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My five-year-old grandson Mikey is captivated with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—or at least he was six months ago. He wore a Ninja Turtle costume for Halloween. For his birthday, his mom made him Ninja cupcakes and Ninja fruit and veggie trays. He has since moved on, but I’m sure another idol will soon emerge to lure him into emptying his Target gift card.
If you are a parent or grandparent of a little girl, you would not be the least bit surprised that my 4-year-old granddaughter Katie’s idols are Elsa from the movie Frozen as well as Princess Sofia from the Disney Channel. Actually, princesses in general rule her world. She owns Elsa and Ana dolls, clothes, books, stickers, puzzles, and other princess paraphernalia.
Every generation of kids had its media heroes—comic book heroes, radio heroes, movie heroes, TV heroes. Let’s rewind back a few decades—well, seven to be exact—to the 1940’s. Who were kids’ heroes then?
Comic book characters were the rage. The 1940’s were considered the Golden Age of Comics with heroes such as Captain America, Aquaman, and the Green Arrow.
Newspaper comic strips popularized science fiction heroes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. A boy in the 1940’s would be honored to wear this Buck Rogers Halloween costume.
Heroes emerged from radio as well. Sitting around the massive radio in the family’s living room, kids’ idolized Superman, the Shadow, Tarzan, and “The King of the Cowboys,” Roy Rogers.
If a kid was fortunate enough to snare a quarter from his parents, he might see his heroes on the big screen. In the 1930’s, and even after his untimely death in 1940, megastar cowboy Tom Mix was likely at the top of his (or her) list. My friend Bryan revered the clean-cut cowboy who always saved the day, and to this day, he can recite Mix’s Shredded Ralston Cereal Jingle. In the 1940’s, a kid’s hero may also have been straight-shooting Gene Autry, the crooning cowboy.
When I was a young kid in the 1950’s, my avenue to the outside world and its heroes was the television. Television had burst onto the American scene for the well-to-do in the late 1940’s and into middle class living rooms around the time of my birth in 1951. My brother Ed remembers going to our next door neighbors’ house that year to watch Saturday morning cartoons. In 1952, my parents bought our first TV. According to “Television Comes to America 1947-57,” 55% of Americans owned a TV by 1954.
With the advent of television came a whole new class of idols for kids, and most of them were cowboys. The TV cowboys I mention now are ones who were heroes to kids in my family, my neighborhood, and the Pittsburgh area, which is pretty representative of kids around the country, I believe.
One of the earliest TV western idols was Clayton Moore, the masked man known as the Lone Ranger, whose show ran from 1949-1957. Along with Jay Silverheels as Tonto, they regularly pursued “truth, justice, and the American way.” My cousin Wayne chooses the Kemosabe as his favorite. Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!
Another early western, The Cisco Kid (1950-56), was my husband Frank’s favorite. Mexican desperados, the Cisco Kid (Duncan Renaldo) and his sidekick Pancho were Robin Hood figures who aided the poor when law enforcement failed them. Although criticized as rascist today, according to the Billboard Newsweekly of 1955, the show was the most popular TV series among American children. “Hey, Ceesco!”
Roy Rogers, known as the “King of the Cowboys” or the “Singing Cowboy,” came to TV in 1951 and continued through 1957. Being not only a TV star but also a singer and a major box office attraction cemented Rogers’s legacy as one of the greatest Western stars of his era. He was the favorite TV cowboy of my friend Les. And when I asked my sister Sandy for her favorite, she said, “Oh, Roy Rogers, hands down.” Happy trails to you until we meet again . . . .
We all know that Gunsmoke was the longest running TV show of all time, with Matt Dillon (James Arness) battling outlaws for 20 years— from 1955 to 1975. It was ranked as the #1 show on television from 1957-61. He was a sharp shooter who could outdraw fabled gunslingers. Yet, as Wikipedia puts it, “Matt remained steadfast, honest, absolutely incorruptible, and dedicated to the cause of bringing genuine law and order to the violent and untamed American West.”
There were plenty more TV cowboys that boys adored and emulated, but I’ll tell you who I idolized. Although I was a bit of a tomboy, even at a young age, I was drawn to the tall, dark, and handsome guys. Add in a rugged guy who defended towns, righted wrongs, and could draw a gun faster than Quick Draw McGraw, and I was hooked.
One of my first remembrances of anything was back when I was about four years old. I would imagine that I was a cowgirl rooting out bad guys with Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker) in the neighborhood woods. A few years later it was Bronco Layne (Ty Hardin) and Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood) from Rawhide who fascinated me.
There were two others who didn’t quite fit the above description, but again, they drew me in. Bret Maverick certainly wasn’t an intimidating law man or a sharp shooter that criminals were “afeared of,” but, dressed in the height of style, he was an easy-going, debonair rogue who relied on his wits rather than his six shooter to get himself out of his many fixes.
And then there was the black-clad Zorro, the swashbuckling masked man who championed justice in his Spanish California town. His favorite weapon was his rapier, which he also used as his calling card; he would carve out a Z with three quick strokes. I don’t know how many times I would imitate that blazing fast Z in the air when I was a kid—”the Z that stands for Zorro.”
All of those cowboy heroes spawned a rash of little cowboy lookalikes. I wonder how many millions of little American boys in the 1950’s woke up on Christmas morning to a pair of chaps and a gun or two with holsters? If they were lucky, they’d get a cowboy shirt, a hat, and a sheriff’s badge as well. Here is my 7-year-old brother Eddie on Christmas Day in the early 50’s.
And visiting my family at Christmas, also in the early 50’s, was my cousin Wayne, well prepared to foil any varmints who might cause us trouble.
My friend John remembers back in the 1950’s having a cowboy hat, cap gun pistols with holsters, and an air rifle. Living in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, he used to stand out on his porch and shoot at the cars going by, pretending they were Indians on horses.
My friend Les tells me, “When I was five or six, my grandfather from Kansas City gave me a FABulous pair of white-handled guns, complete with holster. When the question is asked, ‘What was the best Christmas present you ever received?’ that is my answer. I LOVED those guns and played with them all the time.”
“I had a pair of chaps, and I think I may have worn them once or twice, but they took too much time to put on, and I thought they looked goofy anyway, so I didn’t wear them 99.9% of the time. I did have a cowboy hat, though, and I wore that when I played “cowboys” most of the time. Well, 50% of the time. A lot of the time, though, we didn’t even play with the props or the guns we already had. We would use our fingers as guns or sticks as rifles, etc. The important part of our play world was the story line we created, the “plot” of today’s adventure, so to speak. We would decide ahead of time what the scene was, and then we would improvise our way through it. For example, we might decide that we were the only hope to catch the mysterious criminal who was robbing all the stores in town. Or we would set up a scenario where we had to hide in the woods (behind my house) and live away from civilization, hiding from the posse that was out to get us, led by the crooked sheriff who had framed us. Having an actual toy gun was secondary to having a fun adventure planned.”
With the startling increase in shootings, especially mass shootings, throughout the country in recent years, many parents now consider toy guns tabu. But back in the 1950’s and 60’s, toy guns were as commonplace as Mr. Potato Head and Silly Putty.
My two brothers and most of the neighborhood boys had them, but the ones I remember best were the cap guns that used caps filled with a tiny dose of gunpowder. Made of paper, they often sold in five red colored rolls of 50 caps per roll. Place the caps in the gun, pull the trigger, and “Bang!” Sometimes we just smacked the caps with a hammer to produce the bang. My husband Frank recalls pounding a whole roll at once to produce a real wallop! I loved the smell of sulfur and even enjoyed touching my tongue to the caps for that little hit of sulfur.
Many boys had sets of little plastic cowboys and Indians—some on horseback, most with weaponry— with which to set up battles like those they saw on TV.
Here is a short clip of my husband and his brother opening gifts on Christmas morning in the early 60’s. Notice Frank’s bow and arrow set and what puts that jubilant look on his brother’s face.
Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, cowboy and Indian fights on TV were common, but they were merely good guys versus bad guys entertainment in little children’s minds. We did not understand the brutality; we knew no better.
At the time, there was rarely any discourse among adults about Native Americans fighting to hold on to their ancestral homes and culture during the U.S. government land grab of the 18th and 19th centuries. There was little talk of the two billion acres of land that was seized, land that they had farmed and hunted for hundreds of years, replacing it with ill-suited “Indian Territory” (reservations). There was little talk of broken treaties, disease, starvation, and killings. The few Native Americans shown in a positive light for kids were stereotypical. Kids today are more apt to be aware of the rich and storied culture of Native Americans as well as the myths and misconceptions, through their schools and, ironically, through television.
Well, pardners, I hope this post has brought back memories of your days as a fearless gunslinger or a crime-fighting sheriff. Maybe you were even a hero in your own version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Or perhaps you were the all-fired best cowgirl in the wild and wooly American West. Well, I haint got no more time fer I’m fixin’ to head ’em up and move ’em out! Sorry, I just can’t help saying them thar’ words. Till we meet again . . . .
For a free short story from my book The Crab Hollow Chronicles, message me at my author Facebook page.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.