Photo courtesy of Lash LaRue
|by Fresh Water
Just think of all those old scratchy black-and-white 'B'-western movies which used to shine across silver screens everywhere. Often the mainstay of many starry-eyed, sticky-fingered youngsters, the postwar dreams which flickered across the screens and hearts of youth could come alive any Saturday afternoon for a dime and a trip to the local movie house.
In Knoxville, Tennessee, efforts at preserving these dreams have been hewn to a fine art by local cowboy/cable TV owner-operator Andy Smalls ('Marshall Andy'). Named after his local television show, "Riders of the Silver Screen" is a conference dedicated to the 'B'-westerns and its mission is more than just prolonging the life of the old flicks. Represented here are the memories of youth and the screen heros who made them. With the presence of the stars themselves and over 100 self-proclaimed cowboys (still starry-eyed but not so young anymore), they come dossied-up in full regalia-guns, spurs and all.
Those of us from The Indian Reader who attended had an opportunity to meet up with a "real" cowboy hero. Dressed in black and brandishing a whip, Lash LaRue agreed to talk with us as soon as he could break away from his busy souvenir sales booth.
He finally found that moment - a rare find, here. "I lied to get a part one time," he says after initial introductions cease. We find his candor to be contagious. But, wait a minute--lied? ... to get a part?
LaRue explains how a film director had intended to use somebody who could handle a whip. "A bullwhip?" asked LaRue. "Yes," was the reply. "Well, I'm no expert," said LaRue, "but I've been messing with one since I was a kid. What do you have to do with it?"
Unknown to him at the time, "it" was soon to become his trademark. LaRue, eager for the part, asked the director how long a bullwhip he ought to have and was told 18 or 20 feet. "So I went out and rented two whips-one 18 feet, and one 20 feet long." Easy enough, or so he thought.
"I tried to get that sucker out in front of me every way I knew how. I had welts across my back that never did go away! I've learned a long time ago how to throw a whip without cutting. You can cut like a razor with one-it's really a weapon!
"Anyhow, I lied to get that part. I had to learn how to use the whip."
According to LaRue, the director, obviously well pleased with his work, later offered him more roles at higher pay. "Oh, that sounds good!" he told the director. "But," he added, "I better tell you something: I can't use that whip."
Muses LaRue: "His face dropped to his chest and he said, 'But you said . . .,' 'No I didn't! You doubted I could act, so I ' Just acted like I could!'"
The director, Bob Tansey, helped launch LaRue on his career which now spans nearly four decades. Beginning in the early 1940s to the peak of his career in the late 50s and early 60s, LaRue has made over seventy-five movies and starred in his own television series, establishing his niche in western-movie consciousness. Lash points out that he has played parts other than in westerns, including his role as Doc Barker in "The Barker Gang" and the psychiatrist in "Please Don't Touch Me." He readily admits, though, that his heart is in westerns.
"When I was a little boy, I prayed to be a cowboy, I really did. I learned to ride horses during summer vacation, herding cattle, so I was not a newcomer to riding a horse." The horsemen in the business were enthusiastic of him, so LaRue had a lot of friends. When as a youth he played in the "Wyatt Earp Show," he was always singled out because he looked so good in his outfit.
Then came the movies. One of his earliest was "Caravan Trail" which starred Eddie Dean. Although LaRue only played a small part in it, the volume of his fan mail soon surpassed Dean's. LaRue really did learn how to use that whip.
But it wasn't easy for LaRue to break into show business. "Nothing good is ever easy because there is a lot of competition in the field. When I broke in, I was fortunate to come in at the right time with the right person. Bob Tansey could get more on a piece of film for a dollar than any man I've ever met."
The first movie he had a sizable part in was "Song Over Wyoming," which really became the entrance into western theater for LaRue. Called the "Cheyenne Kid," LaRue was slick-and fast enough to "shoot bulls-eye balls out of a man's head before he hit the ground!"
"I wore a black outfit and used a whip. When I would get fan mail, they would write to 'the guy in black who used the whip in the picture.' And that's the way it started."
His given name is "Al" LaRue, a name he never really cared for. In high school he was given many nicknames, including "Buddy," "Duke," and "a lot of other names." "When I started using the whip, Bob Tansey gave me the name 'Lash'-and it stuck!"
Lash LaRue went on to work with some of the best actors that most 'B'-westerns on tight budgets could afford. Jack Holt was one, along with Tom Neal and Michael Wheeling. And of course there was Lane Bradford, Jerry Frost, and Al St. John-some of the best in the business.
"Al St. John was my sidekick and a blessing to me. He had worked in movies before. (St. John was one of the original Keystone Cops.) He taught me a lot of things that he didn't know he was teaching me. Thank God for having him with me-I learned a lot of things fast!"
If the successful "Lash LaRue" television series wasn't enough, certainly his starring role in the popular Lash LaRue comics was. "My mother used to take my comic books around town to her customers and make them read them. Some of those comics are now worth $150!"
"I was starring in the TV series when the comic book came out and, according to Rosco Fawcett, who owned Fawcett Publications, my comic was the fastest rising since Superman."
The first issue was quarterly, then bimonthly, then monthly. Then came a comic called Six Gun Heroes which featured Lash LaRue on the cover more than fifty percent of the time. "I used to get royalties from the comics which bought me a new car every year-a Cadillac. I grew up a poor boy; I had to find out what you could do with money."
LaRue remains active on the circuit, a member of the Screen Actors Guild still doing what he does best: making movies. last year he had a part in the film "Stagecoach" which starred Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. "Great cast," says LaRue. "I'm going to do another one with them this year called 'Angel and the Badman'-a remake of an old John Wayne flick."
(A friend of LaRue's tells the story of how, during production of "Stagecoach," Johnny Cash was a little nervous about working with LaRue. Cash commented that he had worked with a "lot of important people" before, but here was Lash LaRue for heaven's sake. "Now I'm walking in the footsteps of my hero" an awed Cash reportedly said.)
Other recent titles include "Dark Powers" (which is due to hit the home video shelf in November 87), "Alien Outlaw," and more recently, "Brook." LaRue has several other projects under wraps, but at this point he ain't tellin'.
-Fresh Water is a free-lance writer and contributor to The Indian Reader.
Lash LaRue@ personal collection of his films is available on VHS tape for home viewing. Each video is signed by Lash with the year recorded For more information about these and other memorabilia, write:. Lash LaRue Fan Club, P.O. Box 2484, Sanford, NC 27330.
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