Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Western Film Fair Brings Classic Stars and Fans Together

Hawthorne Hotel and Conference Center.
Last week, I joined over 500 Western movie buffs as they assembled in Winston-Salem, NC for the 37th annual Western Film Fair. One of the oldest fan conventions in the U.S., this year's event featured guest stars such as Piper Laurie (The Hustler, Carrie), Jon Provost (Timmy on Lassie), Johnny Crawford (The Rifleman), Parker Stevenson (The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries), and Joyce DeWitt (Three's Company). All the celebrities had a Western connection, ranging from Piper Laurie's co-starring role in 1955's Smoke Signal to Parker Stevenson's guest appearance on the contemporary Western TV series Longmire.

The format was the standard one for film fan conventions, consisting of: panel discussions and autograph sessions with the stars; movie screenings; and a room full of vendors selling DVDs, movie posters, comic books, etc. My goal was to interview some of the celebrities for this blog, though--having never attended a fan festival--I didn't know if my plans were realistic.

The wonderful Piper Laurie.
On my first afternoon, I approached Piper Laurie at the autograph table and asked if I could interview her. I spent the next 45 minutes sitting next to her, asking detailed questions about her career, her co-stars (e.g., Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis), and personal life as she stopped periodically to autograph photographs. The charming Ms. Laurie discussed life as a Universal contract player in the 1950s, her three Oscar-nominated performances, and acting on the stage and in live television drama. If my Western Film Fair experience had ended right there, I would have deemed it an unqualified success.

Parker Stevenson--on the right--and me.
Still, that same afternoon, I scored interviews with Jon Provost and Parker Stevenson. Both actors were incredibly gracious and gave delightful interviews. Stevenson even insisted on taking a selfie of the two of us, warning me not to crop myself out of the picture. The only disappointment of the day was a minor one. I spent a half-hour sitting next to Johnny Crawford--but a constant stream of fans prevented an interview.

Most of the stars signed the Western Film Fair program for free. However, they charged $20 to $30 for an autographed photo and $10 to autograph an item provided by a fan. One gentleman had Piper Laurie sign a mint-condition, one-sheet poster of her horror film Ruby, which undoubtedly increased the value of that collectible significantly. By the way, Ms. Laurie posted a sign stating that all the proceeds from her autographs would be donated to the Wounded Warriors Project. Such a classy lady!

Johnny Crawford.
I was amazed by the patience exhibited by the stars, who would listen intently as gushing fans described favorite TV episodes or other stars they had met. Some of these encounters lasted for five to ten minutes (even when other people were waiting in line). None of the celebrities charged to pose for a photograph with one of their fans. I know these stars appear at fan conventions to make money, but, frankly, I was impressed at the way they treated their fans.

Jim Rosin with one of his books.
On the second day, I interviewed Jim Rosin, an actor and writer who penned several episodes of Quincy M.E. (and played an alien in the popular cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai). Rosin has also written several books on classic TV series such as Wagon Train, Route 66, and The Naked City. That's no surprise as he was a great storyteller, sharing anecdotes about working with Jack Klugman, interviewing George Maharis, etc. Rosin also served as the moderator for the panel discussions with the stars.

After screening the Western Smoke Signal, I stayed for the panel discussion with Piper Laurie. Jim Rosin spent the first half-hour asking questions about her career, from her start in Hollywood at age 18 to a recent appearance in the stage musical A Little Night Music. Ms. Laurie then spent another thirty minutes fielding questions from the audience of about 60 people. Of her Smoke Signal co-star Dana Andrews, Piper Laurie said she idolized him as a teen ("My girlfriend and I would go to see films he did with Linda Darnell six times"). Yet, when she first met him at his Burbank home, he was "out cold" from intoxication in the backseat of his car. He struggled with alcoholism throughout the making of Smoke Signal. Ms. Laurie ended, though, by adding: "Mr. Andrews became sober, rehabilitated himself completely, became president of the Screen Actors Guild, and became a useful member of society and a star of Broadway after all this."

Tommy Hildreth, one of the organizers.
That evening, after the panel discussion, I watched The Mississippi Gambler starring Tyrone Power and Piper Laurie (she won the role over Linda Christian, who was then Mrs. Power). The film, which also featured Julie Adams, was shown on 16mm. I learned later that the print belonged to Tommy Hildreth, one of the Western Film Fair organizers. When I asked him to name some of his all-time favorite guests at the event, he deferred initially. But when I pressed for an answer, he admitted that Julie Adams and Piper Laurie were probably his favorites, adding that he had been a fan of both actresses since the 1950s.

The Purple Monster!
During the convention's three days, over 70 digital and 16mm films were screened in multiple rooms, from ten o'clock in the morning until after midnight. While most of them were "B" Westerns featuring cowboy stars such as Hoot Gibson, there were also TV series episodes and serials. The latter included one of my childhood favorites, The Purple Monster Strikes, about an evil Martian decked out in a very cool--if impractical--costume.

Bob "Fuzzy" Brooks.
A primary attraction for many of the Western Film Fair attendees was the vendor room. Collectors scoured the vendor tables carefully, looking for desired items at good prices. Of course, you could also purchase non-collectibles such as Fuzzy's Bunkhouse Brew Coffee, which was being sold by Bob (Fuzzy) Brooks. Heck, Fuzzy has a Facebook page (Westerns Trails Stars of the Silver Screen) with almost 6,000 "likes." He has been a staple at the Western Film Fair for the last four years. Decked out in full Western gear, he certainly attracts attention. In fact, he recounted an amusing story about going to an Atlanta restaurant in his fuzzy outfit and being mistaken for Stinky Pete from Toy Story.

A WFF attendee.
I missed the awards banquet, the convention's culminating event, on Saturday evening. I'm sure it was a delightful affair--combining live music, the presentation of the Ernest Tubbs Award, and attendance by many of the stars. Yet, for all the celebrities and the movies, Hildreth made an insightful observation when asked about the enduring appeal of the Western Film Fair: "I think a lot of people would come even without the guest stars. They look forward to getting together year after year with their friends and talking about the Westerns they love."


  1. Wow. What a wonderful time! I'm a little bit jealous, but overwhelmingly happy to hear about your wonderful experience.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about your experiences at the Western Film Fair and am looking forward to reading the interviews you obtained, Rick. It truly sounds like you had a great time! I have to say it was a lot of fun seeing your selfie with Parker Stevenson (and reading his admonition for you not to crop yourself out of the photo!) Another awesome post from the handsome host of the Classic Film and TV Cafe!

  3. I couldn't attend this year due to health reasons. But I have gone to the Western Film Fair before. I met Julie Adams the year she was there!

  4. The Western Film Fair sounds like a great time, Rick, and your selfie with Parker Stevenson is a real keeper. Especially enjoyed learning more about the immensely talented Piper Laurie (whose performance in "The Hustler" I'll never forget). I have never seen "The Mississippi Gambler" and wonder if it's ever been shown on TV.

    Can't help wishing you'd had a chance to talk more with Johnny Crawford. His promos on MeTV suggest that he might be quite a character.