NUMBER ONE COWBOY
By Donna Hunt, Herald Democrat
Billy Holcomb of Denison probably knows more about country
western movie stars and western movies than anyone around. Billy
started at an early age going to Western movies and absorbing
everything about them.
Recently he was the lecture series speaker at the Red River
Historical Museum in Sherman and shared information, magazines,
posters, press books and other memorabilia with others who have an
interest in the western movie stars and their contributions to the
Billy's idol has always been Gene Autry and with his collecting he
has made hundreds of scrapbooks that he's shared with other Autry
Western movies and their stars aren't Billy's only interest. He's a
country western singer and guitar picker himself. He's written lots
of songs and poems since the mid-1960s - all with the
country-western theme - and he shared a number of them with the
And that's not all Billy does. In 1999 Billy wrote, and Mavis Anne
Bryant edited, a book, "Theater Row: Movie Palaces of Denison,
Texas" with loads of pictures and history of all the movie theaters
in town. The hardback book was published by Denison Heritage Inc.,
and a few copies still are available at the Red River Railroad
Museum in the Katy Depot.
Billy had a western band with other local musicians in the 1980s and
made several recordings. He holds lots of awards given by the Texoma
Music Association, including top songwriter, Band of the Year and
Hall of Famer.
While Gene Autry dominated Billy's program at the museum, he also
talked about my favorite western star, Roy Rogers, who during the
1950s spent a lot of time in Denison, and many others who became
stars through the years.
Billy described Saturdays when he was a youngster as "Cowboy
Saturday" when westerns were playing in at least two of Denison's
movie houses, the Superba and the Rio. Frequently they also were at
the Star (later the State) or the Rialto. That was Billy's day to
spend the money he had made on his paper routes so that he could
follow his stars for a dime and later for a quarter.
"All the cowboys have gone away," Billy said, adding that they were
his heroes. "Some people think it's idol worship," Billy commented,
but said he was interested in history and the cowboys had a special
place in the history of entertainment since 1903 when Bronco Bill
Anderson starred in "The Great Train Robbery." Anderson went on to
make about 300 movies in the silent film days.
In 1926 through 1928 the top box office attraction was Tom Mix who
brought respectability to the western. Mix was killed in Arizona in
1940. Another Western star, Fred Thompson died in his 20s after
stepping on a nail in 1928. He made about 27 movies before he faded
into the past.
There were George O'Brien, Buck Jones and so many more before Billy
came along. Then there were Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy
Rogers, Bob Steele, Charles Sterrett, Tim Holt and on and on.
Billy said the last living cowboy was Monty Hale, who starred in 19
movies. He was still alive last year, but in bad shape. Billy was in
California at a Gene Autry event that after much prompting Hale
attended. He was sitting there at the event when in walked his
beautiful leading lady, 82 year old Adrian Booth. He had a great
Hal was the first cowboy that Billy walked up to when he was
visiting at the Superba Theater in Denison. Billy got his autograph.
As a youngster Billy cut everything he could find out of magazines
about all the western stars and made many booklets about many of
them. After meeting Hale in California he sent him one that he had
put together about him. Then he wrote a little booklet about Hale.
In 2009 he found more material and sent it to Hale. Both Hale and
his wife wrote Billy a letter and included an autographed picture.
Billy received the letter with the autograph the day after Hale
died. Hale was Billy's first autograph and Billy was the last person
for whom he autographed a picture.
Billy entertained the museum audience when he accompanied himself on
the guitar and sang songs and read poetry that he had written. He
said he told his mother one time that he wanted to write songs and
sing them. His mom told him if the Lord wanted him to do that he
would. He's been doing that since the mid 1960's and his repertoire
includes many gospel numbers.
Hopalong Cassidy made a lot trips to Dallas and Billy was there many
times to see him. He said that Hopalong was the first western
television star. He made two world tours in 1950 through 1952 and
received 88 percent of the viewing audience. He passed away in 1989.
Billy has donated a lot of things to the Gene Autry festival in
Tioga, to Gene Autry, Okla., and Kenton, Ohio. He has become a
kind-of spokesman for Kenton, Ohio's festival.
In 1935 the three western heroes were Tom Mix, Buck Jones and Fred
Thompson and in later years there were Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and
George O'Brien. Then Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers
rode their beautiful horses onto the scene and were the major
western stars. Gene, Roy and Hoppy ran neck and neck year in and
year out in popularity, Billy said.
Gene actually had three horses named Champion. The first died, the
second was too rambunctious and the third was his standby.
Gene Autry was the number one cowboy for seven years after taking
the world by storm. He was right up there not only as a cowboy, but
as an actor with Clark Gable, and other big stars.
Gene may have been the top cowboy, but there is no doubt that Billy
Holcomb is the number one cowboy fan of all times.