Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Fourteen: "The Cowboy in Me" (Pt.1)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 22nd Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

As my wife and I begin our retirement in Tucson, Arizona, I take a part-time job as a cowboy/actor on an old movie studio back lot which soon turns into the most fascinating work I've ever had. And more . . .


Because of the distance and because of Nancy’s health issues, the actual move took meticulous planning to execute, but because of our diligence we pulled it off shortly after Labor Day of 2004. We rented a Penske truck with an attached car hauler to pull our Jeep having already sold the second car so as to go simpler into our retired life. Nancy’s brother Dale flew in from South Carolina to help me with the driving since he was a truck driver (I’d never have been able to back that thing up). And my sister Sandi was flying out with Nancy a few days later to meet us there, because Nancy was on oxygen and her doctor didn’t feel she would have been able to take some of the higher elevations without difficulty.

And so we had it all figured out, and basically it all came off without a hitch. Dale and I covered the 1800 plus miles from Chicago to Tucson in three days, and the ladies met us there at a prearranged motel. On the fourth day we met at our new home where a contingent of brothers from our new congregation in Tucson appeared (arranged by our nephew Ben) to help us unload the truck, and in no time we were in. Mercifully, this was at the end of the monsoon season so the weather remained dry though hot, but we would soon adjust to the heat. Our new home was located very near the swimming pool, a fact which appealed to Nancy. And she fell in love immediately with the layout of our new home. I’d done good. By the time the two white rocking chairs were adjusted side by side on the front porch. One could just tell that this was the place to be happy. Unfortunately, that happiness and peace would be so short-lived.

Our New Community

We spent our first months there just getting used to everything, the weather, the city, the different culture, the new congregation. Nancy and I busied ourselves at first with buying a few things for the new place, some new furniture and a few knick-knacks to help fill it up, and we also began exploring our beautiful new surroundings. Tucson and environs is just beautiful being surrounded on all sides by mountains. You could always tell what direction in town you were facing just by knowing which mountain chain you were looking at: the Santa Catalinas to the north, the Rincons to the east, The Santa Ritas to the south, and the Tucson Mountains to the west. And each set of mountains has its own particular style and personality so it’s impossible to confuse them.

Toward the end of November we visited Old Tucson Studios about ten miles west of town, and we completely fell in love with the place. Old Tucson Studios is an old movie back lot where many old movies and TV shows used to be filmed, John Wayne westerns, parts of Bonanza, and Little House on the Prairie and all of The High Chaparral to name a few. The last really big film made there was Tombstone in 1993 with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, but then there occurred a huge fire in the mid 90’s which wiped out part of the lot and the soundstage which was not replaced, and so since then only smaller productions have been produced there. Still, it’s a wondrous and magical place. I got the idea that I may like to work there someday.

We continued exploring the area. We drove through the Santa Rita Mountains to the south one day looking for ghost towns which we never found (they were that ghostly), but I nearly drove Nancy over the side of a mountain 4-wheeling in my Jeep up and over the side of a mountain on a narrow path just like they show in the Jeep commercials on television. Yup. A Jeep Cherokee 4-wheel drive really can go through those places just like they show in those commercials on television. I can attest to that fact (along with my white knuckled wife).

She was much happier exploring the Arizona - Sonora Desert Museum where we saw our first javelinas (wild desert pigs, pronounced hah-vuh-LEE-nuhs) and driving through both sides (east and west) of the Saguaro National Park. We were developing a love affair with all different form of cacti and had begun to plant some in our yard around the mobile home.

But back at the mobile home, I found myself growing restless being around the house. As time wore on, the dry desert air was showing signs of agreeing very well with my arthritis. I had gotten to the point that I found it completely unnecessary to use my electric wheelchair for anything. Nancy was using her scooter, but mine sat collecting dust in the shed. I was still walking with my cane, but as the months wore on I would even find that unnecessary to use any longer and stopped after six months in the warm and dry desert air. I just didn’t need it. While I still had health issues (and these would be exacerbated during the moistness of monsoon season), I felt a whole lot better here than in Chicago. But still I had nothing to do to occupy my time.

I eventually joined the hiking club in our mobile home community for a short time (before I started working). This was a monumental step for me, because a few months prior I’d been chained to a wheelchair in Chicago, and now in February of 2005 I found myself hiking with a group of seniors. And where are we hiking? Not on flatland. No, that would be too easy, though on my first hike it was in the valley between the mountains. But on the second hike we went up into the Tucson Mountains. Okay, they were some of the lower ones, and we probably only climbed 1500 feet or so up, but I was out on a five mile hike with my newly-minted trekking pole, and I swear to God every Teddy Bear Cholla (CHOY-uh) tossed its prickers at me from a distance of one foot! I was constantly picking prickers out of somewhere on my body that day with my tweezers, and I know I never even came close to one of those damn cholla, but they could throw ‘em!! I swear! And that mountain plateau was covered with beautiful, seductive, Teddy Bear Cholla. Do not touch the Teddy Bears. Ever.

Lucy Ricardo of the Back Lot

So hiking wasn’t proving to be enough to occupy my time, and so I went on out to Old Tucson Studios located in my beloved Tucson Mountains and applied for a job. It wouldn’t pay much, only $5.65 an hour, and it would be mostly part-time between 20 and 30 hours per week. But it would get me out of the house and from underneath Nancy’s feet all the time. It would also get me out into the fresh air and Arizona sunshine which I was growing to love with an unparalleled passion. Plus it would tend to keep me from so much surfing the Net for porn behind Nancy’s back due to my growing boredom at home. This was how I’d been filling my time, and I knew I needed a positive outlet for my growing restlessness. The extra money wouldn’t hurt either.

I was put on as a rides attendant in the amusement area of the back lot where the families brought their children, and during my first couple of weeks I was worked into the two simplest attractions: the Carousel and the Haunted Mine. On the Carousel all I had to do was to open a gate, lift a chain and flip a switch plus be really nice to all the folks which wasn’t difficult to do because everybody was so nice to me. Everybody was always having such a good time this job was becoming relatively easy.

The Haunted Mine was a little more difficult because it involved acting. Now I can act, but basically it was improv. The Mine involved us cowboys escorting visitors through the dark, cavernous recesses of a fake Arizona mine past hidden triggers where assorted skeletons of miners and such would pop out at our guests and we would have the distinct pleasure of regaling them with short tales of how they met their demise. There was supposed to be a script, but I never saw one in all my time there. However, the elderly gentleman who trained me the first few days could have won a Tony Award for his performances, he was that good. He was a first-rate raconteur cut from the mold of Mark Twain so I learned from the best, and we became sort of a team. While I could never become as good as him, I became good. Good indeed! Good enough that I rarely got to work the Carousel again except to get a break from the Mine though I eventually did branch out to the Antique Cars. But my main habitat remained the Mine as the old gentleman grew sick and retired. They’d found his replacement in me.

For fifteen months I dressed up and played cowboy, and I became a child again. I never worked less than 20 hours a week and many times worked as many as 40 to 42. This was the absolutely most fun job of my entire life! And it was during this time that I also became an unpaid extra on the back lot for three different film projects, because remember this is also a working film studio, and my middle name as it turned out is Lucy Ricardo. I literally begged (not on bended knee, but yes I pleaded to get into each of these projects), and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

The first project was a commercial for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, and I was an extra which just involved me walking across the street in the main part of town, one side to the other. Nothing extraordinary. Simple. Took about an hour out of my work schedule for which my boss released me, lent me to the film crew, and I learned a little bit. Off the clock. No big deal, but I had fun.

Next up was a big deal. A REALLY BIG DEAL. BBC/Lionsgate Productions was doing a remake of the O.K. Corral gunfight and the drama surrounding it for a show which would air in Europe called “Day’s that Shook the World.” It required a 4-day shooting schedule and a script for the half-hour program filming in late May 2005. I was begging to be an extra, and my boss released me for one day only. I was ecstatic!

There were no big name actors in the production, however, there were one or two who had been in Young Guns when it was on network TV back in the 90’s for a couple of seasons. Minor faces who would do Western work and lived in the area. They were wowing us, showing off skillful acting ability with guns. Impressive! There is a tremendous lot of down time on a set! My day was a 14-hour day that day (and I wouldn’t trade it for anything).

I ‘d been background already for two scenes in the early morning shoots when for some inexplicable reason the A.D. (assistant director) who had taken a liking to me said, “Ken, follow me. I’ve got a scene for you.” I nearly shit my pants! But I wasted no time getting up and followed him down the dusty street.

It appeared that he was about to make me immortal. What he would go on to do was to toss me a one-liner. I was about to become the town snitch. This was a part which had not been cast and the line could be improvised. He explained to me what he wanted. Basically I was the guy who was stirring the pot and snitching on Ike Clanton to the Earp Brothers about what Ike had been doing around town, and it was this singular event that supposedly, so the folklore goes, caused Virgil Earp to deputize Wyatt, etc., etc., and well you know the rest of the story. I got to make up what I said as I went. I had to walk down the street from the north to the south and approach the Earp Brothers cautiously almost by chance where they were congregated chatting together, say my piece, and then slink off again. We shot this scene about a dozen and a half times from all different angles in 104 degree heat between about 11:00 and 12:30, and then we broke for lunch, and I just knew that whatever else I did that day this scene would not hit the cutting room floor. It couldn’t. It was pivotal to the whole plot.

And I was right. The show actually played in the U.S. Once. Almost a year later in mid-April 2006 on the History Channel, and I’ve preserved one precious copy on video tape so that some day should the need ever arise I may get my SAG card (Screen Actor’s Guild). I was never paid a dime for the day’s work, but I care not! I’m a working actor. Or was. Once. I have the proof.

The third project a few months later was a low budget film project which I’ve never seen, and I don’t even recall the name of the working title. There were no recognizable-name actors in the film unless one is a fan of Spanish language programming, because the lead actress was supposed to be a fairly big name from one of the novellas of the day. I wouldn’t have been able to attest to the fact. The movie was about a “ghost train” and looked like a dog to me, but I didn’t care. I was an extra for a day, and I had fun on the shoot. I got to be in a couple of scenes which took the better part of a day to shoot, and the catered food was good. Who could ask for more? I’m sure the film went straight to DVD.


My working at Old Tucson Studios saw the beginning of the great awakening within me for so many, many things. Each and every day of my work schedule I would drive ten miles west and north of my home into the Tucson Mountains into the most idyllic of settings, a far cry from the setting of the Little Village neighborhood where my kids resided in Chicago, the kids I’d cherished, taught, and left behind just a few months earlier for my disability retirement for the dry southwest. And suddenly I found myself on a movie back lot which had been walked by John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, James Caan, Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, James Stewart, and William Holden to name only a few (and these are off the top of my head). If you’d like to know what the scenery looks like just catch a famous scene of James Caan and John Wayne on horseback riding through what are the Tucson Mountains among the Saguaro cactus in El Dorado shot on location there. As far as where they’re riding, it still looks pretty much the same 50 years later.

As for this great awakening, I felt a great freedom early on. The fresh air, the sun, the wind, all spoke to me moving me in ways I couldn’t fathom yet on a surface level. And I kept having run-ins with the local fauna. Snakes. When it comes to snakes I’ve always been like Indiana Jones. SNAKES!

I recall when Nancy, Frank, and I were living in South Carolina, and we first heard about all the tales of people having close calls with poisonous snakes. Chilling. And then Roger and Georgie moved to Allendale near us and went to look at that old, huge multi-level farmhouse that was available for rent next to the furniture store, and Roger and I went in to check out the walkout basement without the women and kids. We discovered hanging from the floor joists (from the first floor above hanging toward the basement dirt floor below) about a dozen dried rattler skins from the season prior where the snakes had crawled in from the outside and attached themselves to the joists above, shed their skins and crawled back outside. We withheld the information from Georgie, because otherwise she’d never move into the house, and it was too good to pass up, and we knew that once occupied the snakes wouldn’t repeat this shedding ritual. But still, a chilling picture, and I hate snakes especially of the poisonous variety.

Now I found myself sharing my work environment with them. I had begun working at Old Tucson on President’s Day 2005, and the Western Diamondback Rattlers (and other varieties) had begun emerging from their holes about the first of March. Welcome to the Back Lot! And this was an old western town, and they loved to hide under the wooden sidewalks, next to the railroad tracks, and they loved it in the Mine. Oh they loved it down in the Mine especially during the long hot summer! I was constantly on the lookout for “desert visitors” our codeword for them which would quickly summon a wrangler with a hook and a box and the “desert visitor” would then be removed from the environs and taken by truck a few miles out into the desert and dropped off (until it found its way back to us again).

One of my friends, the young train driver, began to help me with my fear of snakes, and he caught a couple of non-poisonous varieties and brought them over to me at the Mine so that I could pet them, and thus help me develop a healthy respect for my working environment. My education was growing by leaps and bounds. So was my respect.

(In the next installment, I find that after after working at Old Tucson Studios for all of three weeks with all of these gay men and out in all of the western sunshine and fresh air, It's having the strangest of effects on me. Uh-oh!??

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Acting, Actor, Actors, Autobiography, Gay, Gay Community, Gay Experience, Gay Lesbian And Bisexual, Gay Men, Gays, Glbt, Lgbt, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Serial, Series, True Experiences, True Stories, True Story

Meet the author

author avatar Ken Painter
Retired Chicago public school teacher. Singer, songwriter, musician, author, & opinionated old curmudgeon. Married to my husband & living in Colorado, USA. Also a father & grandfather.

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