|(Courtesy of Leota Whitaker Gandrau)
Unknown period on the above photo of Slim wrestling with a dog ... from late silent or early sound film.
(Courtesy of Leota Whitaker Gandrau)
Above portrait shot of Slim, probably from late silent period or early sound film days.
(Courtesy of Leota Whitaker Gandrau)
Above portrait shot of Slim, probably silent era.
(Courtesy of Leota Whitaker Gandrau)
Above left is Wally Wales (Hal Taliaferro), and this shot is probably circa 1936-38 when both he and Slim were toiling for producer Larry Darmour in Columbia films starring Bob Allen and Jack Luden.
(Courtesy of Leota Whitaker Gandrau)
Above, heroine Veda Ann Borg appears to be getting the best of Slim in THE LAW COMES TO TEXAS (Columbia, 1939), which starred Bill Elliott. Rose remembers watching her grandmother Ethel use a toothbrush and shoe polish to dye Slim's hair. She remembers that the dye was for a part in a movie and that Slim was polishing his boots at the same time.
|Special thanks to Debbie and Tom Bahn for their help and assistance in the creation of this profile on Charles 'Slim' Whitaker. Debbie is Slim's great granddaughter. Many of the photos are from the collection of Slim's daughter, Leota Whitaker Gandrau.|
Tom Bahn writes:
Charles 'Slim' Whitaker was among the most prolific of the B-western baddies and supporting players, and his movie career spanned about thirty-five years, from the silents through post-World War II period. Les Adams has Whitaker identified in nearly 300 sound era films, of which 254 are westerns and two dozen are serials.
As a fan of westerns I've been lucky enough to be married to Slim Whitaker's great granddaughter and to know his daughter Leota Whitaker Gandrau and granddaughter Rose Banks. In 1986, I asked Leota if she'd like to watch a movie with me and she accepted. At the time she did not know that the old western movies were available on videotape and I slipped SAGEBRUSH TRAIL (Lone Star/Monogram, 1933) into the VCR. When we came to the part where Wally Wales rides up with John Wayne on the back of his horse and Slim comes into view, Leota screamed, "Hey! That's my dad!". She hadn't seen her father in a western since the 1950s. Over the years, she has shared many stories about what it was like growing up in early Hollywood, meeting John Wayne and other actors, and stories about her dad. I would scribble notes as she talked, jot down names of people I had never heard of, in hopes of one day being able to share the history with others that enjoyed the old westerns.
Slim Whitaker was born July 29, 1893, in Kansas City, Missouri. Not much is known about his mother, father and early childhood. His daughter Leota recalls that his mother's maiden name was Sheperd but she never met her or remembers her dad talking much about his childhood.
Slim married Ethel Maze in 1910 and shortly there after, left Missouri and headed for California. After a brief career in the rodeo circuit, he joined several cattle drives eventually ending up as a cowboy at the Chowchilla Ranch in California's San Joaquin Valley.
When you consider what life would have been like as a cowboy on the Chowchilla Ranch you might think of the romance of the movie westerns and not give much thought to the pay and day-to-day activities. It was tough work. The hands earned about a dollar a day and the day was usually 18 hours long and they worked rain or shine. Fences had to be mended or new fence poles cut. There were no chain saws, just a good sharp axe. Wells had to be dug, and there were no backhoes or tractors to help. "Slim, Jack, Hank, grab your shovels and dig here." They had to tend stock, round up strays, and work with wild horses. The young fire-breathing mustangs would bite them when they weren't looking, kick them when they had the opportunity, and throw them when they had the chance. There was no sick leave, no OSHA approved saddles or OSHA approved ground to land on. If you got hurt, you didn't complain, because if you didn't work you didn't get paid. There was no indoor plumbing and outhouses weren't everywhere. Showers didn't exist and baths were few and far between. The one thing that they could count on was hearing, "Daylight's burnin', roll out or roll-up".
These cowboys had their mentors. As I was told, Bill Gillis was in his late fifties when he met Slim, Jack Montgomery, and Ed Hendershot. Bill was one of their teachers and he shared the knowledge that he had learned over the years. How to find water. How to work the range. The tricks of working with live stock. Moreover, how to stay alive. He also preached the cowboy's values of God, country, and keeping out of trouble. According to Leota, these eighteen-year-olds respected him and learned what they needed to know. I imagine that when they were aching from hard work, or in pain from being injured, he was always there to say, "If you spill some whiskey in that coffee it will ease the pain". In today's terms, these men are an anachronism when compared to today's social crowd. They didn't have the privilege of visiting their HMO, Ibuprofen didn't exist, and they weren't the kind of men that would whine or order a Zima when they walked into a bar.
In 1912, the ranch owner (California Pastoral & Agricultural Company LTD.) announced that it had sold the ranch to Orlando Alison Robertson. Somehow, the ranch hands got the idea that the new owner was a British Consortium and the crew pledged that they would never work for a foreigner. (Orlando Robertson was an American and the owner of the United States Farm Land Company and his primary interest was land speculation and development. Within a year of buying the ranch, he divided it into tracts and the northeast corner of the property was set aside as the town, which became known as Chowchilla.)
Upon the announcement that the Chowchilla Ranch had been sold, the cowhands didn't waste time. With Jack 'Monty' Montgomery as their leader, Slim, Bill Gillis, Hank Bell, and Ed Hendershot up and quit, and rode north looking for ranch work. After traveling 120 miles on horseback, they stumbled upon Bronco Billy Anderson filming a western in Niles Canyon (part of the Silicon Valley) and were hired as riding extras and stunt men. Niles Canyon was the home of Essanay Studios (http://www.nilesfilmmuseum.org/S&A_story.htm ). Unfortunately the work wasn't steady and they were only paid for the days that they worked.
In 1913, the automobile was quickly replacing the horse and buggy, trains were used to move cattle, and ranch work was becoming hard to find. In late 1913, Slim and some of the other cowhands headed south hoping to find jobs in Southern California. Thanks to his short stint with Bronco Billy Anderson, Slim had a new skill as a riding extra in westerns. The studios hired him in 1914 and he earned five times the wages he would draw as a ranch hand.
Slim and wife Ethel moved into a two story home at 1700 Cordova Street in Los Angeles. Their daughter Leota was born in 1915, followed by the birth of June in 1917, and Charles in 1920. In the late 1920s, they moved to North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley. Leota shared that her family always attended church on Sunday and whenever they were around show business folks, Slim always protected his children from the studio riffraff. He was a big, easy going man and as Leota declared, "You didn't want to get him mad".
In April of 1920, Jack Montgomery and Hank Bell met Slim at his favorite Hollywood bar, The Waterhole. Prohibition was in effect but the Waterhole provided bootleg whiskey to their regular customers. Jack (his wife Marion and two children) had migrated to Southern California and he had not been able to find work as a ranch hand. In desperation, he accepted a job in construction. Hank had just finished a ranch job and was looking for work. Slim convinced Jack and Hank to consider a job at film production facilities and exterior locations in or near Edendale, California, and introduced them to the foreman. They were both hired and the rest is movie history. (The Edendale location may have been 'Mixville', which got its name because many of Tom Mix's silents for Fox were filmed there. The Mack Sennett Keystone Studio was also located in Edendale.)
The actors were required to supply their own clothes, saddle, guns, and spurs. The players were to be on the job at five in the morning if they were shooting at the studios. If they were working on location they could catch their ride at the studios, or, as Slim normally did, wait by the curb in front of his North Hollywood house. When his ride appeared, he would throw his saddle and gear into the trunk and they would be off to the location. Sometimes he would get home after dark and amble up the driveway, dirty from all the dust, with his saddle over his shoulder. When shooting in the Newhall/Vasquez Rocks area, Kernville, Red Rock Canyon, or Lone Pine, he may not come home for several days. The actors would play cards at night, smoke and drink in excess. There were no freeways heading out to the desert areas in those days and no air conditioners in the vehicles. The drive was usually long and hot. Overnight living conditions were barracks-style with either cots or sleeping bags. At times, they were required to sleep under the stars around a campfire.
This was actually an improvement in their lives over ranch work. They normally didn't work in bad weather. No water wells to dig and no fences to mend. They didn't have to sleep with the livestock, and when they were home, they had indoor plumbing. They could ride the electric car from their home to the studio. The studios gave them a box lunch, provided them a ride to the filming location, and they were paid at the end of the day. The bad part, the work was dangerous. Some players were injured, maimed, or killed when they fell from a galloping horse or performed a stunt. They accepted this risk and loved the work.
Hans Wollstein adds: one item instantly comes to mind regarding Whitaker --- In BORDER INTRIGUE, a Jesse J. Goldburg epic of 1925 starring Franklyn Farnum, 'Slim' was billed 'Slender' Whitaker. His son, Charles Whitaker, Jr. appeared as 'Buttons' in a 1926 Artclass western entitled SPEEDY SPURS which starred Buffalo Bill, Jr. (Jay Wilsey).
Slim counted John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Gabby Hayes, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and other famous actors among his friends. Leota remembers that Wally Wales, Charlie King and Al Bridge were like her uncles. She commented that they spent so much time at her house that it was as if they lived there. Charlie lived on Bellaire Street and Slim lived approximately 2 miles north on Hatteras Street in North Hollywood (another neighbor was Billy Barty (Billy Bertanzetti)). North Hollywood was quite a bit different in the 1930s. The San Fernando Valley was predominantly horse ranches, cattle ranches, orange groves and farms. Charlie and Al were regular drinking buddies of Slim's and the drinking parties and poker games were always at Slim's place.
Leota remembered John Wayne as a very young man that received his mentoring from Slim, Jack, Wally, Al, and Yakima Canutt. Wayne was in his early twenties and these men were all approaching 40. They enlightened John on the cowboy values of God, country and patriotism, hard work, drinking, smoking big cigars, and poker. Leota didn't approve of the drinking and thought that they weren't the best influence on this young man. When you think about it, the Duke's character was probably molded from knowing and being friends with them. It was probably his relationship with these cowboys that developed his image of what a man should be. The American fighting soldier and cowboy as portrayed by John Wayne emulates the same patriotic can-do spirit and character of those early cowboy actors he worked with.
After 34 years of marriage, Ethel became tired of rowdy cowboys playing poker, getting drunk, and passing out at her house. Cowboys don't believe in fine things. Possessions are limited to what you can wear or carry in your bedroll or saddlebags. Slim's possessions consisted of his Stetson hat, maybe a belt buckle, and some photographs. Ethel divorced Slim in 1944 and bought a restaurant on San Fernando road in Sunland California. She and Slim remained friends and he was often seen having a meal or coffee at the restaurant.
In 1986, I visited Montie Montana in Agua Dulce (near Acton, California). Montie walked me through his stables and, as he introduced me to his horses, said he remembered 'Slim' as a hard drinkin' cowboy that enjoyed kidding and telling jokes. He said 'Slim' should have been a comedian.
Debbie and I drove by Slim's and Charlie King's old houses. It was apparent that the old neighborhood had been bulldozed in the 1950s and tract homes were built. Charlie's property has an expensive single story ranch home built on it.
Slim's career in movies began in 1913 and lasted until about 1949. After retirement, he worked as a guard for a couple years and then retired to become a full time grandfather. He had five grandchildren and lived to see the first three of thirteen great grandchildren. He passed away in June of 1960. On the wall near his bed was the picture of himself with his great grandchildren Debbie and Bobby. Like his cronies, Slim was a real American cowboy. He was also a riding extra and an occasional actor/player.
In his personal life, he always lived by the fundamental principle of the 'Cowboy Code' - A man represents himself as what he is, no more and no less. Slim was laid to rest at Pierce Brother's Valhalla Cemetery in North Hollywood California in June of 1960. He was a good father, provider, and family man. Unlike the villains that he portrayed in the movies, in real life, he was a good person, and that's the finest epitaph that any man can have.