The country's in one hell of a state if you have to explain who Tom Mix was, and this small city out from Pittsburgh hopes that a few more years of annual Tom Mix Festivals will illuminate even the dimmest corners of America.
Not to split hairs, Tom Mix was the most radiant of movie cowboys, with the cleanest western jaw and the steadiest eye and hand, to say nothing of his horse that could stomp bad guys and could swim into a raging torrent to fetch back a baby in a basket headed for the falls.
"I used to get into fights about him," said Dr. Richard F. Seiverling of Hershey. "I was an orphan and maybe Tom Mix in those Saturday afternoon serials was a surrogate father or something. I couldn't have found a better. I didn't have a horse till I was 45 years old, but I had a stick and galloped around with it playing Tom Mix and I wouldn't let anybody else say a word against him."
No telling how many million mature persons around the world still know the Tom Mix club password (from radio days), which begins Ral, and the other kid says Ston, a delicate allusion to Ralston, the cereal company that sponsored him.
Until fairly recently Seiverling was like all the other Tom Mix fans, minding his business at his job with the Pennsylvania education department and dandling his grandchildren, but then came the year 1980, centennial of Tom Mix's birth, and it was too much. Like his hero, Seiverling does not use bad words but he knew that "come hell or high water" there was going to be a Tom Mix celebration that year, and there was, and there has been ever since.
The town takes to the streets, jeans and western garb, plus the largest display of great-aunts and hearty bakers of funnel cakes this side of Dutch Heaven. The center of the hubbub on Brady Street, the main drag, is the Paradise Gulch Saloon, but there are other nuclei as well.
"Don't you go in there," roared a mother to a knee-high investigator heading for the den of iniquity. "You stay right here with Grandpa. I don't see how turning to that stalwart gentleman you coulda missed Bill if you been here since two o'clock," and in she marched to find the missing father.
As homemade sin goes, the Paradise Gulch was pretty enchanting. It's a rickety old building with pine floors once painted green, and green iron columns holding up the roof and peanut hulls deep enough that if you weren't watching your feet you bammed down for the count as one 280-pound fellow did.
Respectable citizens of the town handed out the beer for 50 cents and in the back women sold hot dogs and coffee. A guy with a silver satin shirt took a grim and continual ribbing (silver satin, O what next) and a few women wore 1890-style dresses with what looked like live foxes draped over their shoulders. Furs were more realistic, more frightening, in those days.
But most people in the packed hall sat around at little tables or on rather hard benches, evidently church pews before being promoted, and jabbered or growled away contentedly.
"Why sure, I used to fight him," said a well-muscled man about 75 with steel hair.
"I remember the fourth time I got up off the floor--"
"Yeah," snorted a smart-bottomed stripling of 50 summers, "you showed him all right. You showed him you could stand up four times."
"Heeee," cried a lady at the table, waving a provocative hand.
Wherever six or eight inches was left bare, you found a tot. No saloon in the world ever had so many kids lower than waist-high, most of them with wide eyes and hands grimy with pastry.
Outside the streets were solid with impromptu stands selling Polish and Italian sausages. A woman who reminded one of Bryn Mawr sat carding and spinning wool. You could buy a sheepskin from her if you interrupted her intense concentration at the wheel.
"Don't Pinch the Ping Pong Balls," said one sign, and "No Loitering, No Pets" said a rather unfriendly sign at the General Pershing Hotel, where a rare example of violence had occurred Thursday night right there on Brady Street where the bar is graced with an 1880-type curved bay window with stained glass on top and clear glass beneath.
"This young fella got mad because they wouldn't serve him--oh, yeah, he was good and drunk, that's why--and he busted that big window with his fist, which is why it's all plywood now," said a girl in the hotel. "You wouldn't think any fist could go through that heavy glass but it did, and sure, they tried to arrest him a few blocks off, but it turned out nobody actually seen him when his fist hit the glass so they let him go."
Next door is the Playhouse where you could see William S. Hart in "Tumbleweed," and while it was okay (the hero held the villain under water in the town horse trough until he apologized to a little boy and his dog, both of whom he had treated rudely) it was the Tom Mix films everybody really liked.
"Death of a Traitor" was about this Indian who had left his tribe because these white guys were using him, see, to get control of tribal land, and Tom Mix was on to them. The Indian--well, you had to be there. This film, like most of the roughly 370 Tom Mix made between 1910 and 1935 (the number is not certain, but more than 300 and no more than 400), showed the cowboy tough, generous to a fault, a straight shooter in all respects.
You took an oath if you were in a Tom Mix club to shoot fair and square in school and at play.
"William S. Hart," said Seiverling. "When you see him, you can see how Tom Mix supplanted him."
Lord, yes. Tom was absolutely open, absolutely clean, and a good-looking son of a gun with black hair. He did all his own stunts. He rode old Tony, his great horse, across a 30-foot wide canyon in one movie ("Three Jumps Ahead" in 1923) and a cliff fell on both of them in another movie when dynamite went off too soon. Tony was a glorious horse, but he did keep falling on top of Tom Mix in real life, and the great cowboy had so many broken bones (his shoulders were wired together for a whole year after one accident) that you could acquire a drawing showing where all the cowboy's wounds were, each one numbered, rather like an acupuncture diagram, with legends explaining how each one happened.
These were a trifle exaggerated.
"He did sometimes stretch a point," said Seiverling.
For all his cleanness on the screen--never smoke or drank or used a bad word--Tom Mix had human foibles. When he died (his yellow Cord failed to take a detour on the road at Florence, Ariz., in 1940, and a fancy piece of luggage sailed up and broke his neck) the Army refused to provide a flag for his coffin since Tom Mix had been a deserter.
What a harsh word. Tom Mix was in the Army about four years at the turn of the century and everything was okay till he fell in love with and married a schoolteacher. Some say (and all true believers know) she gave him a hard time and besides her father didn't think Tom Mix was good enough for her, and what with all these pressures Tom Mix did sort of go AWOL and didn't return, but his Army record was just fine till he met that schoolteacher, which goes to show you.
He had five wives in all. Things don't always work out in an imperfect world. It wasn't Tom's fault, really. Women couldn't leave him alone and that is God's truth.
At his peak, a peak that went on for years and years, since Tom Mix was still making movies when he was nearly 60, and still using no stunt men, he made $17,000 a week, the highest paid star of the 1920s, and the savior of Fox (later 20th Century-Fox), which everybody in Hollywood called Mixville.
In 1925 he took Tony on a foreign tour. Tony slept in the Prince of Wales' stables and walked into the grand salon of the Savoy, which never had a dandier four-footed guest. Tom performed, as blurbs of the day testified, before the crowned heads of Europe.
One man at the festival was from Copenhagen, Janus Barfoed, who works in a great film archive there and who personally saved thousands upon thousands of Tom Mix stills during World War II.
"I was just a boy on the eve of the war," he said, "and Tom Mix was my hero as he was every boy's hero. We didn't have Saturday afternoon serials, we had them on Sunday, and every Sunday of the world I saw four of them. Then the Nazis came and the building holding all the Universal and other publicity shots of Tom was destroyed. I was able to get thousands of them."
A man in a sky-blue windbreaker was standing around waiting for the parade in front of the Five Wives Restaurant (run by the American Association of University Women, though girls were not quite as fond of Tom Mix as boys were) with a bronze-colored Yorkshire terrier poking his head out between buttons.
"Thank you, sir," he said, when people complimented him on his mutt.
Tom's dog was Duke, of course, an animal suggesting a Dane, a blown-up boxer, and a streamlined mastiff, with uncropped ears. He was a hero, like Tony, and a great force for good, Duke was.
Tony, the Wonder Horse, came to be known as Tony Senior. There were two other Tonys, one of them a white Arabian, who was all right, but Tony (who was put out to pasture and who died at the age of 33, two years to the day after his master) was something else. Chestnut sorrel with white socks and a frontal blaze ending at the top in a great distinctive diamond shape.
Not many remember Old Blue, his first movie horse, but that was a smart horse, too, the like of which you don't see nowadays when horses are pretty stupid.
The parade got going an hour late because some of the bands couldn't get there on time, but everybody in DuBois knew the new time, and besides they were all standing around eating stuff on the street anyway and an hour more or less made no difference.
"They just go to the Legion Hall," said a teen-ager examining a map of the route.
"What a bitch," said his buddy. You could tell they were used to big-time parades.
Others, however, found the route, which was six or eight blocks long, perfectly adequate, not to say heady. A wonderful Tom Mix look-alike headed it on his horse, followed by Slim Binkley, who for some years was Tom Mix's valet. Slim's horse made an astonishingly impressive pile of droppings in front of the Courier Express building with its Romanesque sandstone arches, and no matter what they say about American youth (so often charged with being dumb) a vast number of trombone players in a number of bands managed not to step in it, without losing beat or general snappiness of march.
"This gets tiresome," said Essie Quinn, one of dozens of townspeople who work all year on the festival, as she and a friend lugged a nail keg around for donations to meet the expense of getting the school bands to town. These ladies were dressed in burlap, and when not marching about with the keg, they usefully scooped up after horses.
A specialty of the festival was funnel cakes, the batter poured out of a large oil can into restraining circular collars in hot fat, resulting in a sort of tangled waffle of great crispness and savor.
"My name's John Phillips," said a substantial-looking citizen in line for the funnel cakes. "German dough is good, too. Heavy. You cook it. Be sure to try some. My family name was Felip, which is Polish. My grandfather was like a lot of Poles, he hated the big city. They were farmers, and they worked some in the coal mines or the small steel mills or, later, the lumbering business.
"At school they used to say 'You're all Americans now, you need an English name,' so my father became Phillips instead of Felip. The Penovsky boys became Penn, and so on. Italians are here, too, and lots of Dutch Germans, not so many English or Scots. Tom Mix's daddy ran the stables for old Mr. DuBois, who was the big man in the lumbering operations around here, and Tom was born just up the road at Mix's Run, named for Amos Mix, his great-grandfather."
Over coffee Richard Seiverling said it used to tee off Tom's mother when he claimed his mother was Cherokee Indian.
"Didn't have a drop of Cherokee in him. His daddy was English, his mother was Dutch German. And Tom did exaggerate. All that bull about the Boer War and riding up San Juan Hill. Nowadays you'd call it all a flat lie, but then it was Hollywood for you."
The lights of the Playhouse dimmed. Tom Mix in "The Miracle Rider." Three boys, 5 to 8 years old, raced up and down the aisles every nine minutes.
"Don't you remember that?" an old-timer said later. "You got so excited you had to go, bitterly begrudging every minute."
The sound left much to be desired, as if the track were on an old record and it took a while to grind it up to full speed. But the theater was utterly perfumed with popcorn. You got extra butter free. Coffee was 15 cents. Mothers took their smallest kids out of strollers, but you still wanted to watch your step going down the aisles. Between the strollers and the little kids racing back and forth to the little boy's room and all that.
Never mind the AWOL and the five wives and a period of drinking too much and the tax evasion case (they sent Tom Mix's accountant to jail, hurray) and a few fibs (he swore he was born in El Paso) and all that. Life is one thing, art another. You don't hear people yammering about Goethe because he married his cook, or Marvell because he died in a tavern brawl. What's left, at the last, is the readiness, the sparkling bravery, the image--the illusion, if you insist--of the best old boy there ever was in all America.