Patti Page, Harry Carey, Jr.: Entertainers of Another Age

Patti Page
Patti Page

You’ve heard the sayings, usually by someone older with a functioning memory, a plaintive statement about the passing of time and people, ways of doing things, values, genres and items that have been thrown into the dustbin of history.

Such as: “They don’t make 'em like that anymore,” “Things (movies, music, kids, politics, hair styles, chicken soup) aren’t what they used to be,” or the bleak exclamation point sentence, “I didn’t know he or she was still alive!”

Lately, I find myself being one of those persons, saying things like that.

So, here goes again. Pop music isn’t what it used to be. And they don’t make westerns the way they used to. In fact, they hardly make them at all.

Patti Page and Harry Carey, Jr. I didn’t realize that they were still alive, until they passed away a week ago.

I mention Page and Carey because they were examplars and professionals in forms of of popular entertainment which have all but disappeared.

Page, who died at the age of 85 on New Year’s Day, was a star and a bit of a legend in the field of what is best described as adult pop vocal music—not quite in the lofty range of, say, a Frank Sinatra or Doris Day—which dominated the music charts in the late 1940s and right up until the mid-1950s when Bill Haley rocked around the clock like a John the Baptist of rock-and-roll until the King himself arrived soon thereafter in his blue suede shoes, loving you tender.

Before rock seriously put a dent into the popularity of crooners like Eddie Fisher and Vic Damone and even songstresses like the hugely popular Doris Day, Page hit the top or near the top of the charts regularly like a gong, marrying a tad touch of country to songs like “Tennessee Waltz” (a number-one hit in 1950) and the super-hit novelty song, “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?”—plus a series of haunting and hugely popular ballads.

Although Page's hit-making power faded with the onset of rock-and-roll and the rowdy 1960s, she continued to record and perform, in Branson, Mo., which is ubiquitous with singers wearing the mantle of legend.)

You suspect that there was something mysterious about Page, who never looked like she trained in the Mickey Mouse Club , but sprang, full-blown, into the public eye as a woman, not a girl. And a very attractive woman at that, reddish curled hair and fashionable 1950s clothing. She looked a little like the glamorous sister of the Beaver’s mom.

There were singers like that during this early "Mad Men" period. They provided songs for "Your Hit Parade," the popular Saturday night show in which two men and two women sang the top hits of the day, generated by the likes of Page, Day, Jo Stafford and Perry Como and others.

“Your Hit Parade” died of cardiac arrest brought on by rock-and-roll—not many of the “Parade” performers were adept at handling a tune like “Jailhouse Rock.” Only Pat Boone—a crooner-turned-wholesome rocker managed to adapt to the new environment, although he would never threatened the tempo of either Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry.

Page soldiered on, turning out records, touring and singing her own brand of country-tinged balladry right into the 21st century until her retirement several years ago. So prodigious—and high quality—was her output that she was due to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She sold more than 100 million records.

In 1978, a singer named Sharon McKnight wrote and recorded a song called “Put Another Nickel in the Jukebox and Bring Back Patti Page.” Jukeboxes, it should be noted, are not much, if at all, being made anymore either.

Something else—beside the songs of Patti Page—was hugely popular in the 1950s, although also beginning to lose its traction and hold on the popular American imagination. That would be westerns—a genre of movies that began when movies began, and in the 1950s, was at its peak, with a slew of B movies, top-notch and big-budget Hollywood films, and television series for both adults (“Gunsmoke”) and young cowpokes (“Range Rider” and “Hopalong Cassidy”). John Wayne was the biggest western star in Hollywood (and maybe the biggest star, period), and John Ford was the pre-eminent director of western movies like “The Searchers,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” the middle part of his 7th Cavalry trilogy. Part of the Wayne and Ford group was actor Harry Carey, Jr.

Carey was in many of Ford’s and Wayne’s movies, not as a star but a supporting player—his blondish, curly hair early later turned into something more frontier-like. He was a member in good standing of a group of people known informally as the John Ford Stock Company, a group that included Wayne, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond and Maureen O’Hara, who still survives. Ford, as Carey duly noted in his book, “Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company,” could be both loyal friend and horrible, cruel task master. No one—not even Wayne—escaped Ford's ire.

Most memorably, perhaps, Carey was the blond second lieutenant who vied for the affections of a very young Joanne Dru with John Agar in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” Ford’s most elegiac western about the 7th Cavalry—populated almost entirely, it seemed, by Irishmen, as fine a piece of work by an American as exists in Hollywood film archives.

Carey, who died on Dec. 27 at the age of 91, appeared in more than 90 films. Like his father, who was featured prominently and often in westerns in silent movies and then talkies, often under the direction of Ford, Carey was a fixture on the honored roll call of character actors. He worked with Wayne, or “The Duke” 11 times, and in many of Ford’s films, including the last western made by Ford, “Cheyenne Autumn.”

Carey also appeared on numerous television western series, including “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke," and for his television contributions he was honored with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star and was inducted in the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla. He was married to Marilyn Fix, the daughter of another great Hollywood character actor Paul Fix.

When you think of Carey and “Yellow Ribbon,” you can hear the officers of the 7th Cavalry, wearing yellow kerchiefs, dusty cap and sabers, riding to Monument Valley, Ford’s favorite filming site.

And let’s not forget: They don’t make them like that anymore.

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