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(Courtesy of Minard Coons)


(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above are 'window cards' from a couple of the Ken Curtis/Hoosier Hot Shots musicals, COWBOY BLUES (Columbia, 1946) and OVER THE SANTA FE TRAIL (Columbia, 1947).  The bottom card includes a tie-in to the very popular National Barn Dance (radio show).  These 'window cards' measure about 11 inches x 4 inches and were displayed in the window of the ticket booth to advertise coming attractions.



(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)

Above - Ken Curtis attends to Gene Roth (Gene Stutenroth) while Roy Barcroft looks on. There are several unidentified players in the background - in the center, with checkerboard shirt and hands hanging at his side is an older Chick Hannon/Hannan. From the chapterplay DON DAREDEVIL RIDES AGAIN (Republic, 1951).


Curtis ... and Tommy Dorsey ... and Shep
Fields... and the Sons of the Pioneers.
One of the common stories reported in Curtis biographies is that he was the "replacement" for Frank Sinatra in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Airchecks/transcriptions of Sinatra's final performance with Dorsey have been available for years - the date was September 3, 1942 in New York, and Frank's last vocal with the Dorsey band was "The Song Is You". That broadcast also includes Sinatra and Dorsey introducing Frank's replacement, Dick Haymes. Curtis did a couple recordings with the Dorsey Orchestra in late 1941. One was "Love Sends A Little Gift Of Roses", recorded 9/26/41 with the Pied Pipers vocal group (which then included Jo Stafford). That recording is available on the CD Whatcha Know Joe by The Pied Pipers.

Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra was a powerhouse and money maker in the early 1940s, with a bunch of talented sidemen, and vocals from Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Connie Haines, and the Pied Pipers. The band was originally handled by M.C.A., but around 1941, Dorsey broke away and formed Tommy Dorsey, Inc. which allowed him to do his own bookings and such.

The relationship of Dorsey and Ken Curtis is not clear, but following are several bits of conjecture:

  • Frank Sinatra wanted to go out on his own, but he was under contract. Dorsey may have hired Curtis as an "insurance policy" if and when Sinatra walked out.
  • Dorsey may have simply tested Curtis for future use.
  • Dorsey was investing/brokering in musical talent, and he may have traded, loaned, sold or released Curtis to bandleader Shep Fields.
  • When Dorsey realized that Sinatra wasn't going to walk prematurely, he had no need of the extra vocalist, leaving Curtis to find work elsewhere.

Curtis brief time with Dorsey was mentioned in the November 26, 1941 issue of Variety: "Ken Curtis, singer, who recently made couple sides with Tommy Dorsey in place of Frank Sinatra, replaces Pat Foy with Shep Fields' band."

YouTube has several videos of Curtis singing with the Shep Fields band:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RQ-wRfhJT4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzVj6crkpl4

Ken Griffis' reference book on the Sons of the Pioneers, Hear My Song: The Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers, mentions: that Dorsey was the one who suggested the name change from Curtis Wain (not Wayne) Gates to Ken Curtis; and he joined the Sons of the Pioneers singing group in 1949 and was with them through 1953 (and he continued to record with the SOP through 1957).


On the trail of Ken Curtis.
The Family Search website (free), Ancestry.com (subscription), California Death Index, Social Security Death Index (SSDI) and newspaper obituaries provide more on Curtis Wain Gates / Ken Curtis:

  • 1920 census summary and census takers worksheet - living in Caddoa, Bent County, Colorado are 35 year old Daniel S. Gates (born Missouri), 36 year old wife Nellie (born Arkansas), 3 year old son Curtis W. (born Colorado), 7 year old son Chester K. (born Kansas) and 10 year old son Carl M. (born Arkansas). Occupation of father Daniel S. Gates is "Farmer": https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MX27-83P
  • 1930 census summary and census takers worksheet - living in Las Animas, Bent County, Colorado are 45 year old Daniel S. Gates (born Missouri), 46 year old wife Nellie (born Arkansas), 12 year old son Curtis W. (born Colorado), 17 year old son Chester K. (born Kansas) and 20 year old son Carl M. (born Arkansas). Occupation of father Daniel S. Gates is "Sheriff / Cattle man - Bent Co.", and their home is the jail in Las Animas, Colorado: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X7WJ-GSH
  • 1940 census summary and census takers worksheet - 23 year old Curtis Gates (born Colorado) is a lodger living with the Stoddard family in Yonkers, Westchester County, New York. He resided in Bent County, Colorado in 1935. His occupation is "Singer - radio", and in 1939, he worked 28 weeks and earned $400.00: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K31R-CLZ
  • World War II Army enlistment record for Curtis W. Gates - enlisted June 23, 1942 in Los Angeles. He was born in Colorado in 1916; has three years of college; he is married; and civilian occupation was "Musicians and teachers of music": https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K8GF-NCB
  • There were a few newspaper blurbs on Ken's 1952 marriage to director John Ford's daughter Barbara: "LAS VEGAS, Nev., May 31 (1952). Barbara Ford, 25, daughter of movie director John Ford, was married today to Ken Curtis, 30, of the Sons of the Pioneers ..." ; "The bride was divorced in 1948 from actor Robert Walker, who died last August."
  • Hedda Hopper's Hollywood gossip column was syndicated to many newspapers. In a late July, 1964 column, Hedda wrote that "Barbara Ford is divorcing Ken Curtis, one of the regulars on 'Gunsmoke'. They've been married 12 years."
  • Nevada marriage index (not the marriage license) of Curtis W. Gates and Torrie Ahern Connelly on March 12, 1966 in Clark County, Nevada: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VVB9-X93
  • California Death Index and Social Security Death Index (SSDI) have records for Curtis Wain Gates, born July 2, 1916 in Colorado, mother's maiden name of Sneed, and he passed away on April 28, 1991 in the Fresno, California area:
    https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VP8R-C7N
    https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VMNC-PZ3
  • The New York Times and Los Angeles Times newspapers have obituaries on Ken Curtis:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/01/obituaries/ken-curtis-actor-74-festus-on-gunsmoke.html
    http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-30/news/mn-1008_1_ken-curtis
  • Ancestry had the Social Security Applications and Claims Index. In July, 1937, Curtis filed for his Social Security number under the name of Curtis Wain Gates.

Jim Tipton's Find A Grave website notes that Curtis was cremated: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6691389


Links
  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on Ken Curtis: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0193411/

The Internet Archive has many episodes of the 1946-1948 ALL STAR WESTERN THEATER. This link will take you to a bunch of episodes. Ken Curtis was featured in program #6, Clem Norman Story and #17, The Vought Cowboy: https://archive.org/details/All-starWesternTheatre

The Internet Archive also has a lot of Ken Curtis songs: https://archive.org/details/KenCurtisCollection

The Internet Archive has the Ken Curtis productions of THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959): https://archive.org/details/moviesandfilms?&and[]=%22ken%20curtis%22#collection-date-archived

Daniel Neyer's "The Files of Jerry Blake" serial website has details on Curtis starring in the DON DAREDEVIL RIDES AGAIN (Republic, 1951) cliffhanger: https://filesofjerryblake.com/2014/01/09/don-daredevil-rides-again/

Adrian DeBee's Hoosier HotShots website has a photo of the HotShots with Curtis and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams: http://www.hoosierhotshots.com/photosab.html

Calin Coburn (Bob Nolan's grandson) and Elizabeth Drake McDonald have created a fantastic website on Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, etc. There's a section on Ken Curtis with many large images: http://www.bobnolan-sop.net/Biographies/The%20Story%20of%20SOP/Ken%20Curtis/Ken%20Curtis.htm

Teresa Murray has a Ken Curtis Appreciation website with a bio and photos. And there's photos and info on the memorial statue of Ken/Festus in Clovis, California which was crafted by local artist Sam Hutchings: http://www.eviltwin.velvetsofa.com/Curtis/main.html

The BMI Music site has a listing of BMI licensed songs composed by Curtis. Go the BMI homepage at: http://repertoire.bmi.com/startpage.asp. In the Search box, select Songwriter/Composer and enter Curtis Ken.

The official website for James Arness of movie and GUNSMOKE fame is at: ttp://www.jamesarness.com/index.htm

R. J. 'Bob' Marks II has a website on TV's GUNSMOKE: http://gunsmokenet.com/



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