The annual gathering of Hollywood’s Western cowboys, cowgirls and family-friendly film and television stars was hosted by Dr. Fred Eichelman, Director for Point North Outreach, a Christian media organization and his wife Carolyn.
The reunion was held in mid-October at Holiday Inn, Valley View, with dressed-up cowboys wandering the lobby, the corridors and the main meeting hall, greeting old friends and looking like cowboys. “Gabby Hayes” (aka Allen Bye), Roy Rogers’ comic sidekick, was a popular Look Alike Cowboy.
The Look Alike stars sat at a long table together and chatted with fans, signed photographs and posed with them for pictures. Vendors at other tables sold Wild West CDs, Western souvenirs, novelties and books. Chief Steve Silverheels, son of the Lone Ranger’s partner Tonto, posed for pictures in his handsome headdress, a headcover more admired by 19th century Europeans than the bejeweled crowns of kings. The Chief holds a Doctor of Divinity degree and leads Christian services at such reunions as well as in churches.
Dr. Fred Eichelman is a retired educator from Salem, a writer and Editor of Point North Tidings, a magazine for Christian Film and TV Stars and their fans. I was there as a Christian Writer of Roanoke Valley selling copies of my Civil War historical fiction novel, Orie’s Story. At the table opposite was Patrick Wayne, son of the American icon, John Wayne. He was catching up with old friends and posing for pictures with fans waiting their turn.
Taking advantage of a lull, I sidled across the aisle to his table, and he smiled expectantly. The ball was in my court. “So you are Patrick, son of John Wayne.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said in a hearty voice. He’s a big guy.
It was my turn again and the words of admiration, honor, awe, and thrill of a lifetime to have seen his dad’s movies gushed out. Soon we were talking about the Saturday morning movies. He quizzed me on such details as “Double features? Cartoons? News?” He looked at me and asked when I was born. We were friends now and I blurted out the year. His face lit up and he said, “So was I!” “High five!!” Thrill of a lifetime.
I packed up my book table and sat in the screening room to watch Sheriff of Redwood Valley with Red Ryder and ‘Lil Beaver. The dusty trails, big boulders to hide behind and sound of galloping horses were familiar, and the story was fast moving and exciting, just as I remembered. A Grade B Western back then was not at all mindless.
On the hour people came in to arrange the room for the incoming panel. “Hollywood royalty here!” called out a cowboy in the suddenly standing-room-only space. The three panelists all wore sunglasses, looking like Hollywood stars, with lights directed on them. Paul Dellinger, former Roanoke Times journalist, was the moderator. One very veteran cowboy in the audience, dressed in black and silver and with a strong Brooklyn accent, addressed Patrick Wayne with stories of Duke not known to many.
We were all ears.
Lana Wood, younger sister of Natalie Wood and a former child actress, told of her re-entry into Hollywood after an old friend saw her working at a Beverly Hills boutique. She talked Lana into showing up for an audition; she took the part, beginning an adult career that included more than 20 films and over 300 television series. In 1972 she was a Bond girl in Diamonds are Forever.
She and Natalie are children of Russian immigrants and were born in Santa Monica, California. Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert, was both delightful and serious. Why no more John Waynes and Robert Mitchums? The change was deliberate, according to Mitchum. Hollywood wanted to downplay individual heroes and make more films about society and social causes. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who spent his Year Abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, Mitchum worked in films set in Ireland as well as in America.
The annual gathering ran from Thursday, October 17 to Sunday, October 20. The long weekend included special morning devotions and events leading up to the Saturday Banquet with a costume contest (winner Hopalong Cassidy!), music, dancing, and a rousing Stage Production by William Byrd Performing Arts & Friends.
Sunday ended the reunion with a service at CommUNITY Church, Salem and lunch with photo ops and music. People loaded up luggage and left, already looking forward to next year in the mountains and Roanoke. “Happy Trails Virginia Style” will return next October when the leaves turn color and Hollywood stars return to dazzle us.
The general public is invited, especially lovers of the Western movies in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. We could all use a dose of the cowboy philosophy of bravery, honesty, hard work and trust in God which helped Americans weather the Great Depression and win World War II. Look for notices of “Happy Trails, Virginia Style” in 2020.
Gail Tansill Lambert