If asked to name your favorite Rex Allen movie, which film comes to mind first? If you’re like Nancy and me, you’d probably be somewhat reluctant to name one, because you couldn’t name one. The simple truth is, we’d never heard of him. But, as we were to find out, we’d certainly heard him.
Willcox, Arizona, is the hometown of Rex Allen (1920-1999), known as “The Arizona Cowboy” as well as “The Last of the Silver Screen Cowboys.” Allen began his movie career as the public’s love affair with Westerns was turning away from the big screen and transitioning to the newfangled televisions in their living rooms.
The Rex Allen Museum opened in 1989 as a showcase for Allen’s career as a live performer, recording artist, actor, and film narrator. It has many of Allen’s personal belongings dating back to his childhood in Willcox all the way up to his Hollywood career.
Allen’s family homesteaded on a ranch about 40 miles from Willcox. He played guitar while his father fiddled for audiences in Willcox; after graduating from Willcox High School, Allen joined the rodeo circuit and toured the southwest.
Allen would have a 35-year singing career with Decca Records, and had a gold record with his version of “Crying in the Chapel.” With singing cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey being very popular with moviegoers in the late 1940s, Republic Pictures signed Rex Allen to a contract in 1949. He would go on to star in 19 Hollywood movies, usually as a character with the very authentic Western name of “Rex Allen.”
Willcox still shows a lot of love for its most famous native son. “Rex Allen Days” began in 1951 as an event benefiting the local hospital. It continues each year to this day, attracting Western film aficionados from around the world, and includes a rodeo and the annual Cowboy Hall of Fame induction. One of Willcox’s main streets is called Rex Allen Drive.
Between 1949 and the late 1960s, more than 100 different Western TV series aired on television networks – which was great for fans of “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Wagon Train,” but not so good for stars of big-screen Western movies. Allen did star in his own short-lived TV series, “Frontier Doctor,” in 1961, but his time as a big-screen star was over. However, he continued to do very well doing off-camera work for Disney and other production houses.
After we visited the museum, Nancy and I could do little else than retreat that evening to The Goddard and watch a Rex Allen movie. We selected “Colorado Sundown” (1952), and do you know what? We liked it a lot. It had a pretty intriguing storyline and some great action crammed into its 67 minutes, and it gave an opportunity for Rex Allen to sing a bit as well. As of now, it’s our favorite Rex Allen movie. Honestly, we’d love to watch another one sometime.