Saturday, February 4, 2012

Girl of the Golden West: Gail "Annie Oakley" Davis

GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST: GAIL "ANNIE OAKLEY" DAVIS -- The romance and rough-and-tumble lifestyle of the Old West was never more fully realized than in the countless television shows of the 1950s and 1960s that made an entire generation of baby boomer boys want to be cowboys, triggering millions of dollars of sales in costumes, toy guns, lunch boxes and tons of other merchandising.  Such shows as The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza -- and later The Wild Wild West, The Big Valley and even the otherwise-wholesome Little House on the Prairie -- kept alive the myths of what we wanted "the West" to be: populated with strong people who fought the odds and always came out on top.  From 1954 to 1957, however, there was a new type of Western hero -- or more correctly heroine -- that appeared on the small screen, and her name was Annie Oakley -- a fictionalized portrayal of the real-life Oakley played by actress Gail Davis. And Davis's character came at just the right time in post-war America.  Finally, girls had a role model who was tough, honest, straight-shooting and fought for everything that was good -- all without sacrificing her femininity or her role in society as a leader in her community (albeit the fictional sleepy TV town of Diablo, Arizona).  Her trademark blonde pigtails and her always fabulous be-fringed outfits (made exclusively by her sister!) as well as her horse-riding and gun-shooting talents (Davis used to go hunting with her father as a child and learned rifle skills firsthand!) made her an instant hit with television viewers. "Back then I knew the show was having a positive impact, especially on little girls. It wasn't until years later that I realized just how much.  Little girls had turned into influential women, thanking my portrayal of Annie for showing them the way," Davis would later say. Prior to her role as Oakley, Gail Davis had already appeared in 25 "B" westerns and just as many television shows from 1949 to 1953 (she did 14 features with Gene Autry, no less!).  Autry came up with the idea of a TV western featuring a woman and a national contest was launched looking for someone who could shoot, ride and act.  "I felt it was me," Davis would later recall. "I went to talk to the producer and he said, ‘No.’  So, I went home and put on my bluejeans, a gingham shirt -- put freckles on my nose and put my hair in pigtails -- and I walked back into the producer's office and said, ‘I think I should play the part.’  He said, ‘You got enough courage to do this -- let’s give you a test.’  We did the test -- and I guess I passed," she said laughing.  "I’ve been Annie ever since."  Such was the determination of Davis -- just like those folks of the real West who never gave up on what they wanted to achieve.  Though she passed away in 1997, her star still burns brightly at 6385 Hollywood Boulevard where her Walk of Fame star can be found.  "It broke my heart to give the show up (in 1957)," said Davis.  But luckily for us, kids, we can view all those still-fun, action-packed episodes of the Annie Oakley show on DVD and watch the always-lovely Gail Davis on her golden Palomino horse Target ride off into the western horizon -- knowing that she always did her best to make the West a better place for everyone!