It’s been many years since Roy, Dale, Rex, Little Joe, Hoss and Festus galloped around Garrett Coliseum, but fond memories linger for those who saw them in person. They once were the star attractions at the annual Southeastern Livestock Exposition (SLE) Rodeo and helped pack the 8,000-seat arena with fans from around Alabama.
It was a time when television Westerns were hot and the stars spread out across the country during their "off-season" to make some extra money before resuming their shows.
There were also rodeos in the coliseum, of course, but many of those who drove to Montgomery also wanted a chance to watch their favorite TV performers and possibly get their autographs.
TV cowboys appeared at the coliseum from the mid-50s through the early 70s when times and television tastes changed, leading rodeo officials to look for other ways of attracting spectators.
"A decision was made to bring back the real cowboys and that’s the way it’s been for the past 40 years," said Billy Powell, executive director of SLE that puts on rodeos every March.
Since that time, the event has had its ups-and-downs as changing times and trends find ways of cutting into the crowds.
Powell, 66, has spent most of his life either watching rodeos as he grew up or planning ways to help them retain their popularity.
The fact the annual event continues to attract thousands of spectators every year is testimony to the hard work by Powell and others who put the clock aside to get the job done.
The 53rd annual Rodeo and Livestock Week event was different from all of those held in the past because SLE officials decided to try something new — a switch from America’s leading rodeo organization to one that may not be as big, but fields some of America’s finest riders and ropers.
With an attendance increase from the previous year’s rodeo, Powell and other officials are confident they will be able to continue their association with the International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA).
The Saturday night show that always highlights the week-long rodeo drew more than 6,000 spectators which brought smiles from the sponsors.
"Attendance had been on a decline during the past decade and we’ve tried everything we could to figure out what to do differently," Powell said. "I think we’ve found a way to do just that with the IPRA."
From all appearances, the new rodeo arrangement proved to be a hit and SLE leaders think they’ve found an answer to competition from the bigger Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
In a joint statement contained in the program for this year’s rodeo, Powell and SLE President Nealy Barrett pointed out that Garrett Coliseum was also hosting the IPRA’s National All-Region finals.
The two said the new format provided for appearances by the top 140 cowboys to compete in two performances and then hang around to meet their fans.
"No one will come, win money and leave town without being in a performance," Barrett and Powell said.
The first 30 years of the rodeo coincided with the annual Spring Break by the Alabama Education Association. With many school systems switching dates for their Spring Break period, it created scheduling problems for the SLE. That’s why early March has been the time when spring rodeos are held.
One thing that hasn’t changed is wagon trains slowly moving across the state in route to Montgomery for the big event. It’s been that way as long as anyone can remember.
"I’d say Alabama has the biggest if not one of the biggest wagon train features of any rodeo in the country," said Powell. "Houston and San Antonio have parades through town with wagons, but we have more rodeos."
The first rodeo was held in 1958, but the genesis really dates back to 1944 with the creation of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association in Demopolis.
Powell, who was born that year, said a discussion was held at the formation meeting to look for a way to allow youngsters to show off their livestock.
A good place to do it was of primary importance and the Cattlemen’s Association lobbied for legislative funding to build a suitable place.
The state approved $1 million for the coliseum which was built in 1951. Hank Williams gave the first concert and a packed house cheered him throughout the show.
Complaints soon surfaced that not enough events were scheduled and that’s how the annual rodeo was born in 1958.
Many other shows are held at the coliseum, including the circus, but the rodeo and a fall fair continue to attract the most attention.
Powell will never forget the long trip from Washington County, but it was something he had dreamed about all year. It was a 320-mile roundtrip and, without an interstate system at the time, the going was slow and traffic congestion was a given.
"When we’d get to town, my daddy would go to the Montgomery Serum Company for animal supplies and boots," he said. "That’s where I got my boots, too, and Wrangler jeans."
Organizers of those first rodeos were aware of the growing popularity of television Westerns and decided to combine that with the annual event. It was a brilliant decision and paid off handsomely at the box office.
The most popular TV star at the time was Fess Parker, who died earlier this year. During the mid to late-1950s and early-60s, Parker portrayed both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on television.
A relatively-unknown actor was earning his spurs as a Western star in those days. His name was Clint Eastwood who played Rowdy Yates in the popular "Rawhide" series. It was long before Eastwood’s "Dirty Harry" days.
Hollywood’s Western "Royal Family" also came to Montgomery in 1972 as the second decade of the rodeo dawned.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans may have been in the twilight of their long careers, but they still demanded and got a high asking-price for their services.
Powell said they wanted $15,000 for five shows. Back in those days it was more than rodeo organizers had ever paid, but they agreed to "pony up" enough to get them to Montgomery. The two did not disappoint, either.
The most popular Western star by far was Ken Curtis, who portrayed Festus on "Gunsmoke" and was a lead singer for the "Sons of the Pioneers," a popular group appearing in many of Roy Rogers’ films.
Actors who played Miss Kitty, Chester and Doc on "Gunsmoke" also appeared during the annual rodeos along with Lorne Green, Michael Landon and Dan Blocker — the stars of "Bonanza." Cowboy star Rex Allen also was a big hit at the state rodeo.
Parker provided quite a surprise for sponsors the year he appeared, according to Powell, because he declined to ride a horse around the grounds inside the coliseum.
"He said ‘I don’t ride horses,’" Powell said he was told. "He didn’t have much of an act, either, but he did meet his fans because he was Davy Crockett. They put him in a pickup truck to go around inside."
The big question today is the coliseum. It may have been a state-of-the-art facility in 1951, but its age has been showing for years and it’s in dire need of either being replaced or renovated. The barns and other facilities surrounding the coliseum are also in deplorable condition and Powell is leading the charge to do something about it.
When the 2011 rodeo is held, Garrett Coliseum will be 60 years old and light years behind modern facilities in neighboring states.
Fortunately, on April 22, 2010, House Bill 663 was passed by the state legislature. It will provide $800,000 per year through the year 2041 to renovate the coliseum.
Prior to this year’s rodeo, Powell donned his best cowboy clothes, including boots, of course, and went to a Montgomery elementary school to show a group of first graders that cowboys really do exist.
"I told them cattlemen like me are also cowboys who take care of animals," Powell said. "They asked if I had cows and I told them I did. Then they wanted to try on my cowboy hat."
It didn’t take long for Powell to retrieve his hat, "because the way they were handling it, I was afraid it was going to wind up in two pieces."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.