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Western Themed Programs

Of all the forms of light dramatic entertainment there is one that stands alone. It has its own conventions, its own rules, its own vocabulary, its own atmosphere. Though it has been imitated all over the world, it is an uncompromisingly American phenomenon. The western.

From novels to movies to radio, the Western genre has always been a favorite with audiences. With the invention of television it is no wonder that the producers of the newborn industry would almost immediately begin planning Westerns for the small screen. Western themed programs, set in the American Old West in the late 1850's with honest, down-to-earth heroes and sneaky, cruel villains were an instant hit with audiences.

It began in the movies, with Bronco Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy; then along came Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Jimmy Stewart, Joel McCrea, Henry Fonda, and countless others, who added a touch of sophistication to the idiom.

When television moseyed onto the scene, the easiest thing to do was cannibalize the movies (and radio, which also had latched onto the western). So television's first cowboy heroes were Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and The Lone Ranger.

You listened to the radio every day at five o'clock - if you were a kid in the thirties, forties, or early fifties. Everybody in the USA back then must have listened to the radio at that hour during that era. Classic western radio shows from radio's golden days may not be as good as remembered, but it wasn't bad. If you were there? Do you remember a white horse with a masked rider?

The Lone Ranger galloped into radio in 1933. With William Tell as overture, the masked rider of the plains and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, warred against frontier evil and with a silver bullet disarmed badmen without ever drawing blood. With radio giving way to television after World War II, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels appeared in 1949 in a longrunning series that gave visual form to the heroes of the radio generation. The Lone Ranger still lives. Internet Web sites provide the most arcane detail any aficionado may want about this giant of popular culture.

The Lone Ranger did not dominate television portrayals of the Rangers. Series came and went, and feature-length films exploited and fueled the legend. In 1989 the television miniseries drawn from Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove gained a huge audience, giving graphic expression to the first of four books about the Rangers that enjoyed triumphant sales. Chuck Norris starred in the top-rated series Walker, Texas Ranger, a foolish epic so implausible that it probably embarrassed every modern Ranger but which ran for eight years.

Gradually television began to create new characters, until, in 1955, it was ready to put its own unmistakable brand on the western. What appeared in 1955 were westerns, all right, but they were television westerns. They came to be called "adult westerns." Previously horse operas had been aimed primarily at children and had been telecast during the day and early evening. In 1955 the object of the game was to attract the grownups in the audience. Thus, a new band of westerners began galloping across the electronic plains -. Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne Bodie, Matt Dillon, Paladin, Lucas McCain, Bat Masterson. By 1959 there were thirty-two different western series on television. Hour after hour television screens were filled with pounding hooves, showdowns on Dodge City streets, brawls in barrooms, grateful schoolmarms, and dauntless heroes. All over America idolatrous youngsters - and more than a few middle-agesters - were practicing their fast draws and, in an alarming number of reported cases, shooting themselves in the leg.

The Westerns: "Bonanza," "The Texan," "Wagon Train," "The Outcasts," "Wanted: Dead or Alive." Together, these serial epics captured close to half of America's weekly television audience and, by the end of the decade, constituted 7 of the 11 most popular shows on the small screen. The programs mythologized the rugged individualism and physical strength of the American frontiersman, who tamed both his enemy (the Indian or outlaw standing in for the Soviet menace) and the natural environment. It was a genre well suited for a country confident of its ability to reach the stars, vanquish disease, and collapse the limits of time and space.

But the adult westerns were not all gunplay. In fact some purists complained that they did not have enough action. Too much talk. Said Gene Autry, "Television westerns drive me nuts. Too slow." And messages, of all things, were creeping into the westerns - sermons about brotherhood and nonviolence and togetherness.

It all used to be so simple - the white hats versus the black hats, no problems that could not be solved with a six-shooter. But in television it was different. You never knew what color hat the good guy would be wearing. As for the rest of his costume, he was likely to go sashaying down to the O.K. Corral in a ruffled shirt, silk vest, and boots and tassels. And that trusty six-shooter? Many was the week when it never even left the holster. What was the western coming to? It was being transformed into something which suited the unique needs and purposes of television. It also seemed to suit the television audience.

Radio is still around, of course, after all these years. But radio as most knew and loved it died in the 1960s, when most of the advertising dollars and most of the networks' interest switched over to television. America has done without radio for most of half a century. We kids sometimes talked about the radio world, but mostly we kept radio listening a private thing whether in the family circle about the living room, or in bed listening to table models. You had things your own way in Radioland. You ran the show.

Television is a world of faces - the neatly bearded hero on Walker, Texas Ranger - but the heroes of radio were a faceless bunch, often lacking even a first name or any name at all. You filled in the details yourself. The results your imagination provided were good. There were no padded shoulders on the Lone Ranger, it was all as real as a dream.

Television in 1957 was completing its first decade of full prime-time network programming. During these 10 years, American homes with TV sets increased in truly meteoric fashion, going from less than 3 percent to almost 80 percent. And over these 10 seasons, viewers had become accustomed to several different entertainment formats: situation comedy, musical and comedy variety, drama anthology, episodic drama, and quiz and game shows.

Now television was ready to introduce to its vast audience a major new format (one that it previewed two seasons earlier), the adult Western. During TV's formative years, Westerns were exclusively the domain of kids. These cowboys-and-Indians series starred the traditional grade-B movie heroes: the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry Roy Rogers, and others. But now that television was growing up, so were the cowboys-the big ratings the first adult Westerns were receiving were nothing to kid about. So, as the season began, so did the shoot-out as the three networks premiered 10 Westerns for kids of all ages.

Aficionados of the electrifying HBO (Home Box Office) television series Deadwood, now in its third season, may find it hard to believe that the true accounts of these men's lives sometimes rival those played out on the screen. Nonetheless, their stories, packed with daring, determination, greed and treachery, transcend legend and anchor them in Deadwood's history. The cast of regulars in the second season (which became available on DVD in May 2006) includes Ian McShane as Swearengen, Timothy Olyphant as Bullock, John Hawkes as Star, Dayton Callie as Utter, William Sanderson as Farnum, W. Earl Brown as Dority and Sean Bridgers as Burns.

E.B. Farnum, the Reverend Henry Smith, Dan Dority and Johnny Burns are lesser characters on Deadwood, and not too much is known about their real lives. Farnum was a successful Deadwood businessman and investor, as well as a judge who sentenced many horse thieves and cattle rustlers to hanging. On the HBO drama, Preacher Smith suffers from a brain tumor and is smothered by Swearengen. Other real-life personalities have shown up in the third season, such as George Hearst, a nearly illiterate mining tycoon who fathered the future newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Thanks to the seamless craft of Deadwood producer and writer David Milch, the men of Deadwood live once again. Sol Star checks his inventory and readies the hardware store for another day's customers. Outside on the street, Sheriff Bullock warns a peddler hawking locks of Indian hair to stay away from reputable merchants. Over at the blacksmith shop, Charlie Utter outfits his horse for a trek across the mountains. Back at the Gem, Al Swearengen pours himself another cup of coffee and peruses the latest edition of the Pioneer. Perhaps Misters Star, Bullock, Utter and Swearengen - possibly Wild Bill Hickok, too - would be puzzled by their newfound celebrity, and find our interest in their gritty lives baffling.

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Cowboy Shows On The Air | Aired Over The Years | America Has Done Without Radio For Most Of Half A Century | America's Favorite Cowboy! | Bonanza Burst Onto The Airwaves In Color | Challenge Of The Yukon | Familiar Icons Of The 1950s | Western Favorites | Based on Historical Figures | Flying A Productions | Roy Rogers' Frontier Productions | The Greatest Radio Western Of All | Have Gun On Radio | The Lone Ranger | Who Is That Masked Man? | Plots With More Moral Ambiguity | A More Nuanced Take | Redefining Adult Westerns | The Series Vegas
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