Old TV Shows From The Beginning Through 1969

Death Valley Days

Western 1952 - 1975

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Background:
In 1872, Francis Marion Smith combined his work as a woodcutter with prospecting for valuable minerals in the desert of Nevada's Death Valley. At Teel's Marsh he discovered a seam of ulexite. Borax is always found with ulexite and it was this rarely found Borax - at the time an important ingredient in soap and detergents and many other applications - that Francis Marion Smith, along with his brother Julius, were keen to extract. They soon set up a borax processing plant and by1890 Francis, by now known as "Borax" Smith, established the Pacific Coast Borax Company having bought up his brother's share of the business and purchased another borax mine near Furnace Creek from the Harmony Borax Mining Company. This mine had previously been owned by William Coleman, another Borax pioneer who, after taking up a suggestion from Ed Stiles, a young muleskinner, employed 20 mule teams (2 of which were actually horses) to haul borax to the railroad.

Smith's business continued to grow to the point where he could open offices around the country and promote sales of Borax. For his New York office he hired J. W. Mather who, in 1893, hired his own son Steven. Their job was to promote Borax sales in the area. Steven, who had been a journalist for the New York Sun newspaper, could see marketing potential in promoting the business using the "20 mule teams" image of the Harmony mine, despite the fact that they had been replaced by a railroad in 1889. Steven asked his friend, John Randolph Spears to write a book commemorating borax mining and extraction. Although this may at first have seemed a daunting task to the young author, he would soon discover that the mining operation, with its pioneers and heroes, its battle with the heat and arid desert, its tents and shacks and ramshackle bars, not to mention the mule teams, would make excellent material for the book that was to be titled Illustrated Sketches of Death Valley. This book was a starting point where the experiences of Death Valley became the stuff of adventure in the public's mind.

Steven Mather, who was soon running the Chicago office, persuaded Francis Marion Smith to use the "20 mule team" phrase and image as the company's logo (overcoming some initial resistance) and the Pacific Coast Borax Company and its products became inextricably and masterfully linked to this adventure.

In the early days of radio, individual shows were usually produced by sponsors. The creative work involved was usually delegated to their advertising agencies. Either large corporations would commission their agencies to produce a show, or agencies would come up with ideas for show and find a willing client.

So it was in1930, after the success of western stories by Max Brand (aka Frederick Schiller Faust) and similar stories in so-called pulp magazines, that newly merged McCann-Erickson agency were looking to get in on the western bandwagon (or, perhaps, mule train!). At the same time, the western theme link had not been lost on the Pacific Coast Borax Company - by now a very large corporation called Borax Consolidated - who wanted to further promote its products by using the real life stories of Death Valley frontiersmen like Francis Marion Smith and his  contemporaries. Thus the concept of the Death Valley Days radio show was born, one of the earliest westerns to be broadcast.

Borax Consolidated stipulated to McCann-Erickson that the scripts should come from a person with first-hand knowledge of the area and should be based on real-life events. Ruth Woodman, a copy writer and radio scriptwriter for McCann-Erickson was given the job of writing the pilot episode. Despite the fact that she did not meet the client's criteria, the first show was such a success, she was commissioned to write a full series. As a result, she made frequent visits to Death Valley in order to gather material for future scripts. The continuing success of Death Valley Days - and her high quality scripts - gave Woodman a job for life, as the show progressed, via some name changes to Death Valley Sheriff and then to The Sheriff, through to television, back as Death Valley Days.


The Format:
The show's format hardly changed from its original radio pilot to its last show on tv and many of the tv scripts were rehashed from the radio shows. Death Valley Days was one of tv's earliest drama anthologies. It would begin with an introduction by the Old Ranger, followed by a self-contained story.

The scripts were usually morality tales about the frontier folk living and prospecting in Death Valley. Rivalry, romance, crime (with limited violence considering this was a western), and, of course, their struggle to discover a fortune in minerals were the staple ingredients of the show. Occasionally historic personalities from history who visited the area were covered, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill.

This show wasn't the Lone RangerImage: Death Valley Days Scene nor was it anything like the Spaghetti westerns of later years. Although there was crime and some limited violence, the stories covered the whole human experience from romance to business, from gun slinging to mudslinging. The stories were often homely and took in a more human side of the wild west. Some shows were even comedies - quite an antidote to the simple shoot 'em up stories of other westerns.

The fact that the stories were based on real events resulted in a wide variety of storylines and complemented the more domestic nature of the show. Where other westerns often contained fantasy, legend and wildly inaccurate historical settings, Ruth Woodman's scripts were meticulously researched. This didn't prevent her from changing history occasionally or exaggerating this or that aspect, but generally her scripts were rooted in real life. Another reason for the more homely scripts was that the period being covered was at the tail end of the frontier activity in the west when federal and state law was rapidly catching up with these remote outposts: basically the wild west was nearly tame by this time. Yet another reason was the obvious one - although some may argue otherwise - and this was the fact that the scripts were originally written by a woman. Although many other writers were employed during the lifetime of the show, Woodman's stamp was very much on imprinted on it. In many ways, Death Valley Days was pioneering, not least because it was probably the first western that a woman could enjoy as much as a man or boy.

Who was Who?
Because Death Valley Days was an anthology and because of its long run, a tremendous number of actors took a part in the show. Some were at the twilight of their career, others just at the beginning. Inevitably, some future stars appeared, such as Angie Dickinson, Clint Eastwood, James Caan and James Coburn.

Image: Stanley Andrews as the Old RangerDeath Valley Days reruns would often be rehashed under other show titles, namely: Western Star Theater, The Pioneers and Trails West. The "Old Ranger", who always introduced the show, was the only regular character on the show. The actors who portrayed the Old Ranger were: Stanley Andrews, Will Rogers Jr, Ray Milland, Rory Calhoun, Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, Dale Robertson, John Payne and Merle Haggard.