Gene Autry, Buffalo Bill, and Me

Pixie and I, January, 1955

Pixie and I, January, 1955

The doctor’s buzzsaw had barely stripped the cast from my eight-year-old arm when the call came. Ace Hudkin, of Hudkin Brothers Stables, was on the line when my dad answered. “The studio wants to interview your daughter about an upcoming series. They need a gal who can ride.”
Hudkin Brothers, located on Coldwater Canyon not far from the intersection with Saticoy Street where we lived, supplied movie horses to the studios. They used our ponies on more than one occasion; the latest was Pixie, our black and white pony who starred in the Annie Oakley TV series, produced by Flying A Productions.

The Flying A Productions office was exciting, with a full size wooden Indian standing on one side, a silver saddle on the other. Photos and awards were everywhere. The huge desk was imposing but no more so than the man who sat behind it, the very same man who was billed as the star on the scads of movie posters that lined the walls behind him. Gene Autry was a hero to millions, and his smile was all for me. “Do you think you can handle the job?”

I sure did. I’d been riding since my father sat me on a pony at six months of age. The cowboys teased I’d learned to walk when I fell off. I knew how to cue trick ponies, drive a pony cart, race like the wind, sail over jumps and even survive a good buck or two — most of the time. If all I had to do was ride, I knew I could do the job, but I could barely get the words out. All I could do was nod my head and stammer out short answers to his questions. It must have been enough because the week after school was out, I was on the set.

The first day of shooting, June 21st, 1954, took place in Newhall, California, just over the hill from the San Fernando Valley that I called home. Gene owned Melody Ranch, a 60 acre movie ranch with an extensive western town. The pilot we were filming was for The Buffalo Bill Jr. series, starring Dick Jones as Buffalo Bill Jr., the Marshall of Wileyville, Texas, in the lawless 1890’s. Nancy Gilbert played his kid sister, Calamity, who helped her brother catch the outlaws.

Nancy Gilbert, our pony and myself in front of a ranch house on the set.

Nancy Gilbert, our pony and myself in front of a ranch house on the set.

I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror, with long, black braids where curly blonde hair should be. It was exciting to be made up like a twin to someone else. Our outfits were custom made by Nudie, the rodeo tailor who was almost as famous as the stars he catered to. Nancy was friendly and fun, not what I expected from a child star. We shared a white pony, owned by George Spahn, who hated the touch of the spurs the director loved and insisted we wear. Nancy didn’t know how to ride. I was my job to take the quick turns, the running, the hard stops, all of the action Nancy was not allowed to do.

Shooting each scene is a slow process. The actors wait while the propmen, cameramen and electricians set up the scene. Once everything is in place, the lighting and camera angles are tested. When the shooting finally begins, the assistant directors calls “Quiet on the set.” and then “Lights. Camera. Action.” The first take is done within minutes but may be repeated several times until the director is satisfied. Our director, George Archainbaud, also directed The Annie Oakley series. My pony, Pixie, did all of the action shots for Tagg Oakley, Annie’s little brother, played by Jimmie Hawkins. Pixie was swift, sometimes out running the horses, including the outlaws he was supposed to be chasing. Mr. Archainbaud wanted this white pony to run like the wind too. That was a task he just couldn’t do. As I spurred harder trying to get him to run, he’d go to bucking. I was both excited and afraid. Afraid this pony would succeed in tossing me. Afraid he would re-break my arm so recently healed from another bucking pony. Afraid I would do something wrong. I needn’t have worried. Movie companies take the time for a lot of retakes.

When we weren’t needed on the set, Nancy and I prowled the various movie sets, climbing up the saloon stairs and peeking out the windows at the street below, wandering through the Mexican village, and visiting the livery stable, chock full of old wagons and harnesses. There was a woman assigned to keep track of us and as soon as she heard the call, she’d hustle us back to the set to play the next scene.

Dick Jones. You can bet my heart was thumping and my wishes were liberally hurled into that well.

Dick Jones. You can bet my heart was thumping and my wishes were liberally hurled into that well.

My riding scenes were almost always beside Dick Jones, another screen hero. He co-starred with Jock Mahoney in The Ranger Rider. I’d been watching the series since its debut. He rode a large black quarter horse, a nice contrast to my small white pony. Our first scene called for us to gallop up the main street and stop at the hitching rail in front of the Wileyville general store, run by Judge Wiley (Harry Cheshire, a kindly gentleman), Bill and Calamity’s adopted father. It took several tries to get it right, mostly because the pony kept swerving to the left when I asked him to stop. The hitching rail was on the right. Once our part was finished, Nancy mounted the pony as he stood at the rail, swung off as soon as the cameras rolled and rushed inside the store with Dick.

Another scene called for Dick and I to rush up to the train station, where Nancy once again mounted the pony, only to dismount hurriedly and rush inside. The next scene, she rushed out and mounted him from the platform, then they stopped the cameras and I mounted him to gallop away with Dick following. A sequel to this shot was made at Pioneertown in Apple Valley. With Dick now in the lead, we rushed through an opening between two boulders. Stopping on the other side, Nancy took over for the scene where they discussed the outlaws, then I was back on the pony to gallop away, leading Dick’s horse while he “returned” to the train station on foot. The outlaws hide-out cabin was on the Walker Ranch, a third movie location in Placerita Canyon, not far from Melody Ranch.

Rodd Redwing playing the bad guy when the cameras weren't rolling. He seemed to enjoy the make-believe as much as I did.

Rodd Redwing playing the bad guy when the cameras weren’t rolling. He seemed to enjoy the make-believe as much as I did.

The episode, The Fight for Geronimo, featured Chief ThunderCloud as Geronimo and Rodd Redwing as Jackilla, a Mescalero Apache and Geronimo’s enemy, who helped keep Geronimo in custody and foiled the bad guys.The script called for me to race toward Dick and Rodd, do a flying dismount and warn them about Geronimo’s Apaches who were after the train below. They were suitably hidden behind rocks which overlooked a canyon. About twenty feet from my mark, as I prepared to dismount, the dreaded spurs tickled the pony’s white hide. His head went down, and his heels went high. I stayed on and managed to stop in place, then dismounted. Dick said, “Wow, Let’s enter you at the rodeo. Let’s go.”

I was mortified. I’d ruined the shot. They must have seen my face redden even under the heavy make-up. Next came “Take Two.” Hooray, the pony didn’t buck, but without the heavy spurring, he stopped before I could do the flying dismount. This time, as I ran up to the duo, straight-faced Rodd asked, “Did you bring my cigars?”

Main Street at Melody Ranch. The two black horses on the left were for Dick Jones.

Main Street at Melody Ranch. The two black horses on the left were for Dick Jones.

Cigars? Was I supposed to bring cigars? How could I have forgotten? I looked around in confusion, dismayed to think I’d ruined the scene again. Dick and Rodd broke into laughter. Fortunately, the performance made the director happy. Watching the show later, they’d cut my part half way to the duo. It was Nancy who actually ran up to them on film. When it came time for the threesome to rush away and capture the outlaws, I was once again before the cameras, running to mount, turning and galloping away with Dick’s black and Rodd’s pinto.

We did ruin the next scene though. I was racing down a road, trying hard to keep up with the horses. No matter how hard I urged him on, that pony just couldn’t run fast enough. Exhausted from the effort and the excessive desert heat, he went to bucking. We tried it again, this time with just the pony and I. Sweat was pouring under the wool riding dress I wore. It must have been a hundred in the shade. Feeling faint, I was worried about the pony bucking but game for one more try. When he started to buck again, I grabbed the horn and ruined the scene. They wanted another shot, but I couldn’t. My head and stomach were reeling from heat stroke. Dick Jones double was feeling under the weather also. He was in buckskins which must have been even hotter than my outfit. I asked to try again after it cooled off a bit, but they decided against another shot. Most of the scene did not appear in the finished episode, which aired on March 1, 1955, although the end of that long run did, as we caught up to Dick and Rodd. The crooks were already captured. No matter. My heroes will ride beside me forever in beautiful memories.

6 Comments to “Gene Autry, Buffalo Bill, and Me”

  1. Another great story and memorie Loretta. I’m going to have to remember that photo of you and your heart throb by the well..Oh my, would I like to be able to read you mind.

    A ”Wooden Indian”…Whoa, what’s that all about…KIDDING NIIJII.

    Great story, great memories and great photos. Each of the areas you mentioned I remember well.

    Waanakiwin niijii

    • So glad you’re here niijii.

      Yeah, that wooden Indian in his office…I was overawed by everything in it, including that huge carving. It towered over me. I was so intimidated by it, I moved to the other side of the room. I even wondered if it would fall on me, and there I was, trying to be on my best behavior, so I was trying to look at Gene and not keep an eye on it in case I had to flee.

      My heart was certainly throbbing by that well. Pounding so hard I was sure he could hear it. Oh, to feel that way again.

      • So the Wooden Indian scared you did he…LOL…Did he have a scowl, or was he stoic?
        ”Oh, to feel that way again”…Yes, those moments leave a lasting impression, one that you want to live over and over.

        Again niijii, a beautiful story of your childhood. You are a wonderful aandizookewinini (story teller). A true gift.

      • Your questions are jogging my memory. He was very stern, with crossed arms. I would have been too if I’d had to stand there all day, every day.

        I sat next to Gene’s silver parade saddle and was delighted to let my mother and sister sit closer to him. I was keenly aware of the location of the door. Just in case. It’s always good to plan ahead. ROTFLOL

  2. HI! Thanks for the post. I’m also found of pets and I have a blog too (In french)!Come and read my posts. Bye Julie

  3. I am trying to find out the name of that white pony! Dick Jones as Buffalo Bill, Jr. rode “Chief” but what was Calamity’s horse’s name?!

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