We all have a hero, someone we’d like to meet in person someday. I met mine for the first time on our grainy black and white TV in our Long Island home when I was all of four years old. The first episode of Gunsmoke aired on September 10, 1955. That evening, Marshal Matt Dillon, played by the 6’7” blue-eyed Minnesotan, James Arness, was introduced into our living rooms. He stayed there for twenty years.
Throughout my teen years in the sixties, my admiration for James Arness remained steadfast. I lived for Saturday nights and my weekly dose of Gunsmoke. Tuesday and Thursday evenings were also special, the evenings the half hour reruns, renamed Marshal Dillon, aired.
Even though raised on the east coast, I’d been in love with westerns and the west all of my life. I moved to Colorado in my early twenties, ironically, to a small town on the eastern plains where another Gunsmoke main character, Ken Curtis, had grown up.
Gunsmoke went off the air in 1975 and those shows became only memories. That following year, I heard portions of the movie How the West was Won would be filmed at Bent’s Old Fort, a historic site a mere ten miles from my home. Jim Arness starred in that movie, playing the part of rugged mountain man Zeb Macahan. Oh, man, I was finally going to get to see my lifelong hero!
It was thrilling to stand on the balcony of the fort, look down on the courtyard and observe the big man in action. Still, there was no opportunity to speak to him, shake his ham-sized hand, or smile into those huge blue eyes.
When Gunsmoke came back on the air in this area on TVLand, I invested in a new VCR and a multitude of video tapes. One night I was checking the internet for anything Gunsmoke and came across the Delphi Gunsmoke message board, an internet group that shared about everything Gunsmoke. It was there that I learned that James Arness had written his autobiography and was hosting a booksigning at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. Now was my chance to meet my hero in person, face to face!
Even though I was fifty years old at the time, I tingled with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning as I walked into the auditorium and saw Jim sitting on the stage, dressed as Marshal Matt Dillon, waiting to greet his fans. We had each been assigned a number, and mine was thirteen. I had to wait for twelve people to have their turn before I got mine! There were a hundred and fifty people in line behind me, so I carefully planned the words I would say in the thirty seconds I would probably get with him.
When it was my turn to speak to Mr. Arness, he and his lovely wife, Janet, made me feel like I was the most important fan in the whole room. We visited about the town where I live and the fact that I know many people who were personal friends with Ken Curtis. He loved to joke, and his blue eyes sparkled with laughter.
Our day didn’t end with the booksigning. Jim, Buck Taylor, who also starred in Gunsmoke as gunsmith Newly O’Brien, Bruce Boxleitner, star in How the West was Won, and Jim Byrnes, who wrote some of the Gunsmoke episodes, held a question and answer panel. It was such fun to listen to the actors answer questions from the audience and share stories of their acting experiences together.
I had the privilege of returning to LA in 2003 to celebrate Jim’s 80th birthday along with other fans. Our Delphi Gunsmoke group presented Jim with a statue of a horse and rider, which one of our members carried all the way from Massachusetts on the Amtrak! I compiled a book of birthday cards and letters from those who were unable to attend, but wanted to send their greetings. I was honored to present that to him. We had planned to present the gift and book during the event, but his PR manager arranged for our group to meet with him privately in a small room away from the crowd.
James Arness passed in 2011, but his name lives on in television history, representing justice, patriotism, self-respect, and worthy of the highest admiration. In all the parts he has played, he has portrayed characters that emulate our basic American principles and values. I am so blessed that one of my prayers was answered, to meet my lifelong hero in person!
I would like to offer a $10.00 Amazon gift card as a giveaway. Hopefully, the winner will use it to enjoy a 19th century historical novel set in the American west. There is plenty of wonderful work by talented authors out there to choose from!
Patti still loves Gunsmoke and likes to write Gunsmoke fan fiction. She plans to complete her contemporary and historical western novels in progress and pursue publication someday. Currently, she hosts Step Into the Light, a blog talk radio interview format show that serves to help people out of darkness into the light of God’s love, grace, and faithfulness. Connect with Patti on her website (www.pattishene.com), her personal Facebook page, http://ow.ly/T2uyj and her Step Into the Light Facebook page at http://ow.ly/T2uSx or on Twitter http://ow.ly/T2v7o.