You Had to Be There: a series that looks at movies as they existed in a time and a place: cinema as an event. Sometimes you had to be there…
Date: February 16, 1954.
Place: The Buena Vista Theatre, Buena Vista, Georgia.
This is the story of a movie screening in small town Georgia. Buena Vista sits about 125 miles south of Atlanta and 150 miles north of Tallahassee. That puts it right smack dab in the middle of nowhere. In 1954, Buena Vista had a population of 1,428. On this particular Tuesday evening, 350 of those Buena Vistans—including nearly every child in town—were over-the-moon because a real-life Hollywood star was paying them a visit! This was no ordinary star either, this was one of the legends: a cowboy star.
More generally, this is also the story of heroes, disappointment, and human fallibility.
But first I feel the need to bring myself into this story. I’m a wanderer of the wasteland of B-movies, a loused up nobody who might confuse Tim McCoy with Tim Holt, a greenhorn who knows more about twinkletoe tap-dancing movies than the Three Mesquiteers. Everybody knows The Man with No Name, but far fewer know the tale of The Man with No Western Hero.
Several years ago, I found myself in Portsmouth, Ohio on a quiet Saturday afternoon. Walking along the main thoroughfare I stumbled upon the Roy Rogers Museum—the singing cowboy grew up in both Cincinnati and Portsmouth when he was just plain Leonard Slye. I walked into the surprisingly vast shrine to Rogers and the bygone culture of Western adventures—this includes pulps, comics, toys, and sheet music—and instantly took a liking to the place. The proprietor was at the right age to be able to enjoy these B-Westerns on their original release. After greeting me he showed me the lay of the land.
“Who’s your favorite cowboy star?” he asked. It was as if he had asked me where I was from or what I did for a living. It was a simple question, and it demanded a quick, uncomplicated answer. Two syllables would do like Tom Mix or Hoppy. I could have even given him a more complicated, multisyllabic answer like ‘Wild Bill’ Elliott, George O’Brien, or Hoot Gibson. I could have just gone with Rogers—after all he is The King of the Cowboys. Instead, I stammered like a fool.
“Ya know, I don’t really have a favorite…”
At least I was honest. We exchanged pleasantries for a bit longer before he let me browse around the museum, but I felt the distance between us. In my defense, I was born decades after the horse operas had been revised and neuroticized into the adult Westerns of the 1950s. To be more precise, I was born around the time Urban Cowboy was released—talk about a fallow period. In 2023, the B-Western is as antiquated as an icebox. Yet, I am drawn to them. Let’s cut to the chase, hiss at the dastardly villains, and cheer for the triumph of order. That exchange at the Roy Rogers Museum was years ago, and I’ve watched a diverse crop of Westerns since, but I remain a traveler merely passing through The Old West. It still doesn’t sit right with me; a man should have a favorite cowboy star. Obviously, there’s work to be done.
For a time, Lash LaRue seemed like a good prospect. That alliterative moniker stands out as much as the man himself. Clad entirely in black and wielding a bullwhip, LaRue looks quite the opposite of a hero. He instantly appeals to my paradoxical and slightly confused mind. The apocryphal story goes that LaRue’s late entrance to the Poverty Row Western in 1945 came after Warner Bros. had rejected him for looking a little too similar to their prized Humphrey Bogart. If his roguish appearance isn’t noir enough for you, then his tumultuous post-Hollywood personal life certainly seals the deal. Let’s take this headline by headline.
“Lash LaRue Held in Theft Case” Signs of trouble first hit the press in 1956 when Lash, along with his Great Western Show sidekick Al “Fuzzy” St. John and a female “understudy” Carla Gilbert, were arrested for possession of sewing machines and adding machines that had gone missing from a salesman’s car at the Mid-South Fair in Memphis. Horrifyingly, Gilbert attempted suicide in lockup. Later, pugilist Henry Labarba, who the Memphis press described as an “irrepressible little man,” was charged with lifting the machines and selling them to LaRue. Labarba contended that at the time the theft occurred he was busy lobbing baseballs at milk bottles to win stuffed animals for the children of police officers detailed to the Fair. The papers mentioned that Elvis Presley visited the beleaguered Lash during this fiasco.
“Actor Tries Suicide” In 1958, at the age of 40, LaRue swallowed a fistful of sleeping pills after being sued for divorce on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty.
“The Whips of Time Scar Lash LaRue” In 1966, Lash approached a Miami cop at a bus station with a direct command, “I want you to destroy me.” He was promptly arrested for vagrancy and newspapers across the country carried the story of a washed up actor “…with 35 cents in his pockets and bitterness on his lips.” The actor complained that the film community had shut him out and he had been “systematically relieved” of all his possessions.
“Lash LaRue Now Cracks His Whip for the Lord” By ’73, the headlines exclaimed that the performer had turned things around. They promoted his evangelical tour featuring, “…tricky whip and gun handling, Lash LaRue movies and a smattering of old-time religion.”
“Lash LaRue Convicted of Marijuana Possession” In 1975, Lash was sentenced to a year probation for possession of pot, amphetamines, and barbiturates. His story was that he picked up a brother and sister hitchhiking and when they pulled out a joint, LaRue began sermonizing and offered his personal bible in trade to get the illicit materials out of their hands. “I have been to what I believe to be the pits of hell. If I had the opportunity to save two souls and give my Bible away, I’d do it again,” testified Lash. (This conviction was later overturned after the court ruled it an illegal search.)
Although it seems to have eluded scandal, Lash’s appearance in 1971’s strictly adults-only Hard on the Trail (emphasis on the first two words of the title) is worth mentioning just to further illustrate his restless life. Apparently, LaRue’s scenes are strictly routine Western fare and the spicier segments were added later without his knowledge. Watching the trailer seems to confirm the bipolar nature of this oddity.
Is there anything more quintessentially American than a mercurial cowboy film star riding by the seat of his pants, vacillating between run-ins with the law and saving souls as he crisscrosses the nation? Even if the misdemeanors are a mite distasteful, the stories this man could tell! The personal appearances began around the time he began appearing in PRC Westerns—I’ve found an ad from a Moss Point, Mississippi theater in 1947—and didn’t let up until late in his life in the 1990s.
One might forgive an occasional off night for The King of the Bullwhip, just out of sheer respect. That is, unless you’re Mrs. Cleo Shingler, manager of The Buena Vista Theatre in Georgia.
The front-page headline of Georgia’s Columbus Enquirer reads, “Favorite Cowboy Stands Up Children in Buena Vista.” LaRue’s visit was booked the week prior, and an assistant had arrived the day of to prepare the stage for the star’s scheduled 4:30 arrival. The stage was set, and the theater was packed with a capacity crowd anxiously awaiting the event—but after an interminable wait and no sign of Lash, Shingler had to send the crowd home with heavy hearts and a voucher for a free screening at a later date. “LaRue thought this place was too small for a public appearance,” sniped the theater manager. Days later, Ray Jenkins of the Columbus Ledger sternly editorialized on the incident, “It is unnecessary to say what “too-small” towns like Buena Vista over the country have done toward making LaRue a star.”
The water was most certainly not under the bridge. Charles Smith, Jr. of Smith’s Drugs in Georgia, a purveyor of Lash LaRue comic books, made an announcement: “We’ve quit selling everything Lash LaRue puts out. We’re pretty burned up about the way he treated those kids over there. We just don’t appreciate it.”
Then things got serious. Eight months after the no-show, LaRue was performing at the Chattahoochee Valley Exposition when policemen approached him with a summons to the sheriff’s office. Mrs. Cleo Shingler filed a complaint—LaRue owed her $440 and his 1950 Chrysler would be impounded until he paid up.
And pay up, he did. The statement LaRue issued reads like he has a gun to his head: “I have and never shall make any derogatory remarks about the good people of Buena Vista, Ga. I appreciate the fans I have in this fine community. I appreciate the large number of people from Marion County who have come to me in Columbus to tell me they knew that I meant no offense but that this matter was a very unfortunate misunderstanding.”
The more I read about Lash, the more I like him. While doing this research, I remembered a conversation I had with a man who had Lash stay over at his house sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. For many years, Denis Clark ran a movie memorabilia store in Downtown Cincinnati called Movie Madness. He also ran a convention in town with the same name. If there’s a poster you’re looking for, seek out his eBay handle, pict_res (“u” ought to be in pictures—get it?) and bid with confidence. Not only is Denis a font of information about movies, but he is also a true raconteur. I thought he might have a good Lash story, and I was right.
Years back, Lash needed a place to stay after the annual Roy Rogers festival in Portsmouth ended, so Denis volunteered his place—at the time Denis lived west of Cincinnati in the neighborhood of Sayler Park where he operated the Parkland Theatre. After a night’s rest, Lash wanted to take a walk. Here’s Denis’ story:
So, we’re out walking, and we encounter Jerry, the postman. As Jerry comes at us, I say to Lash, “This guy likes B-Westerns.”
We come up and meet Jerry and Lash says to Jerry before I could make the introductions, “I understand you like B-Westerns.”
Jerry says, “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
Lash says, “Well, who is your favorite cowboy?”
Jerry says, “I like the singing cowboys. I like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry…but there was one guy I didn’t like.” You know what’s coming.
“I didn’t like that guy with the whip.”
At this point, I interrupted. “Jerry, before you continue, let me introduce you to that guy with the whip. This is Lash LaRue.”
Without missing a beat, Jerry says to him, “The reason I didn’t like you is because you couldn’t sing.”
If anybody ever asks me who my favorite cowboy star is again, I might just blurt out the name Lash LaRue. Partially that’s because I find his persona fascinating and part of it’s because I like saying his name. Also, I feel when he was alive the guy could have used as much support as he could get.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I’m grasping at an unattainable experience—that of a kid growing up with these larger-than-life Western heroes dominating the big screen. I love watching these movies but I’m too cynical to truly feel like one of these rugged six-shooting (or whip-cracking) cowboys is my avatar. Simply put, you had to be there.
Note: Lash LaRue’s life and career is meticulously documented at one of the greatest movie websites on the internet, The Old Corral. Visit their Lash page for a much more thorough investigation into the Western icon.
What the Picture Did for Me
In tribute to Motion Picture Herald’s forum for exhibitors to gripe about the weather, conflicting events, and inferior Hollywood productions, I give you my opinions on films great and small in a paragraph or less.
The Longhorn (Monogram, 1951) Bill Elliott continues to please. This time around he plays a cattle rancher driving a herd of Herefords from Oregon to Wyoming to create a new half-breed super beef. The problem is his partner is a rotten two-face. There are two rules to a cattle drive: no whiskey and no women. I have no problem when Elliott punishes the imbibers but I’m glad he allows appealing Phyllis Coates along for the ride! Cold temperature didn’t detract from the enjoyment of this picture.
Racketeers of the Range (RKO, 1939) Beefy George O’Brien stars in this routine tale of rancher vs. monopolistic meat packers. Despite the obvious rear projection, the climax atop a speeding locomotive is exciting. Marjorie Reynolds makes little impression other than the implicit sexual tension of her angora sweater opposite O’Brien’s one-size-too-small shirts. Chill Wills provides comic relief. His best bit is narrating a tall tale of his encounter with “Scarface Pete” against flashback footage contradicting his every utterance. Wills’ tunes are nice too, especially when Gay Seabrook and him invent Western Swing music on the spot. This played nicely during a rainy day Government holiday, although there were reports of eyelids feeling particularly heavy during some passages of the film.
Waco (Monogram, 1952) The flurries outside didn’t cool down the fury inside as the normally upright Wild Bill Elliott plays an outlaw—yes, you read that right. Of course, he eventually comes around to the right side of the law. The audience wouldn’t stand for full degradation of the rule of law. When Wild Bill is deputized, he tells his thieving friends they can keep up their lawless ways all throughout Texas, just don’t mess with Waco.