Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Saddle Up - Part Nine"

Actors who appeared in classic westerns recall their experiences. As imagined by me.



“My handlebar mustache helped me get bartending roles. It wasn’t real; it clipped on under my nose. In twenty-five years, it only fell off once. There was supposed to be a ‘twister’ outside, and when somebody opened the barroom door, my mustache flew across the room.”

“Bartenders overhear everything, but we weren’t supposed to. I mastered the talent of listening but pretending I wasn’t. Watch me in a scene where I’m wiping off the bar. I’m wiping, but I’m listening. If you miss the subtlety, you think I’m just wiping.”

“Other skills western bartenders needed were ducking – you know, when the ruckuses started – taking down the big mirror so it wouldn’t break – without breaking it ourselves. Sometimes, I’d participate in the ruckuses, usually by whacking some cowboy on the head with a whisky bottle. The bottles weren’t real, of course, but I had to pretend they were. I was good at pretending. I guess that’s why I became an actor.”

“One thing I couldn’t pretend was sliding the beer glasses along the bar. That always gave me the butterflies. I’d practice for hours. The ‘short’ slide, the ‘Intermediate’, the ‘All the way down.’

“One day, I show up for work and, wouldn’t you know it, they’d shined up the top of the bar. My ‘touch’ was completely thrown off. A beer glass that normally slid ten feet flew right off the other end. ‘Take down the sheen’, I say. They finally did, after half the cowboys were dripping with beer, but the whole thing was very upsetting to me. I couldn’t ‘slide’ for months.”

“My proudest moment as an actor came in “Cimarron Junction.” The Bad Guy was about to go face the Good Guy in the final shootout. As I poured the Bad Guy one last shot of ‘Red Eye’, you could tell by my face whose side I was on.

“Nobody told me to do that. That was all me.”


“There were a bunch of us back then – men, women, a couple of kids, a few horses, some scramblin’ chickens – we had one thing in common: When all hell was about to break loose, we’d scramble out of the way.”

“My specialty was barroom scramblin’. The timing had to be perfect. You scrambled too soon, and you’d tip the action. Scramble too late and you were likely to get shot.”

“Sometimes, in our rush out the door, we’d fall over each other. That was just embarrassing. But the directors loved it. They’d say, ‘Do it again!’ It offended our professionalism, you know? Like askin’ a great orchestra to play bad.”

“Outdoor scramblin’ was carefully choreographed. Everybody where they were goin’. Except for the chickens. They just scrambled where they scrambled. I stepped on one once. Made a helluva screech.”

“I’ll tell ya something – and this ain’t just a Scrambler talkin’ – the better the scramblin’, the better the picture. You take a look at a western sometimes, and just concentrate on the scramblin’. It’s very interesting. You watch closely, and you can actually tell who looks like they’re runnin’ for their lives, and who’s just going through the motions. We had a name for those fellahs. We’d call them ‘Sleepwalkers’.”

“There were special privileges for the older Scramblers. No more runnin’. When trouble came, we’d just scramble under the table.”

“What am I proudest of? In all my years as a Scrambler, I was never around when the guns went off.”


“I always had an old face. I wasn’t that old, but I looked old. Lotta wrinkles. The director says, ‘Here’s your job. You just sit there, smokin’ your pipe, and no matter what happens, you don’t react. You got it? You don’t react.’ I say, ‘Okay.’ So, they start the filmin’, and I’m rockin’ and smokin’, and, all of a sudden, this big galoot comes flyin’ out the window about two feet from my head. I go, ‘What the hell was that!’

The director yells, ‘Cut!’ He comes up to me and he says, ‘I told you not to react.’ I say, ‘This guy just came flyin’ out the window.’ He says, ‘That’s the funny part. No matter what happens around you, you just sit there.’

“Well, I didn’t want to lose my job, you know? So next time the guy came flyin’out the window, I didn’t do nuthin’. Just sat there and smoked my pipe. Ater the scene, everyone’s tellin’ me how great I was. I had no idea what they were talking about.”


JeffH said...

Re: Scramblers. There's a sad, apocryphal story that one of the regular scramblers couldn't get pregnant. She went to the town's doctor. Doc told her it was definitely work related. She had scrambled eggs.

little me said...

How you survived in that industry, I'll never know. Kindest regards, as always.

The Minstrel Boy said...

one of my favorite memories of growing up was the summer nights on the rez when they'd do an outdoor showing of cheyenne autumn up against the side of the trading post. everybody watching had relatives from apache and navajo sides of the family who were extras. speaking the language we were able to hear the women singing a dirty song in honor of the cavalry, and able to understand what was really being said instead of what was in the subtitles.

it was always a great time of high humor and art.

and yes, listening while wiping, and scrambling are all good skills to have in a western.