By Taylor Wilson
Oh, Brownsville has certainly had its brushes with “greatness”.
A handful has been born here (fortunately for them, mind you), while other celebrities have just passed through, and some have even stopped to perform.
For example, I have it from a reliable source that Mary Travers of the 1960s folk group Peter, Paul and Mary was once in Brownsville visiting relatives. No word if she left on a jet plan, doubtful, though, no airport and all.
Likewise, Jane Seymour, a.k.a., Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and a (James) Bond Girl, dropped by for a visit. She was reportedly given the key to the city at a private party.
Rock ’n’ roller Steve Winwood was once at the Taylor Family Camp Meeting.
The Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy once performed in the building that now houses Livingston’s.
And an 18-year-old, or thereabout, Jerry Lee Lewis once rocked the Rice Theater.
“I remember he had rollers in his hair before the show, but could he play that piano!” recalled my stepmother Susan (Rice) Wilson.
Her dad, Moreau Rice, built the theater in 1948 (that would, in later days and ownership, be known as The Ritz). Admittedly, rollers is not exactly how most people are going to remember The Killer, but they do call it rock ’n’ roll, right. (Ha. Ha. The puns are free, folks!)
But perhaps the most interesting Brownsville appearance, to me, anyway, is one I have often heard re-counted. It’s the one where one-time B-Western hero Lash La Rue performed at The Rice not long after it opened.
La Rue was a whip-wielding cowboy actor, who according to Western movie historians, had Humphrey Bogart looks and demeanor. He talked gruff and wore black. Of course, he also brandished a bullwhip, thus the name “Lash”.
But you want to know the cool part (as if it could get any cooler)?
Well, he evidently really knew how to use a bullwhip — it wasn’t all Hollywood trickery.
In fact, many reports say La Rue taught Harrison Ford how to use a whip for his famed Indiana Jones role.
Also, wikipedia.com notes: “La Rue made frequent personal appearances at small-town movie theaters that were showing his films during his heyday of 1948-1951, becoming the only cowboy star most children of the time ever got to see and meet in person. His skillful displays of stunts with his whip, done live on movie theater stages, also convinced young Western movie fans that there was at least one cowboy hero who could do in real life the same things he did on screen…”
Now remember that “did on screen,” dear reader. And perhaps it is better put what he “did TO the screen” in the case of the Brownsville appearance, anyway.
When La Rue came to town, his skill certainly made a believer out of my good friend Chester “Grumpy” Dixon. He was on hand in 1948 with a theater full of other kids to watch La Rue, live and on stage, show off his signature skills with a bullwhip.
“Did he cut a cigarette out of your mouth?” I asked my friend.
“No, no cigarettes. I was a kid! How come you always have to be a smart aleck!?!” Grumpy replied.
“Everybody has got to be good at something,” I said.
But seriously, Chester was there to witness the greatness that was Lash La Rue.
Of course, I like to imagine Chet sitting there in his cowboy outfit, loaded down with more Ju Ju Beans than six-shooter ammo. But I have a feeling he wouldn’t own up to that, what with him being about 13 at the time. However, he did confess, that he couldn’t get home fast enough on the nights a horror movie played at The Rice.
“And I only lived a block or so away, and still, I covered the distance pretty darn quick after a scary movie,” he laughed and told me.
“Wow! And you ran that fast in chaps, boots, spurs and all…?” I asked Grumpy.
“Again, always the smart aleck, aren’t you?” came the reply.
But regardless of the horror movies, Chester admits the La Rue appearance was likewise unforgettable. My buddy had no qualms about the memory.
“Yeah, I saw him. I saw that Lash La Rue split the screen. He was up there on the stage doing tricks with that whip and the next thing you know he hit the screen with it. I think Mr. (Moreau) Rice got pretty upset about it, especially since the theater was new. No telling what it cost,” Chester said.
But La Rue didn’t pay for the error of his bullwhip, if not ways, my step-mom remembers.
“I was there, but I wasn’t very old, so I asked my sister about that the other day. She said Daddy wasn’t that mad about it. And no, he (Lash La Rue) didn’t pay for the screen,” she told me.
“They simply got some duct tape and patched it up.”
So, Lash left a signature mark on the silver screen — in more ways than one — only this mark was often covered by celluloid images (scary though they may have sometimes been to Chester).
My step-mom added that the Rice’s screen soon suffered another accident, by a then youngster, rumored to still live in Brownsville, and one that we won’t make famous today.
That was when this “anonymous” kid slung his yo-yo through it. Reports indicate the projectile got only halfway “around the world” before sailing through the movie screen.
So, brethren, at column’s end, and in retrospect, what have we learned?
Well, first and foremost, thank goodness for duct tape.
But you know what? I also can’t help but bet that Mr. Rice was always thankful the guy that played Zorro never came to town.
Taylor Wilson is an editor for Bill Dance Publishing. He has written for newspapers, magazines and websites for more than 20 years. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.