Back in the 1940s when Saturday westerns were “the big event” at Sylva’s Ritz theatre, I acquired a reputation. I was known as “The Front-Row Kid.” On a typical Saturday, I would arrive with a huge bandana around my neck, my “western shirt” (which was emblazoned with the sacred faces of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans ... not to mention a dozen pearl buttons that graced its surface) and my two silver-plated cap pistols. I usually went down to the front row, a location that I had pretty much to myself. Most people don’t like being that close to the action. However, the Front-Row Kid liked to be so close he could smell the coffee and the gunpowder.
I had taken a time-honored oath (sworn to Mr. Moody, the manager) to not fire my guns indiscriminately, so they nestled quietly in their holsters while Roy, Gene, Johnnie Mack or Hopalong talked, courted the girls and/or sang around the campfire. However, as soon as the Indians attacked the stagecoach or our fearless cowboy rode off in pursuit of the bank robbers, I would cock my pistols and wait. When a barrage of gunfire came, I would rise, take aim and fire.
Of course, the sound of my exploding “Red Devil” caps was lost amid the roar of countless 44’s and Winchesters, but in my time at the Ritz, I stood with the best, including Lash LaRue, Bob Steele and Jimmy Wakeley, the “Singing Cowboy.” When the battle was over, I would retire to my seat, load another roll of caps, journey out to the lobby for a Coke refill and wait for the next attack.
I don’t mind telling you, I miss being the Front-Row Kid. Being an adult is OK, but with a few notable exceptions, grown-up life just doesn’t have a decent substitute for the adrenalin rush that I felt each time that I rose in the thundering darkness of the Ritz to stand shoulder to shoulder with Wild Bill Elliott and Sunset Carson as they blazed their way out of another tight spot.
A few years ago, I blundered on a battered little book by James Horiwitz called They Went Thataway. It turned out that James also called himself “The Front-Row Kid,” and the inside leaf of the dust jacket carried a picture of him decked out in his own gear. In addition, James had decided to track down all of his old heroes and talk to them. By the time that he wrote his book (1976), many of the old cowboys were dead. Some weren’t very talkative (Randolph Scott, Joel McRae and Cisco Kid), some were disappointments (Gene Autry and Roy Rogers), but the majority spent hours talking about their career with Horiwitz. After Hollywood lost interest in them, many ended up in road shows and carnivals, while others eked out a living on the “nostalgia circuit” selling T-shirts and novelties at “old cowboy” festivals.
One of the most moving sections of the book follows Sunset Carson through a festival in North Carolina where he speaks to a platoon of “front-row kids,” and recalls how he was injured by a speeding car that struck him as he attempted to walk across a North Carolina interstate. While he was hospitalized, he was visited (and prayed for) by Bob Steele, who was in jail in South Carolina for possession of marijuana. (He got out on an “honor-system parole” to visit Sunset.)
Horiwitz’s book paints a marvelous picture of a lost era — a time of black and white hats and colors when the distinction between good and evil was easy to make. The most painful memories in the book involve many old stars’ expressions of “a sense of abandonment,” and a feeling of Hollywood’s betrayal. When the big studios turned their backs on the western heroes, many were without a means to survive. The interview with the (now deceased) Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore) revealed a man struggling desperately to maintain his dignity in a world where his identity had been taken from him.
After reading the Horiwitz book, I was left with a profound sense of loss. I yearned for a return “to the golden days of yesteryear” when happiness was a double-buttered popcorn, a big Coke and a double-feature matinee. Is there a way to call the old cowboys back? I know they don’t fit in a modern multi-screened mall, but in this world where others yearn for Roy and Dale singing “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” isn’t there a way to bring the good old boys home? Well, maybe.
Not too long ago I watched two TV programs on the “revival of the drive-in theatre.” According to CBS news and the Web site drivein.com, drive-ins are coming back, complete with outside speakers, massive screens and ... old movies. My heart quickened a bit as I read about the popularity of old westerns and the outdoor theatres that intend to feature “a trip down memory lane” complete with the old continued serials (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle!) and Lash LaRue double-features.
Do you see where this is headed? If the drive-ins come back and Johnny Mack Brown returns ...if Hoppy rides again and Red Ryder shows up, why not the Front-Row Kid? Can you picture it? Rows and rows of Front-Row Kids in a special seating section, all armed and waiting their cue, as a 30-foot Lone Ranger and Tonto ride cautiously toward the outlaw camp. OK, guys, lock and load!