Monday, July 18, 2011

Boom, Boom, Boomtown!

By Wayne Cresser

For boys of a certain age, certain time, adventure role models were characters more of this world than others. Taking your cues from Classics Illustrated, Wonder-Books, American Heritage histories and Marvel Comics, you might want to be a cowboy, a sea captain, an aviator (or the riskier version of that, a fighter pilot), a sports hero or some outsized superhero. Boys more darkly inclined might want to be gunslingers, pirates, Baron Von Richthofen, Bizzaro or a New York Yankee. All these characters were romanticized, and all, upon closer inspection, would reveal flaws, kinks in their makeup and the kinds of shortcomings that would shatter the idealized version. If you wanted to feel the air to go out of the balloon, all you had to do was put down the juvenile literature and read some eyewitness history, biography or open your own eyes to see Yaz sneaking a cigarette in the Boston Red Sox dugout.
In adolescence you’d discover that the American frontier attracted a lot of sociopaths, Ty Cobb was a racist and illegal gambling was part of most games, war was an ugly and unnecessary thing and in fantasy land, the price of being a superhero was a life of secrets and isolation. I think I’m pretty safe in saying, one could still go out to sea, but in hindsight it seems like a very lonely thing to do. There was, however, a type of hero celeb who seemed insulated from scandal, muck and mire, at least as far as my experience was concerned, and that was the local kids show host, the affable guy with the gimmick and the cartoons.
In New England, there was Captain Bob Cottle and his peanut gallery of hand puppets: Gramps, Jasper, “imaginations”, as Cottle called them, of the sea. In addition to being the perennial host of his own shows in Boston, Cottle went national as the second and last host of NBC TV's Ruff N' Ready Show! in late 1962.
Between cartoons Bob and his crew discovered things about the natural world or fought bad guys for the government. Captain Bob even had a piratical nemesis named Barnacle Bill the Pirate. He could draw too, which was his thing. The Rhode Island version of Captain Bob was Salty Brine who had a “Shack” and a collie named Jeff. Salty was another sea-linked character but sadly one without special skills. He just seemed nice and his dog reminded us all of Lassie, the most saintly canine who ever saved a kid from drowning in a well. Salty also had Three Stooges shorts, which always counted for a lot with me.
Boston’s Major Mudd, the bumbling astronaut, ushered in one of the post-modern era host archetypes-the goofball. Mudd was a kind of local Soupy Sales in a spacesuit. He was loose and funny, and had a great signoff, which was “I’ll be blasting you.” But for all that, the perennial kingpin of the local kids show scene was that riding-his-horse-Goldrush-through-the-streets-of-Boston-wrangler named Rex Trailer. Rex and a series of sidekicks named Pablo, Cactus Pete and Sgt. Billy held court on WBZ TV, Boston’s Westinghouse affiliate, from 1958 through 1974, and during that time became local heroes.
It’s hard to rope in all that was appealing about Rex. He was easy-going, kind, a singing cowboy with Elvis sideburns who could do saddle, rope and bullwhip tricks. He could also make an estimated 200,000 kids and four million viewers (these are composite numbers),believe that the mythical Boomtown was a little slice of the old west relocated to a sound studio on Soldier’s Field Road. Rex Trailer’s Boomtown ran for hours on weekend mornings, 2 ½ on Saturdays, 3 on Sundays and Rex kept it jumping with stories, skits, cartoons and songs. Cowboy Rex was dapper too, always dressed in tailored western suits, even when he sometimes piloted his own helicopter to personal appearances. Most of the time though, he left the chopper at home and galloped up to parades, auto dealerships, and supermarket parking lots on Goldrush like he was born to it, and that was because unlike the actors who effectively played his sidekicks, Rex Trailer was a real cowboy.
He grew up on a Texas ranch where rodeo cowboys would sometimes work when they weren’t on the circuit. They advised him not to “ride the rough style,” and  Gabby Hayes, that’s right, advised him to get into showbiz for kids. “Howdy Kids” became his trademark greeting and the Boomtown Posse, that part of the show when all the kid guests got to parade across the screen and wave at the camera, became my favorite segment.
Obviously you wanted to be one of Posse, but watching the little dramas that would unfold when the spotlight was on the cowboys and cowgirls was an unpredictable delight. Kids hamming it up, kids suddenly, inexplicably bursting into tears, kids pushing each other along when they thought somebody was hogging the stage-all of it on live TV where anything could happen.
Each show had a storyline too, which would be established in the Bunkhouse Show, shot the day before the live shows. At the conclusion of the Bunkhouse there’d be a short clip of Rex and Pablo leaving the cabin on horse and donkey while Rex's hit song “Hoofbeats” (released as a 45 on ABC-Paramount) played. Rex would then enter the Boomtown set, riding Goldrush along the rodeo fence at the back of the stage and calling out "Howdy kids!"
Whether you were there or at home, you’d say, "Howdy Rex!" Then Rex would grab his “git-fiddle” (guitar), and lead everyone in the “Boomtown Theme Song,” which essentially reminded kids why they tuned in:

Well, Howdy there folks we’re glad to meet you
in boom boom Boomtown!
There’s a bunch of folks who’d like to greet you
in boom boom Boomtown!
You can bet we’ll have lots of western fun
and excitement for you
We’ll ride and rope
We’ll square dance and shoot a gun (that’s right!)
And we’ll sing a song or two
C’mon along folks because it’s time to start the fun
In boom boom Boomtown!...

Yeah, it was like that. Somehow, despite the fact that Rex Trailer is 81 years old now, Rex Trailer of Boomtown has never grown old, and that has to be one of the sweeter mysteries of life