The visitor’s center at Red Rocks, the historic home of William Allen White, was full on Sunday afternoon for the latest in the Sundays at the Site lecture series.
John Doan, President of the Lyon County Historical Society, presented his ongoing research into the life of Tom Mix, star of Western movies and Wild West shows in the early 20th century.
Doan began his presentation by showing the audience the official Tom Mix video that played in movie theaters after he died in a car crash in 1940. The video, available on YouTube, touted a “true cowboy,” a war hero, a former sheriff and marshal, a movie star and a family man.
“He had a very active press agent,” Doan said.
He then worked his way through Mix’s official biography, reading off an impressive account of his supposed accomplishments and noting, “Not true,” as the audience chuckled.
Mix was born in Pennsylvania — not Texas, as his official biography stated — and served an uneventful three years in the Army during the Spanish American War before deserting to marry his first wife. He was a part-time, temporary town marshal in Dewey, Oklahoma, but his other law enforcement experience was completely made up.
Doan found evidence that Mix was enamored of Wild West shows as a child after seeing Wild Bill’s show and dreamt of being a performing cowboy himself. After leaving the Army, and having his first marriage annulled after a year, Mix moved to Oklahoma, where he was employed by the 101 Ranch.
He soon began competing in rodeos and performing in the ranch’s Western shows. It was there that he learned the skills he would later take to Hollywood.
Mix began making movies in Arizona first, then moved to Hollywood, where he quickly became the most popular Western movie star in the world. By the 1920s, Mix was earning $17,500 per week making movies for Fox.
Doan showed a photo of a famous stunt from a 1923 film, Three Jumps Ahead, directed by John Ford.
In the movie, Mix’s character and his trusty steed, Tony, jump across a canyon in a scene that allegedly took six jumps to perfect for the screen.
“Is this story of Mix jumping the canyon six times true? By now you should be doubting it,” Doan said.
“You know the horse was,” someone from the audience quipped.
Whether or not the legend of how many times Mix and his horse jumped that canyon is accurate, the physicality of Mix’s roles was one aspect of his life that is more true than not.
“On screen he was the Real McCoy,” Doan said. “He performed most of his own stunts and was injured more than 80 times.”
After divorcing his fourth wife and losing most of his wealth in the 1929 stock market crash, Mix relied on performing with circuses and Wild West shows in between making movies to rebuild his fortune. In 1933, he brought his circus to Emporia, where he performed at the Granada Theatre. Two gentlemen in the audience remembered seeing the show when they were children.
Mix’s Emporia performance was written up in The Emporia Gazette, where it was reported that he was engaged in “an altercation” with the local sheriff in the alley behind the Granada Theatre.
According to the report, the sheriff tried to confiscate Mix’s horse, Tony, to settle a debt to the 101 Ranch. Doan speculated that the debt arose from Mix breaking his contract with the 101 Ranch’s Wild West show because the ranch couldn’t pay him.
While Mix was in town, he visited the College of Emporia where he viewed the skeleton of a hippopotamus named Bonton that he rode during one of his shows. The visit was written up in C of E’s College Life, one of the few reliable sources with information about Mix’s life.
“It was challenging to sift through stories told six different ways and determine what was partly true and what was entirely false,” Doan said. “Like many of us, he lived a somewhat strange, but interesting, life.”
Sundays at the Site are scheduled for every 2 p.m. other Sunday in August, September and October. Lectures are held in the Visitors Center at Red Rocks, 927 Exchange Street.