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(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Ken Curtis

Real name: Curtis Wain Gates

1916 - 1991

Ken Curtis was born July 2, 1916 in Lamar, Colorado to Dan Gates and Millie (Sneed) Gates, and grew up in Las Animas, Colorado where his father was a real lawman.  His real name was Curtis Wain (not Wayne) Gates.  Supposedly, he spent time during the late 1930s as a staff/studio singer doing non-country and non-western tunes over the NBC radio network.  He also did stints with the bands of Shep Fields and Tommy Dorsey (more details on his connection with Dorsey and Fields follows).  He did his WW2 duty as a member of the infantry and was in the service from 1942-1945.

After the war, Columbia signed him to a contract and he had his own series with the chaotic Hoosier Hot Shots novelty singin' group.  By the late 1940s, Curtis was no longer employed at Columbia.  He starred in a few low grade, independently produced westerns, and was the lead in the Zorro-like chapterplay, DON DAREDEVIL RIDES AGAIN (Republic, 1951).

(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)

Above is Curtis, his horse 'Zane' and Shug Fisher.  Below is John Dehner, radio's Paladin in HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL, with the drop on Curtis.  Both photos from RIDERS OF THE PONY EXPRESS (Screencraft, 1949).  Shug Fisher was also with Curtis in STALLION CANYON (Astor, 1949).

(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)

Curtis became a later member of the 'John Ford Stock Company', and at the time, he was married to Ford's daughter Barbara.  He worked in about a dozen of the Ford-directed films, many of which starred 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 musical memories is Ken Curtis doing the lead (with the Sons of the Pioneers) on "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 two B&W horror/monster flicks, THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959).  KILLER SHREWS is memorable to me ... because of the lovely Ingrid Goude as well as the stunt 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 also in the cast.  Then he 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" character. 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 did that role 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 THEATER, 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.

(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."

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 top ten ranking in these polls.

Curtis' last filmwork was a role in the made-for-TV western, CONAGHER (1991), which starred Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross.  He died on April 28, 1991. An obituary mentioned that Curtis passed away in his sleep at his Fresno, California home 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 as Festus in GUNSMOKE.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above, Curtis with pretty Cheryl Walker in a lobby card from a 1945 musical extravaganza which featured the Hoosier Hotshots and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

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