By Pat Veltri
In Memory of Bob Allen, a lifelong Ratonian, who possessed a wealth of knowledge about the town’s history, and didn’t mind sharing it with those of us who were interested.
Somebody dared him to do it, so the young man boldly walked across the dance floor and asked the lady for a dance. She said, “Sure, I’d love to!” Nothing unusual in that – except that the lady was glamorous movie star Dorothy Hart. The place was the Spur Supper Club in Raton, New Mexico, the year was 1951, and the young man was Mickey Baker, now a retired businessman and former Raton mayor. They danced a slow dance to the music of Pete Calderelli’s orchestra featuring Pete and Esther Calderelli, Charles “Bumps” Buttram, and Wallace “Swanee” Swanson. The occasion was the world premiere of the Warner Brothers’ motion picture, RATON PASS, one of the most spectacular events in Raton’s history.
Dennis Morgan, Steve Cochran and Dorothy Hart, who had leading roles in the movie, arrived in Albuquerque on March 6, 1951. They were welcomed by city and state officials, including the governor, Edwin Mechem, who designated the stars as “honorary citizens of New Mexico”. On the evening of March 6th Albuquerque held a “world premiere” of RATON PASS, and the stars appeared on the stage of the Kimo Theater as part of the celebratory activities. The next day, March 7th, they arrived via the Santa Fe Railroad to participate in Raton’s “world premiere” of the movie. The premiere drew a record crowd to Raton, estimated at 5000 people or more.
Some sixty-four years later, bits and pieces of memories, reminiscent of Mickey’s, continue to surface in the minds of several lifelong citizens about the time that Raton was inundated with the compelling atmosphere of Hollywood showiness, glamour, excitement, charm, and romance. In addition to Mickey I visited with several other local folks including Bob Allen, Mary Gayle Baker, Lorraine Buttram, Marilyn Decker, and Dorothy Kay. Their recollections, along with the invaluable archives of The Raton Daily Range, helped me capture the day that Raton was transformed into a mini movie capital, complete with stars of the big screen, star struck celebrity chasers, western aficionados, and curious onlookers.
Thomas W. Blackburn and James R. Webb wrote the screenplay for the movie, which was based on Blackburn’s book, Raton Pass. Blackburn was born on the TO Ranch, homesteaded by Antime J. “Tony” Meloche in 1864. The first two letters in “Tony” are the brand and the name of the ranch. According to a sketch written by Blackburn about his life: “Aware readers may find much of the Meloche Ranch in the grass empire appearing in RATON PASS, and they will be correct, but only partially so. The XO Ranch of my book is a synthesis of several such empires with which I have been extraordinarily familiar.”
RATON PASS, also known as CANYON PASS, was a western, which was filmed in the Gallup, New Mexico area. In this black and white movie, actress Patricia Neal portrayed an adventuress who pursued and wed Dennis Morgan, heir to his aging father’s large XO Ranch. Neal hooked up with Scott Forbes, a visiting banker, to assist her in seizing Morgan’s half of the ranch. When her efforts at legal chicanery failed, Neal hired a gunslinger, Steve Cochran, to help her retain control by force. Dorothy Hart, long secretly in love with Morgan, rallied some of the homesteaders together on his behalf. In the end, Neal and Cochran were eventually overcome and future happiness was assured for Morgan and Hart.
Plans for Celebrating the Premiere
The Range files outlined plans made by the Raton Chamber of Commerce in anticipation of the premiere being held in Raton. The official plans included a parade, a barbeque on Raton Pass, a visit to the TO Ranch by the movie stars, and appearances by the stars on stage at both theaters. The chamber president, Dr. J.Q. Thaxton, appointed a special committee to oversee the event. The appointed committee members were Evlyn Shuler, chairperson, Mayor C.L. Healey, B.E. Gardiner, Stanley Brown, and Frank Pfeiffer. Acting in an advisory capacity were Tom Murphy, owner of the El Raton Theater; Don Walker, publicist for Warner Brothers; Wes Meng, manager of the El Raton; and Bob Sweeten, manager of Murphy Theaters in Alamosa. Tom Murphy stated in The Range that he “had been in touch with the Warner Studio for some time about the premiere” — a clear indication that he was the impetus in arranging for a first showing of the movie to be held in Raton.
The Range reported several preliminary activities connected to the program of events, such as a writing contest for high school students and the selection of “Miss Raton Pass” to act as the official hostess for the premiere. Various towns in Colorado and New Mexico also selected beauty queens to represent their communities at the premiere.
Janet Iacobell of St.Patrick Academy and Marjorie McMillan of Raton High School were the winners of the writing contest.
Under the sponsorship of Xi Zeta Chapter, Beta Sigma Phi, a Raton women’s club, Mary Gayle Hennigan was chosen to preside over the activities as “Miss Raton Pass”. Miss Hennigan’s court included Barbara Mitchell, Barbara Gossett, Christine Jeffers, and Rose Mary Valentini. Mary Gayle Baker (the former Miss Hennigan) recalled, “My attendants and all the girls that were here from surrounding areas enjoyed each other and we had a good time. That was special, I thought.”
In her role as official hostess for the premiere, Mary Gayle greeted the Hollywood stars, attended all of the activities with them, and entertained the visiting beauty queens.
On February 26, 1951 Mayor Clarence Healey issued an official proclamation declaring the week of February 27th to March 7th as RATONPASS Week. Citizens of Raton were “requested to don colorful western attire during that period” and businesses were asked to assist by “decorating their stores and displaying relics of the Old West.”.
The program of events on premiere day kicked off at 11:28 a.m. with the arrival of the film stars from Albuquerque on the Santa Fe Railroad’s El Capitan. Dorothy Hart, Dennis Morgan, and Steve Cochran were met by “Miss Raton Pass”, her attendants, several of the beauty queens, and city and county officials. “That morning we all met at the Hotel Yucca (now International Bank) so that each one of the attendants and everyone could meet the movie stars and we could all get acquainted before everything started – and it was just like everyone had known each other for a long time,” Mary Gayle stated.
The parade, which began at 12:00 noon, was more than a mile long, winding its way from Legion Field all the way through the business district. Leading the parade was the American Legion Color Guard followed by Mary Gayle (riding a palomino horse), who was escorted by Mayor C.L. Healey, and Stanley Brown, parade marshal. Other parade attractions included the movie stars, beauty queens, four musical organizations (including band teacher Pat Chavez’s junior and senior high bands), over 100 horseback riders, Boy and Girl Scouts, floats entered by Raton businesses, and other units.
Mary Gayle remembered that before the parade began, she presented a bouquet of fifty-three carnations to Dorothy Hart, one carnation for each year that the Raton Greenhouse was in business. Coincidentally, the business was celebrating its anniversary during the premiere activities.
Ratonian Dorothy (McPeek) Kay was ten years old in 1951, and was a member of Columbian Elementary School’s Brownie Troop. She reminisced, “My leader was Mrs. Fields Black and her assistant was Mrs. Pete Calderelli. In our group was Judy Fox, Eleanor Calderelli, Rhonda Furhman, Dorothy Wilson, Deborah Lee (I do not remember her last name), and myself. The stars were riding in cars and we were walking. Dennis Morgan and Dorothy Hart got out of the cars and they held hands with the Brownies, switching off with different Brownies.” Dorothy, as a ten year old, proudly held hands with actor Dennis Morgan. “I was very excited because this special man was holding my hand,” she said. “With all of the excitement and the hundreds of people, it was a lot for a ten year old to take in.”
Lorraine Buttram, who was working as a desk clerk at the Hotel Yucca, remembered that her husband, Charles, portrayed gunslinger “Doc Holliday” on one of the business floats in the parade. “It was a real exciting time,” she said. “There were so many people downtown.”
In 1951 retired businessman Bob Allen was twenty-five years old and owned a snazzy 1949 green and white Oldsmobile convertible with a red leather interior. His friend Odell Thomson, whose family owned the TO Ranch at that time, was the proud owner of a Cadillac convertible. The two friends willingly donated the use of their cars, at the request of premiere officials, to transport stars and beauty queens in the parade.
The stars were guests of honor at a barbeque at the top of RatonPass, sponsored by the Raton Home Demonstration Club. Tickets were sold for one dollar each. Ticket sales were limited to 500 people, but The Range reported that about 650 people actually attended the barbeque, which was held near the location of the present day Port of Entry.
The TO Ranch
Later in the day, the stars visited the TO Ranch, one of New Mexico’s most famous cattle spreads. Beginning in the 1930s, the TO began developing a reputation for Hereford cattle. With permission from the American Hereford Association, TO C-Domino, a prize Hereford bull owned by the ranch, was re-christened TO Raton Pass in commemoration of the movie. Dorothy Hart did the honors, using a cow horn filled with spring water from the top of Raton Pass.
According to the schedule of events listed in The Range, a dinner was held at the Hotel Yucca for the stars and queens, followed by entertainment in front of the El Raton Theatre. The entertainment included the Taos Indian Dancers, Adams State College El Parnaso Singers and Dancers, and Ted Reimer and His Official Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. There were also other parties and dances after the premiere activities. Ratonians were invited to dance on the glass floor of the Crystal Cocktail Lounge to the music of Squeeze Ruiz and His Orchestra, or they could “cut a rug” at the Black Hood to music by the Frisco Canyon Ramblers.
The premiere showing of RATON PASS was shown simultaneously at the El Raton and the Shuler Theater, at 7:30 p.m., in anticipation of an overflow crowd. Moviegoers enjoyed the premiere showing for the price of sixty cents per ticket. The name El Raton, on the marquee, was changed to RATON PASS, in neon, for the occasion.
Review of the Movie
The Raton Daily Range, March 8, 1951, reporting the success of the premiere events and the movie itself, stated: “The movie, which told a largely fictitious tale of a range war – complete to cold-blooded killings and horseback chases – in the early days of the XO (TO) Ranch seemed to be well-received. It was a little more pretentious than the average Hollywood western.”
Local “movie critics” offered the following opinions:
- “It was a good movie, but on a scale of 1 to 5, it would be a 2 ½.” Mickey Baker
- “It was good, but not spectacular.” Marilyn Decker
- “The movie was a second rate western.” Bob Allen
- “It was just a western movie. I don’t remember it being outstanding.” Lorraine Buttram
- “As a child I found it very exciting. It was a good movie for its time.” Dorothy Kay
The “Skinny” on the Stars
Overall, the stars made a favorable impression on the townspeople who were lucky enough to meet them.
Mary Gayle described Dorothy Hart as a “beautiful lady”. She said that Dennis Morgan was good looking, soft spoken, and a perfect gentleman. Steve Cochran was “a nice fellow”. She stated, “They all fit right in with all of us here – they were just western people right along with the rest of us”.
Mickey’s impression of Dorothy Hart was that she looked like a combination of actresses Ruth Roman and Elizabeth Taylor. “She was a real pleasant person,” Mickey said. “You wouldn’t know that she was a movie star”. The actors were also pleasant, he noted.
At the time of the premiere Bob was engaged to Gail Hunter of Trinidad, Colorado. He asked her permission to show Dorothy Hart around Raton. Dorothy Hart was “very attractive”, Bob recalled, “probably about five feet ten inches tall”. Miss Hart was sported around town in Bob’s Oldsmobile convertible. They made a trip to the top of Goat Hill to give her a good view of the city. Bob noted that Dennis Morgan could sing well. He had a full face and was tall. “In person, the stars did look like Hollywood celebrities,” stated Bob.
A Day to Remember
Mickey said that the party at the Spur Supper Club and the other activities gave him, and other citizens, an opportunity “to see what a real movie star looked like”. “In those days”, Mickey reflected, “a movie star was something.” “Most of us around here just stayed here; we didn’t do much traveling. We couldn’t afford to.”
The Raton Daily Range, March 8, 1951, recapped the momentous premiere day by stating, “It was a day and night long to be remembered in Raton.”
*PHOTOS ARE COURTESY OF MARILYN DECKER, SARA KOWALSKI, JANET MARCHIONDO AND KATIE MARCHIONDO