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 entertainment industry.

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 fans.

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 museum audience.

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 time.

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.




Home | About Us | Alumni News | Articles | Photo Gallery