When the news broke on Friday, I’m guessing that, roughly 90% of the “kids” who grew up in the Boston-area, and had the TV on at all, at all, between 1956 and 1974, immediately burst into the Boomtown theme song. What else was there to do when you heard that the star of the show, Rex Trailer, had died?
For those who grew up elsewhere, and were exposed to their own local kiddie shows, Rex Trailer was a genial “cowboy” who twirled his lasso, showed Popeye cartoons, joshed with his sidekick, did tricks with his horse Goldrush, and was always kind to the kids in the audience. Think Mr. Rogers in fringed buckskin and a cowboy hat. (Yikes: look at that picture! Can you imagine a kid show of today – if they had them – in which the star did gun tricks? I can’t either, unless the NRA sponsored it.)
For my era, Rex’s sidekick was Pablo, a “Si, Señor” character, played by Richard Kilbride. As one can imagine, a stock Mexican played by someone named Kilbride may not have been the most PC character in the history of TV, but, hey, it was the 1950’s. For all we knew, all Mexicans wore serapes, were kind of dopey, and sounded like Jose Jimenez. Kilbride, as I recall, died of leukemia and was replaced by Sgt. Billy, I think. (Not entirely sure: I had outgrown Boomtown by then, and only watched on occasion with my younger sibs.)
Rex Trailer was one of many local kids’ shows, a genre that I don’t believe exists any longer.
Rex was the second most notable.
For my cohort – the first wave Baby Boomers – the Number One position was held by Big Brother Bob Emery, a ukulele playing old fart who was reputed to hate kids. Years before we speculated on what the scandalous words to Louis, Louis might be, we traded rumors on what Big Brother Bob may (or may not – the story might be apocryphal) have said to the kids when he thought the cameras had stopped rolling. The consensus: “Get these g.d. brats out of here.”
On the plus side, Big Brother had two excellent theme songs: The Grass Is Always Greener in The Other Fellow’s Yard, and So Long, Small Fry” He also showed nature films, one of which featured “The Huggable Potto,” which became the nickname for “our” new baby, my sister Trish, originally known as Potto, and later shortened to Po.
Big Brother – great name, no? – also ran what was known as a Curlicue Contest. He’d show a squiggle on the screen, and ask kids to send in a drawing that incorporated the squiggle. A picture I submitted – of a man in a wheel chair – won me a prize: a Huckleberry Hound Carbon Copy Kit (which featured colored carbon paper). Which was more than I got from Miss Frances of Ding Dong School. I sent her my greatest oeuvre - bunny in clover – hoping that she’d display it on her show and give me a shout out. I legged it home every day from kindergarten to ask my mother – who would have watched the show with my brother Tom – whether my picture had been on. Alas, the answer was always no. (Maybe they missed the show where it appeared…)
So Rex came in Number Two, in my book, although for sheer exuberant, off-the-wall craziness (as opposed to dull earnestness), Major Mudd the astronaut should take the second, if not the first, position in my kid show pantheon. Just how anarchic was Major Mudd? Let’s just say he showed The Stooges.
I also liked Salty Brine, who wore a sea captain hat and sat around in a fisherman’s shack, and had and showed Jasper Jinx cartoons.
Occasionally, when the rabbit ears were on full tilt and there was nothing else on, we’d pick up Uncle Al (What a Pal) from a low-watt New Hampshire TV station. Uncle Al wore a striped jacket and played the accordion.
And speaking of rabbit ears, there was a “woman’s show” hosted by Louise Morgan on in the early afternoon. My mother was not much of a daytime TV watcher, but she would let us put Louise on if we begged. Not that we wanted to listen to Louise, who – to kids at least – was ultra-boring. The only interesting thing about her was her smoker-voice Yankee drawl. But she did on occasion show a Crusader Rabbit cartoon. Not often enough, but still we were always hopeful.
Willie Whistle was perhaps the worst. Not only was he a clown, but he didn’t speak in a normal voice, but through a whistle. Unfunny and annoying is a potent combination.
Boston also had its own franchised versions of Bozo – “how would you like to be Butch for the day? - and Romper Room, too. Ours had Miss Jean.
It was certainly a kinder, gentler time. (As long as you were a white middle class kid, anyway.)
Meanwhile, Rex Trailer has, sigh, gone on to the Boomtown in the Sky, where he’ll be reunited with Pablo and Goldrush.
Truly, he had a reputation as a genuinely nice guy – good to the kids in the live audience, lots of work with Down kids, etc. One of my grammar school friends got to meet him – as I remember, Rex’s horse trailer had broken down, and her father had stopped to help him (or their car had broken down, and Rex stopped to help them). Her family’s verdict (however tempered by how star struck my friend would certainly have been) was that he was a very nice man.
Anyhow, Rex died last week, at 84, so he had a good run. One more piece of the past that’s gone.
Come along, folks, we’re glad to meet you in Boom! Boom! Boomtown!
So long, Rex.
A tip of the cowboy hat to my cousin Mary Beth, who e-mailed me the news from her iPhone. Her message:
Us cowpokes are sad in "Boom Boom Boomtown"!!!
Yes, we are.