March 02, 2010:
By Chris Langley, Executive Director, Lone Pine Film History Museum
A visiting exhibit at the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History examines the film careers of three cousins: Cactus Mack, Glenn Strange, and Rex Allen. While Rex Allen has the more familiar and recognizable name of the three, Mack and Strange may actually have been seen more frequently by many western fans. Consequently, their faces may be more recognizable, while their names remain unknown. They often played henchmen, bad guys and villains, but frequently in the background or as a member of a gang.
Julie Ann Ream created the exhibit at the Museum and she is a granddaughter to Cactus Mack. All three actors were cousins and from time to time actually worked with one or more of the other cousins. The exhibit has many photos, letters, memorabilia and costumes from their careers.
Cactus Mack’s life in some ways is wrapped in some mystery. First of all, Cactus Mack was his stage name. His real name was probably Taylor Curtus McPeters, born on August 8, 1899 in Weed, New Mexico. All three cousins had musical talent and Cactus Mack and cousin Glenn joined a group of singing cowboys who eventually took the name “Arizona Wranglers.” Cactus Mack and his fellow musician began by supplying music for various low budget oaters in the 1930’s, playing the role of the cowboys sitting around the campfire, singing. This led to small roles in the films, frequently uncredited. His filmography contains a list of seventeen movies with scenes made in Lone Pine. Early films made locally with Cactus Mack include I Cover the War (1937) with John Wayne; Where the Buffalo Roam (1938) with Tex Ritter; Saga of Death Valley (1939) with Roy Rogers; and In Old Monterey (1939) with Gene Autry. The exhibit contains many pictures of Cactus Mack with his musical groups, with cousin Glenn Strange in Hoot Gibson’s Rodeo and a letter from “a lonesome cowboy” signed by Mack.
The second actor featured in the exhibit is Glenn Strange who, although he appeared in nearly 300 westerns, is probably best remembered as the Universal Frankenstein monster and the bartender in television’s long-running series Gunsmoke.
Glenn Strange appeared in fully twenty-five films with scenes made in and around Lone Pine and Inyo County.
Records indicate Strange was also born in Weed, New Mexico in August, 1899, a few days after cousin Cactus Mack. Glenn Strange was of Cherokee Indian and Irish descent and actually grew up in Cross Cut, Texas where he learned “cowboying” skills. His musical experience grew when he teamed up with his cousin, and by the late 30’s his casting began to get better and better. However, his real fame rests on a day when he was working at Universal when make-up artist Jack Peirce (often spelled Pierce) noticed him and offered to pay him $25 to stay after. It was then that he made up Strange in the classic Universal Frankenstein make-up made famous by Boris Karloff.
Strange’s size, over six feet five, worked perfectly with his facial features and he “became” the famous film monster. Karloff had grown tired of playing the same character, and was also afraid he would become stereotyped. So he gladly let Strange assume the role for several films with the famous monster. In fact, Karloff played opposite Strange once.
When making westerns became rarer and rarer, Glenn Strange moved over to television where he assumed the role of Sam the bartender in “Gunsmoke” and worked in that series for twelve years until shortly before his death from lung cancer in 1973. The Film Museum exhibit has many pictures of Strange in his various western roles, but of most interest are the full size model of his Frankenstein make-up, as well as several pictures of him preparing for the role.
Finally, the exhibit features Rex Allen, credited with being the last of the popular breed of singing cowboys that dominated the screen for several decades. He has said, “My dad was a fiddle player. He used to play for all the dances and stuff, and I learned to play guitar when there was nobody to accompany him. And then I sang in all the church choirs and glee clubs in school. Basically, all I ever wanted to do was try to be a singer and make a living at that. And then, went into radio and the recording field, and had a few hits.” When Roy Rogers left Republic to go into television, Rex Allen was a natural replacement.
Allen was born in Wilcox, Arizona in 1920 where the museum that celebrates his life and career is found today. After high school, he spent two years cowboying but had gotten tired of picking himself up off the ground. His sense of humor is caught in his famous remark about this period. “Yeah, I rode bulls and buckin’ horses for about two years when I first got out of high school, but I got tired of pickin’ myself up off the arena floor, and I found that a guitar never kicked me, never hurt me a bit, so I decided I better stick with that.” In his movie career he became known as “The Arizona Cowboy,” the title of his first starring role for Republic.
He didn’t want to be accused of copying the famous cowboys that had preceded him so he wore his guns butt forward, had a dark brown horse name Koko. When he finished with nineteen films, the singing cowboy was also finished so Rex migrated to television to do a series called “Frontier Doctor.” His costume from that series, while not in the exhibit per se, is exhibited right next to it, permanently in the museum, a gift from Jim Rogers. Allen also developed a voice-over career narrating several Disney true-life adventures as well as doing other commercial work.
Rex Allen performed at the Lone Pine Film Festival in one of the earliest Friday night concerts, a feat that was duplicated by his son, Rex Allen Jr. several years later. Rex Allen died tragically on December 17, 1999 in Tucson, run over by his caretaker’s car after suffering a heart attack.
The Cactus Mack, Glenn Strange, Rex Allen Exhibit is rich in diverse film career history and worth a visit. The Museum is open everyday from 10 am.