And let’s face it, LR was ahead of his time, using silver bullets as his trademark. Heck, if vampires attacked (as one did in the B-movie “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula”) he was ready! There’s a good laugh when three puffs of smoke are enough for The Lone Ranger to tell Tonto, “He says that it’s important to see you right away, but he doesn’t say why.”
The show, which ran for 217 episodes, was popular with the whole family, since it began as a prime time series and later moved to Saturday mornings. In 1950 it was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Best Film Made For and Viewed on Television in 1949, and a year later it was nominated for Best Children’s Show. Included here are two black-and-white episodes from 1949. “The Renegades” involves a group of renegade white men and a crooked Indian Agent who rob supply trains intended for the Indians, with Tonto getting plenty of ride-ahead time. “Six Gun’s Legacy” is about a group of outlaws who kill passengers on a stagecoach line and try to assume the identity of one of them in order to collect a fortune.
The Range Rider (2 episodes included) aired from 1951-53, running 78 episodes. It starred Jock Mahoney as the buckskin fringed Range Rider, whose real name no one knew, and his sidekick, Dick West (Dickie Jones), who was billed as “the All-American Boy.” Included are two episodes from the final season, “Convict at Large” and “Bullets and Badmen,” both of which are still fun to watch. As in all of these Western half-hour series the plot is a quick situation/conflict/resolution and the characters are all stereotypes. Little old ladies talk like little old ladies, badmen have that outlaw sneer-and-swagger, and of course the heroes are wholesome as the sponsors wanted them to be. One of the episodes has a plot like “Six Gun’s Legacy,” which reminds you that so many of the stock situations and plots are recycled. Both episodes are in black and white.
The Rifleman (1 episode included) wasn’t really a Saturday afternoon Western, but a prime time show starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, who shared top billing with a special rifle with a quick lever action—a gun every kid wanted to buy. Interestingly, while Connors was the star and got his own comic book, it was the boy who played his son—Johnny Crawford—who received a Primetime Emmy nomination. The half-hour series ran for 168 episodes, and “The Day of the Hunter” is included in this collection. In this episode, Mark questions his father’s bravery when he backs down from a gunfight . . . and later gets a lecture on how being called “best” isn’t important . . . plus the old man who challenged him was a boyhood hero of his. Movie lovers will recognize character actor John Anderson as Cass Callicot, who reprised his role in 10 more episodes.
The Adventures of Rick O’Shay (1 episode included) was based on a comic strip by Stan Lynde, and if it doesn’t sound familiar it’s because the episode included here, “Stagecoach to Danger,” was an unsold pilot. It stars Steve Keyes as Rick O’Shay, and Bob Gilbert and Ewing Brown as his sidekicks Pawnee and Gopher. Presented in black and white, it’s a typical saving ladies-in-distress plot. Year unknown. But I can see why it wasn’t picked up. Everyone is just a little too nice, and the plot and characters overly familiar.
Fury (2 episodes included) was a favorite with young boys, but fans of “Airplane!” may want to have a look just to get the additional jokes behind the cockpit scenes in which Peter Graves as Captain Oveur says to the little boy who visits the cabin, “Joey, have you ever been in a . . . in a Turkish prison?” or “You ever seen a grown man naked?” You see, in this half-hour series Graves played rancher Jim Newton, who adopted a young boy named (you guessed it) Joey (Bobby Diamond). Grizzled Western vet William Fawcett played the hired hand, but the real star was Fury, the sleek wild black stallion that only responded to Joey. The series, which aired between 1955-60, ran for 116 episodes, and like “Sky King,” which is also in this collection, it was set in the West of automobiles.
The show oozes 1950s, especially in “Scorched Earth,” which features a park ranger “deputizing” Joey with a badge and giving him a job to do—post Smoky Bear No Camping signs in the forest for him because it’s so dry that the slightest spark could start a fire. And of course a father and his son decide to ignore the order and start a fire that ends up threatening Joey as well. Like “Killer Stallion” it’s from Season 1, and both episodes are in black and white. “Killer Stallion” is the story of how then still wild Fury is suspected of raiding ranches with penned up horses. Both episodes are in black and white.
The Roy Rogers Show (2 episodes) starred “King of the Cowboys” Roy Rodgers, his wife Dale Evans, horse Trigger, “wonder dog” Bullet, and comic sidekick Pat Brady, who drove a jeep. In “The Setup,” from Season 1, Roy stops outlaws from taking over Granny Hobbs’ place. In “Bad Neighbors,” from Season 4, Roy gets caught up in a feud between cattlemen and homesteaders. And yes, Roy and Dale sing their trademark song “Happy Trails to You” at the end of each episode. Sponsored by Post Cereals and Jell-O, the series ran for six seasons between 1951-57 (102 episodes). Both of these episodes are in black and white.
Annie Oakley (2 episodes) was the ongoing story of the West’s most famous female sharpshooter and her younger brother Tagg, who lived in the town of Diablo, where her uncle was the sheriff. Gail Davis played Annie and Jimmy Hawkins was Tagg. In “Outlaw Brand,” from the first season, Tagg’s friend tips him off that he thinks his guardian might be returning to the life of an outlaw. “Sharpshooting Annie,” also in black and white, The show only lasted three seasons, despite Annie’s “hard ridin’, quick shootin’ and suspense.” In “Sharpshooting Annie,” also from Season 1, Annie and Tagg are passengers on a wagon that’s carrying sharpshooter money raised for charity. And of course Annie gets the money back . . . after she does things like stop runaway horses, dagnabit. The show’s 81 episodes aired from 1954-57.
The Adventures of Kit Carson (2 episodes)lasted four seasons (103 episodes) and aired from 1951-55. Bill Williams starred as the title character, with Don Diamond playing his Mexican sidekick El Toro. In “Thunder over Inyo,” from Season 2, a little girl tells Kit her father is in trouble, and it’s up to him to find him and assist. In “The Desperate Sheriff” Kit and El Toro help a sheriff who’s trying to round up desperados, and El Toro has woman problems.
The Adventures of Champion (2 episodes)was a spin-off of “The Gene Autry Show,” which, frankly, I wish were included in this collection instead. Kids had their favorite: either Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Both had wonder horses, both had comic sidekicks, but kids were only loyal to one of them. “Champion” was a short-lived series (26 episodes) that aired on CBS during the 1955-56 season. It was about young Ricky West (Barry Curtis) and rancher Sandy (Jim Bannon), their dog Rebel, and of course “Champion the Wonder Horse,” who, in this series, was a wild stallion. In ‘Hangman’s Noose” the plot involves the discovery of oil and the things people do to try to get ahold of the land. In “Bad Men of the Valley,” Sandy and Ricky come upon a dead man who was shot, and it leads them to a peck o’ trouble.
The Cisco Kid (2 episodes) was O. Henry’s Robin Hood of the West, a Mexican vaquero who rode with his sidekick, Pancho. Their TV schtick: “Oh Cisco . . . Oh Pancho!” (cue laughter). Like The Lone Ranger and Tonto this pair rode here and there until they found trouble (or vice versa) and solved the problem, usually helping someone in the process. This series, which ran for six seasons between 1950-56 (156 episodes) would have been a crown jewel in the “Howdy Kids” collection, except that instead of early black-and-white episodes the ones included here are in color—and color isn’t so forgiving. The quality is so poor that it hurts my eyes to try to watch the episodes. It’s like looking out the window of a moving train. Everything is slightly blurred and really indistinct. “Ghost Town” is one of the weaker episodes I’ve seen, but “Freight Line Feud” is a good one.
Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (2 episodes)was one of the more unique Saturday offerings, with Sergeant Preston a member of the Royal Mounted Police whose job was to patrol the Yukon area, where men had come to strike it rich during the gold rush. Both episodes included here are in color, and both are far clearer than “The Cisco Kid.” In “Crime at Wounded Moose,” Sgt. Preston and his dog, Yukon King, try to catch a gang of masked men who are robbing people. In “Trapped,” it’s winter and it takes a dog sled to help some people who are cornered by a storm . . . and a bad guy. This kid favorite starred Dick Simmons as the colorfully dressed Sgt. Preston and Yukon King as himself. The series ran for 78 episodes between 1955-58.
Sky King (1 episode) ran four seasons (72 episodes) between 1952 and 1959 and, like so many of these series, found new life in syndication. Kirby Grant starred as rancher Sky King, who was a licensed pilot and flew his Songbird over his land the way Ben Cartwright rode over his Ponderosa. And if you’re a Jimmy Buffett fan, you’ve probably heard Buffett sing about “writin’ fan letters to Sky King and Penny” in his song “Pencil Thin Mustache.” Penny (Gloria Winters) was King’s perky niece, and in this contemporary Western the same sort of plots you found in the rest of the genre entries were updated. In “Bullet Bait,” a man on his way to be married stumbles onto a bunch of hijackers and gets waylaid. It’s up to Sky and Penny to help him.
Red Ryder (1 episode) is a name that will be familiar to all fans of “A Christmas Story.” Allan “Rocky” Lane starred as the crack rifle shot, while (brace yourself for more racist stereotypes) Louis Lettieri plays Little Beaver, an Indian boy who rides with him. Their relationship will probably remind you a bit of Indiana Jones and Short Round from the second Indy flick, only with more wholesome banter, as befits a ‘50s Western. Based on another comic strip, this series was cancelled after two episodes. For whatever reason—maybe it was the end of an era—the success that Lane and others had playing Red Ryder in big-screen serials and films during the 1940s didn’t carry over to the small screen. In “Whiplash,” aside from the typical help-someone plot, Little Beaver gets a tummyache from candy . . . and likes it.
Buffalo Bill, Jr. (2 episodes) was so pointedly aimed at kids that it might have talked down to the audience. Airing between 1955-56, it only lasted 42 episodes. Dickie Jones starred as the title character, with Nancy Gilbert playing the equally “golly gee” juvenile Calamity and Harry Cheshire as Judge Ben “Fair and Square” Wiley. “Blazing Guns” and “Legacy of Jesse James” give you some idea of why the show didn’t make it. Compared to some of the other series on this disc the acting and scripting is just a little too wide-eyed. The plots, though, are comparable. In one episode, for example, Calamity thinks she knows how robbers are finding out who to hit—a pretty common premise.
The shows vary in quality, with “The Lone Ranger” and “The Cisco Kid” on the low end and “Sergeant Preston” and “Red Ryder” on the high end. There are flickers of imperfections and some blurriness in everything, but for the most part, given the age factor and given that no extensive restorations have occurred, it’s a decent-enough picture. Just don’t go into this expecting anything pristine. TV was a throwaway medium, never intended to be preserved. The aspect ratio for all is 1.33:1.
The audio is a uniform Dolby Digital Mono, and the best you can say about it is that there’s not a lot of crackle and pop or distortion.
What? With 10 hours of old TV Westerns you still expect bonus features? Sorry pardners. None are included.
I can’t imagine watching entire seasons of any of these TV Westerns, but it certainly is fun to watch an episode or two and remember what it was like during the ‘50s . . . or, for first-time viewers, gain some sense of what people were watching back then. Talk about a (six-gun) blast from the past！