"Bang! Gotcha!" "No you didn't!" Sound familiar? Youngsters in the '30s through the '50s spent Saturdays rounding up rustlers, foiling bank holdups and galloping off in all directions on imaginary horses.
Just as kids today are influenced by video games, so were children 50 years or so ago by comic books and black and white western movies. Heroes of that era included Tom Mix, colonel Tim McCoy, Buck Jones and the "Big Three," Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers. Girls preferred Jane Withers, Annie Oakley and the Queen of the West, Dale Evans.
In the '50s, 13 pop bottles fished out of a ditch and hauled to the corner store earned the hard worker a quarter and a licorice whip. That quarter was for the Odeon Movie Club in Victoria, where "front-row kids," were entranced by the cartoons, and impatient for the western serials to follow. The plots were simple - the hero rides in, discovers the crooked local bank manager is secretly financing the rustler gang, which is trying to force an orphaned young lady off her ranch. After much shooting and galloping of horses, all the bad guys are locked up, the hero rides into the sunset, the young lady gazes after him adoringly, and the Sons of The Pioneers sing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."
There were several axioms in western movies: 1. All the horses had names that were as well-known as their owners'. 2. Most of the heroes wore white hats (exceptions included Hoppy and the mysterious Lash Larue, who wore black).
3. The hero never ran out of bullets, no matter how many he fired, and 4. The bad guys always missed while the hero could shoot the guns out the bad guys' hands without causing any serious injury and while looking backwards from a horse travelling at 60 miles an hour.
The heroes wore very fancy clothes by pioneer standards, such as wonderfully clean tight shirts fringed with buckskin strips and impractical flat cowboy hats, instead of traditional 10-gallon headgear. Wearing two guns at once was almost unheard of in the 1800s, but was "de rigueur" for Roy Rogers. If Roy had actually ridden into Dodge looking as he did in the movies, he would have been strung up next to the chap who sold salsa made in New York City. Also, while wearing a ton of woolen clothing and 40 pounds of sixguns and ammunition, jumping from the second story of a burning building onto a hard saddle deserves a "Yippy Yi Ay!"
With the disappearance of the B-western studios Republic and Monogram after the Second World War, the Big Three heroes had the foresight to buy up the newfangled television rights to their characters, and let loose on the market a veritable stampede of objects bearing their names and images. One factory alone produced 100,000 Gene Autry cap pistols in 1950. The nuns who taught me in primary school once gave me one as a reading prize! ("Great job, Michael - here's a gun.") The difference between then and now was it was all play, no one got hurt, and the good guys always won.
Toy guns were heavily played with, and condition is a huge factor in determining current value. (A Hoppy cap pistol in nice condition sells for $100, while a matched pair of Roy Rogers pistols in original holsters can run as high as $1,500. An empty box once containing a Roy Rogers pistol sold in May on eBay for $200).
On my first Halloween in Canada, my costume consisted of a "Tonto" cardboard mask, cut from the back of a Cheerios box. That box today is worth over $300. More likely to have been kept around from childhood are cereal box prizes depicting western heroes: usually plastic figurines or written cards from the Cowboy himself, advising children to be good cowboys and cowgirls, and encourage their parents to buy more cereal.
The more valuable type of prize required children to cut off boxtops and mail them along with a nominal sum to receive something substantial, such as a pinback button, a badge or a ring, and a membership card in the "X-Bar-X Ranch Club," entitling children to discounts on additional merchandise. (Western pinback buttons start at $5 each, badges can run up to $50, and rings can be even more valuable. A Roy Rogers "saddle" ring or a Hoppy "compass-in-a-hat" ring are each worth $300, while a Lone Ranger ring made of imitation gold ore books out at $2,000).
Those heroes provided marvellous entertainment, lasting memories, and made fortunes from shrewd marketing. At today's values, they would have been truly amazed.
Next time: Stamp collections
Comments and suggestions for future columns can be sent to Michael Rice at Box 86 Saanichton, B.C. V8M 2C3 or firstname.lastname@example.org