Western Performers Gallery
This 4,000 square-foot presentation explores the various ways the west has been
interpreted in literature and film. Honoring western performers who have contributed
to the making and preservation of the stories and legends of the west, the gallery
also displays an entirely new presentation of the museum’s extensive collection of
memorabilia, including the John Wayne collection of personal firearms, artwork, and
memorabilia. Significant, biographically associated artifacts, from the 101 Ranch
Wild West Show to the recent western films of actor Tom Selleck, will lend a
tangible feeling to extensive holdings of movie posters and portraits.
The movie cowboy has long filled the public imagination with visions of gallant men
riding the range and righting wrongs. There have been a series of cinema cowboy heroes
throughout the past century. These fictional cowboys were so popular the line between
the real and the imaginary cowboy has been permanently blurred in the public mind.
The west, its landscape, its people, and its stories are a reflection of our culture's
collective imagination. For 200 years, each generation has conjured up imagery depicting
the glories and dangers of this region. Novelists, playwrights, and wild west show
producers, carefully manipulated and invented imagery as they presented classic adventure
tales of the American frontier. Those "cowboy heroes" we know and love, were created
by Hollywood screenwriters and directors. The children of the 1940s and 1950s grew up
watching the exploits of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or Hoppy in the pursuit of justice and fair play.
The West and the cowboy are very real, but we have created, through literature and film,
a mythic West, an ideological landscape filled with heroic figures from our imaginations.
These larger-than-life cowboy heroes elevated the public perception of real work-a-day
cowboys to a legendary level.
Toward the end of the 19th century, many towns boasted some form of opera house. Players
recreated epics of the American West in vaudeville acts. Wild West shows captivated the
public as well and gave many western movie stars their start. With the arrival of motion
picture technology, a new American pastime developed ~ the Saturday "nickelodeon" theaters.
William F. Cody, know as "Buffalo Bill", was a noted frontiersman and scout who had
gained fame in the dime novels of Ned Buntline and others. Hero of more than 1,700
dime novels, Cody performed a dramatized stage version of the first novel in 1872,
and made seasonal appearances on stage until 1883, when he organized Buffalo Bill's
Wild West, which toured America and Europe for 30 years. He set the standard for the
variety Wild West Shows that followed. He brought the real and the legendary together.
He satisfied curiosity and created entertainment. His was a circus troupe with a new
twist. He did not collect animals from foreign lands but real "western" people from
beyond the frontier. Audiences were able to see real cowboys and Indians. This
juxtaposition of reality and imagery molded the cultural and racial perceptions of a
generation of Americans and Europeans.
The first cowboy movie star, Gilbert M. Anderson, was also known as Bronco Billy. He
is credited with developing the notion of a central character in silent western
movies. Other cowboy stars included William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Ken
Maynard, Tim McCoy, and Harry Carey. The silent movie era lasted almost 30 years.
In 1923, The Covered Wagon became the first feature-length western epic.
Five years later, The Big Hop earned the distinction of being the first
western movie to incorporate sound effects during filming. By the early 1930s,
Hollywood had completed the transformation from silent movies to full sound. Many
early cowboy heroes like William S. Hart couldn't make the transition, but other
actors like John Wayne enjoyed long and successful careers.
From 1930 to 1950, Hollywood studios produced thousands of hour-long "B" western
movies. "A" beside the movie title indicated the feature film, while "B" noted the
second attraction. Over time, "B" westerns came to mean short, low-budget films
appropriate for the double-feature format. They usually were produced as a series,
sometimes with the same plot continued from one film to the next.
Clearly the most popular and successful of the "B" westerns were the singing cowboy
films. Refined by Gene Autry, these films presented a mixture of action, music,
comedy, and often romance. Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and Rex Allen soon joined the
genre. The momentum of early "B" westerns helped sustain the careers of many
veteran actors like Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, and Tim McCoy.
The era of Hollywood's classic "A" westerns was signaled by the release of two
important movies in 1939; John Ford's Stagecoach, starring John Wayne,
and Jesse James, directed by Henry King with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and
Randolph Scott. Much of the success of these two films, and those that followed,
was due in large measure to Hollywood's fusion of history and legend. To the
American public, which was still recovering from World War I and the Great
Depression, and on the brink of another World War, the west of Hollywood offered
a measure of national pride, a source for national identity, and the reassurance
that good would triumph over evil. The Hollywood west was composed of equal parts
of fact and fiction and was dependent on both for its lasting appeal.
The years 1940 to 1970 proved to be the golden era for the classic western movie.
Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Richard Widmark, and James Stewart all became icons
of the western genre, while John Wayne became a superstar and remained one of the
top box office attractions until his death in 1979.
Owen Wister's classic novel, The Virginian (1902), was a best seller for
several years, and it popularized the notion of the American west as a vanishing
frontier. The Virginian retained the dime novel narrative formula of a
white frontier hero pitted against the western wilderness, lawless adversaries,
and the Indian. Wister then added a pivotal love story between the leading man
and leading lady. Perhaps most important, Wister created an archetype western
hero through romantic depictions of cowboy life ~ the lone cowboy who is good
with a gun.
Early 20th century films refined this hero as a "man's man," an example of masculinity,
self-made without the benefit of education or family wealth. At times, he is portrayed
as a paternalistic figure that prodded young cowboys through adolescence and epitomized
manhood for the genre. The leading man was often a good bad-man resorting to illegal or
vigilante actions when defending his honor or beset by corrupt officials. Though always
deemed a cowboy, this central figure rarely demonstrates his ability with a rope or his
savvy as a cattleman. Instead it is his skill with a gun that is pivotal to the story.
Inevitably, the cowboy hero becomes embroiled in the violence of a west where the
survival of the fittest was the rule.
It is possible so many western films have been produced that it is hard to comprehend
as a single genre, but is reflected as sub-genres such as "gunfighter westerns" and
"cavalry westerns." However, a generalized western character has evolved who portrays
the classic characteristics of a man fleeing the constraints of the civilized East.
Though the western takes its name from a geographical region, it becomes a mythical
landscape; an ideological terrain. This fantasyland was created where western imagery
became a backdrop for the heroic struggles of man versus man and man versus
Will Rogers wore this hat while performing his comedy and trick rope act in Vaudeville
under the stage name, "Cherokee Bill". To showcase his Cherokee heritage, Rogers fastened
a stone arrow point in the hatband. The hat was a gift from noted movie director John Ford.
The museum commissioned Norman Rockwell to paint this oil portrait of Walter Brennan from
life in 1972. In all, there are 26 portraits of famous western performers on display. During
a movie career that spanned nearly five decades, the venerable actor appeared in more than
300 films. Brennan also starred in two extremely popular television series: The Real
McCoys, for which he remains best known in his role as Grandpa Amos McCoy; and
the Guns of Will Sonnett, one of his last major roles. Brennan became the first
actor to receive three Academy Awards. All three awards were for Best Supporting Actor:
Come and Get It in 1936, Kentucky in 1938, and The Westerner
This Model 1892, Caliber .44 Winchester rifle with a modified loop lever became a
signature of John Wayne in many western films. John Wayne has become the personification
of the American West to movie fans here and abroad. He began his film career in 1926
working as an extra and a prop handler for MGM and Fox Studios while attending the
University of Southern California. In 1930, Wayne, then known as Duke Morrison, was
given a leading role in the film The Big Trail. For the film, Fox Studios
changed his name to John Wayne.
John Wayne used this stock saddle, made by Ed Gilmore, in many of his later movies.
After being cast in a number of "B" westerns, John Wayne's big break came in 1939 when
his friend and director, John Ford, cast him as the "Ringo Kid" in the movie
Stagecoach. For the next 30 years, "The Duke" reigned as one of Hollywood's
biggest box office attractions and most beloved actors. In 1969, he won an Academy
Award for Best Actor for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. His last
western was The Shootist, released in 1976.
Gene Autry was America's favorite singing cowboy in the golden era of the 1930s. Nudie's
Rodeo Tailors of North Hollywood designed this classic suit which featured "smile" pockets
and Autry's brand, the Flying A. Gibson presented Autry with this custom-made guitar model
J-200 #462E in 1939. He owned two of these flat-top guitars which are now very rare and
valuable. The small-brimmed, white Stetson was made especially for Autry with a unique and
fashionable crease. Lucchese of San Antonio, Texas, created the beautiful custom-made
kangaroo boots with inlays of brown lizard and gold.
The following materials are available for review in the Research Center.
PN1995.9W4A442005 Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor. Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History. The University Press of Kentucky .
Loy, Philip R. Westerns in a Changing America, 1955-2000. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers .
Loy, Philip R. Westerns and American Culture, 1930-1955. McFarland, .
PN1995.9.W4B59 2000 Blottner, Gene. Universal-International Westerns, 1947-1963: The Complete Filmography. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, .
PN1995.9.W4B66 1996 Cameron, Ian Alexander and Pye, Douglas. Book of Westerns. New York: Continuum, .
PN2285.C6 Corneau, Ernest N. Hall of Fame of Western Film Stars. North Quincy: Christopher Pub. House, .
PN1995.9.W4H28 1994 Hake, Theodore L. Hake's Guide to Cowboy Character Collectibles: an Illustrated Price Guide Covering 50 Years of Movie & TV Cowboy Heroes. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead, .
PN2287.H3A3 1994 Hart, William Surrey and Ridge, Martin. My Life East and West. Chicago: Lakeside Press, .
PN 1995.9.W4M25 1999 Magers, Boyd and Fitzgerald, Michael G. Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., Publishers, .
PN2287.W454M27 1996 Marill, Alvin H. The Ultimate John Wayne Trivia Book. Secaucus: Carol Pub. Group, .
PN1995.9.H56N48 1988 Nevins, Francis M. The Films of Hopalong Cassidy. Waynesville: World of Yesterday, .
Pattie, Jane. John Wayne: There Rode a Legend. [s.l.]: Western Classics, .
PN1995.9.W4B24 1998 Pearson, Roberta E. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. London: British Film Institute, .
NK808.R53 1995 Rinker, Harry L. Hopalong Cassidy: King of the Cowboy Merchandisers with Value Guide. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., .
PN2287.W454R63 1995 Roberts, Randy and Olson, James Stuart. John Wayne: American. New York: Free Press, .
PN2287.R73A34 Rogers, Roy and Stowers, Carlton. Happy Trails: The Story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Waco: Word Books, .
PN2287.R73R64 1987 Rothel, David. The Roy Rogers Book. Madison: Empire Publishing Co., .
PN1995.9.W4R67 Rothel, David. The Singing Cowboys. New York: A. S. Barnes, .
ML3477.7.04S3 1983 Savage, William W. Singing Cowboys and All that Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma. 1st ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, .
PN1995.9.W4S44 1990 Sennett, Ted. Great Hollywood Westerns. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, .
PN2287.S67 S6 1974 Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., .
PN2287.H617T46 1987 Thornton, H. E. Western Adventures of Tim Holt. privately printed, .
PN1992.8.W4W47 1987 West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major and Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, .
PN2287.E37Z59 1993 Zmijewsky, Boris and Pfeiffer, Lee. The Films of Clint Eastwood. New York: Carol Pub. Group, .
PN2287.W454Z58 1983 Zmijewsky, Steve and Ricci, Mark. The Complete Films of John Wayne. Secaucus: Citadel Press, .
PN 1995.9 .W4 H65 2001 Etulain, Richard W. and Glenda Riley. The Hollywood West: Lives of Film Legends Who Shaped It. Golden, CO : Fulcrum Publishing, 2001.