coverstory_2 (2008-11)

Still Riding the Silver Screen

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Marshal Andy, the last of the singing cowboys, keeps the glories of the B-movie Western alive

By Kevin Crowe

Sometimes Andy Smalls lives in another world. Itâ’s a simple place, where the good guy always beats the bad guy. Inside the offices of IAC Records and Marshal Andy Promotions, in a small office park just off of Papermill Drive, thereâ’s the stuff that dreams are made of. If you were dreaming more than half a century ago.

Marshal Andy, a role that Smalls has been playing for nearly three decades on stage and on local television, is a genuine singing cowboy, the likes of which havenâ’t existed in popular culture for the past 50 years.

Above Smallâ’s desk thereâ’s a poster of Johnny Mack Brown, a hall-of-fame halfback out of Alabama, a Rose Bowl veteran who went on to become one of the biggest cowboys on the silver screen. Brownâ’s horse was pretty famous, too, a striking black palomino that looked a lot like the one that Marshal Andy keeps on his ranch. The great Roy Rogers, the undisputed King of Cowboys who starred in more than 100 films, also preferred palominos.

â“Thatâ’s a horse Iâ’ve been riding for the last 10 years,â” Smalls says, pointing towards a picture of himself atop a stallion. â“His name is Black Magic.â”

Black-and-white photos show a young Smalls, number 35, lined up in the three-point position for the Clemson Tigers. In his native Georgetown, S.C., Smalls made his singing debut at the age of 18 with Jack Blountâ’s Georgetown Troubadours. Three years later, in 1951, after being placed on injured reserve for the Tigers, Smalls went back to his home town and spent the better part of that year on the road as one of Blountâ’s Troubadours.

Today, Smallsâ’ office is a living museum, filled with long-forgotten totems of the silver screen and the big-band era. Thereâ’s no computer on his desk. He personally answers each piece of fan mail he receives. â“Hello, this is Andy,â” he says politely when his phone rings. Smalls even writes commercials for 88.3 FM, where he hosts Stories Behind the Music every Saturday from noon to 1 p.m. Now in his late 70s, Marshal Andy still manages to keep regular office hours when heâ’s in town.

â“Wall of shame,â” he jokes as he walks out of his office. â“I just wanted to give you a little indoctrination into what we do.â” He pauses. â“Remember Jimmy Dean, the sausage man? There he is.â” Hanging in the foyer, complete with an autograph, is a photograph of the sausage man himself, grinning as big as ever.

For Smalls, it all got started in 1938, at the Strand Theater in Georgetown, which has recently been renovated and is open to the public once again. Buck Jones, one of the most dapper cowboys of the era, was on the big screen.

In 1943, at the age of 13, Smalls was working regular shifts at the Strand. Most kids grew out of Saturday morning shoot-â’em-ups by the time they reached their teens. But Smalls changed the marquee each week, ripped tickets, anything he could to be in the theater, just to see his favorite cowboys save the day.

When the Strand was renovated in 2006, Smalls was invited on stage, not for an appearance as Marshal Andy, but as Andy Smalls. He was performing classic big-band hits like â“Accentuate the Positiveâ” and â“Iâ’ll See You in My Dreams.â” His old bandleader, an 81-year-old Jack Blount, was in the audience. The theater nearly sold out.

Smalls' newest CD, a collection of his favorite Western and big-band hits, is entitled Marshal Andy Meets Andy Smalls. Thereâ’s a photo of him atop a palomino next to a photo of him in a white tuxedo jacket.

â“I always wanted to be a singing cowboy,â” Smalls says. â“There was an aim, a mission. There was always a purpose. The good guy wonâ"usually got the rancherâ’s daughter, but not always. There was a sense of morality in those movies that could not be spelled out in everyday life.â”

He adds: â“If I had not been a big-band singer, I wouldâ’ve never been able to do the other.â”

Andy Smalls once thought heâ’d put his singing career behind him, save a few performances at weddings or in church. He got married and began working for Ed Turnerâ’s budding billboard business. (A young Ted Turner took the business over when Ed committed suicide in 1963.)

After living all over the southeast and in New York, Smalls found himself settled in Knoxville. He landed a job with Charles Tombrasâ’ advertising agency. His salary was about half of what he made with Turner. Then, in 1971, he sang at the TVA & I Fair.

â“Thatâ’s where Marshal Andy was born,â” he says. â“I needed additional income.â”

He later found more work at Ghost Town in the Sky, a theme park in Maggie Valley, N.C. Smalls wrote cowboy scripts and choreographed all the gunfights. He started out playing the bad guy, oddly enough. In these rare appearances as an evil cowpoke, he went by the name of Mexican Joe.

â“I came in on a black horse, rearing and snorting, looking for the marshal,â” he recalls. â“And, of course, I was shot right away.â”

After a particularly brutal death as Mexican Joe, Smalls was cleaning his bloodied hands, preparing for the next show. He was a college graduate, eating the dust three times a day. It seemed only natural, because he was writing the scripts, that Smalls would eventually play the Marshal. Two weeks later, Marshal Andyâ"not Mexican Joeâ"was doing TV spots for Bonanza Mobile Homes. Since then, Marshal Andy Promotions has been very much in full swing. Smalls is a master when it comes to promoting his projects.

Heâ’s hoping to release â“Echoes of the Tigersâ’ Roar,â” a song recorded for his alma mater. Heâ’s currently a spokesman for Buddyâ’s Bar-B-Q, Waffle House, and Swaggertyâ’s Sausage. Much of his fame as a musician comes from his Waffle House jingles, which are available at any Waffle House jukebox in the area. His latest jingle, â“I Fell in Love with a Waffle House Queen,â” should be getting playtime within the next few months. Smalls sings a few bars:

â“I fell in love with a Waffle House Queen. I found the girl, the girl of my dreams. I knew her, and loved her, forever it seems. Yes, I fell in love with a Waffle House Queen.

"She worked the night shift, she was a single mom. I could tell by her look, she was sad and all alone. I watched her call out her orders with delight: â‘Hash browns, covered, smothered, chunked with chili on the side.â’

â“Things went that way for another year or two. She finally said, â‘Iâ’ll go out with you.â’ Just keep me safe, and my children by my side. And someday I promise to be your Waffle House Bride.â”

Then thereâ’s Smallsâ’ true pride and joy. Every Saturday morning, at 10:30 a.m., he hosts Riders of the Silver Screen on channels 2 and 15, WSJK and WKOP, the PBS affiliates in Knoxville, airing old B-movie westerns and serials with interviews and, if the bandâ’s in the studio, live music. The show got its start in 1983, on the brand new Channel 43. Program directors didnâ’t think Smalls would last much longer than a month.

It took just two weeks before fan mail started to pour in. Five years later, the show had moved to Channel 26, and Marshal Andyâ’s fame spread to new households when the station became the new CBS affiliate in the late â’80s. By 1990, Smalls landed on PBS, where he remains today.

â“I always wanted to be on PBS, where there are no commercials to stop the movies,â” he says.

Smallsâ’ first on-air sidekick was a slick, older gent by the name of Frosty, who had been a loyal member of the Riders of the Silver Screen fan club, which met every third Tuesday at the Second Presbyterian Church. Frosty had an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cinema, and he rode with Smalls until his death in January of 2003.

â“He and I became very close,â” Smalls says. Then he laughs: â“He thought he was Lloyd Bridges from Sea Hunt.â”

Nowadays joining Marshal Andy on television are film historian Don Calhoun, who goes by the name of Deadwood Don, and Rawhide Ray, who plays bass in Marshal Andyâ’s Riders of the Silver Screen Band. Rawhideâ’s also a pretty savvy film historian. Sometimes theyâ’re joined by â“Lullabyâ” Luke Brandon, who Smalls refers to as â“one of the finest in the world.â”

â“I always wanted to be a singing cowboy,â” Smalls says again. â“From 1930 until 1953, no matter what our problems were, we didnâ’t have to worry. Weâ’d go to the movies and let Roy Rogers or Gene Autry solve our problems. We could relax, because we knew we were going to win.

â“Thatâ’s the way I sum it upâ. Itâ’s my life. Itâ’s what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to, as long as I can. It means everything to me.â”

Letâ’s do it,â” Marshal Andy says, not directed at anyone in particular. Thereâ’s chatter everywhere on the set of Riders of the Silver Screen. Smalls strums his guitar, which is painted with a Western-themed mural, like something off the set of a vintage Howdy Doody show. Just off camera is the set of Fit and Fun With Missy Kane. Missy Kane should be filming her show later in the afternoon.

Smallsâ’ broad smile stretches across his face as he gets into character. â“I did a show, a show with, uh,â” he says to Deadwood Don, â“working with Roy Acuff in, hmm, 1973â"â”

â“Stand by!â” a cameraman yells. â“Ready?â”

PBS program director Bob Hutchinson is on the set. On March 15, Hutchinson tells the cameras, Marshal Andy will be live in the studio as host of PBSâ’s next pledge drive.

â“We always try to have a little fun,â” Smalls says. â“Weâ’re gonna have some of Swaggertyâ’s sausage, and biscuits from Buddyâ’s. I know weâ’ll have some coffee.â”

Todayâ’s first film features Johnny Mack Brown in the last chapter of Flaming Frontiers. The second stars Gabby Hayes, the classic old codger of Western cinema. He became famous for his overblown, inarticulate banter, such as â“durn persnickety femaleâ” and â“young whippersnapper.â” Rawhide Ray does a spot-on impersonation. In real life, though, Hayes was said to have been a renaissance man, an opera lover and an eloquent speaker. â“You stay put,â” Smalls says before the first film starts. â“And weâ’ll be back to talk some more.â”

Every episode of Riders of the Silver Screen ends with Marshal Andy's signature tagline: â“If you donâ’t wear a white hat, please wear a smile, so we can tell you from the bad guys.â”

Just before signing off this time, Smalls and Rawhide Ray are joined by Lullaby Luke. â“Hit me with a C-chord and just follow me,â” Smalls says. They play â“Where the Mountains Meet the Skyâ” and â“When Itâ’s Roundup Time in Texas.â” Smalls thanks each of his guests, and then he smiles into the camera, frozen until theyâ’re off the air. Theyâ’ll shoot three more episodes today.

â“Alright,â” Smalls says softly, after the cameras stop recording. â“Good job.â”

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