In yesterday’s blog post, we learned about the origins of the “Unusual Occupations” film and how its premiere slowly grew to become a county-wide event. In today’s post, we’ll learn about how a group of children made the 37.8 minute ride from Dallas to Denton on a team of Shetland ponies.
“Denton resembled Hollywood and New York combined and that the entire project was done in the best tradition”
Manny Reiner, Publicity Manager, Paramount – New YorkParamount Studios publicist Tom McKean of New York worked alongside local businessmen to create anticipation for the world premiere of “Unusual Occupations.” On February 11th, McKean invited Denton County to submit the names of persons with odd occupations in writing or by telephone to the Texas Theater. The person with the “oddest occupation” would be given a theater pass.Then on February 19th, McKean traveled from New York to Denton to meet with Interstate Theater executives and members of the publicity and entertainment bureau of the Chamber of Commerce. At this meeting, a very strange and fantastic publicity stunt was concocted by the businessmen–local boys and girls would recreate the Pony Express on Shetland ponies to transport the new film from Dallas to the City of Denton! The next day, the Denton Record Chronicle reported that a cameraman from Paramount News and photographers from Life magazine would be on hand for the start and finish of the pony express, which would travel in relays from Dallas to Denton. At this stage in the planning, known participants included the Dallas Round-Up Club and the Denton City and County Round-Up Clubs. Denton County residents were “urged to be on horseback to take part in the affair which is being planned to given Denton nation-wide publicity.” As the month progressed, it was rumored that Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, Oklahoma Governor Leon Phillips and even movie star Gene Autrey had been invited. It was announced on February 25th that the first pony rider would leave the Paramount Film Exchange on South Harwood Street in Dallas and ride to City Hall where he would pick up greetings from Mayor Lee Preston and a check from Dallas Times-Herald amusements editor to the Record Chronicle in payment of a bill. Ponies would be changed several times throughout the journey and the transfer of pony and rider “will be made in true pony express style, with the old and new rider riding side by side and switching the saddle bag.” The ponies would receive an official escort from city police and the state highway patrol. Residents could gather at the Interstate Theatres to hear announcements from the police escorts via loud speaker. It appears that there may have been another contest to determine who would ride in the Pony Express and the February 26th Record Chronicle listed the contestants as “Betty Jean Abbey (Route 1, Denton)” whose specialty was riding bareback, Mac Foster (611 Crawford St.), Bobby Castleberry (214 Highland Ave.), Curtis Erwin (North Locus St.) and Billy Kirkendall (Cumberland Presbyterian Home). Pony-less children were encouraged to bring stick horses to the event for prizes awarded by Paramount News and Life Magazine photographers. Real ponies would be on hand for free rides in front of the Texas Theatre. The two colleges in Denton became involved with the extravaganza as well. The Denton Lass-o announced on February 17th that five students from the Texas State College for Women (now TWU)–Ernestine Ashe, Alice Jane Baird, Betty Buchanan, Anna Ruth Ashe, and Lena Marie Adams–would ride with Governor Stevenson in front of “approximately 500 on horseback” to greet the arriving Shetland Pony Express. Not to be outdone, the North Texas State Teachers College (now UNT) announced shortly after on February 26th that their own students had been selected “as part of a mounted ‘guard of beauty’ for Governor Stevenson.” NTSTC students included Jackie Foster (Denton), Sue STubbs (Dallas), Jackie McKay (Madisonville), Jewel Taylor (Coriscana), and Jo Frances Worley. The Texas Theater even arranged for world champion pony rider and roper, 9-year-old Wayne McGill to give a demonstration on the courthouse lawn. The Record Chronicle reported on March 2nd that a “full-blooded descendant of the Choctaw Indian tribe” would also be presented “as an unusual feature of the world premiere…He will furnish entertainment on the lawn of the courthouse while the pony express riders bring the film from Dallas to Denton.” It was reported by the Chronicle that “the Chief” would bring trophies he made to be exhibited on the lawn including hatchets, bows and arrows, and “other hunting utensils.” It was raining on the morning of Wednesday, March 04, 1942, when at 9 a.m. people began gathering on Main Street in Dallas to watch as the long journey of the Shetland Pony Express began. The first rider was Mack Foster of Denton County. Theater executives gathered at the Paramount Film Exchange on South Harwood Street to watch Foster begin his journey. In this journey through Dallas, he was escorted by men and women on horseback, several police cars, a Paramount news crew with a camera mounted onto their station wagon, a Life Magazine photographer, and several free-lance photographers. Foster advanced a couple of blocks to City Hall where the Chief of Police J. M. Welch handed him letters to be delivered to Denton officials.”The route of the new highway out of Dallas” was chosen and Foster and went as far as Commerce Street and Industrial Boulevard before the first exchange was made. Curtis Erwin (on pony Jake) took the saddle bag containing the film and letters and continued along the route. Paramount News Cameraman Jack Whitman traveled by station wagon 50 feet in front of the group in order to get traveling shots. Of the shooting, Paramount and Life cameramen later told the Record Chronicle that the rain had impacted their ability to shoot certain scenes. Whitman described an incident just outside of Dallas when he noticed a field of Shetland ponies off of the highway and thought it might make good film to have the fielded ponies meet with the galloping pony express riders. “Cars along the way with other photographers paused in interest,” the Chronicle reported, “but it was a bad guess–the fenced-in ponies merely looked up in envy.” Ponies were changed throughout the journey, about every 2 to 3 miles. C. A. Williams and Sheriff Roy Moore drove ahead to supervise the changing of the ponies at designated stations along the highway. In Carrolton, a large crowd gathered in the middle of town for Major J.C. Davis and Betty Jean Abbey–a bareback rider and the only girl in the contest. In Lewisville “a herd of wild horses were driven across the street…so that the Paramount News camera might get shots suggestive of the western days.” Crowds on Main Street watched Mayor M.H. Milliken greet Betty Jean. Emmy Lou Hentley and Hoyt Reed posed for a trick pony shot. Other young riders listed in local reports include Bert Gibbs, Jr., Curtis Erwin, and Tommy and Billy Lucas. At the Texas Theatre, a replica of a pony express relay station was erected as the background for the ceremonies. Denton County residents, including children riding real and stick-horses, crowded into downtown Denton as they waited for the final rider to arrive.The Chronicle observed that “Cowboy boots, jeans, gaily colored shirts, and the 10-gallon Stetsons formed the correct costume for the day.” Texas Governor Stevenson arrived from Dallas in a state police car and visited both colleges briefly before returning downtown. He then lunched with the film’s star, Will Williams, at the Southern Hotel before leaving for an event in Austin. Crowds watched as the 9-year-old trick rider, Wayne McGill, performed on the courthouse lawn. The Chamber of Commerce and Town and Country Round-Up Club prepared barbecue for riders to be served at the county fair grounds. State Senator R.C. Lanning also came to town for the ceremonies (and to visit his daughter at school at NTSTC). Miss Nan Simpson was named winner of the “Unusual Occupation” contest carried in the Chronicle and was awarded $5 prize and a month’s pass to Theater Row.* It’s unclear what her entry was and why it won. By 1 p.m. that day “a world record was broken as the pony express thundered across the finish line at the Texas Theatre” at 1 p.m. with a total travel time of 2 hours and 37.8 minutes. Because the Texas planned to show Whitman’s Paramount news reel at the world premiere the next day, Whitman was also in a hurry and had to rush back to Dallas to process the film, insert narrative, and return the reel back to Denton before the following afternoon (“Fast Work to Bring Paramount Film of Pony Express Here”). That evening, a party sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce was held for local businessmen of Denton County and out-of-town guests at the Southern Hotel. The city of Denton was already receiving accolades for the event from Paramount studio executives as far away as New York.
“It is a tribute to the civic interests of Denton. The Shetland Pony farm is remarkable and this should bring national recognition to both the farm and to Denton.”A New Yorker writing for the Record Chronicle perhaps best summed up the event and the spirit it embodied:
R.J. O’Donnell, Vice President and General Manager, Interstate and Texas Consolidated Theaters
“This was Denton, this was friendship, this was a day of days. And to this New Yorker visiting Texas for the first time realized that the song ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ is aptly titled, for the heart of Texas is deep and the heart of Texas is open and the heart of Texas is as big as the state” (“Denton Opens Eyes of Easter Reporter, Here for Movie Event”).