Award-winning actor, Gorman Ruggiero, recalls his trip out west to The Wild Bunch Film Festival
THE WILD BUNCH FILM FESTIVAL 2020
MY IMPRESSIONS : Gorman Ruggiero
October 1st, 2020
I flew out to Wilcox, Arizona with my brother Marcus to attend The Wild Bunch Film Festival as the representative for the movie Calf Rope. This honor was given to me by the executive producer and director, Bradley Hawkins. I was a bit nervous, since I realized I had to represent a team of great talents that put this film together and I was hoping I could do the job well.
Upon deplaning in Tucson, I realized that this was going to be a very special event. While driving from Tucson to Wilcox, my imagination began to realize the dark desperados hightailing through the desert, hotly pursued by colorfully dressed cowboys in red and blue neckerchiefs, riding like transparent ghosts of western legends across that heated expanse. It did not take long to be entranced by the beauty and deadliness of the broken mesas, the stilted arroyos, as slow cattle stepped among the cacti and prickly pear. The day was white and glistening. The desert was dry and sparking hot as I realized one could die of thirst a couple of hundred yards off the road since it was over 90 degrees and rising. The vast open space before me cringed under the hot sun. Marcus and I decided it was too much magic to ignore so we exited the highway and took a side road--we were drawn off course as if hypnotized, sleeping in our movements, aghast and enlightened by the strange beauty of the deserted landscapes. Arizona was going to force us to dream its chosen images, and that is just the beginning.
We rode into the heart of it and began looking for a place for coffee. The signs were far and few between and it felt good to be escaping the ugly civilization we had endured for the past 8 months…Arizona desert was enticing. We saw a sign for a winery and turned down the long road that lined up into the wilderness of sorts, only it was a mile driveway and it took us up a hill whereupon sat small adobe buildings that looked cool and inviting in the warmth. We decided to buy some wine for the weekend and we did after sitting on the veranda drinking water and eating cashews overlooking thousands of acres of formerly wild lands
Back in the car, I understood why folks moved out here or stayed in this painted world—it was easy to escape the hard work of being civilized back home. We drove on to Wilcox, stopped for some pictures and videos before a passing train, and entered the small wide-streeted town.
My first impression was that we arrived in the wrong town. It was all low buildings, all spread apart as if trying to use all the land possible, and yet still remain connected. The absence of commercial businesses like McDonalds, car dealerships and billboards with their garish displays gave the impression that we had stepped back in time, when dusty boots worked the wooden sidewalks and it was a short walk to the town sheriff’s office. However, as imagination faded, we found lunch in one of the few restaurants—La Unica Tortilleria, and sat down to hot peppers and relaxing contemplation of the coming excitement.
We were going to visit the Historic Wilcox Movie Theater right after lunch, and we ate quickly, paid the check, and drove a few streets north.
Pulling up to the theater, we saw the Rex Allen Show Stage right next door and walked into the outdoor area before the stage. Rex Allen, a real nice-- famous cowboy movie star—his museum was there and we decided to visit it the next day. It was October 1, 2020, we came a day early to get a looksee at the place, and it was more than worth it.
The Historic Theater sported a familiar marquee facing the wide road across which sat the Historic Railroad Park where a memorial was raised to honor those who served in the war in Viet Nam. Also, to our surprise, was a life-size brass sculpture of Rex Allen, the musician cowboy turned movie star. We were surely in a magical place where history and art were shaking hands like two wranglers meeting on the dusty wagon trail.
The Willcox Theater was built in 1936, opening in January 1937 with Joan Crawford in “The Gorgeous Hussy”. That fact gave me pause, for now, it was my turn to take to the silver screen and see what kind of cowboy would appear. Just thinking of the great artists that graced this historic venue made me proud to be representing the movie Calf Rope and its artists. The anticipation was fun, and Marcus and I were beginning to feel at home a bit.
October 2nd, 2020
We ate a hurried breakfast and drove over to the theater to see what was going on. The cars were pulling in and folks were filling the streets and shops began to open, selling western clothes, antiques, Mexican food, drinks, and other sundries, and souvenirs such as decorated horseshoes painted with hearts, green clovers, and the like. In the recent empty park across the way, tents were being set up and a merry band of artisans were spreading tables with their colorful crafts of feathers, wood, metal and more. Walking along, I decided to buy a gift for my niece and stepped into a woman’s western store with Marcus close behind. There we happened upon two women who were attending the festival to write an article about it and were quickly in conversation. They became excited to hear that Marcus was a musician and I was an actor in a short film to be played and made us promise to meet for lunch…cowboy luck strikes quick in these parts!
Strolling around the town we witnessed the arrival of every kind of Western Hero, Women of the Night and Ladies Most Pure, peppered among Desperados, Ranch Hands, Sheriffs, and Dudes overdressed in celebration -- all dressed to kill or be killed, shoot out or shoot up, or any which way! It was like walking back in time and the costumes were as real as some of the actual cowboys, although we did pick up some wannabes here and there…mostly here. The actors and actresses made a great show of buckskin, belts, silver buckles and gold earrings. Native American jewelry in silver, gold, and turquoise drifted by on confident striders along the streets. Women’s necklines sparkled with jewelry of the western designs. It was a regular holiday of Shoot-’em-up garb. The trappings ranged from yellow leather coats and leggings, accoutered with the obligated six-shooter and real bullets on the belt, to long-gowned finery and tooled boots with silver tips tripping around.
Upon entering the theater to register for the event, we met Rocky Whitehead, a producer and director among other film accomplishments. His wife Brenda was also there… “Hello Gorman” said Rock and surprised me with a compliment “You did a beautiful acting job in Calf Rope”.
It was nice to be recognized and I was watching Marcus’ face as his eye went wide…It turns out that Rock and Brenda are wonderfully down to earth people who care about what they do but most importantly, care about the people they do it with. I observed them throughout the fest and did get to chat a bit, and more genuine and gracious people would be hard to find.
We began to witness our partners in western lore taking pictures on the Red Carpet and it was fun to be part of the excitement of so dedicated a group of artists. Marcus somehow transformed into the official photographer in chief and began setting up shots for me everywhere—Wow…I was impressed…he worked all weekend non-stop.
Soon, the time came when we were to begin watching the films. And man, it was incredible to see the amount of work and thought that went into this festival… Thank God for Rock and Brenda and the WBFF Team! We watched five films from 3 to 5 pm, all of which I enjoyed. I had spoken to some of the artists previous and I could see some of them acting in their own films along with their cast. At 5 there was a question and answer session. The immersion in western lore, drama, shootouts, riding, running, dying and living had begun in the West. We watched over 15 of the 19 films and only had a few breaks. Oh, I loved that ten-minute “Calamity Jane” movie!
“Literal Cowboys” was a great comedy that was too short! And “Prospectors, The Forgiven” was the most unusual and incredibly detailed piece that deserved some recognition for its fabulous set artistry and costumes! All in all, there were great films and a great time.
October 3rd, 2020
We arrived at the theater and began watching the films. Such great fun! Dressed to the nines, the various people kept a high standard of western dress in variety, color and authenticity. I was told several actually were costumers for great western films we all know, and it showed. It was a great day of film and camaraderie. We viewed about 18 of the 24 films and spent a lot of time in the theater just sitting, but it was worth it. When we had a break, we went next door to the Rex Allen Museum and perused the interesting history of the man who became a Movie Hero. The museum contains memorabilia of his music and films, photographs, movie posters, cowboy outfits that would amaze you, musical instruments and two stunning silver garnished saddles. We felt like we were in Cowboy Heaven walking around the rooms. I loved “In the Blood”!
“Spindletop: The Beginning” was a great historical piece about an oil pioneer and his partner, but this short evidenced him as an early teen-yeared, mischievous youth. I really liked the young actor who played the part. I got a chance to tell the producers in person when they walked into the S and S Steak House looking for a table and I invited them to sit with us…very interesting folks!”
I fell I love with “I’ve Got Your Six”, a touching and telling story of a veteran and the support he receives out of the blue from strangers who are also veterans…a MUST SEE. “The Five of Spades” was great and “A Soldiers Heart” told the tale of PTSD and revenge after the Civil War. Both were great films. All in all, another great day. It was 10:30 after the Question and Answer session for this group and the streets of Wilcox were rolled up, and put away so we could not get any food. We ended up going to the local truck stop for cashews and bananas!
October 4th, 2020
Marcus and I rose early. We met the gals for breakfast as they wanted to interview me about Calf Rope for their article and so they did. I spoke briefly and did the best I could and almost stuck to the actual things I wrote down to address! By the time we got to the theater, we had missed four films. So, we spent time watching what we could. I was a bit excited because Calf Rope was scheduled for 12:35 p.m. and was hoping the house was packed—it was!
I watched in awe at the movie I was blessed to work in and the audience was laughing in all the right places and became silent at the final scene…some whimpering was noticed at the end as the "real Mac" appeared on screen with the children and made it all better.
At the break, I was accosted by a television or news producer and was interviewed about the movie—it was sudden and unplanned so I have no idea what the heck I said! I guess we will have to watch it to find out. Then, later, during the awards, he came back and pulled me out for another interview…I have his card and will get it out to Hawk so we can find these interviews.
Other folks kept coming up and congratulating me on various aspects of the film…I had to keep reminding folks that I only acted in it and was representing the team, “but thank you for that, I will relay those kind words”…but for the life of me I cannot remember them now…but I can say, they were all extremely positive about all aspects of Calf Rope.
I thought “Lillian” was a great piece and they ended up winning many awards.“Miracle in the Valley” was produced by Pat Boone and won many awards and it was a beautiful story with a great young actress. The Special Showing of the classic “Urban Cowboy” began and I watched some of it but became disinterested and went for a walk around Wilcox. What a town! It was late afternoon, and the sun was sliding down the sky like a hot drip of molten iron and the purple Arizona light began to work its magic across the sky. I strolled by the restaurants and smelled the spices of Mexico and realized that Mexico was not too far away…close to the border, close enough to escape to…and I wondered what am I thinking? I am not a desperado nor a cowboy that needs runnin’ to do…but it was a great imaginary process in walking that old town.
And now, it was time to get to the Wild Bunch Film Festival Awards Show…how did that come up so quick?
The Wild Bunch Film Festival 2020 Awards Show
Well, this is what we were all waiting for, after all, and it was a crowded house with every seat filled. I was invited to sit next to the star of the other "rodeo movie”, Hung Up, Melissa Jackson, and I agreed since she was a nice woman. She complimented me on Calf Rope and I explained, yes, I was just an actor, oh well, that went on all weekend and I was wishing Hawk could have been there to handle the proper courtesies. I did my best to accept them with grace and composure.
There was a long and very warm wait while the Masters of Ceremonies went through a series of items commemorating the festival and honoring Charlie LeSueur, who spent a lifetime keeping the western movie genre alive. The next award was presented to the first woman to win The Jerry Vance Award for outstanding contribution to stunt work. Jerry Vance was a renowned stuntman for almost 50 years in Hollywood.
Suddenly, it was time for the Award Show. Hostess, Bobbie Jeen Olson accompanied by her husband Jim and their son Rowdy, began by giving away door prizes. As the raffle prizes wound down, the excitement rose and the theater became more and more crowded and much louder. To say the least, I had no idea what was about to happen, but it was really wonderful.
I can’t go into detail about who won what as I was distracted by the excitement and celebration. Hawk told me I had to “…look like a movie star…” so I was in my new grey 17X Clear Beaver Rodeo King hat and a grey jacket I bought in Tombstone the night we arrived. That jacket was said to be “the most well classed cowboy cut” by a costumer at the festival! My roper shirt was geometrically patterned with Navajo designs in an understated dark blue and I was ready. For what I did not know.
In any case, as they began to give away awards and I heard the various acceptance speeches, some short and sweet, some long and quick, I tried to get my thoughts together—13 nominations in 13 categories! What in heck was I supposed to do? The few days before I went over all the names of the folks nominated but that memorization seemed to fail me now. Suddenly, I heard the words “Calf Rope” and looked up.
Bobbie Jeen Olsen was asking if anyone from that movie was there and I swallowed and walked slowly down the aisle like a man going to his own hanging…I was seriously flustered and trying to remember exactly what category this award was for! So, I got on stage and thanked her and said some forgettable words and I was really having a hard time for real. So much so that I was referenced when a later recipient had the same experience!
In any case I caught something in the memory part of the brain and mumbled how I had not felt this way since I won my first award for reciting “Fuzzy Wuzzy” in second grade. That got some laughs and I snapped out of it enough to commend the winner and get the heck out of there and sat down again. But, before long, I heard “Calf Rope” again! Really? This could get worse I thought. I meandered down the aisle again and felt a bit more relaxed and said a few words that Marcus taped and that I cannot remember at all. I walked back and stood behind the seats trying to look inconspicuous when those words were spoken again. “Calf Rope”. “That’s my cue” I remember thinking, and “just act normal” was the self-response, and “don’t say anything stupid” was the next thought, as I mounted the stage and looked into the eyes of “Bobbie beautiful”, I almost said. In any case, after the fifth walk down the aisle I was set on the hopeful thought that it was all over after this and told everyone thank you and said “Now, I know what they mean by ‘an embarrassment of riches" to which Bobbie stated seriously “Don’t you ever be embarrassed to receive praise for your achievements”…or something such, and I said something silly, maybe, and thanked her and again took the well-watched walk up back to the jail cell in the back of the audience. I passed Marcus each time and I cannot possibly know what the heck he saw until I see the tapes upon which time, I will hope I was not looking like I actually felt.
Now, to get this straight, I was very proud and happy to collect these treasures for my great team and to be able to do it was an honor. It was the old anxiety of my past great fear of being looked at that bothered me…yes, I am an actor, but that does not mean I like to be looked at. Figure that out if you can, I can’t. As I was praying for a short break, someone said “Calf Rope" again and I heard it, but did not believe it and my hesitation was noticed, maybe. The walk down was a bit better this time and I was right proud of what I did say at this one. Damn, this could be a good habit…and then again, and again…and, well you get the idea. It became a great joke to the crowd and they were very supportive and when Bobbie announced the next award, someone said “let me guess!” and they all broke out laughing as I went down time and again and prayed that I was praising the right person for each award, although I am still not sure.
The rest of the night went well. After all the hoopla we finally made it to the Red Carpet upon which Marcus set up and took that now famous photo requested by Bradley ("Hawk') Hawkins in his good sense of comic intentions.
I have to say, I never experienced anything like that awards show at The Wild Bunch Film Festival.
Well, the show ended late and so we all hightailed it over to the Cattle Rest RV Park & Saloon. Yes, that’s the correct place. I ordered my Bourbon with no ice and realized I needed two soon enough. That made me feel like dancing so we danced to the band that was comprised of some of the actors and producers from the festival. All was good. Somewhere in there some musical actors picked up guitar and began to perform. They invited Marcus to play some songs and he sounded good—especially on his “Don’t Fall in Love Without Me” ballad. That got the ladies swarming him and I was able to slip off to the bar for another bourbon. I did end up doing some harmonies with Skeeter, a musician who starred in Prospectors: The Unforgiven. That was fun.
To be sure, it all happened almost as I described except for the few items I did leave out and the other 90% I did not have time to write about. There was a parade that we missed due to confusion. A street sign we saw the day before read “Street Closed 1pm to 3pm for Parade”. That led us to believe the Parade was at 1 pm…nope…that was a mistake on the sign that no one saw.
The rodeo was great. We went over to see one of the producers ride—she was the stunt woman in “Hung Up”, the other rodeo movie. We did not see her but we did see a couple of bull rides before heading back to the theater. We saw the carnival from afar as we traveled back and forth through town for various reasons. The gun show was a winner although they did not allow us to take pictures…of course I bought books to show how gun savvy I am.
We did listen to Rex Allen’s son, Rex Allen, Jr. He was a great lovable man, and could play "Mac" beautifully, I am positive. What a comeback for an old cowboy that could be
Well, I think I stung your ears long enough, so I only have one more thing to say about this wonderful experience, as "Mac" recalls in Calf Rope, "IT WAS QUITE A THRILL, LEMME TELL YA!"
Gorman Ruggiero 10/10/20