(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Born July 2, 1916 in Lamar, Colorado, Ken Curtis was the youngest of three sons born to Dan Gates and Nellie (Sneed) Gates. His real name was Curtis Wain (not Wayne) Gates and he grew up in Las Animas, Colorado where his father was the sheriff.
Circa 1939-1940, he was a staff/studio singer doing non-country and non-western tunes over the NBC radio network. In the 1940 census, he's living in Yonkers, New York and his occupation is "Singer - radio". In 1941-1942, he sang with the bands of Shep Fields and Tommy Dorsey (more details on his connection with Dorsey and Fields is on the next webpage). Then came World War II duty and Curtis served in the U. S. Army infantry from mid 1942 through 1945.
After the war, Columbia Pictures signed him to a contract and Ken played the hero in a series of musical westerns that were light on action and plot ... but loaded with tunes. The lead musical group in the series was the chaotic Hoosier HotShots. Lots of other musicians and actors appeared in these including Big Boy Williams (Ken's sidekick), Carolina Cotton, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Deuce Spriggens and his band, and pretty and funny Jeff Donnell (who is probably best remembered as George Gobel's wife in George's 1950s TV show). From February and May, 1945 issues of the Film Daily tradezine: "Ken Curtis, radio singer, has been signed to a Columbia termer." (termer meaning a term player contract); and "Radio's Ken Curtis makes his film bow in Columbia's 'Rhythm Roundup' ..."
Ken's starring days at Columbia ran from 1945-1947. Circa 1949, he was the hero in a few low grade, independently produced westerns, and later, he had the lead in the Zorro-like chapterplay, DON DAREDEVIL RIDES AGAIN (Republic, 1951). And from 1949-1953, Ken was a member of the Sons of the Pioneers singin' group.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - Ken Curtis with pretty Cheryl Walker in a title lobby card from the lost/missing RHYTHM ROUND-UP (Columbia, 1945) which featured the Hoosier Hotshots and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This was the first Curtis starrer at Columbia Pictures.
(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Above left is Ken Curtis, his horse 'Zane' and Shug Fisher. In the rightmost photo, John Dehner has the drop on Curtis. Dehner played "Paladin" in the radio version of HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL. Both photos from RIDERS OF THE PONY EXPRESS (Screencraft, 1949). Shug Fisher was also with Curtis in STALLION CANYON (Astor, 1949).
Curtis was a member of the 'John Ford Stock Company', and worked in about a dozen Ford-directed films, many with John Wayne: RIO GRANDE (1950), THE QUIET MAN (1952), THE LONG GRAY LINE (1955), MISTER ROBERTS (1955), THE SEARCHERS (1956), THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957), THE LAST HURRAH (1958), THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959), TWO RODE TOGETHER (1961), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964). He also had a role in Wayne's THE ALAMO (1960).
One of my favorite western movie memories is Ken Curtis singing (with the Sons of the Pioneers) "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" in the Ford and Wayne RIO GRANDE (1950).
During the 1950s Sci-Fi movie boom, Curtis formed his own production company and churned out a few low budget films including the B&W horror / monster flicks THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959). SHREWS is memorable ... because of the lovely Ingrid Goude ... and the pack of doggies, ridiculously disguised as shrews, that are running amuck with long 'hair blankets' covering their bodies.
Curtis starred in the syndicated TV show RIPCORD, which was all about skydiving and assorted rescue and airplane related adventures, and the show ran for 76 episodes during 1961-1963. Curtis' buddy Shug Fisher was in the cast. Then Ken adopted a look and costume reminiscent (at least to me) of Al St. John's 'Fuzzy Q. Jones' character, and became the unkempt, scraggly, backwoods "Festus Haggen". Curtis initially appeared as Festus in the hour long "Us Haggens" episode from GUNSMOKE season eight, and that show was broadcast December 8, 1962. Later, Curtis/Festus became a GUNSMOKE regular as Marshal Matt Dillon's deputy. He played Festus for eleven years, from 1964 through the end of the series in 1975.
The Handbook of Old-Time Radio, A Comprehensive Guide to Golden Age Radio Listening and Collecting by Jon D. Swartz and Robert C. Reinehr (Scarecrow Press, 1993) and On the Air, The Encylopedia of Old Time Radio by John Dunning (Oxford Press, 1998), include the following radio show credits for Curtis: HOLLYWOOD BARN DANCE ran on CBS West Coast, 1943-1948, and Curtis and Andy Parker and the Plainsman are listed for the 1947 season; the Sons of the Pioneers were the stars of THE LUCKY U RANCH program which ran over the Mutual Broadcasting System circa 1951-53, and Curtis was with the group at that time (in early 2002, a CD titled Sons of the Pioneers - Memories of the 'Lucky U' Ranch was issued on the Jasmine label).
Not mentioned in either reference book are several guest appearances by Curtis in the ALL-STAR WESTERN THEATRE, another of the West Coast western programs. It ran from 1946-1948 and consisted of over a 100 half hour shows, and Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage were the hosts / stars.
Curtis' last movie job was a role in the made-for-TV western, CONAGHER (1991), which starred Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross.
There were two marriages. Ken tied the knot with director John Ford's daughter Barbara who had been married to - and divorced from - troubled actor Robert Walker. Barbara and Ken's marriage lasted a dozen years, from 1952-1964. He and Torrie Ahern Connelly married in Las Vegas in 1966, and they were together through his passing in 1991.
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect --- Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc. Ken Curtis' career as a B western hero was too brief for him to obtain a ranking in these polls.
Obituaries mentioned that Curtis passed away in his sleep at his Fresno, California home on April 28, 1991 and survivors included his second wife Torrie and her two children from a prior marriage.
The Curtis legacy remains a wonderful voice ... his songs, both country-western and pop ... his music with the Sons of the Pioneers ... and playing Festus on GUNSMOKE.
(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Above - Curtis as 'Festus'.
|Les Adams knew Curtis during his post-GUNSMOKE days. Les adds:|
"Ken Curtis was one of the nicest show business people I ever met. If you want to see the origin of Festus, check out the Curtis role in THE SEARCHERS. Said he played it that way (under what little protest power he had) because Ford made him hoke it up as that wasn't the way LeMay wrote the character. Ken said he never figured out whether Ford made him play it that way because he was mad at him (which he usually was), or just didn't want the character to be as strong as in the book and diminish the Jeffrey Hunter role."