Livestock Show Featured Biggest TV Stars Of 1960s
Television westerners rode to the top of the viewership ratings in the 1960s and one popular stop for its stars was here in Mercedes at the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show.
As the RGVLS Show puts on its 82nd edition this year – and in two separate parts due to COVID-19 – it’s a good time to look back and reflect when some of the biggest TV stars of 1960s television were the headliners at the livestock show. From the mid-1950s through the mid-60s, westerns like “Bonanza,’’ “Gunsmoke,’’ and “High Chaparral’’ were fixtures in American homes.
Younger generations have come to know these shows through nostalgia cable channels like TV Land, but it cannot match what those shows meant in their prime when a top western like “Gunsmoke’’ or “Bonanza’’ could command close to 40 percent TV market share. The stars of “Bonanza’’ were especially big draws at the RGVLS show in the 1960s.
“Bonanza’’ was the nation’s most watched television show from 1964 through 1967. The popular series was set around the time of the Civil War in Nevada on a ranch called the Ponderosa. It starred a widowed father, Ben Cartwright, as portrayed by actor Lorne Greene, and his three sons, with two in particular that became as big stars as Greene – Dan Blocker who played Hoss Cartwright, and Michael Landon’s Little Joe Cartwright.
There were no bigger television stars of that era than Ben, Hoss and Little Joe. Each of these three actors came to Mercedes to be the star headliners of the RGVLS. Greene and Blocker came together in 1963 as the featured stars of the livestock show. Landon was the featured entertainer of the RGVLS in 1965. They left an indelible mark on those who saw them as Valley youngsters marveled at seeing such big television stars in their midst at the livestock show in Mercedes.
“I went to see them,’’ Scott Moss said in a Facebook post on the Rio Grande Valley History Page. “They were our heroes.’’
The accessibility of these actors to their fans is something that would be very unlikely today, but fit the times of the 1960s.
“They were really friendly and casual to everyone, not like big movie stars,’’ recalled Linda Edwards, on the same Facebook page, in recalling those years at the livestock show.
Television historians have described the westerns era as one where there was a strong period of American nationalism when viewers were searching for heroic figures riding to the rescue in good-versus-evil TV plots. Viewers would see such themes weekly on “Bonanza’’ when Ben and his sons would right the wrongs of someone unjustly accused of a crime and save the day before an undeserved hanging was to take place.
The same was true on “Gunsmoke’’ when Sheriff Matt Dillon and his trusty sidekick deputy, Festus Haggen, fended off cattle rustlers and bank robbers. Ken Curtis was the actor behind the beloved character Festus, and he too made an appearance in that golden era at the RGVLS.
“Most of the stars were actors from all the popular westerns,’’ said Ronna Popovich on the Facebook history page. “Festus was a true musician and he could actually sing and play the banjo!’’
These days, country music stars carry the day as featured performers at the RGVLS, which bring its own excitement. For those who lived and experienced the old TV westerns – and got to see its stars up close in Mercedes – it’s a memory that never fades.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos