How the West was fun: Rex Trailer

Cowboy legend delights fans with 50th anniversary tour
By Pamela  H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2006

He galloped into the lives of Massachusetts youngsters on his Palomino, Goldrush. Tall and handsome, he was a singing cowboy who did riding and rope tricks and could leap over a fence with ease.

Most of all, though, Rex Trailer was gentle, funny and great with the kids. His show, “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown,” was on Boston television from 1956 to 1976, a time when Westerns were all the rage.

Trailer, a sidekick and a group of wacky characters entertained children for three hours at a stretch on Saturday and Sunday mornings during those two decades. Children came to the studio and participated in the merriment; there were contests, sing-alongs and cartoons.

“The reason the show worked is we all had fun,” Trailer said earlier this week. “We all got along. There was not a word written for the show. It was all ad-lib.”

Trailer, now 78, started teaching television performance at Emerson College and producing commercials and documentaries 30 years ago. And since “Boomtown” went off the air, he has continued to appear in his cowboy persona several times a year in parades and at special events. When independent filmmaker Michael Bavaro, a fan of the show in his youth, met Trailer through a professional connection, he was captivated by the staying power of the cowboy’s popularity, and he decided to make a documentary of the “Boomtown” phenomenon.

It wasn’t easy. The show had been broadcast live, so there were no archives. Bavaro had to piece together the documentary from what little had been put on 16mm film and home movies that fans made available. It took two and a half years.

The film, “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown,” was released last year and won an award at the 2005 Boston Film Festival. The documentary features clips from the show interspersed with segments in which Trailer recounts his experiences while seated on a bale of hay, his current Goldrush by his side.

The film is a nostalgic trip back to early children’s television, in which the youthful audience was as much a part of the production as the main character. Over the years, Trailer entertained 4 million children; 200,000 of them appeared on the show. And as adults, 100 of them make up perhaps the most engaging aspect of the documentary, recalling with relish their memories of “Boomtown.”

Some of those fans have gone on to gain name recognition themselves, and they were delighted to be part of the undertaking, Bavaro said. In the film, Jay Leno, host of “The Tonight Show,” recalls Trailer greeting him with a warm, “Howdy, young man. How are you?”

“I always thought, `If I ever got famous, I would want to treat people like that,’” Leno says.

WBZ-AM talk show host Paul Sullivan hoots and howls with delight over his memories. “Gad, I wish I was young again!” he exclaims.

With a wide grin, Boston mayor Tom Menino sums up the sentiment about Trailer: “He was one of these living legends to all of us.”

On Dec. 10, local fans will have an opportunity to briefly relive the “Boomtown” past. The TV cowboy legend will be at the pop culture emporium That’s Entertainment on Park Avenue in Worcester. The appearance is one of several on the “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown 50th Anniversary Tour.” Trailer will sing a song or two and sign copies of a limited edition print commemorating the appearance. The DVD of the film and other items will be for sale.

Trailer was no ersatz cowboy. He grew up in Texas and recalled that cowhands on his grandfather’s ranch taught him to ride, rope, sing and even call square dances. He had the good fortune to meet up with crusty cowboy actor Gabby Hayes, who urged him to go into children’s television. He came to Boston after six years of entertaining children in Philadelphia.

Trailer chose the name of the show after he saw the Clark Gable movie “Boomtown.” It was a stroke of genius, so to speak, because it made the theme song fun for kids – and infinitely memorable. Many of the fans in the film burst into the ditty, “Howdy folks, we’re glad to meet you in Boom, Boom, Boomtown …”

Trailer elicited a special sort of hero worship from his young enthusiasts. Bavaro, now 47, and his five siblings would sit in front of the TV watching test patterns on the screen so they would not miss the 7 a.m. opening of the show. Trailer and his original sidekick, Pablo, would be in the bunkhouse starting their day.

“You felt like you got to be alone with Rex before the kids came in,” Bavaro, who grew up in Milford, said. “You were in on the inside. He and Pablo would be waking up and watering horses and setting up the theme for that day.”

In the first seven years of “Boomtown,” Trailer carried six-shooters and demonstrated his marksmanship. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, he took off the guns for good. “Kids would ask about the guns and I would tell them, `Guns are not a good thing,’” Trailer recalled.

The most memorable occurrence had to be the time a trainer brought a Bengal tiger on the show, Trailer said.

“The tiger was upset with the fact that the horse was in the studio,” he recounted. “We finally got the horse out of there, but the tiger remained agitated and pinned the trainer to the floor. The only one who knew anything about the tiger was underneath the tiger screaming, `Help! Get him off me.’ It was instinct. I said, `Sit,’ and the tiger sat. I acted authoritatively. The trainer’s assistant was outside the studio looking through the glass door. The technicians were in the rafters. The kids were clapping and screaming. They thought it was part of the show.”

Trailer knew a thing or two about the concept of “branding.” He led a Conestoga wagon train across Massachusetts to raise awareness of the Massachusetts Association for Retarded Citizens. He held carnivals to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and sent out carnival kits so that children could set up their own fundraisers. Over a 25-year period, he led 40,000 people on trips to Disneyland and other California entertainment venues. In the film, one woman declares: “It was the best trip I ever went on in my life!”

On June 24, 2005, Trailer arrived in New York City by helicopter for a screening of “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown” at a Broadway theater. The events surrounding the release of the documentary culminated in the establishment of the Rex Trailer collection at the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan.

“It’s gone by like a flash,” Trailer reflected with a chuckle. “I tell my students at Emerson, `Enjoy every minute and make the most of every minute. You’ll be thinking, Where did the time go?’”