June 16, 2019

That's My Daddy! (at Frontier Days)

Lester Ruffner, Arena Director, Frontier Days
Early etiquette at movie theaters was sacred. People paid good money to watch, and demanded to do so without distraction. But there was an occasional time when the silence was broken and even more rarely, when it was excused.
“It isn't often that a person can be several thousand miles from home, and suddenly be transported in the wink of an eye right back again,” the Journal-Miner pointed out, “but that was the experience enjoyed in Chicago (in 1922) by Mrs. Lester Ruffner and her son,” after a trip east.

While in Chicago Mrs. Ruffner decided to take her son to the motion picture theater. They arrived shortly after the show started and were compelled to take a seat in the front of the auditorium where they were in view of nearly everyone.

While Mrs. Ruffner was trying to quietly settle in, a newsreel began to play when suddenly, before the hushed, packed house, her son rocketed out of his chair and screamed: “THAT’S MY DADDY!”

Astonished and embarrassed, Mrs. Ruffner looked around the theater and then toward the silver screen. Sure enough, there was her husband, “as big as life; seated on his white horse directing the 1921 Frontier Days contests.”

The picture proved to be a Ford Weekly Newsreel (yes, the car manufacturer,) a section of which was devoted to the annual Prescott event. “Seeing it was like getting a breath of Arizona air. It was well filmed and cleverly titled,” Mrs. Ruffner said.

Actually, Henry Ford once promised Lester Ruffner that he would not only attend, but even participate in (ironically,) the horse riding events at the the Frontier Days of 1919! However, when the time came, Ford was unable to attend. Like the calves during the event, he was tied-up.

But first, a note about the journey of unearthing this gem: When researching Frontier Days, this author often read newspaper accounts of the events being filmed for newsreels. “Oh, to see one of those today,” he thought. Over the course of at least three years he searched off and on, but to no avail.

This article renewed what always had been a difficult search, but the author was unaware that Ford even produced newsreels. Perhaps this might help the search. Still, the National Archives search boxes were about as useful as teets on a bull, employing utterly useless labels like: ”Numerous Americana and Other Subjects.” That label was found on every single title in the Ford collection.

Another hurdle encountered was that the description provided beneath the title was truncated, and every one of them began: “The original catalog description provided by the Ford Motor Company reads as follows:” which takes up 40% of the truncation, leaving the rest only barely useful.

It was clear that it would require eyeballing each Ford Newsreel one by one. Fortunately, many of the titles were descriptive enough to discount watching, and after looking at the first 100, the author may, or may not have found the newsreel in question! But, unfortunately, that newsreel has yet to be digitized and is not available online to see.

The search went on. Any title that MIGHT include the rodeo was viewed. Around the 1400th newsreel, (the collection contains 1.8 million feet of film,) the author clicked on “The Way of the West.” No, it wasn’t the Frontier Days of 1921, but it was the Frontier Days of 1920--the year prior!

The author’s jaw went slack as this 8 minute, silent film passed before his eyes. First, there were the Hose Cart races running down Whiskey Row to the very front of The Palace! Then there was the parade making its way westward down Gurley Street with the Elks Theater seen clearly in the background. 

The scene then changed to the rodeo itself at the Old Fairgrounds. The horse-mounted contestants formed a circle and the camera panned them all before they charged off in a cloud of dust. 

True fans of the rodeo would note how both the events and the rules have evolved over a century. For example, two hand-holds were permitted in bull-riding and they did not trim the points off their horns back then!

Also included was a cameo of movie star Tom Mix, who also helped judge. Ironically, the film was presented from the view of “historians." But unfortunately, the full 8 minutes is too long to embed into this article, so a truncated version of the best highlights is presented here.

It has already been determined that the full 8 minute video will be exhibited at the Western Heritage Center on Historic Whiskey Row, (156 1/2 Montezuma St.,) so be sure to stop by and see it!

Here now, please enjoy the highlights of: “The Way of the West”: Frontier Days, 1920.

The true story of Will Rogers' surprise visit to Prescott, Arizona in 1933 to visit Frontier Days (now the "World's Oldest Rodeo").


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