A few laughs with Smiley

Published 10:19 pm Wednesday, May 28, 2014

By Frank Roberts

If you are a senior citizen, you are probably familiar with “oaters,” those grade-B westerns, usually from Republic Studio.

They were short and to the point, and the cast of characters seldom changed — handsome gun-totin’ cowboy, less-than-handsome gun-totin’ bad guys. Gunfire was exchanged, with the baddies’ bullets going astray, the heroes’ bullets hitting the mark. It was clean stuff — no matter how many bullets were fired, the recipient never bled.

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An integral part of those low-budget quickies were the sidekicks, fumbling fools who were there for the laughs. George “Gabby” Hayes usually side-kicked Roy Rogers, and Smiley “Frog Millhouse” Burnette side-kicked Gene Autry.

I spent a fun day in the summer of ‘99 with Smiley and Rufe Davis, one of the original Three Mesquiteers. At that time, they were the engineers on “Petticoat Junction.”

They were visiting Frank Rice in his Wilson, N.C., home. Frank was part of the comedy team of Mustard and Gravy (he was the mustard), who were sidekicks in Eddy Arnold westerns. Ernie Stokes was Gravy.

The M&G radio show was carried on 130 stations in the ’30s. That led to his sidekick assignment. After that was said and done, he returned to his hometown. He ran a men’s clothing store and broadcast country music from his garage.

Realizing that there is no biz like showbiz, he wanted to join his buddies at the Junction. Smiley made arrangements, and Rice picked out his outfit for his portrayal of the now politically incorrect character of ‘Dr. Knick-Knack the Quack’.

But, before he could quack, CBS axed the show and all else categorized as a rural comedy, opting for more modern stuff.

At the time I was invited to join Smiley and Rufe, I was doing the news on WITN-TV in Washington, N.C.

Conversation was mostly about the ’20s to ’50s, the heydays of the grade-B westerns.

“Those were less complicated times so,” Smiley said, “our little movies fit in perfectly.”

Shortly after our meet Smiley passed away.

Lester Alvin Burnette was born in Springfield, Mo., the son of a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister.

“My career began in the late 1920s,” he said. “I was in Summum, Ill., working on a one-man radio station. I was the man.”

Later, he joined a station in Tuscola, Ill.

He also emceed a kiddie show there. The station owner wanted him to use a name the youngsters could identify with.

“At the time, I was reading Mark Twain’s, ‘Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,’” Smiley said. “The main character was a Mr. Smiley.”

In ’33, Autry’s popularity as star of the National Barn Dance from Chicago (where else?) netted him a contract with Mascot Studios, later called Republic. The cowboy star accepted but insisted that his close friend/radio sidekick become his movie sidekick.

Autry became America’s No. 1 cowboy, Smiley one of the top 10 earning western actors.

Between ’34 and ’55 Burnette co-starred in 171 movies. He played opposite Autry in 81 films. There were seven with Rogers, and a like number with Charles ‘Durango Kid’ Starrett.

The Frog — he had a frog-like voice — was known by his pinned-down hat. “When I first started in movies the hat used to fall in my face when I was riding. I pinned it back and it became a trademark.”

The trademark is on exhibit at the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Smiley preferred the great outdoors, where his movies were filmed, when filming was finished for the day.

“I spent most of my life in the California mountains and I thoroughly enjoyed it.” He said. “I’d take a long look at the beauty around me, inhale some of that good mountain air, and enjoy the world of the Creator.”

One final note: “I liked being typecast as Frog. It gave me a chance to get my teeth in a part and build it up. I never considered myself an actor. I was an entertainer.”

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.