Tuesday, March 9, 2004

“The saga of fighting men who rode the rim of empire…”

Fortunately, I was able to rebound from the embarrassment that was Dr. Sixgun by checking out an episode of Fort Laramie, a woefully neglected western that enjoyed an ever-so brief run over CBS from January 22-October 28, 1956. To this day, I remain puzzled as to why this show wasn’t a bigger success; its pedigree contained much of the talent behind Gunsmoke: producer-director Norman Macdonnell; writers John Meston, John Dunkel, and Les Crutchfield; and sound patterns wizards Bill James, Ray Kemper, and Tom Hanley. True, Fort Laramie was far less intense than the better-known Gunsmoke, but in Dunning’s words, “focused as much on atmosphere and mood as on violence and action.” Future Perry Mason star Raymond Burr, as Lee Quince, “captain of cavalry,” headed up an excellent cast that featured Jack Moyles (as Major Daggett), Vic Perrin (Sergeant Ken Goerss), and Harry Bartell (Lieutenant Sieberts).

The label on this CD gives the episode title as “The Galvanized Yankee,” but it’s actually “Still Waters,” an AFRS rebroadcast of a program originally heard October 14, 1956. It’s a light-hearted show, in which complaints about the quality of the fort’s dress parade band seem to be falling on (tone) deaf ears until the Major decides to step in. The explanation for the band’s awfulness is that their instruments aren’t up to snuff, but any chance of obtaining replacements has been temporarily scotched by the arrival of a bluenose named Mrs. Feamster (Jeanette Nolan), who’s embarked on a crusade to remove beer and wine from the canteen run by the fort’s sutler. (The profits from those sales go to the purchase of new instruments, and with no beer and wine, no…well, you get the idea.) The highlight of this episode (written by frequent Gunsmoke scribe Kathleen Hite) is Burr’s painfully off-key rendition of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” The Gunsmoke connection is furthered by the presence of both Sam Edwards and Howard McNear (who appeared in several Laramie episodes as Pliney, the sutler) in the supporting cast.

Fort Laramie is the third component of what I like to call old-time radio’s “Holy Trinity” of Westerns (the other two being Gunsmoke and Frontier Gentleman). Though its run was brief, all forty episodes (forty-one if you include the 7/25/55 audition, which stars John Dehner) are extant today, entertaining a new generation of listeners with “specially transcribed tales of the dark and tragic ground of the wild frontier.”

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