Ronald Reagan, Muybridge and Stanford, and Death Valley Days

Ronald Reagan on the set of Death Valley days

“As the early morning  bugle call of the covered wagon train fades away among the echoes, another true Death Valley Days is presented by the famous Borax family of products….”

We haven’t heard much on this blog about Muybridge’s tv appearances – so here’s something new.

In 1964, the LA Times announced, “Reagan to Narrate ‘Death Valley Days’” – a popular tv show that had already been running for more than a decade, featuring stories from the Old West. [18 Oct 1964]. Director of the show was Reagan’s brother, Neil [South Florida Sun – Sentinel 13 Dec 1996]. In syndication the show was variously titled: Call of the West; The Pioneers; Trails West; and Western Star Theater.

The programme's sponsor - Borax

Do check out the commercial slot on Youtube:

Death Valley Days was invariably sponsored by Pacific Coast Borax Company, (later: U.S. Borax Company). Advertisements for the company’s best-known products, 20 Mule Team Borax, a laundry additive, Borateem detergent, and Boraxo powdered hand soap, were often done by the programme’s host. Death Valley was the scene of much of the company’s borax mining operations. Wikipedia says: “Death Valley Days is, judging from sheer number of episodes broadcast, by far the most successful syndicated television Western, the most successful television Western ever in the half-hour format, and arguably the most successful syndication of any genre in the history of the U.S. television market…”

The episode that interests us was entitled ‘The $25,000 Wager’ (1964). Season 13: Episode 10. Air Date: December 24th, 1964
[NOTE: an audio tape of the soundtrack sold on eBay recently, and this gave the date as 14 Feb 65, probably a syndication date.] In ‘The Bet That Created a Future Industry’, a recent item on the web [23 March 2008], a viewer remembered details of the plot and cast:

“….this episode [told of an event that] settled one of the great mysteries of the animal kingdom and created the name and reputation of one of America’s best remembered photographers – and began a thread that helped lead to the development of an industry now centered in California.

Hedley Mattingly played Muybridge

[British-born actor] Hedley Mattingly (later District Officer Hedley on Daktari) plays the photographer. He is at a local race course one day with his wife, a family acquaintance, and several important figures including California’s governor (it is 1873) Leland Stanford (Harry Holcombe). Stanford is watching his horse race a friend’s, and they start discussing the beauty of the animals, and the grace with which the horses go around the track.  Stanford wondered if the horses ever had all four hoofs off the ground at the same time. His friend [Charles Cropper played “MacCrellish”] says he did not think it was possible: horses require two of their legs to be on the ground at one point of time while the others rise. It is necessary for their balance. But Stanford felt it was possible. He had run, and occasionally both of his legs were off the ground. Why not a horse.

Leland Stanford was played by Harry Holcombe (The Minister in The Graduate)

But how to find out? It was decided after the wager on this problem ($25,000.00 – a big sum of money now but more so then) to have the photographer try to photograph a horse in gallop. He was appalled at this assignment, but agreed to do it. After all, Stanford was the Governor of California.

Diane Brewster played Flora.

Diane Brewster played Flora. Ironically, given the Flora/Muybridge age difference, this Photoplay cover asks: “Why do they marry older men?” (Diane Brewster played doomed wife Helen Kimble in The Fugitive tv series.)

The story follows the photographer’s experiments with cameras, and the false ends many ideas lead to. But there is a second story told (though from what I recall bowdlerized). The photographer’s wife Flora (Diane Brewster), was having an affair with a family acquaintance David Neal (Lew Brown). This comes to the photographer’s attention, and complicates his search for an answer to the question.

Lew Brown as 'David Neal'

Lew Brown played ‘David Neal’ – the name given to the ‘family acquaintance’ (in real life, Harry Larkyns).  (Lew Brown played Andy Coe in 21 episodes of Gunsmoke)

In the end the photographer set up cameras worked by trip wires all over the race course. Stanford’s horse ran down the course, and all the pictures were developed. And sure enough they showed the horse does have all four hoofs off the ground when the horse is galloping. Stanford won the bet.

To prove that the pictures were not doctored, the photographer created a machine that flicked their images on a screen in order to show the horse in gallop down the track. The device, a zoopraxiscope (I believe that is how it is spelled) was the world’s first motion picture camera [projector]. Stanford congratulates the photographer, who was Eadward [sic] Muybridge, and said he showed that pictures could be made to move.

The romance also was ended, but in the episode I don’t think they went into how it was ended. Muybridge is unique – he is remembered for his remarkable slow motion studies of men and animals, and he is recalled as one of the fathers of motion pictures (Edison, while working on his camera in the 1890s, met with Muybridge to check out his “rival” only to find that Muybridge had no further desire to develop motion pictures). But Muybridge is also one of the few actual killers honored by the U.S. Government by a postage stamp. You see, he killed his wife’s lover (as Congressman Daniel E. Sickels did in 1859). And like Sickels he was acquitted by the notorious “unwritten law” about killing adulterers threatening one’s marriage. That part I don’t recall was in the episode – Muybridge’s violent act occurred shortly after the bet was settled.

Aside from that odd postscript the episode kept to the story quite well. And it was memorable enough to remain on this viewer’s mind some forty years after seeing it.” [theowinthrop on IMDb]

On 4 April 1965 the Chicago Tribune reported: “Actor Reagan Sees a Happy Future … No one knows for sure what the future holds for Ronald Reagan, Illinois born actor, tv host, performer, and a battler for the freedoms intended us by the founders of this nation [it says here]. He may continue as host and sometime star of Death Valley Days, a series with emphasis on the American Heritage and dramatizing footnotes on American history…..[etc.]

Yeah, what did become of him?

Another reviewer explains why Reagan soon left the series:

“Because he announced his candidacy on January 1, 1966, Death Valley Days aired prior to – and during – Reagan’s gubernatorial run. His opponent (the sitting governor) felt that weekly TV exposure gave Reagan an unfair advantage. As a result, California stations were forced to drop the series to conform with equal time laws.” [‘Ronald Reagan on TV’ by Billy Ingram – See also: ‘Reagan Out as Host of Death Valley Days’, LA Times 10 January 1966]

So while telling the story of one Governor of California, Reagan was about to become another.

Sadly I have so far been unable to find any stills from the Muybridge-Stanford episode, but it definitely still exists – in fact, it’s available on DVD. The one tiny problem is that it’s part of a rather large DVD Box Set – all 558 episodes of the series (1952-1975). The set is sold by TV-DVD – though what kind of lifestyle would one have watching that lot (18 seasons, 46 DVDs) ?

I’ll settle for reading the plot given on :

“Two men make a $25,000 bet which leads a young photographer to create a new art form — the movies.”