Tuesday, February 21, 2017


We love knock-offs here at BTC. From the PRC films of the GAS HOUSE KIDS (rip-offs of THE BOWERY BOYS), to the knock-off versions of popular perfumes and colognes found at dollar stores with ever-so-similar names to the originals, to those “Beatles albums” (see pic) with four of the Hamburg tracks backing Tony Sheridan and eight unrelated tracks by other artists...to the “mock-buster” films produced by The Asylum which are low-budget, quickly-made features with similar titles (but far enough away to avoid a lawsuit) to big-budget studio epics, hoping to cash-in on the other film’s fame, and usually the knock-offs wind up being far more entertaining than the originals, with a wit and a lack of pretension that the originals could have used! Yes, it’s a great American tradition and one that rarely gets the tribute that it deserves. After all, it requires a good amount of cleverness and creativity (and chutzpah!) to imitate something, keep enough difference from the original to stay out of court, and eventually create something which is of value in itself.

In the world of Western History popular magazines, the two dominant brands were TRUE WEST and FRONTIER TIMES. With circulations of 200,000+ during their respective heydays, they offered a wide variety of popular-history articles: stories of various Old West towns and settlements, journals kept by those on the frontier, legends of hidden treasure and gold, life histories of lawmen or in-depth studies of particular cases, narratives of homesteading and ranching, stories of Native American culture and their interactions with settlers, and the biggest draw of all, sensationalized “imaginative histories” of outlaws both famous and obscure. A picture of Jesse James on the front of such a magazine is the same kind of bait for the western reader that a pic of the newest celebrity-of-the-month is for PEOPLE magazine. There was a kind of “family” feel to both magazines, and publisher Joe “Hosstail” Small always had a significant presence in the magazine, doing a regular column, talking about upcoming stories he was editing or commissioning, talking about the responsibilities of running a magazine, responding to readers’ letters, etc. He seemed like that colorful uncle you loved but didn’t get to see as often as you should. You also got the sense that you could call him up, if you had his number, and shoot the bull with him, and he’d probably be happy to hear from you....and then entertain you with an hour of anecdotes which you’d then tell others for the next forty years. He was a good ole boy, in the best sense of that term--a raconteur, a larger-than-life presence. I always enjoyed him, and even at this late date (he sold the magazines to someone else in 1979 and passed away in 1994) I still miss him as if he’d been a personal friend.

A circulation of 200,000 is nothing to sneeze at, so perhaps it was inevitable that someone would come along and want to take a piece of that market with a similarly-titled knock-off. There were a lot of amateur historians of the West and people who collected western artifacts and ephemera who would enjoy writing articles to share their discoveries and collections, probably a lot more than could ever be published in TW and FT (and of course, a home was needed for the articles rejected by those magazines), so a steady flow of copy could probably be guaranteed. Also, I remember hungering for a new issue of TW and FT before the next one would come out, and I’m sure others did too, so if even ¼ of those who bought TW/FT would buy the knock-off, you’d have a very successful mag which could perhaps then grow its own audience. Who knows....with the vagaries of magazine distribution, the knock-off could probably wind up being sold at outlets which did not stock the original.

Now....what to call the imitation. Hmmmmm.....you had TRUE WEST and FRONTIER TIMES....how about FRONTIER WEST? No, that sounds repetitive. TRUE FRONTIER? That’s it! It echoes both titles and sounds appealing on its own. You couldn’t get sued over it, either (there was also a knock-off called REAL WEST, but we can discuss that some other time).

Issue #1 of TRUE FRONTIER appeared in 1967, and the latest issue I can find online reference to appeared in 1978, by which time the western magazine market had declined. Still, 11 years of bi-monthly issues is a pretty good run.

Growing up in Golden, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I did not have to go far to find ghost towns, abandoned old-west buildings, etc. I can remember as a youngster sitting in (or at the front of) abandoned buildings in a ghost town and trying to soak up the vibes and imagining what might have gone on there on a typical day in the 1890’s or whenever. Also, I grew up watching the poverty row indie westerns of the 1930’s, the kind which starred people like Buddy Roosevelt or Reb Russell or Bill Cody or Jack Perrin (see poster) or Bob Custer, and those tended to be shot at existing locations, and those locations tended to be similar kinds of run-down and/or abandoned western-looking buildings within a few hours drive of Los Angeles. You could still find semi-active small towns of that sort in the early 1930’s. So I grew up seeing B-western scenarios being acted out by cowpokes who’d gravitated toward Gower Gulch and low-budget western films, shot on locations similar to the old buildings I’d seen on so many occasions in the mountain counties on the eastern slope of the continental divide. You can imagine how my young imagination flourished in such an environment, and how these western magazines could fuel that flame.

To give you an idea of how I used to fantasize about the frontier....as a child of 10 or 11, I wrote to the tourism offices in Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, explaining that I was hoping to come up on vacation with my family (I did not state that I was the CHILD in the family....I’d figured they’d assume I was the adult WITH the family) and asking for travel info. I received kind letters from the persons at the tourism offices up there (I’m guessing they did not get too many such inquiries, so they were probably happy to hear from anyone) along with maps, brochures, thick magazines that told about what was happening in each small town, etc. I was very excited by these and dreamed about homesteading in the Yukon, with images in my mind undoubtedly taken from the low-budget 1930’s Kermit Maynard films where he played a Mountie.

Coincidentally, the issue of TRUE FRONTIER under review actually includes a VERY long article (which is part one of a multi-part series) “Exploring The Upper Yukon,” taken from the journal of an army lieutenant who went on an expedition through that country in 1883 and kept a detailed log.

Take a look at the front cover of this March 1968 issue of TRUE FRONTIER. It pretty much pushes all the buttons of the western magazine fan. You’ve got someone in a buckskin shirt shooting a buffalo--there is a sensationalistic Jesse James headline at the top of the page, calling out to you--the legendary Doolin outlaw gang are involved in a shoot-out--there’s a hidden treasure story--there’s a novelty story about a tough, cigar-smoking woman gambler who beat the men at their own game. And it’s 66 full pages of three-columned small print, so there’s a LOT to keep you occupied. Did Jesse James REALLY attend his own funeral? My inquiring mind wants to know! How could you NOT spend 35 cents on that when you are already buying things at your local market. Heck, that’s pocket change!

Those of you who know me know that I enjoy taking my yearly vacation in small towns in the South and the Midwest (I live in South Texas) and I enjoy visiting old buildings, historic homes, tiny local museums devoted to local culture and artifacts, etc. The thrill of being IN these places is not unlike the thrill I get from vintage music. I hear a scratchy jazz 78 from Kansas City 1928, and I’m there in my imagination. I hear some small-label rockabilly 45 from Memphis 1956, and I’m walking those same streets as Billy Lee Riley or Eddie Bond.

When I was in New Iberia Louisiana last year (the home of the great early Jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson), I had the privilege of visiting the Conrad Rice Mill, dating from the late 1800’s and still operational. I visited on a weekday before noon, so when I requested a tour, I was the only one there, and when the lady giving the tour could sense how interested I was in the specifics of the operation, based on my questions and the way she saw me observing, she shared a lot of its history and day-to-day operational details with me and slowed down the usual tour quite a bit, taking a lot of time. They have kept the facility the way it was in the early-to-mid 20th Century and thus were given a Historic Building designation. This grandfathers them on some OSHA requirements, but at the same time they have to keep the original technology to keep the historic designation, so this thriving company, whose products are available at stores everywhere here in Texas and Louisiana, must run the rice mill in the OLD way yet still remain competitive in today’s marketplace. That tour was another window into the past, the kind of thing I enjoy when traveling. In the decades between Bunk’s initial career as a musician as a young man and then his re-discovery as a relatively old man, among his many jobs in New Iberia was as a truck driver for a rice mill--so I would imagine Bunk backing his rickety 1930’s truck up to the same grain elevator I was standing next to, and somehow I had an even stronger connection to him than the strong connection I’d gotten from decades of listening to his trumpet playing, this man whose playing was rooted in an age even earlier than, say, King Oliver or Freddie Keppard, a man who’d actually played with Buddy Bolden.

An old historic house in some small town, dating from the 1800’s and with the original furnishings, somehow captures the spirit of the people who lived there 100+ years ago. When I see spread out on the bed the actual quilt someone slept with every night for decades, when I see the flour containers and pie tins from their home cooking, when I see the worn-down sections of the carpet from their walking from room to room for decades, when I see the old sheet music near the piano in the parlor and think of the popular songs of the day which they played and sang along with to keep themselves entertained in that pre-radio age----all that provides me a link with the past, a link so strong that I can almost take its hand and form a kind of continuity with the past, with the people who died long before I was born, and somehow have an overlap between my daily life and their daily lives. In today’s world full of hucksters and asshole tech billionaires and war profiteers and robber barons who drink overpriced soy-milk lattes, drive BMW’s, eat fifteen dollar appetizers at trendy bistros, and have never worked a minimum-wage job (or who have forgotten their roots if they did), a link with REAL people in the past who lived happy and fulfilled lives yet who made it through struggles which would kill so many people today, people from a period without air conditioning or the internet, provides a satisfying “grounding” for me. It provides me a bridge to the past, and perhaps I in my own small way can then provide such a bridge to some fellow seeker from the future.

TRUE FRONTIER may be a knock-off, and something which sits for years with a 50 cent sticker in a junk store or flea market--not wanted by collectors of TRUE WEST or FRONTIER TIMES, unwanted by comic book collectors, and not really “collectible” in any way--but through our imaginations and our window into the past, it’s cheap and fulfilling entertainment that’s informative and provides us a useful contrast with today, a contrast that can provide the distance and perspective we need to view our present selves with detachment and objectivity.

Yes, even at the time, I knew on some level that TRUE FRONTIER was not really as good as what it was imitating--it lacked a certain something. If you’ve ever seen the SHAFT TV movies, made after the feature films, they were solid TV-movie crime shows, and of course, Richard Roundtree--the original Shaft--was as cool as ever. But they were not the movies. Alas, they weren’t making any more of the theatrical SHAFT films in the old style, so the TV movies would have to do, and there was a lot that was good about them--they just weren’t the real thing. The same goes for TRUE FRONTIER.

Maybe it’s like a Coca-Cola Classic (or better yet, a Mexican Coke in the bottle) versus a store brand cola.

The Coke is better by any standard, but when it’s 100 degrees out and you just mowed the lawn, and the store brand cola is ice-cold and ready to drink, it does the job just fine, and you aren’t making nit-picky complaints that it isn’t the real thing, are you...It’s wet, it’s carbonated, it’s cold, it tastes vaguely like cola, and you’re thirsty.

1 comment:

Paul McGarry said...

Bill Shute at his finest....very enjoyable!!