Seventy-four years ago in March 1942 a local theater magnate, a Shetland pony farmer, and Hollywood studio executives turned a 1-minute short film into a county-wide contest built on patriotism, nostalgia, and a love for little ponies. In a series of 3 blog posts, we will learn about this bizarre and amazing event. Today we discuss the origins of the film. Stay tuned in the coming days for more!
“Texas is ranch country, and we felt that no other pony farm was in as fine a setting as Mr. Williams.”
An Unusual Occupation: The Williams Shetland Pony Farm
Will Williams was the son of native Dentonite Alex Williams, the first sheriff of Denton after the Civil War. A prominent citizen and businessman, Williams first became involved in the Shetland Pony business in 1905 when he bought his children several of the small animals, ordered directly from the Shetland Islands. As his children outgrew the ponies and the animals became valuable as an import, Williams acquired his first stallion and became one of the country’s most active breeders. Williams sold ponies to people all over the world and many reportedly ended up in the circus, movies, and other entertainment venues.In 1942, the Will Williams pony farm caught they eye of Jerry Fairbanks Studios in Hollywood.
From 1937 through 1949, Fairbanks Studios produced a series of theatrical short subjects, “Unusual Occupations,” for Paramount Pictures. Stories in this series featured eccentric, remarkable, and “unusual” people throughout the country who had chosen for themselves exotic jobs and strange hobbies. Potential subjects were nominated for inclusion by local Chambers of Commerce, theater managers, newspapers, magazines, and by the unusual people themselves. Once a story had been selected it was then marked with a pin and slip of paper on a large map of the United States on the research department wall. Action was taken when the clusters of pins “become thick enough to warrant sending one of the mobile photographic units to that particular area to photograph the stories.” It’s unclear who submitted Williams for consideration, but when producer Fairbanks learned of the farm he dispatched cameramen to Denton to shoot the farm.
The film shows Williams caring for Shetland ponies on his 640-acre farm in Denton, Texas. His 5-year-old granddaughter, Kay Williams, rides and feeds one of these “little ponies for little people.” Williams is also seen performing a favorite trick which involved teaching his herd of ponies to stop everything and come running whenever he rang the bell and said “Hey!” Of the film and its production, the Denton Record Chronicle later reported that an “expensive color camera made a movie set out of this pastoral farm” and that “Williams and his granddaughter, Kay Williams, became actors for the day. The ponies were slicked up and gradually grew accustomed to the strange equipment. Denton was in the movies!”
The stills below are taken from the film which is available for check-out on DVD at the University of North Texas Media Library (DVD 16659R)
“It Started With a Bang!” Patriotism and Ponies for Little People
On January 29, 1942, the Denton Record Chronicle announced that J.P. Harrison (Interstate Theaters) had secured from Paramount the world premiere of the short subject featuring the Williams Pony Farm for March 5, 1942. The Chronicle reported that the film which “presents in color and natural surroundings the beautiful little ponies on the Williams farm which has become known over the world” was awarded a special preview screening in Denton “through prompt action on the part of J.P. Harrison, manager of Interstate Theatres.” A dizzying whirlwind of publicity immediately followed as new methods of promoting both the film and sponsoring local businesses were developed. Throughout the month of February there were near daily articles, advertisements, and classified advertisements related to the event. Less than two months had passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Denton County residents’ patriotism was reflected in their “Most Popular and Patriotic Boy and Girl” contest. Winners of the contest would be announced at the Texas Theater and would be awarded a Shetland pony. Denton County residents were encouraged by the Chronicle to “Vote today!” and earn voting coupons by shopping at local businesses including the City Drug Store and Tobin Drug Store, the Williams Store, and on Theatre Row. Local boys and girls including Bobby McMakin ,Mack Kenneth Foster, Quincy Merl Hughes, and Patsy Manson posted classified advertisements soliciting votes. Webber Jan Farris even involved her father. Her advertisement in the Chronicle on February 9th reads, “My dad said he would help me in the ‘Patriotic and Popular Boy and Girl’ Contest in which I am trying to win the pony, and if you have any votes I could have if you will telephone he will come for them, and I would certainly appreciate your help.” As the contest neared its end on February 26th, the 10 highest-ranking boys and girls (of the 339 registered contestants) were named on-stage at the Texas Theatre. The Record Chronicle reported on March 2nd that the contest’s official vote tabulator, Boyd Vaughn, had stayed up late to count the votes and the four highest ranking contestants (of 300 remaining) would be selected and presented on-stage at the Texas on March 3rd .
By February 6th, a sub-contest had emerged to name the Shetland ponies which would be awarded to the most patriotic boy and girl. The advertisement, which called for names for “Two Beautiful Registered Shetland Ponies” promised two $5 defense saving stamps for the two best names with names of a “patriotic nature preferred.” Eligible names would be reviewed by the Texas Theatre’s unnamed “Pony Contest Manager.”
Tomorrow we’ll learn about Denton County’s even more ambitious plans for the “Unusual Occupations” premiere.
If you have any additional information about this film or the pony express event, please contact Laura Treat at email@example.com or by phone at 940.369.5293.
If you or a family member were part of the extravaganza and have home movies, photographs, or other memorabilia, please consider bringing them down to UNT for a free community digitization event on Saturday April 30, 2016 from 10 a.m. – 5 p..m. More details about this event are available with Laura Treat or on the project’s Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/SpotlightNTX