by Max Nichols
For at least 100 years, Oklahoma has played a major role in the development of rapidly changing methods of entertainment, including the locations of movies, the rapid fame of movie stars and the rise of music stars through recordings as well as movies.
In 1914, the Selig Polyscope Co. filmed In the Days of the Thundering Herd at the Pawnee Bill Ranch in Pawnee, starring Tom Mix and including Gordon William Lillie, also known as Pawnee Bill. In 1920, The Daughter of Dawn movie was filmed in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma with an all-American Indian cast of 300 Kiowas and Comanches.
Lynn Riggs, who grew up in Claremore, wrote the play Green Grow the Lilacs in 1943. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted this play into the stage musical and movie Oklahoma! Memorabilia from the movie is on display in the Lynn Riggs Memorial at the Claremore Museum of History.
Now the Patti Page Collection is on display in the Oklahoma at the Movies exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. Page, who was born in Claremore as Clara Ann Fowler in 1927, recorded songs from Confess in 1947 to her 1998 release of Live at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert, which earned her a Best Traditional Pop Performance Grammy in 1999. She died on January 1, 2013, after selling more than a million records, including songs from movies.
“Oklahoma shares a history with the movie industry that goes far beyond actors, writers and producers,” said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Movies have been made in the state since 1904, when Thomas Alva Edison sent a film crew here to make a short about cowboys and Indians. Since then, movie making has helped shape the image of Oklahoma and made famous many historic sites.”
“In 1910, Gordon Lillie and William Cody formed the Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill Film Co. in Pawnee,” said Erin Brown, curator of collections for the Oklahoma Historical Society at the Pawnee Bill Ranch.
“Their first release was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East, fittingly starring Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill,” said Brown. In 1912, the company produced The Life of Buffalo Bill with scenes based on their Wild West Show performances.
After 1915, Pawnee Bill silent films included The Buffalo Hunters, Pawnee Bill: The White Chief and May Lillie, Queen of the Buffalo Ranch. The last film starred May Lillie, Pawnee Bill’s wife and a famous Wild West performer, according to Brown. The company made at least eight films on or near the Pawnee Bill Ranch, but Brown said none have survived.
“Pawnee Bill also saw the growing popularity and potential of the detective film,” said Brown. “He undertook the task of creating a story with detectives in New York and Texas. Pawnee Bill not only wrote the script, he oversaw the entire production and starred in Pawnee Bill: The Frontier Detective.“
“The work of Lynn Riggs involving the play and movie Oklahoma! actually goes back to the play Green Grow the Lilacs, which was written by Riggs,” said Barbra Pool of the Claremore Museum of History. Green Grow the Lilacs was purchased by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who adapted it as the Oklahoma! play.
“Many of the characters Riggs wrote into his play were friends and relatives he knew in Claremore,” said Pool. “He was a literary genius at recording the expression of plain Oklahoma people with the dialect of early Claremore. He taught us about the trials of becoming a new state, from Indian Territory to the State of Oklahoma.”
Other Oklahoma-related movies have included Rain Man, filmed in Guthrie, and Pow Wow Highway, a Native American movie that was written by Wes Studi for the American Indian Theatre Co. and was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Studi later gained his first major film role in the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves.
“The songs of Patti Page bring back memories in ways that are similar to movie memories,” said Larry O’Dell of the Oklahoma History Center staff. During the 1950s, she became one of pop culture’s biggest stars with hits such as Mockingbird Hill, I Went to Your Wedding, Allegheny Moon and Old Cape Cod. In 1953 she recorded a series of children’s records for Playcraft, including How Much Is That Doggy in the Window.
In 1970, Page began focusing on country music. Her hits included covers of Stand by Your Man and Almost Persuaded. “She loved Oklahoma,” said O’Dell, and performed at the state’s Semicentennial in 1957, the Diamond Jubilee in 1982 and the Centennial celebration in 2007. Page received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2013.
“All these achievements in popular culture,” said Blackburn, “have helped Oklahomans love and understand the history and culture of our state.”
Submitted by the Claremore Museum of History. The museum is open each Saturday from 11a – 3p and is entirely operated by volunteers. Admission is just $2! Support this non-profit in the effort to keep Claremore’s history alive! The Claremore Museum of History is located at 121 N. Weenonah in the old Will Rogers Library.