Death Valley Days (1952–1970)
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I remember this show very well. It was a part of a lot of Saturday evening programming,and some Saturday afternoons as well when I was a kid growing up. It's amazing that this show would go on to make history as well which ran on television for an impressive 23 years(1952-1975)...It became the longest-running syndicated Western/Drama program in the history of television,and it stands besides some of the best Westerns of their day.....the legendary drama that ran on prime-time television,"Gunsmoke",which ran for 20 years on CBS,and the Western adventure drama "Bonanza",which ran for 14 years on NBC. "Death Valley Days" has also made its mark in tying with another classic show as well,"The Ed Sullivan Show",which ran for 23 years on CBS,making it the longest-running variety show ever on prime-time.
For most of the show,I do recall the opening bugle call and the announcer opening to the title of the show and the sponsor,which was 20 Mule Team With Borax,which to this day is still on the market! Believe me,20-Mule Team With Borax will clean almost anything including everything around the house..its just that good! About those episodes,especially with the earlier episodes which were in black and white(1952-1965). The Black and White Episodes were exciting to watch since they were based on the true stories about the struggles of the Old West and the Pioneers who would go through the trials and tribulations of the American frontier. Each week there were stories based on gunslingers,Indians,Traders,Wagon Masters,United States Calvary,Mexican Bandits,Sheriffs,Deputies,Posses,along with the usual sort of Western fare that I saw plenty of on television back in those days. Some of these scenes were filmed around Death Valley,California; and in Arizona or on some Hollywood studio backlot.
However,when the show made the transition to color(1965-1975),the stories got flimsier and rather stagy in some spots but the shows would switch location shots,one scene was filmed in Death Valley,CA; and the others were either filmed around Arizona and parts of the Upper California Valley,and I do recall one episode that was filmed around the Colorado Valley area. Some of the "color" episodes were quite boring and slow,and that's when I quite watching the show altogether. Some of the hosts that brought out the show were "The Original Old Ranger",who was played by Stanley Andrews,and then on by Ronald Reagan before he went into politics. There was one segment where country superstar Merle Haggard was guest host as well. The guest star roster that appeared on this show were some of the Hollywood's who's who and you'll see a lot of that here. It was the quinessential American Western,and for the 23 years that it ran in syndication was quite popular,depending on some of the episodes,which some were good and some were just awful. Now how about having those episodes out on DVD and Video sometime?
Not to mention the players and for a real western feel the show had as its first host character actor Stanley Andrews known as the Old Ranger. Andrews brought a real feel of the old west to his job as host. Even when some rather more well known Hollywood names like Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor and Dale Robertson took over the hosting duties, you always knew you were watching three well known movie stars. With Andrews it was like sitting by the fireside listening to tales from the past from a beloved relative.
Robertson was from Oklahoma and could never shake the western image no matter how hard he tried in his career and he eventually went with the flow. Taylor and Reagan were both leading men, Taylor of A films and Reagan of B films from their respective studios. But both had a real love of horses and the west and would just as soon have been cowboy heroes at their studios instead of the career paths that were chosen for them by Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner respectively. All of them fit the role of host well because of their backgrounds.
This is another show that TV Land channel ought to grab. Or at least the country music channel which has now taken to showing films occasionally. They can't do better than this.
Sleepy-eyed, I would watch the 20-mule team pull the borax wagons across the sands as Josef Bonime's enchanting "Bugle Theme" sounded me awake. The moving picture of the team transformed into a picture on the wall as the camera panned down to The Old Ranger seated at his desk. He spoke as he slowly rose to greet the viewers:
"Howdy, I'm The Old Ranger and Death Valley is my stamping ground. Many's a tale of adventure I'm going to tell about Death Valley country. True stories, mind you...I can vouch for that...on behalf of these two products, 20-Mule Team Borax and Boraxo. And now here's Rosemary DeCamp to tell you about it."
The stories were good one with many a veteran character actor appearing in various episodes. At times the story would be built around the sponsor's product. One such episode I saw recently was entitled "The Big Team Rolls," starring Judd Holdren of Commando Cody fame. The seasoned character actor, Tom London, was featured as the muleskinner, Sandy McPherson.
Judd Holdren as Dana Emerson plays a tenderfoot from Boston who comes to Death Valley to be near his sweetheart (Lucille Barkley) whose father operates the borax works that transport the borax across the mountains and desert to Mojave, California, twenty miles round trip. Dana is tested by being assigned the swamper job. To complicate the novice's first trip, a disgruntled employee attempts to sabotage the journey and steal the payroll brought back from Mojave. Dana must prove his worth to himself, to his dearly beloved and to her father.
Gene Autry's Flying A Productions produced the program. Many of the actors, including Stanley Andrews (The Old Ranger), were part of Gene's stock company of Thespians. Andrews appeared on several of the Gene Autry Show episodes as did many of the other featured players on Death Valley Days.
As with any anthology-type series, the quality of the shows varied from week to week, but each one was entertaining and at times educational. Fans of TV westerns should enjoy Death Valley Days.
One of the elements that set it apart was that the programs were based on historical people, legends, and incidents. I give it an 8 out of 10 only because like the Hollywood westerns of that time, little or no attention was paid to have the characters and props match the era in which the programs were but I guess they had a tight budget. I watched shows today from the 1850's to the 1890's and everyone was wearing the same clothes and had hair and grooming styles from the 1950's. Also because it was only 30 minutes long, I guess it was necessary to edit the stories and sometimes they did not match up with what really happened.
This was the last series that Ronald Reagan acted in before he entered politics and regardless of what critics said about him, his acting chops were spot on and he looked like he enjoyed participating in this show. I wish he had gotten involved in it earlier and had gotten to perform more in the episodes. Like his son Ron Reagan said when he was asked what his father might have done if he had stayed in acting, Ron said he thought his father would have ended up hosting something like "Unsolved Mysteries". Ronald Reagan could not have picked a better show to end his acting career with. Rest in peace lady and gentlemen. A job well done.
Westerns,in 1958 were going strong but I especially remember and liked the haunting bugle call,the particular black and white reception,and our television itself,with the genuine Borax 20 Mule Team model carefully placed on top of it.I think the Stanley Andrews era was the best,because the actors were a product of post WW2,and the scenes were of a completely natural western landscape,especially the striking area itself,in which it was indeed filmed.I didn't see the later episodes because we moved but in the 60's the world did modernized pretty fast and the old western towns and people,and war heroes,were becoming only a memory.
I hope they roll out the episodes soon so I can build my own 20 Mule Team and get back to some real western television.