April 13th, 2014
By Marianne Rittner-Holmes
Many of you may remember that last year I wrote about being at my first Reunion.
The endorphins from that event carried me through the entire year! All I could say was OMG! Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did! And, well, OMG!
This year, I was actually able to talk to the celebs. Last year all I could muster was a big grin with gibberish! So, having settled down a bit, I’ll just say that this year’s reaction is Wow!
Over the weekend of March 20-23rd, I joined more than 200 fans in Tucson to meet and visit with the THC cast and crew of our beloved show. This September will mark the 47th anniversary of the show’s pilot on NBC, making some of us older than we wish to say. However one thing that was uplifting (oh, there were so many uplifting things), was that it was also attended by a new generation of fans! Wow!
So where to begin? Thursday’s early registration included an impromptu visit with Henry, Don and event coordinator Penny McQueen in the Ballroom while early arrivals checked in for their super goodie bag and name tag.
Then, everyone who signed up to go to The White Stallion Ranch worked up a huge appetite in preparation for the fresh-grilled steaks that were awaiting us on the most-beautiful piece of property ever! Imagine: Dining on 3,000 acres of Sonoran Desert complete with saguaro cactus, cattle and horse herds, some of the most stunning spring flowers—with our host Don Collier! Wow! Roving troubadour Bill Gantz played guitar and sang to us as we mingled and chatted; we even mugged for a group photo!
We had a little dessert (okay, maybe a lot?) and did a little shopping (okay, maybe a lot?) then back to the hotel for a night’s sleep, assuming people could sleep from all the excitement in preparation for opening day on Friday!
Friday morning was electric with people milling in the ballroom with each other while investigating the hundreds of silent auction items that were laid out around the entire perimeter.
Reunion guest and author Boyd Magers and wife Donna brought a beautiful display of Western memorabilia from their collection. It included pistols used by Lorne Greene and Michael Landon in Bonanza, boots and hat worn by Roy Rogers, a pistol and derringer used by Richard Boone in Have Gun Will Travel, a gun belt worn by Peter Brown, and even a game called Outlaws with Don Collier’s picture on it from the early 1960’s! Wow!
A new dynamic this year was the joy of watching Facebook friends greeting each other. The THC and THC Reunion FB pages have been around a while and have been a great outlet to keep in touch about the show and with each other. However, last year saw the creation of pages for Leif Erickson, Cameron Mitchell, Mark Slade, Linda Cristal and those forever-fun-loving Buffalo Gals. Many of the page administrators came to the Reunion; it was heartwarming to see members meet each other for the first time while feeling they had known each other for years. Lots of great emotion! Wow!
Penny officially opened the Reunion with a video by Sarah Ortega, one of Sarah’s many wonderful digital displays that honor the legacy of The High Chaparral. Penny’s gracious welcome and humorous stories set the mood for meeting the celebrities during the first question and answer panel, hosted by Boyd Magers.
It’s so hard to describe what it feels like to not only be in the same room as your childhood heroes, but also to be able to interact with them. Many fans took the opportunity to ask questions of Henry Darrow, Don Collier, Rudy Ramos, Kent and Susan McCray, Stan Ivar, and Neil Summers . Boyd intermingled his knowledge of the stars with his own questions, and the next thing we knew, it was time to move on to the next activity—the first autograph signing. Wow!
I have to share right here that getting autographs from our celebs is like having a private meeting one-on-one. Seriously. Our celebs take time with EACH person, chatting, posing for photos, personalizing autographs. They genuinely like us fans and prove it with how they interact with us. They remember us from prior Reunions and know our names! It’s so personal. This description doesn’t do it justice, but each celebrity does this with each fan. I watched it and was part of it. It was even better for me this year because I actually made sentences when I spoke to them and was able to listen to what they said back. It was like, like, like we were having a conversation. Wow!
But I digress…After lunch, we got to see Big Daddy Kent McCray work his Big Daddy magic. Kent took a script and broke it down into ways most of us would never even think of: by day, location, actors needed, etc. He had it color-coded and portable so he could carry it around the locations! Many of us have become fully dependent on computers to catalog and create documents of this magnitude, collating and cataloging diverse sets of data. Not Kent. He did it through hard work and diligence—and by using his brain! And what a beautiful brain it is! I’ve yet to meet anyone who talks to Kent that doesn’t comment afterwards, “That man is so interesting. I could listen to him for hours!” Me, too. Wow!
Next, Susan McCray shared her casting talent by doing a casting call for the episode, “Tornado Frances.” Susan walked around hand-picking fans to play specific roles, and I know she stretched a lot of people’s comfort zones. Especially Don Collier’s. She cast him as Woman #1!
Hilarious. The rehearsal was just hilarious. Picture the scene at the beginning of the episode when Frances is about to descend on the saloon. She talks to the saloon’s owner (the Dub Taylor role) and the sheriff and then the women march. Twenty-plus fans stomping around with protest signs singing Bringing in the Sheaves, doing dialog (Sharon Dell Laura Morton did a beautiful Irish brogue), and in the midst of things, big Don Collier with his hand on his hip using a high-pitched voice for his female character.
Utter beautiful, coordinated madness! Susan, your casting was brilliant! Wow!
It took a while to settle down after that, but by evening, we were ready for the Sponsor’s dinner and live music by Vinnie Falcone and his trio. I had the honor to sit with Kent and Susan McCray, Stan Ivar, Vinnie and his drummer Joe LaBarbera and bassist Tom Warrington. I do believe Mr Falcone lives his work in all things. He shared some wonderful stories about Frank Sinatra, recounting how he was asked by Frank to become Frank’s musical conductor, as well as the time Frank first rehearsed with Luciano Pavarotti.
After a fine meal and great conversation, the Trio went on stage for about an hour of live jazz, with Susan introducing each song written by her father Harry Sukman. Vinnie did the arranging and the whole room was aglow with Harry Sukman vibes via Vinnie’s fingertips and those of his trio. They made a CD of this music called, “Warm Heart, Cool Hands.” Yes, I have one. Yes, it’s signed by Susan, Vinnie, Joe and Tom. Wow!
Saturday morning brought trail rides and a visit to the location shooting for THC: Old Tucson. I lived in Tucson for 10 years and have made many trips to Old Tucson…but each time it’s like going home. Really. The dusty streets, the familiar buildings seen in many Westerns over decades of movie-making and TV shows. And then, there’s the Cannon ranch house! Wow!
The celebrities set up inside for their autograph session, and I can’t begin to count the hundreds of people that poured in over a two-hour period. The place was alive with fans, hand-shakes, hugs, photos and signings. Meanwhile, outside, Don Collier was rescuing us all from the bad guys by doing a live stunt on Cannon soil. Let’s just say, the good guy won and the bad guys won’t be botherin’ us anytime soon!
In addition to the non-stop fans, the thing that stuck out in my mind at the ranch was that there must have been 5 to 7 or more Old Tucson stuntmen (those on payroll) who took time to come to the ranch house, stand in line in full stunt costume, just to say to each star: “Sir, it’s an honor to meet you.” Such reverence. These were goose-bump, warm-fuzzy moments to watch. Wow!
Then everyone joined together in front of the ranch for a group photo. Off to lunch at Soundstage 2, but really, who could eat? Wow!
We went back to Casino del Sol to brush the Old Tucson dust off of us (while keeping it on our shoes to bring home and remember) and prepare for the premier of Rudy Ramos’ “Geronimo, Life on the Reservation.” I must say, we all cleaned up well, and we were full of that anxious excitement you get when you’ve waited a long time for something that’s now about to happen. I was lucky to sit with Marc, Cameron Mitchell’s nephew. Marc had brought a folder of personal memorabilia about Cameron, which he graciously shared with me and others during his time at the Reunion. We sat with Mallory Furnier, the archivist for the David Dortort papers at The Autry Museum in L.A.
Throughout the weekend, I’ve described all the emotion floating around the hotel and Old Tucson for more than two days: laughter, hugs, jokes, singing, etc. Not tonight. Not for Geronimo. You could hear a pin drop. Not a sound from us as Rudy, or should I say, Geronimo came on stage to tell his story. There wasn’t even any noise when Geronimo left in between acts. Then, when it was over: an uproar of applause and whistles and joy and happiness. Wow!
Rudy nailed it! He and director Steve Railsback (a renowned actor in his own right—and a really nice man) had put together Janelle Meraz-Hooper’s play so very powerfully as to move many to say afterwards,” Now they have me thinking. I’m going to have to research this more when I get home because I want to know more.”
The performance was brilliant, and Janelle was absolutely thrilled to see her work come alive. Speaking of Janelle, she is one vibrant, joyful woman. You can see how alive her spirit is in her eyes. They draw you in and embrace you. Wow!
The end of Saturday. Oh, my, only one more day left of this fantasy-come-to-life weekend. Sunday brought Cowboy Church and brunch and more autograph sessions. By now, we’d spent several days with our celebs and the atmosphere was very calm and intimate, like being around old friends.
Somewhere in the morning, Penny and Don were auctioning off the table centerpieces. That sounds pretty straight forward…until you add Neil Summers and Jeff McCarroll into the mix. Neil was a stuntman/extra on the show and Jeff is a current stuntman (who’ll appear in the movie C-Bar to be released soon). Those two started bidding on a straw hat and a kiss from Don! Too funny. Jeff beat out Neil, but it was Don who lost, having to kiss Jeff…well, I think Jeff may have lost, too. Let’s just say they ended by each wiping off their lips on their sleeves!
Boyd Magers hosted our first-ever Trivia Contest. All participants formed a line and were asked a question. If they answered correctly, they went back to the back of the line for the next round; if not, they sat down.
Boyd had some tricky questions, but last-fan-standing was Michele Simmons. Congrats, Michele! She won $100 from the Reunion, a THC poster, and a one-year subscription to Boyd’s magazine, Western Clippings. Well-done. Wow!
Another Q&A panel with Rudy, Don, Henry, Neil and stuntman/extra Steve DeFrance hosted by Boyd. (Hey, Steve has some great stories, not to mention the ones from Neil and everyone else! You’ll notice Steve in the episode, “The Peacemaker.” He’s the guy dressed in costume as the Apache that kills Blue’s beloved Moonfire.)
The time went by so quickly, and we soon found ourselves congregating outside the room where Don Collier’s “Confessions of an Acting Cowboy,” was going to be unveiled. The lights dimmed and some video clips of Don’s work were shown…then out came our Foreman with Penny McQueen. The two led us through more than an hour of questions and antics and behind-the-scenes stories of Don’s acting career.
We mostly know Don as Sam, the serious and loyal foreman who took a drink or two and who threw a punch or two on occasion. However, picture this six-foot-plus-huge cowboy with the beautiful blue eyes imitating a bird at Penny’s request by flapping his arms and jumping up and down on stage with that deep voice emoting, “Tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet.” He was demonstrating some of his acting class exercises with us.
We were roaring with each imitation he did: frog, mouse, etc. Funny! And then his props: he donned an Egyptian headdress to explain how he tried out for a pyramid movie. Uproariously funny. And on it went. I don’t want to share more so as to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it. Maybe they will as Don takes his show on the road. Penny and he were perfect. Wow!
After Don’s show, the Reunion was technically over. Wow, in a different way. How could that have happened so fast? Well, yes, the weekend was done for another year, but it still left the endorphins like before and it still left a set of memories that only could come from such a gathering.
Driving back to New Mexico the next day, I realized that in just one short year, I had gone from a babbling, pinch-me-is-this-real fan, to a person who was able to appreciate our celebs as people—lovely human beings, talented, friendly, caring folks who genuinely love us back. It doesn’t get much better than that. I wonder what 2015 will bring. Wow!
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