Making Movies, Then As Now

Because I’m something of a history buff when it comes to Southern New Mexico, as well as an advocate for filmmaking in the area, I often stumble upon fascinating tidbits of information that combine the two interests. One of the perks of my profession, which often finds me sitting in airless rooms, while sifting through boxes of dusty files and photos in search of such treasures. It may be a digital world, but some information can only be retrieved the old-fashioned way.

A while back, while on just such a scavenger hunt, I came into the possession of a set of pictures that actually caused me to suck all of the air out of the room. Well, what there was of it to begin with. The photos were documentation of an event that, up until that moment, had only been spoken of in passing, like one would the sighting of a rare animal or La Llorona: the filming of a pilot for a television series, starring Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, shot in and around Las Cruces in 1963.

Yep, that's Jackie Cooper on the "set" of the pilot film "Calhoun: County Agent," actually the Branigan Library in downtown Las Cruces.
Yep, that’s Jackie Cooper on the “set” of the pilot film “Calhoun: County Agent,” actually the Branigan Library in downtown Las Cruces.

I’d read about it in articles written by my fellow film scribe and historian Jeff Berg, when talking about filmmaking in New Mexico, but never with much detail. The pilot was titled “Calhoun: County Agent,” and had been slated as an entry by CBS during the 1963-64 season. For reasons unknown to Berg or anybody else who remembers the event, the pilot was never picked up, so it faded from memory and soon was all but forgotten.

Recently I was reminded by a reader, who responded to my publishing one of those found images in my Looking Back column in the Las Cruces Bulletin, that a book had been written on the subject, called “Only You, Dick Daring!” by Merle Miller and Evan Rhodes. This too had been mentioned by Berg in passing, but for whatever reason, I had never picked up on it. Probably because it’s a terrible title for a book. Sorry, Merle…

The author himself, Merle Miller, signing autographs for one of his novels at the Mesilla Book Center in November 1963.
The author himself, Merle Miller, signing autographs for one of his novels at the Mesilla Book Center in November 1963.

It wasn’t until the reader sent me an excerpt from a review by one of my career heroes, Rod Serling, that the connection was made. Serling had called it “one of the funniest books ever written about the industry,” in a place he’d never heard of called, you guessed it, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Suddenly I was traveling through another dimension – the ah HAH! dimension. Some of you may be familiar with it. Sparks flew and the muses wept. Okay, maybe not wept, but they definitely rolled their eyes as if to say, “it’s about damned time that lightbulb went off, thicko.”

With my new found knowledge and the help of the eighth muse – Google, the muse of lazy researchers – I discovered that the book in question was a national bestseller when it dropped in late 1964, mainly because it was a scathing tell-all about the television industry and, even then, people loved it when mud was flung, particularly at the denizens of the ivory tower. Even better, it was written by the screenwriter himself, Miller, which is about as “inside” as one can get to a process. Best of all, “the little town of Las Cruces, New Mexico,” figured prominently in the bailiwick. I knew I had to read it.

Actors and film crew stayed at the Mission Inn on Main Street which, quite frankly, hasn't changed at all in the last 50 years.
Actors and film crew stayed at the Mission Inn on Main Street which, quite frankly, hasn’t changed at all in the last 50 years.

I ordered a used copy from Amazon (the handmaiden to Google, from whence all good things come, along with a lot of useless things we can definitely do without) and began my travel back in time. Here’s what I discovered during that trip:

1. The entire reason Calhoun was based in the Mesilla Valley was because, in the early stages of research, Miller was told by a representative at the USDA that the penultimate source of information when it came to agriculture in the southwest was John White at New Mexico State University. An early research trip by Miller and star Jackie Cooper clinched the deal, as both fell in love with the area and the people.

2. Miller describes Deming as “without much grace” and exhibiting “the harsh air of the Texas panhandle.” That was in 1963. My few forays into the town of Deming have shown that not much has changed in the past 51 years. Obviously, I’m not a fan.

3. The Mission Inn, on south Main Street, though never glamorous, once had “an excellent coffee shop and restaurant.” Who knew?

4. Though he calls Mesilla “a dusty relic of a village,” he also claims “the Mesilla Design and Book Center is one of the best bookstores in the Southwest. An accomplished novelist in his own right, Miller, at the insistence of the bookstore owner Betty Bowen, scheduled a book signing in that shop to coincide with the filming. Now in possession of many of the signed books Bowen collected, local authoress Denise Chavez still has at least one of Miller’s novels signed not just by him, but Cooper, Stanwyck, Barbara Luna and Howard Duff. Or so it’s rumored.

5. Pitch meetings have always been both tense and tedious.

6. Given ample space to do so, all writers LOVE to talk about their humble beginnings and how they overcome the adversity of growing up “strange” to become a successful – although burdened by neurosis and, apparently, unable to reconcile with their past – and gifted author.

Actors Howard Duff and Barbara Stanwyck shoot a scene on the plaza in Mesilla.
Actors Howard Duff and Barbara Stanwyck shoot a scene for the pilot, just off the plaza in Mesilla.

7. A better title for the book might have been “God bless you, Merle,” considering it is said more times than a baseball team has appendages throughout the entire tome.

8. The film crew was only in Las Cruces for about a week in November 1963. It was only outdoor scenes that were shot here and most of those were shot on the Mesilla Plaza, though the Branigan Library (now the Branigan Cultural Center in downtown Las Cruces) stood in for the county offices, which we were to believe were sitting on the plaza, right about where the Billy The Kid shop is located.

9. Miller’s book should be a must read for film students. It’s a cruel world and an even crueler industry. Nobody knows that better than an industry veteran.

10. Though humorous, Miller’s bitterness about the experience comes through in his writing. “Forget about the truth,” he says in one instance. “We’ve all got to eat a peck of dirt before we die, and tell a thousand lies.” But that’s just for starters, he infers, because once that “truth” is realized, then you have to deal with “the disease of the committee system.” I’d like to say, given my own experiences within the industry, that he was overstating the case. Truth is, he wasn’t.

11. The pilot, which is available in its entirety on YouTube, is actually much better than it could have been, considering the political machinations and infighting that took place behind the scenes. The music is a little hokey in that way only black and white television can be, but the characters are compelling and the acting above par. Lots of recognizable faces, too. The mystery of why it was never picked up by the studio is pretty plainly spelled out by Miller.

12. It’s a pretty good bet that Matthew Wiener, the creator of “Mad Men,” read this book.

Duff, something of a heart throb in his day, signing autographs for his fans.
Duff, something of a heart throb in his day, signing autographs for his fans.

For the neophyte, “Only You, Dick Daring!” beautifully describes what it was like working in television during the golden age and it pulls no punches in doing so. For the battle scarred, it may hit a little close to home, in much the same way “Mad Men” does.

For the armchair historian, however, it paints a vivid portrait, in very few words, of how the Mesilla Valley was perceived by Hollywood and Madison Avenue during that time. There are enough recognizable people (including NMSU President Roger Corbett and then dean of agriculture Philip Leyendecker) and places (the Mission Inn, the Amador Hotel and La Posta among them) to delight history buffs, but be warned, if that’s your only reason for reading it, you may be disappointed. The entire catalog of scenes taking place in and around Las Cruces covers around 40 of the 278 pages of the book.

For those who espouse the belief that filmmaking in southern New Mexico is a pipe dream and that no production would ever want to come here, “Only You, Dick Daring!” stands as a proclamation that not only has it happened, but it most certainly can happen again. Stranger things have.

The Branigan Library was painted brown to double as the Calhoun County Courthouse and the office of Everett Calhoun, the protagonist of the proposed series.
The Branigan Library was painted brown to double as the Calhoun County Courthouse and the office of Everett Calhoun, County Agent and the protagonist of the proposed series.

Truth is, if I had a nickel for every time somebody said something can’t happen, I’d be able to fill several socks with which to respectively smack them upside their thick skulls. Can’t is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody who has ever achieved anything of worth in his or her life has ever given any validation to the word can’t. Think about it.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of dimly remembered forays into Mesilla Valley filmmaking, a tip of the hat to the late Theodore J. Flicker, co-creator of the Emmy-winning sitcom Barney Miller and the man responsible for blowing up parts of downtown Las Cruces in the 1970 feature film “Up In The Cellar.” Flicker passed away on Sept. 12, in his home in Santa Fe, at age 84.

To Merle, Ted – and you, too, Jeff – thanks for the cinematic memories.

A drastically abridged version of this article appeared in the October 3, 2014 issue of the Las Cruces Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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