Cowboys and Steam Trains

In the small town where I grew up, there was a small theater that played popular, first-run movies. By today’s mega-plex standards, it was small with padded red seats, two narrow aisles, and only a slight slope to the floor. Outside was a lobby and small refreshments stand that served my dad’s favorite vegetable, popcorn.

The owner of the theater was a great friend of my dad’s and so in addition to regular trips to the movies, I got to celebrate a birthday party where I chose the move, my room was often decorated with framed Disney movie posters, and my parents always seemed to have a large collection of movies on VHS shakily filmed from the projection room (wait…and they gave me a hard time about Napster when I was a teen…).

But perhaps more importantly than all this, the owner of the theater, George, loved B-reel cowboy movies. Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Gene Autry movies were also on constant rotation in his theater and he had, over the years, amassed quite a collection of movie reels and the various projectors to screen them.

Finding other lovers of old cowboy movies, George started to put on events, The Old Cowboy Picture Show, where he would screen two or three old movies and then he and his friends would greet the audience afterwards in full western-movie regalia. This program grew and, even as the larger multi-plex in the town over put his theater under, The Old Cowboy Picture Show continued to grow and attract crowds. They moved to bigger venues. Since George had the equipment, they could set up on stages, old Opera Houses, and other fascinating venues. Movie stars traveling through the Southeast even visited the show.

I attended many of their shows, even going with the group to a Old West themed park, Tweetsie Railroad, to screen movies and shake kids hands dressed up in cowboy finery (or cowgirl in my case, with fringed boots, that I can still wear and are still awesome).

While my dad and George did the great Western road trip to see many movie locations and museums, I did tag along to see a group of cowboy musicians, Riders in the Sky. They sang both traditional western songs, many of which I knew from the cowboy movies and from my mom’s singing, as well as their own music. (She was raised in Texas and clearly supported this cowboy fascination.) Excellent musicians, they were later tapped by Disney to record songs for Toy Story, making their music even more familiar to the world of non-cowboy movie fans.

Years past. I got married. Geoff went with me to The Old Cowboy Picture Show, though he lacked appropriate boots. George passed away. I had some kiddos and many adventures.

Driving across country, Skye and I spent a night watching My Pal Trigger, curled up in a hotel in New Mexico with barely enough wifi to stream. On our way home, late at night driving across west Texas, mom got Skye out of the car at a rest stop so she could see just how big the sky really was in Texas.

Settled into the mountains, a few hours from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, I learned that not only was Tweetsie Railroad still open, but going strong. Even more excitedly, Riders in the Sky were performing for a weekend. I loaded the car with the over-excited-about-trains child, the baby, and the amused husband and drove them through the mountains in time to catch what I believe the Riders said was their 7,044 show. Or something like that.

For my dad, this was exciting. He was thrilled that his friend George had impacted my life so positively that I still loved cowboys (and Tweetsie) and wanted to share this with my children. Mom worked hard to make sure Skye knew the lyrics to her favorite Texas ballads. And, thanks to Disney, the audience was filled with a new generation of kids dressed as Woody and happy to watch the show.