Thursday, February 12, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 8 - Death Valley Gateway

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 8 -
Death Valley Gateway


We were dressed and ready for Stan Jones' show as dad poured his flask full of Johnny Walker from the demijohn in the trunk of the Bel Air to accompany mom's flask of vodka. We then walked to Harry Oliver's old west backdrop handiwork whereupon we see Stan Jones engaged in conversation with another little family of three just like us. It turned out Stollerys came along with Stan with their son turning out to be actor David Stollery who'd just signed on to do an upcoming television series for Walt Disney to be called 'The Adventures of Spin and Marty', with David playing Marty. Shooting was to begin as soon as school got out. That was the way Walt did things, no fake tutors on the set for Mr. Disney. He also wanted Stan, who was going to be in the series as well, to write several sets of lyrics for the theme song Stan had written, and the kids, and only the kids, would decide which verses made the cut. To woodshed those ideas was the reason the Stollerys came. Imagine giving that decision making to children....only Walt Disney would do something like that. And that helped make a dynasty.


News of my so called show stopping rendition of 'Lady of Spain' on the accordion had been relayed by The Plainsmen to Stan and the Stollerys along with connection to the band with my mom's best friend and my godmother, Shirley Patterson.


But rather than bask in the compliments, I found myself thinking more about the clever trick Clem from The Plainsmen had just taught me by putting little holes in a Pep Boys matchbook. This involved Manny, Moe, and Jack who stood together on the cover and further detail was not suitable for that general audience, so I just stood there. Besides, I only knew two songs on the thing; the other being 'Fascination' and went with 'Lady of Spain' because it was perky. I had no business with an accomplished thespian like David. Still, his mom persisted in telling my mom that not all the boys had been cast and that I should try out as an extra and be a 'Mouseketeer' of sorts. At this point we broke into groups; the moms to talk further about my audition (which thankfully turned out later to be a dud, as they easily saw a one trick pony), the dads and Stan to further investigate the demijohn in the trunk of the Bel Air, and 'Marty' and I to look for peepholes in the outhouses.


'Ghost Riders in the Sky' took twenty years or one night to write depending on how you look at it. At fourteen, while growing up on an Arizona ranch, Stan came up to an old cowboy on a hill in the wake of a storm and looking to the clouds with him he was relayed the old legend of the devil's herd and red eyed cows that could be seen in the clouds in the sky. Twenty years later on his 34th birthday he saw the same cloud formation in Death Valley and wrote the song that night. Right away the song went into his campfire repertoire he was playing for cast and crew of the John Sturges directed film 'The Walking Hills' while not being the park's technical advisor to them. Stan was encouraged to take the song to publishers in Los Angeles and the following year the Vaughn Monroe recording of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' became the number one hit of 1949. Stan opens his set with it.


What a night it was. It was a last round-up of sorts, though no one there knew it then. With the exception of genre film and TV, western music was fading from popularity, especially in the live venues, which was the bread and butter for groups like The Plainsmen, Spade Cooley, or Rose Maddox. Leo Fender turned this music on its ear with his electric bass, and guitar.... 'stick guitars' my dad called them. They were loud and bright and popular music in all forms hasn't looked back since. It would be one of the last times The Plainsmen played in public, but that night, it didn't matter and Stan and the boys sang and played and the people danced well into the chill of a Death Valley night in January. My somewhat halting version of 'Lady of Spain' on the accordion went over well, and though the crowd asked for another, we agreed it was good for me to quit while I was ahead, and 'Fascination' took the night off.


Meanwhile, my parents had met Neil Fawcett from an outfit called 'Covered Wagon Tours' and had decided to stay an extra day and take a sunset ride the following afternoon.


That night I again slept in the Bel Air and woke the next morning to a beautiful sunrise over the eastern hills that rolled over the Chevy's roof parked in the midst of a tent and cabin city. Finally, things began to stir as it got warmer, with the sun heating up the tents and amplifying the hangovers inside and coaxing everyone up to greet the day with first cigarettes. Heck, it was almost 10am and time for mom's first Dr. Pepper.


Despite hangovers, Stan's friends Julio and Bufungo were already up and helping Dave Frey break down the props and reload Dave's Studebaker flatbed. They were rather angry with Harry Oliver and T.R. Goodwin who should have been helping but had slipped away late in the show to Pahrump, Nevada to get into what turned out to be an all night and all day card game.

After a pancake breakfast with the Stollerys which was quite a treat for they had Log Cabin syrup in the tin log cabin and not the awful clear Karo syrup mom insisted on using, we made the short drive to the Furnace Creek Inn to see dad's next historical landmark.     

For those 49'ers who came to this gateway to Death Valley that Christmas of 1849, the options they faced in Utah a few months prior were to either continue the methodical pace of Capt. Hunt along the Old Spanish Trail and bypass this valley, or to run with the new fella in camp who had a map made by John Fremont that looked like it could save them 500 miles. Who could turn down a short cut like that? Certainly dad couldn't if he was signed on to that train.


NO. 442:  Death Valley Gateway   
Plaque inscription: Through this natural gateway the Death Valley '49ers, more than 100 emigrants from the Middle West seeking a shortcut to gold fields of central California, entered Death Valley in December 1849. All suffered from thirst and starvation. Seeking an escape from the region, two contingents went southwest from here, while the others proceeded northwest.

Location: near Furnace Creek Inn
State Hwy 190 (P.M. 111.8), 1.3 mi SE of Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Monument


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