Rex Allen Museum

Willcox, Arizona – February 5, 2022

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.

I finally managed to take a photo of a car parked outside a museum we visited (I don’t know why I didn’t just walk to the other side of the building and take a photo from there). The Rex Allen Museum is in one of the oldest commercial buildings in Willcox. The adobe building was constructed in the early 1890s and was later home to the Schley Saloon from 1897 to 1919. The museum still has the saloon’s original wooden floor. The Willcox Theater, next door to the museum, was built in 1935 and was where Rex Allen made his singing debut. Roy Rogers, later to be a friend of Allen, also sang at the theater early in his 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 found life as a performing entertainer less painful than that of a rodeo star, and Allen got his singing career started at a Phoenix radio station. Soon after, he made his debut on a show called “National Barn Dance” on Chicago radio station WLS. This is the fiddle Allen used on the show. Note the tooled leather guitar case behind the fiddle.

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.”

The museum has posters from many of the movies that Allen starred in between 1950 and 1954. Every movie cowboy needs a tremendously talented horse, and Allen’s was Koko the Wonder Horse. Koko usually received billing equal to Rex Allen in publicity for their pictures. Every movie cowboy also needs a sidekick; Allen was pardners with Buddy Ebsen and, later, Slim Pickens in various pictures.
Allen was a top-ten box office attraction in his day, and his exploits carried from the big screen to other media like comic books. When you make it big as a Western performer, you get to wear Nudie suits: clothing made by Nuta Kotlyarenko, a Ukraine-born tailor whose professional name was Nudie. He made his mark making rhinestone Western-themed wear for both men and women. Nudie suits were worn by entertainers like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, and Elvis Presley. The leather hat box in the lower right is also a Nudie design; it held Allen’s white Stetson while he was on tour.
San Fernando Saddlery in Van Nuys, California, made this very pretty silver-mounted parade saddle used by Allen.
On the left is another Nudie suit that Allen wore in parades. It’s pretty flashy. On the right is a custom-made shirt; note the closures on the chest pockets. Allen didn’t like buttons on his shirt pockets.
This was an “a-ha” moment for me. Did you ever see those live-action Disney films from the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the ones set in the American West, that featured a very relaxing narrator’s voice that had just a hint of a drawl? Rex Allen was the narrator of movies like “Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar,” and “The Incredible Journey,” and more than 40 other Disney films and television programs. Allen’s voice was also that of 150 different Disney cartoon characters. His Western voice, instantly recognizable, narrated the animated adaptation of “Charlotte’s Web” (which was a Hanna-Barbera production rather than Disney).
In addition to lending his voice to a number of television productions, Allen lent his likeness to promote Ford tractors, Purina animal feed, Tony Lama boots, and other products.
Speaking of Tony Lama, here’s a pair of cowboy boots custom modified for use on the golf course. They’re next to an autoharp given to Rex Allen by June Carter Cash, wife of Johnny Cash.
Speaking of Johnny Cash, here’s a wall of memorabilia featuring people who knew and worked with Rex Allen, including country music superstar Tanya Tucker (under the Man in Black’s illustration), who also grew up in Willcox, Arizona. Next to Tanya’s photo is a picture of John Wayne with Allen, and above that is a picture of The King, and to the right of Elvis is a signed photo of Ken Curtis, who played Festus Hagen in “Gunsmoke.” Speaking of “Gunsmoke,” Allen was a cousin of Glenn Strange, who played Sam the barkeep in Dodge City from 1961 to 1974.
The museum building is also home to the Cowboy Hall of Fame. One of the Hall of Fame exhibits is this display of barbed wire dating from 1874 to 1884, so you know it’s okay in my book.

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.

This larger-than-life bronze statue of Rex Allen is situated in a park directly across the street from the museum. Koko the Wonder Horse is buried nearby, and Allen’s ashes were scattered in the park upon his death. (The sun, as it is wont to do sometimes, wasn’t cooperative so the lighting isn’t the best.)

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.

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