AYER – If you grew up in Massachusetts in the 60s and 70s, then you know Rex Trailer. If you were lucky, you got to be in his WBZ TV Boston audience on any given Saturday or Sunday morning for broadcasts of “Boomtown”.
It was a family show that ran for three hours each day. Boomtown had an epic run, broadcast from 1956 to 1974.
There were various sidekicks, but the star was Trailer, a Texan-turned-Massachusetts icon.
This Saturday Rex Trailer will be at Ayer Town Hall from 1 – 4 p.m. for a celebration of his 84th birthday. The event is free and open to all.
There will be music, videos, stories, games and prizes. There will be Pepsi and cupcakes for the first 200 guests, and birthday card keepsakes for Trailer to autograph for visitors.
Trailer has had a long and illustrious career in the limelight. “It went from Texas to New York for the rodeo, to Pennsylvania and then Boston,” said Trailer, born Rexford Traylor.
Trailer worked summers on his grandfather’s ranch as a teenager. “My grandfather hired rodeo cowboys and they taught me all my stunts, trick riding, trick roping, guitar and how to use bull whips, rifles and pistols. My grandfather had confidence in all these guys.”
Trailer hit the road with the cowboys and joined the rodeo circuit at age 15. “I traveled the country a little bit. The audiences got a kick out of a teenage being out there and trick riding and roping and bull whips and singing.”
The late Gabby Hayes, best known as sidekick to John Wayne and Randolph Scott in a slew of Westerns, caught Trailer’s act at Madison Square Garden. Hayes recruited Trailer to entertain children at Hayes’ Catskills ranch. “I couldn’t refuse,” said Trailer.
Prophetically, Trailer remembers Hayes saying, “You ought to be on TV. You’re right down the road from New York. Visit the TV stations down there and see if you can get a job.”
Trailer said he soon discovered, “It was not as easy as he made it sound.” Trailer struck out at NBC, CBS and ABC stations in New York City. He was also initially denied at job at the defunct DuMont Television Network on Madison Avenue.
“I was going around to the back of the building and I saw some guys in this big area in the back painting scenery and I stood there and watched them for a while. One guy came out and said ‘Hey looking for a job?’ I said ‘As a matter of a fact, I am.”
At age 17, Trailer began work for DuMont as a scenery painter, and then advanced to become a production coordinator. “I had not the foggiest idea of what a production coordinator’s job was but I said ”Yup’ and I was very successful at that.”
Later an assistant director, Trailer remembers the fateful day when a program manager entered the control room and said the station was thinking about creating a Saturday morning kids show. They wanted to cast a cowboy to do all the stunts.
“I said ‘I think I know someone,” said Trailer.
Fifty children brought in to vote on the eventual hire. “When I showed up, no one could figure out why I was there because I’d been around the studio doing everything.”
Trailer recalled watching the other actors audition. “By the time I went on, I knew I had the job because I was the only cowboy there that didn’t have a Brooklyn accent.” The kids voted for Trailer. Production on the Oky Doky Ranch show launched the next week.
“I was on the DuMont Network doing my bag of tricks and entertaining the kids and it worked,” said Trailer. The show was cancelled, but Trailer received a call from the general manager of WPTZ TV in Philadelphia about the station’s hunt for a children’s show host.
He got the gig and stayed in Philadelphia for five years. “I was an immediate success and they had me working 7 says a week,” said Trailer. “But that’s OK. I was loving it.”
Weekday morning programming began with “Riding the Trail with Rex Trailer,” kids returned from school to each lunch and watch “High Noon.” Each Saturdays there was also “Rex Trailer’s Ranch House.”
The station was sold to NBC. Under contract with Westinghouse Broadcasting, Trailer was given a choice of Westinghouse stations – Cleveland or Boston. “I’d been to Boston and I’d loved Boston,” said Trailer.
Trailer recalls his tenure at WBZ TV fondly.
“I came here in 1956 and everybody was saying ‘A Western show in Boston?’ But it was an immediate success. It was 20 years and nothing but wonderful times,” said Trailer who still lives in state.
“My show was predicated on fun- good family entertainment,” said Trailer. “The parents never had to worry about what they were going to see on my show. And that’s what made the show popular. It was family entertainment.”
Richard Kilbride of Woburn played sidekick “Pablo from 1956 until his death due to cancer in 1967. “I’ll tell you how good an actor he was. We had a Mexican family come into the studio one Saturday morning. They were speaking Spanish. Pablo was not really able to converse in Spanish. He said “si” and “adios”. I thought ‘Oh my – how’s he going to get out of this?”
Pablo didn’t miss a step, said Trailer. “Oh my brothers and sisters, we are in the United States now. We speak English.’ So they were satisfied.” Trailer laughed “I knew more Spanish than him.”
Later, “Cactus Pete” (Terrance Currier) was hired for a five year run before he returned to his passion as a stage actor. For this reporter, “Sergeant Billy” was Trailer’s partner.
In his teens, Billy O’Brien helped care for Trailer’s golden palomino horse, Gold Rush. O’Brien served in the Army and returned with a hankering to be a character on the show.
“He came in wearing his cavalry uniform and he was a sergeant in the cavalry and so he became Sergeant Billy,” said Trailer. “He did a lot of comedy – he was an F-Troop reject.”
Trailer and O’Brien remain close and still make personal appearances together. O’Brien is a financial adviser with clientele on Cape Cod and in Florida.
While baby-boomers love Boomtown, Trailer said kids of all ages enjoy his live performances.
“They may not know me from television now, but the kids who are there become fans,” said Trailer. “They love the shows that I put on and they line up for autographs at the end of it. It’s great fun.”
And adults line up for autographs and photos. “It sure is wonderful,” said Trailer. “No matter where they are or what they do, they turn into kids when they see me and talk to me. ”
Trailer has advocated for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and famously led an 18-horse covered wagon caravan that trekked the state to promote awareness about intellectual and developmental disabilities for Arc.
“From Greenfield, we went down Route 2 to Boston. We were on the air at the time,” said Trailer. “We had a wonderful time. I have been doing things with Arc ever since.” Trailer also recalled performing for soldiers and their families at Fort Devens.
Trailer’s television production company is based in Waltham. For the past 36 years, Trailer has taught television arts at Emerson College.
His advice for the up-and-coming television personalities is “It’s not a cake walk. You literally have to work at it.”
Trailer says he’s proud of former students Gene Lavanchy (WFXT FOX 25)and Heather Khan (formerly of WCVB ABC 5). Trailer beamed about student Adam Harding, freshly hired at WHDH NBC 7, whose father is WCVB veteran newsman Ed Harding.
Trailer said students are shocked to hear Boomtown was live and not scripted.
“Their jaws drop down. It was all ad lib and it worked,” said Trailer. “Fortunately I had some wonderful actors on the show with me.”
Follow Mary Arata at facebook.com/mary.arata and twitter.com/maryearata.