Way, way back in 1999, I was going through my grandfather's personal papers for the first time. They were a mess, I'll tell you. Two big boxes full of smelly paper, none filed in any kind of order, and most of it was almost seventy years old. But it was still full of treasures that were priceless to me. I had never known my grandfather when I was growing up and, until that year, had not known that he was a successful pulp fiction writer during the Great Depression. In among the manuscripts and the dozens of letters from Wild West Weekly, I found a letter:
At this point, my grandfather was writing Westerns almost exclusively and his characters were wildly popular with Wild West Weekly readers. Kid Wolf and Sonny Tabor were the most popular, and both had already appeared in book form - reprints of Wild West Weekly stories. Kid Wolf was a quirky kind of hero: he was originally from the Rio Grande, a rancher who didn't have to worry about money so he roamed the southwest looking for people to rescue and bad guys to punish. He carried a Bowie Knife hidden in a sheath sewn into the back of his buckskin jacket, talked with a very heavy Texas drawl and rode a huge white horse named Blizzard.
I looked at the letterhead again. Ken Maynard Productions. Ken who?
After a little reading, this is what I found out.
Ken Maynard was one of the most popular cowboy stars of the 1930s. While cowboy stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers had their singing abilities to carry them through a movie, Maynard had only minor talent as a singer. Still, he was in more than 80 movies. He was more known for his chiseled good looks and, more than anything, his superb riding skills. His brother, Kermit, was a cowboy actor as well and appeared in over 300 films, most of them in supporting roles instead of starring.
The history is murky as to Maynard's early life and how he became such a good rider. It is known that the two Maynard boys grew up in Indiana. Some accounts say Ken was a rodeo competitor, while others say he started in the circus. There are some accounts that say he won the "All Around Cowboy" award at the Pendleton, Oregon roundup in 1920. However, the www.b-westerns.com site author says he was able to confirm that this did not happen. He began his movie career in the mid-1920s with non-Western roles.
It seems that Maynard's life began to change in 1925 when he acquired a beautiful big palomino named Tarzan. The two seemed made for each other.
An interesting note of trivia: many of Ken Maynard's early films with Tarzan -- movies shot when he was working with First National Pictures -- became stock film. First National eventually became Warner Brothers, and when a young John Wayne began filimg Westerns for Warner in 1932-33, some of Maynard's stock film was used. Wayne rode a palomino he named "Duke" so it would be easier to match Wayne and Duke to Maynard and Tarzan stock scenes.
Maynard began to acquire a name of his own after the acquisition of Tarzan and by the end of the 1920s had filmed eight Universal pictures. But the transition to talkies was creating tumult throughout the studios and Universal dropped their Western productions, for the time being at least.
After the Universal meltdown, Maynard went through a string of film companies; his leaving some weren't of his fault but due to the economic hard times of the Depression. Other times it really was his fault. He went from Poverty Row productions, releasing films through Tiffany, to KBS Productions that were released through World Wide. But he was making a lot of productions, including several serials, and he was gaining in popularity. But World Wide was struggling financially, and then Universal came back and wooed Maynard back. The icing on the cake in Universal's offer was his own production company, Ken Maynard Productions. This was where my grandfather and Kid Wolf came in.
Universal gave Maynard a nice little budget per film: $100,000 and he made several movies for them. But Ken was starting to show a dark side: he had a bad temper, didn't care much for having to worry about such things as budget, and swore like a drunken sailor in front of people like Carl Laemmle. I've read in other sources that he was starting to acquire a drinking problem at this point.
In this next letter to my grandfather, Maynard says he is in the middle of 'closing down his production company' and moving to Europe. I can't find any verification that he actually did make this trip; but it is known that by 1934, Maynard was out at Universal and working for Mascot Pictures.
Even though Maynard was continually burning bridges and was making some real flops, his popularity with the matinee movie crowd remained strong. By 1935 he was working for Darmour, whose films were released through Columbia. Although he made some good oaters there, the partnership between Darmour and Columbia ended in 1936 and so once again Maynard was looking for a home.
Maynard spent the rest of the 1930s and 1940s filming for other companies, but change was in the air. He was getting older and heavier. He was drinking heavily. He eventually divorced his second wife during this time, and the original Tarzan died. The palomino was replaced by Tarzan II. Maynard also began his own circus groups and was busy touring with those, but eventually he lost those to creditors.
The early 1940s found Maynard teamed up with Bob Steele and Hoot Gibson and doing pictures for Monogram Pictures, most notably the Trail Blazers series of movies. This is where the Santa Clarita Valley and Vasquez Rocks comes into the story (although I'm sure many other Maynard pictures were filmed in the area before but in the interests of time, I'm not going to confirm those). This photo is from Death Valley Rangers (1943), the fourth movie in the Trail Blazers series, and it was taken at Vasquez Rocks.
Maynard's movie career petered out after the mid 1940s. The b-western.com site says the following about Maynard's last years:
"The ending of Ken Maynard is a sad one. In the last few years of his life, Maynard was associated with a gal who claimed to be his wife/agent/girlfriend. They (or she) sold off much of Ken's belongings. They (she) acquired cowboy stuff at local shows and peddled it as authentic 'Ken Maynard Memorabilia'. But the scheme was discovered. Ken Maynard died a pauper at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California on March 30, 1973, sick with a variety of ailments including alcohol abuse and malnutrition. He was laid to rest at at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Cypress), Orange County, California, in a grave next to his wife Bertha. Ken's mild-mannered brother Kermit passed away in 1971."
Ken Maynard had been married several times but left no children. His brother Kermit seems to have fared better: he ended up working for SAG (the Screen Actors Guild), stayed away from excess alcohol consumption and had a stable married life that produced at least one son.
My grandfather's movie dreams with Kid Wolf never transpired. Maynard seems to have lost interest or perhaps the budget didn't come through. Either way, I like to think that my grandfather was none the worse for having missed out on the movie. Chances are that he wouldn't have made much money, as Street & Smith (the publisher for Wild West Weekly) had complete control and rights over any money made from the characters in their magazines. So any film profits would have gone straight to them.
If you ever visit the Museum of Western Heritage (formerly known as a Autry museum) in Los Angeles, there is an area dedicated to the early cowboy stars of the 1930s. Ken Maynard has a small exhibit. But next to his exhibit is a television that plays a video of some of these stars in action. Maynard is seen on Tarzan, galloping down a dirt road. With Tarzan at a dead run, Maynard reaches down and, in just a few seconds, pulls his saddle off his horse, never losing his seat and grinning the whole time. He is clearly having the time of his life.
I prefer to remember Ken Maynard that way.
Ken Maynard - Whirlwind Horseman
Ken Maynard - Wikipedia
Photo of Maynard and Tarzan property of Old Corral Images