The first of Hollywood's glamorous singing cowboys to grace a movie screen spent his last days in a trailer, alcoholic, poor, alone and unremembered.
The future cowboy star, Kenneth Olin Maynard, was born July 21, 1895, in Vevay, Ind., the same year motion pictures made their commercial debut in America. Two other luminous stars were born that year: Rudolph Valentino and Barbara Lamarr. Maynard's future movie studio decided the cowboy should have been born in Mission, Texas, and this fact was stated in all his future publicity. His brother Kermit, who became a stunt double for Ken, was born two years later in 1897.
Ken and Kerm spent most of their early years in Columbus, Ind., but Ken ran away at age 12 to join a Wild West show in Cincinnati, where his father found him and dragged him home. At 16, Ken took off again to escape to the West. He found work as a ranch hand and joined circus troops before serving some time in the U.S. Army Engineering Corp during World War I, while Kermit attended Indiana University.
Ken became a trick rider with the famous Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and later a champion star rider and roper with the Ringling Brothers Circus. Hollywood noticed the six-foot-tall, dark-haired, lithe and handsome performer, and, at 28, Maynard made his silent film debut in The Man Who Won ( 1923 ) , directed by the famed William Wellman.
Ken, along with his highly intelligent and gorgeous palomino, Tarzan, billed as the 'Wonder Horse,' appeared in 93 films throughout his career, and became famous for the tricks he and Tarzan would perform. Several Tarzan impersonators were used for the hard-riding scenes, avoiding injury to the real star horse. Ken also was the producer of 16 films, composed songs for three films, wrote three scripts and directed one movie. Ken Maynard preferred to base his pictures on real historical events instead of fiction, and concentrated on pacing and high adventure. In the early 1930s, Maynard taught the young bit player John Wayne, who would eventually become a big star at the end of the 1930s, how to perform riding stunts.
Maynard had easily made the transition from silent films to sound and was the first cowboy to sing on the screen, while he played the fiddle, harmonica, and guitar. In 1934, Ken introduced singing cowboy Gene Autry to moviegoers as a supporting player in the serial Mystery Mountain and the film In Old Santa Fe. In 1936 and 1937, Maynard was listed as one of the top 10 box office moneymakers, but likable Gene Autry began to eclipse his mentor in popularity. When Maynard's star began to wane in the late 1930s, he retired from acting to ride again in the rodeo circuit. Then, pushing 50 and no longer lithe ( with several pounds added to his frame ) , Maynard, hoping for a comeback, returned to Hollywood to appear with his contemporary cowboy movie friend, 51-year-old silent star Hoot Gibson, in a low-budget western series named The Trail Blazers, which was made between 1943 and 1945. Then, Maynard again retired from the screen.
In 1968, Maynard's wife of 29 years, high-wire artist Bertha Rowland, passed away. In 1970, he was cast in a small part as Mr. Bennett in the horror film Bigfoot, and in 1972, the 77-year-old cowpoke played a small role as a Texas Ranger in the film The Marshal of Windy Hollow. Once famous, beloved and handsome, Maynard spent his last days in a trailer park, unremembered, poor, alcoholic, poverty-stricken, and alone. After suffering from severe malnutrition, Maynard was moved to a nursing home two months before he passed away in Woodland Hills, Calif., on March 23, 1973.
Sources: The Movie Makers by Sol Chaneles and Albert Wolsky; The Illustrated Who's Who of the Cinema edited by Ann Lloyd and Graham Fuller; Ken Maynard Web sites.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications, 1991. A designer, artist, photographer, writer, and chronicler of movie stars, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006. Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollyood's most elegant stars.
Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, appears in various publications, including the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine and the Windy City Times in the first issue of each month.
Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enjoy seeing some of his collection and view autographs and letters he has received from some of his favorite luminaries. You can also visit the Steve Starr Satellite Studio at the beautiful Ravenswood Antique Mart, 4727 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago.
STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photogaphy by Steve Starr is offered privately and for events, and Starr is available to photograph you at various locations including the Seneca Hotel's Chestnut Grill, Katerina's, Cornelia's, and the Kit Kat Club. Call ( 773 ) 463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr at the Whitehall Hotel, January 28, 2006, taken by NBC New director Harold 'Sandy' Whiteley