Sunday, August 25, 2019

An Interview with “The Virginian” (part 1)

Long before A Fistful of Dollars, there was an original “Man with No Name.” James Drury (the Virginian) worked as the foreman of Shiloh Ranch, owned by a procession of hard-working families in Wyoming on one of television’s “Big Four” westerns, The Virginian.

Unlike other shows of its kind, it ran for 90 minutes, was shot from the debut in color and featured a unique format which saw a semi-mysterious lead character journeying through varied conflicts in intriguing stories with famed guest roles and an endearing family unit.

Comprised of 249 episodes, NBC’s The Virginian, was television’s third longest-running western and rated in the top 30 programs for most of its nine-season run, making the top 10 in 1966. Veteran actors Lee J. Cobb, Charles Bickford and John McIntire portrayed the ranch’s owners as the years progressed, with Stewart Granger filling the role for a final season, titled The Men from Shiloh, with a slightly retooled approach.

Based on the 1902 novel by Owen Wister, the popular western story was filmed numerous times for the big screen before being adapted to television in 1962. It was in that medium that the enigmatic character of The Virginian was brought to life famously by actor James Drury. With a wide knowledge and respect for all things western and a wealth of tremendous stories to tell, he keeps active today with public appearances and a website dedicated to the iconic show. We were very fortunate to have an enjoyable and informative talk with him recently.

Editor's Note: The following is an edited transcription of Christopher Robinson's discussion with James Drury.
WESTERN MAGAZINE DIGEST: Can you tell us a little about how you began your career in movies, television and stage acting?

JAMES DRURY: I started out when I was eight years old in children theatres in New York City. My mother took me down at Christmastime to a place where they cast me in a Christmas play about King Herod and the Christ Child, and I played King Herod. And I had the long grey beard and the long flowing robes. I learned my lines and I hit my marks. But I didn’t want to get on stage. My mother just booted me onto the stage to start out. I got out and at the end of the thing, people clapped and I thought, ‘Well, if they’re gonna clap at something like this… I’d better find out more about it.’ So I started studying.

I studied it in junior high, high school and majored in it at university. Then, at the end of my junior year, I came out to California to see my mother who was living there at the time and I had auditioned for MGM at Loews, Incorporated. I didn’t think anything was going to come of it because the guy I auditioned for was having his shoes shined throughout the audition! But they called me from the studio and had me do another reading and then signed me to a seven-year contract. That was within seven days of my getting to California so it was a real Cinderella story. That was 1954.

I did seven pictures. I had tiny little bit parts, a word here, a word there but… you have to start someplace, learning the difference between stage acting and motion picture acting. On the stage, you use broad gestures and a great deal of volume with your voice. When you get to motion pictures, you find out that it’s 70mm Panavision and when you raise your eyebrow, it goes up eighty feet! You have to restrain your movements and your modes of expression, more so. You find out the difference real quick. You bring things down, more inward.

The camera will go right in your eyeball and see into the center of your soul, if you let it. That’s what you have to do to be effective in motion pictures. In the first year, MGM dropped me and then three months later, I signed with 20th Century Fox and I stayed there three years and did a total of three pictures. I did Love Me Tender. Then, a western with Richard Widmark called The Last Wagon. The same year I did Bernardine, which was Pat Boone’s first picture. So I have the dubious distinction of having been Pat Boone’s older brother and Elvis Presley’s older brother, both in their first pictures.

WMD: Did you get along with both men?

JD: Oh, I did, indeed… lifelong friends with Elvis. I saw him many times after that. He was always extremely nice to me and Pat has always been a good friend and a wonderful gentleman.

WMD: Did you know that those western roles would be the ones you would come to be associated with?

JD: I wasn’t conscious of it, but I had been raised on a series of ranches in Oregon and had been around horses and stock all of my life and had my first horse when I was twelve. That horse taught me to ride, pretty much. Luckily, I had all that ammo in my briefcase. As far as the motion pictures go, I did one picture for MGM in that first year with Lana Turner called Diane.

I played, I think, eight different roles. They put a beard on me one day and a helmet, the next day, on a horse the next day, holding a spear another day. They pretty much said ‘Here’s a gun, get on that horse… and don’t get off, not even for lunch!’ I didn’t gravitate to it but there was so much western work around. I had the skills and horse work and had been around guns all my life. I was planning to be a classical actor but it didn’t work out that way. However, my training in it allowed me to play the Virginian with variety. If you can play Shakespeare, you can play anything.

WMD: The Virginian has stood the test of time. It has a tremendous following to this day.

JD: It sure does. They play it twice a day, six days a week.

WMD: Been watching it, or have you seen ‘em all?

JD: I thought I’d seen ‘em all yet there are some I haven’t seen or I haven’t seen parts of. I’ll sit down if I have time in the morning and see if I remember the particular show and I see a lot of things I hadn’t been aware of.

WMD: Is that popularity a testament to the show itself or the enduring appeal of westerns in general?

JD: I think there’s always a warm place in everybody’s heart for the western. The 90-minute format was what allowed us to do memorable episodes. Our writers were able to write big, important, juicy guest star roles for men and women. Big-time Hollywood stars would’ve walked barefoot over broken glass to play a part. That gave us a great deal of accomplishment, when actors of that caliber would come to play on that show, George C. Scott, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford… the list goes on and on.

WMD: Who were some of your favorites, off the top of your head?

JD: A lot of them are still alive and they have spies everywhere, so I wouldn’t want to name favorites. But they were all my favorites. I was very, very lucky to be in a position where I could go to the studio everyday and know that I was going to be working with somebody wonderful. The guest stars were fabulous. I really believe that’s why we were successful, because we were making a motion picture-length episode every week.

WMD: And thirty-five episodes a season, they don’t do anything like that today.

JD: They don’t even do thirty anymore. They do a lot more reruns. It was just the timing and the forces that came together. Doug McClure and I were informed that we were playing the roles of Trampas and the Virginian on Friday before the Monday morning that we started shooting. We just looked at each other and said ‘We better go ahead and do it’. It was logistically impossible. We sometimes had as many as five different episodes being shot at the same time just to make our airdates. So I actually appeared in five different episodes in one day… a big scene in one place and in another place and a walk-on somewhere else.

WMD: That’s incredible.

JD: It keeps you on your toes.

WMD: Must have been exhilarating. So he was like a thread that literally ran through all those stories.

JD: To do a show like that, you have to really love it. There’s too much work, too many scripts coming at you too fast. I didn’t care. I did it anyway.

WMD: It seems like you really fit the character. Was there much of your own personality in the Virginian?

JD: I had many elements in there of my maternal grandfather, John Hezekiah Crawford. He was an Oregon pioneer who came west with a wagon train. When he was twelve years old he was driving a twenty-mule team in the coal mines of Missouri. He became a rancher and dirt farmer, I think, around 1885.

My dad was a professor at NYU. He was gone all winter and we were there on the ranches with my mother, sister and brother. Grandpa was the man of the house and he taught me to shoot, ride, do woodcraft and how to blow stuff up with dynamite.

WMD: That’s another thing about The Virginian. It presented the life of a working ranch hand quite realistically. That entailed some real cowboy work- wrangling, roping, bulldogging- as opposed to mere ‘play-acting’.

JD: All that stuff and then some. One thing I’m not that good at is roping. Doug McClure was a good, competitive roper and he had some experience on a ranch in Nevada and punched cows. We had cows but I was doing more barn stuff. We had horses, hogs, chickens, milk cows, beef cows. So we ran the gamut. I was well prepared.

The character itself is a wonderful one. He’s emblematic of the whole west, the American people. He has a lot of those characteristics that got them across the plains, across the Rockies to the Pacific. It was a daunting task. So everywhere we punched cows in those days is now America. That’s a thing we can all be proud of. I tried to represent the working cowboy. I’ve been around a lot of them so I knew what they were like and I’ve been told by working cowboys that I did good… so I’m proud of that.

WMD: Are you worried, with more development and technology that the western lifestyle may change for people in the future?

JD: Technology can help and inspire people. It can take them to new heights but there are a lot of places you can only get to on horseback. You have to remember that. It was man’s first partner. If it weren’t for the horse, none of us would be where we are. I don’t think that tradition will ever be replaced. There are more horses in captivity and privately owned in this country than there were in the time of The Virginian.

It’s alive and well and will stay that way. As far as western drama itself, like everything on TV, it can get overexposed. At one time we had fifteen- and-a-half hours of western programming on the air. There are only so many plots you can use, and people get tired of seeing them all the time. So it’s been a long time since a western has been made the way we were making them. They appeal to modern audiences with varied success. They’ll never die out but I don’t think we’ll see what we saw in the Fifties and Sixties.

Be sure to tune in to WMD on September 8th for part 2!

Read Part 2 here:
Also, visit The Virginian Official Website!

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Sunday, August 18, 2019

Next Week: Christopher Robinson's Interview with James Drury -- The Virginian

Yes, you heard it right. Christopher Robinson, the newest member of the Western Magazine Digest staff, will feature part 1 of "An Interview with 'The Virginian.'" Talk about an article to read. This one will come in two parts, the first to appear on WMD on the 25th of this month and part 2 on the 8th of September (if you recall, our main publications occur every other week now with minor stories and videos in between, such as this week).

Within the pages of Robinsons' interview you also will find a treasure trove of photos involving the star of The Virginian, the one and only James Drury.

Honestly, I remember Drury very well. He was a level headed, powerful ranch foreman, tough but always fair and invariably for the little guy, which comes through in Home to Methuselah, which was Episode 10 of the 8th season of The Virginian. Here's the full Episode on Classic Western TV (YouTube):

Here is what the author of an informative paper on Wikipedia had to say about James Drury, the main character in the first 8 seasons of this 9-season series:
The Virginian

Played by James Drury,[14] the Virginian was the tough foreman of the Shiloh Ranch. Based loosely on the character in the Owen Wister novel, he always stood his ground firmly. Respected by the citizens of Medicine Bow and the hands of the ranch, he was a prominent figure in Medicine Bow. In the series, the Virginian is the ranch foreman from the first episode. This way, the producers were able to establish a feeling that he had been there for a while, and thus keep a consistent story line. In the book, however, the Virginian was the deputy foreman, and only became the foreman after a promotion from the Judge. When making the show, the producers chose not to reveal the Virginian's real name, and little about his past was actually made known. This succeeded in making the Virginian an intriguing and mysterious character. The foreman worked under five ranch owners throughout the series: Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb), Morgan Starr (John Dehner), John Grainger (Charles Bickford), Clay Grainger (John McIntire), and Col. Alan Mackenzie (Stewart Granger). James Drury and Doug McClure were the only cast members to remain with the show for all nine seasons. James Drury first played The Virginian on the July 6, 1958 episode of Decision. (Source:

The Virginian series lasted for 9 seasons, from 1962 through 1971. I was 12 years old when Drury began this first 90-minute Western series (with over 249 episodes), and when the 9th episode was over, I was 21 years of age--just beginning my life while one of the greatest Western television series--probably ever--was ending.

Be sure to tune in to WMD this next weekend when we'll feature Christopher Robinsons' "An Interview with The Virginian."

Allan Colombo

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Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Old West Railroads That Survived the Years

Old railroad trains are quite a nostalgia trip for many people, especially us older folks. There is that something special we experience as we see those old steam engines in the movies or in any of the railroad museums around the country. Even just gazing at an old abandoned railroad track tends to spark our imagination as to what class of locomotives and what types of rolling stock may have traveled across those old steel rails in times long past.

Were there box cars loaded with varied commodities of freight, or tankers full of crude oil? Maybe there were hoppers loaded with iron ore or coal. Were these old tracks the ones where a prestigious passenger train made its final run? Much of the details can be researched about them. But still, we can let our imagination take us on one of those glamorous journeys anytime we allow it.

But railroads in America are also another way to measure our progress as a nation. From a simple cart on two rails in a mining operation, pushed in and out of those deep dark tunnels by manpower or by beasts of burden, to the huge and awesomely powerful steam locomotives, and then to the modern diesels which produce many thousands of horsepower, and can pull one hundred or more heavily-loaded freight cars, the railroads have been recognized as a major necessity for our expanding and prosperous nation. I can't imagine where we would be today without our railroads, both past and present.

While freight and passenger trains made their appearance in the eastern states prior to the Civil war, I'm going to focus mostly on the early railroads of the western United States.

56 .5 inches (4' 8-1/2") was well established across America as the standard RR gauge (width). It is also called the Stephenson gauge, named after George Stephenson of England, who in 1830 designed that country's first railroad, the the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

However, even after the standard-gauge system was widely employed here in America, there still remained several variations in the width of narrow gauge rails that were laid. This turned out to be one of the logistics problems for the Confederacy during the civil war. I saw a photo one time of a Confederate rail yard that had at least three different gauges of railroad track routed through it.

But out west, especially for logging and mining operations, narrow-gauge railroads were the most cost effective way to go. Narrow-gauge systems required less real estate along side of them for one thing. And the narrow width roadbed could be built using less stone and gravel, and less lumber had to be obtained to make the shorter ties. And the height and width of the steel rails themselves was somewhat less than what was required for the standard-gauge lines, which further aided in the cost advantage of narrow-gauge.

While there were several variations of narrow-gauge track put to use in the western states, the most common gauge used in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Utah and several of the other western states measured in at 3-feet wide. It is likely that the formation of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1870 had something to do with establishing the 3' gauge across the territory because of its extended run from Denver, Colorado to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad has survived, and is running today under the name of the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge railroad. And it is understandably a very popular tourist attraction. The 45-mile trip between Durango, CO and Silverton, CO offers some exceptional scenery for its passengers.

And also sharing another stretch of the same 100-miles of historic track is the Cumbres and Toltec RR, which is more popular with the hard core railroad fans. While more restricted in operation, the Cumbres and Toltec RR offers a greater assortment of authentic rolling stock than does the Silverton, and the scenery where it travels through is excellent. But the C&T railroad mainly operates as a charter railroad, and is available mostly to members of specific railroad preservation groups, as you will see in one of the videos accompanying this article.

The Alco (American Locomotive Company) K-28, Baldwin K-36 and K-37 locomotives that are still in use by both the Durango & Silverton RR and the Cumbres & Toltec RR today were built in the era of 1903-1925. And as was the case with many narrow-gauge locomotives back then and now, they were as large as their standard-gauge counterparts. Some locomotive manufacturers built units in both of the two more common gauges (3' narrow-gauge and 4' 8-1/2" standard-gauge) to accommodate most all of the major rail lines of their day.

The popularity of the old western scenic railroads with their classic Alco and Baldwin steam locomotives has also prompted a new trend to surface among model railroaders during the past decade or so. They have merged the fine detail that is possible with the larger O-gauge and S-gauge model trains (and scenery) with the space saving advantage of HO-gauge track layouts. This seems to accurately mimic the scale of a narrow-gauge railroad.

Early on, the modelers had to painstakingly modify their O-gauge or S-gauge trains by changing the running gear of their locomotives and the wheel trucks of their rolling stock in order to run on HO-gauge track. But now, model RR manufacturers such as Bachmann and others, offer these units ready-made in what is referred to as On30-gauge. Another video link I've provided shows a good example of the detail and reality that is possible with this new trend in modeling.

For anyone planning a trip out west and who want to enjoy the scenic beauty and nostalgia of these old time western railroads, I have picked out several other lines that still remain:

In Heber City, Utah, you can hop on the old (and slow) 'Heber Creeper' railroad which is pulled up the Provo Canyon grade by a 1907 Baldwin steam locomotive.

Sacramento, California is recognized by rail fans for its California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. The museum is rated as one of the best and most complete of its kind. Its 21 restored locomotives and cars date back to the early 1860s. And In the summer months, visitors can take a scenic steam train ride that runs alongside the Sacramento River.

Virginia City, Nevada offers its visitors a nostalgic experience as they head out to the location where the TV series 'Bonanza' was filmed. An excursion train ride can be taken from there on a Virginia and Truckee (V&T) Railroad train pulled by a steam locomotive that will take you out to an old gold mine and back.

In Williams, Arizona, a portion of the old Grand Canyon Railway was restored in 1989, and apparently runs frequently. But bookings for tickets may be tight. For this railroad and all the others, it would be highly recommended to make a phone call or two before planning your visit.

The Sumpter Valley Railroad, out of Baker City, Oregon, offers scenic tours on weekends and on major holidays. From their photos that I've seen, it looks like a great scenic ride would be provided there.

The Oregon Coast Scenic Railway out of Tillamook, OR also looks like an excellent choice for rail fans.

Out of Ebe, Washington, the Mt. Rainier RR offers scenic tours pulled by either diesel or steam locomotives, whichever are available.

A short 9-mile steam run is offered by the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad out of Chehalis, Washington.

So, if you take a little time with the popular online search engines, you will likely turn up a few more of the other old steam trains still thundering down the rails in the old west.

As you can see, the era of the steam locomotive still remains with us... alive and well, running along the rails, and in our hearts.

Safe Travels,
Gary Miller

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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Did U Know the American Indian Had a Cure for Rabies?

By Allan B. Colombo

Did you know that Indians had a cure for the highly feared disease called rabies? There's never a lack of interesting stories in the vintage, collectible magazines that we offer in the Western Magazine Digest store. For example, the issue of Indians' ability to cure rabies was discussed in the March 1977 issue of Frontier Times.

The story centers on a man by the name of Edward Thompson Denig, born in 1812, from McConnellstown, PA, whom discovered the fact that Indians of that time period know how to cure this most dreaded disease, even after the poor soul who has it became paralyzed and essentially helpless. Most of us in modern times, if left untreated, would have entered a coma after paralysis and eventually died. Not so the Assiniboin, a local Indian tribe that Denig married into.
(Editor's Note: Click on any of these photos to enlarge.)

Denig, who worked for the American Fur Company as a fur trader, first encountered the Crow, Blackfoot, Plains Cree, Teton Sioux, and the Assiniboin when he traveled on the Upper Missouri on a steamboat with a German explorer by the name of Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Newied. It was Maximilian's artist, Karl Bodmer, that was commissioned to paint the various Indians that Denig traded with. Denig was also stationed at Fort Pierre in territory where the Teton Sioux lived and hunted. After a few year, he was then stationed at Fort Union, " the mouth of the Yellowstone."

Denig became part of the Assiniboin tribe when he married Deer Little Woman, from White Earth River, who bore him a child, three altogether in fact. Their first child was Robert, and later he had a sister and then a brother. In 1837, the year that smallpox began to rage across the plains, Denig contracted the disease while helping his wife attend to sick Assiniboin's.

As a side note, Denig came to know the artist, John James Audubon in 1843 when he came from Missouri to Fort Union for a spell. Denig assisted him in collecting birds and animals of all kinds. Denig, in fact, "obtained for him an Indian skull from a scaffold burial on the prairie," according to the author of 'Could the Indians Cure Rabies?,' Wilfred T. Neill, in the March 1977 issue of Frontier Times.

To read about the cure for rabies, I scanned the last portion of the story and cropped only the portion relevant to the rabies issue (below). I have to say, the cure sounds absolutely horrible, but if it works--and Denig wrote that it did--then it was certainly a godsend to mankind in that era.

Be sure to tune in to Western Magazine Digest next weekend we Gary Miller features a story on the trains of the Old West that survived the years.

If you'd like to know more about
the magazine issue that this story
appeared in, click here!

Our next feature story appears on the 11th of August! Entitled "Old West Railroads That Survived," It deals with the railroads of the old west, and the ones that survived today as scenic railroads and museum pieces. Included is some general U.S. RR history.

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