Museum features cowboys of the silver screen

Wendy Nugent

Nestled on the Kansas prairie, surrounded by the sounds of birds, crickets, cars driving by and wind blowing through a cornfield, is the Silver Screen Cowboy Museum.

The museum takes people to the early days of the silver screen cowboys through today. For younger folks, the museum is a history lesson; for others, it's reminiscing.

"The Silver Screen Cowboy Museum remembers the great cowboys of movies and television," the museum's brochure states. "But it also includes many forgotten and obscure western movie actors."

The museum, which is having its grand opening July 26, is a quick mosey two miles west of Newton on U.S. Highway 50. Activities start at 5 p.m. with a chuck wagon dinner by Country Boys Carriage served at 6:30 p.m. The $30 charge includes admission, dinner and show featuring Les Gilliam, "The Oklahoma Balladeer." To reserve tickets, call (316) 835-3360. The museum opened a few months ago.

Expected guests include authors Marvin Gibson, a relative of silver screen cowboy Hoot Gibson, and Paul Mix, a relative of another silver screen cowboy Tom Mix. The authors will sign books during the event.

Another person who will appear is Lloyd Conner, who dresses in costume as Wyatt Earp.

Those attending the event will be greeted by a western-themed mural in the entrance area.

"It'll be just kind of a (mixture) of different scenes that will set the tone for what we're trying to do here," said Linda David of Sedgwick, museum event coordinator who is painting the mural.

Beyond the entrance will be a gift shop, complete with bathrooms marked "cowboys" and "cowgirls" - at least that's how they were marked Tuesday.

During the grand opening, the main room will be set up with tables. This room also houses a variety of displays, most of which are divided into areas devoted to particular silver screen cowboys, such as Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Tom Mix.

There are movie posters on such flicks as "Under Fiesta Stars" and "Shine On Harvest Moon." Also on view are cowboy hats and saddles.

Items on display, most of which were collected by curator and western film expert John Birdeno of Buhler, include films, posters, memorabilia and artifacts. In a display case along the north wall, a variety of artifacts are housed, including Arvo Ojala's Hollywood prop guns. Ojala, who was a personal friend of Birdeno's, was the Hollywood quick-draw instructor and gun coach from the 1950s until his death a few years ago.

"Many remember Ojala as the gunfighter in the opening shot of 'Gunsmoke,'" Birdeno said.

Another silver screen cowboy honored, who also is a friend of Birdeno's, is Dick Jones. Jones was the voice of Pinocchio in the 1937 Walt Disney movie and was the "Range Rider" in the 1950s.

Birdeno has been collecting silver screen cowboy items for 28 years, he said. When Birdeno attended his son's third-grade open house at school one year, he started talking to the teacher about old cowboy movies. The teacher asked Birdeno to give a presentation to the class and, at the time, he had enough items to cover a table, he said.

That worked out so well, another teacher asked him to make a presentation, and then he made a presentation at another school. Soon, he was giving presentations to a variety of places, such as senior centers and retirement communities.

After he moved to Kansas, he attended cowboy film festivals, meeting stars and look-alikes and acquiring items for his collection. The main room isn't the only location for artifacts. To the south of that room are three more display rooms and another large room, which will be turned into a saloon, complete with a western-type bar, where patrons can purchase saspirilla and other soft drinks.

There also will be a stage in there - it'll be a place museum-goers can go to relax.

"I think this will be a really nice room when it gets done," David said, since the museum still is a work in progress. "(The museum) is just in its infancy now."

The museum collection starts with the 1894 Edison documentary of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, into the silent films, through the "talkies" and the era of the singing cowboy to the "B" westerns in 1954, TV movies and shows, "A" westerns and to today, according to the brochure.

"It will give a sense of education and a sense of history to the kids who come through here," David said.

In addition to providing an education, another aspect of the museum is it can be a destination spot for those living in the area.

Because of the high price of gasoline, those wishing to stay in the area for a short vacation can have a "nice little day trip," David said, visit the museum and eat in the area.

If you go

Silver Screen Cowboy Museum, P.O. Box 304, Halstead, KS 67056.

Admission to the museum is $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens and $2.50 for children 12 and younger.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5:30 p.m. Sundays or by appointment.

For information and reservations, call (316) 293-7527. Also for more information, visit the Web site at Any updates and ongoing events will be posted on the Web site. Guided tours are available.

Newton Kansan