07: Remembering The Other Alamo

 

Hightower Penny Campbell Loewen is not a native Texan. But as they say, she got here as quickly as she could.

 

Penny Well, I come form Illinois. I was singing down there just locally and this guy from Texas was visiting a neighbor of mine and he heard me sing and he said, “You know, I’m going to take you and make a demo of you…

 

Hightower It turns out this guy from Texas knew another guy from Texas – a music producer who Penny knew very little about.

 

Penny I just remember the name, ‘Happy Shahan’.

 

Hightower It’s hard to forget a name like Happy Shahan.

 

Penny And so he took it down there and Happy liked what he heard… and he said, “OK. I want you here next week.” But he said, “bring long dresses”. But I didn’t know what for. I thought he was just going to train me.

 

Hightower So a mysterious “producer” lures an innocent 18-year-old girl to a small town in west Texas where he will have her dress in a very particular way. We all know where this is heading... or do we?

 

Penny traveled to a small community north of the small town of Brackettville, Texas.

 

Penny I instinctively went right to the cantina and there’s Happy. And he says, “Are you Penny?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Welcome to Texas.”

 

I’m bewildered. I still don’t know what’s going on. And that’s where it started for me. And then I met some of the other girls and they are the ones that filled me in – I’m going to have to waitress. I’m going to sing in between shows, and I’m going to have to do gunfights.

 

Hightower As it turns out Penny had not been lured to a fringe religious cult. Although there are plenty of those to be found in Texas, where Penny had landed was a place called Alamo Village. No, not the Alamo in San Antonio, but a movie set that was built 125 miles to the west. And as it turns out, the story of this other Alamo is just as worthy of remembering as the story of the real Alamo.

 

That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the seventh episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

Most people know something about the Alamo. Built as a Spanish mission in the 1700s, it was used as a fort and was the site of an epic battle in the Texas Revolution. In 1836 a small group of volunteer Texians were killed after a thirteen-day siege when the Alamo was overwhelmed by the much larger Mexican Army. Among those killed were William Travis, James Bowie and of course, Davy Crockett.

 

Chorus The storybook tell they were all cut low

But the truth of it all is, this just ain’t so.

Their spirits will live, and their legends grow

As long as we remember the Alamo.

 

Davy, Davy Crockett!

And Crockett’s Company!

Davy, Davy Crockett!

Fightin’ for liberty!

 

Hightower Most people know about the Alamo less from history books and more from TV and the movies. The first silent film to feature the story of the Alamo was released in 1911. But the person who definitively put the Alamo on the American cultural map was none other than Uncle Walt.

 

Narrator And now, Walt Disney!

 

Disney During the past season we presented two stories based on the life of Davy Crockett of Tennessee – a man whose courage, whose humor and exploits lifted him into the legend class. In tribute to this great American folk hero we now present the third story in the Crockett trilogy, Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

 

Hightower In late 1954 and early 1955 three episodes of the TV series Disneyland featured Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. Disneyland, the amusement park, was set to open in July of ‘55 and Disney saw the TV show as a tool to both finance and promote the new theme park.

 

It took everyone by surprise that the Davy Crocket character became so incredibly popular. Disney regretted the fact that history required the character to die at the Alamo. And so they did what any self-respecting studio would do – they brought Crockett back to life, released additional episodes and sold millions of coonskin caps.

 

Other movie studios wanted to cash in on the public’s interest in the subject. Republic Pictures quickly released a film about the Alamo later in 1955. The production was originally supposed to star John Wayne but the Duke was also interested in directing the film. He ultimately dropped out of the project and created a new production company to realize his vision.

 

And his vision was epic.

 

Unlike earlier films that were shot using partial sets and matte paintings, John Wayne wanted to reconstruct the entire Alamo as a set.

 

Of course the original Alamo still exists, but it looks nothing like it did in 1836. It sits in the middle of San Antonio and is surrounded by modern development. To restage the fall of the Alamo, John Wayne would need space for thousands of extras to portray the advancing Mexican Army.

 

It was when his production company was scouting for for locations

that John Wayne crossed paths with a man by the name of Happy Shahan.

 

As the Second World War was drawing to a close, the US Army deactivated Fort Clark. This was bad news for the small town of Brackettville where the fort was located. That’s when a part-time singer and music promoter who went by the name of Happy came up with the idea that the town should try and lure Hollywood productions to the region. For the record, you’re listening to one of Happy’s recordings right now.

 

Anyway, as improbable as the the idea of bringing movie stars to rural west Texas might have seemed at the time, Happy had some authority. You see, he was the mayor of Brackettville.

 

Tully Shahan is Happy Shahan’s son. He remembers that a few film productions had already occurred in that part of the state.

 

Tully And there was a movie filmed down close to Spofford called The Last Command. And during that period of time, you could see the spike in sales tax going up and, you know, it brought a lot of income – brought a lot of extra dollars to Kinney County. We’re not a real rich county to begin with. We don’t have any oil or gas production here and not much industry.

 

Hightower In addition to being the son of Happy, Tully is also currently the County Judge of Kinney County. In Texas, a county judge acts as the chief administrator of a county. And as such, Tully is acutely aware of the importance of bringing outside dollars into the region.

 

Tully So at that time it was mainly a ranching community and they noticed that every time a movie would come here, well dog gone – the sales tax receipts would go up… so they started trying to get movies to come here. When my dad heard about The Alamo being filmed by John Wayne was going to film it in Mexico, well they went out to California and visited with him…

 

Hightower Of course, scheduling a meeting with a world-famous movie star like John Wayne wasn’t any easier then than it would be now. But Happy persisted.

 

Tully I remember my Dad complaining about not being able to get an audience out there. You know they put you off, they don’t call you back. You know. “You are who? From where?”

 

Hightower He eventually did meet with John Wayne and convinced him to send a crew to scout for locations in Kinney County.

 

Tully My dad, in fact, took the location manager all over the county trying to find a place to film it and then one day he was out at the ranch-

 

Hightower This would be the ranch that belonged to Happy and his wife Virginia. This is Texas and so of course everyone here has a ranch.

 

Tully My dad took him with him over to go over to the sheering barns and he said, “Happy, why don’t you just stop and let me out right here. This place looks interesting”

 

Hightower What stopped the location scout in his tracks was a particular patch of ranchland. The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows across the rolling south Texas plains. He could imagine the walls of the Alamo here. He could imagine an army of thousands storming those walls. He could imagine those walls defended by Laurence Harvey, Richard Widmark and John Wayne himself.

 

It took almost two years to build a new old Alamo. Local contractor Chatto Rodriquez worked closely with the film’s art director to recreate the 1836 Alamo. Over a million adobe bricks were used to create 200,000 square feet of buildings.

 

Rich Curilla grew up in Pennsylvania but now lives in Brackettville. He is the resident expert on both the History of film production at Alamo Village as well as the history of the Alamo is San Antonio. I asked him how accurate John Wayne’s movie was.

 

Rich Uh, they got the names right. Period.

 

Hightower Rich is kind of kidding, but not really.

 

Rich When John Wayne was making a movie he had a passion to tell the story of American heroism, you know. And he loved the Alamo story but he didn’t know a lot about it. So his writer was the one whom he assigned the task of doing the research. And he read a few books, you know, and then did a movie.

 

Hightower In the movie, people died at the wrong times. Skirmishes are portrayed that were never fought. The final assault on the Alamo takes place in midday whereas it actually took place before dawn. John Wayne’s mortally wounded Davy Crocket dies by intentionally blowing up the Alamo’s powder magazine. Although cinematic, that didn’t happen either.

 

It may seem odd today to go to such great lengths to build a full-size replica of the Alamo and then not apply the same historic rigor to the telling of the story, but that’s how movies were made back then.

 

Rich Every time there was an opportunity to use a real historical point that they would have even known then had they done some more research, they didn’t. And they made up stuff. And that’s just what movies did.

 

Hightower But for the recreation of the Alamo itself, they crafted a remarkably accurate facsimile.

 

Rich The façade of the Alamo church is the correct with. Almost – it’s sixty feet wide and the real one is sixty-two-and-a-half feet.

 

Hightower The facade of the Alamo at Alamo Village was built of limestone just like the original. Now one thing every Alamo movie has to address is the issue of the chapel’s pediment. We all recognize the Alamo by the iconic bell-shaped profile of its façade. The problem is that feature wasn’t added until several decades after the 1836 battle.

 

The chapel that we think of as the Alamo was never completed before the mission was abandoned. Illustrations dating from the 1830s indicate the front façade had a jagged, ruined appearance as opposed to the symmetrical hump we think of today.

 

Rich Producers seem to have this issue that if they don’t put that hump on there, nobody’s going to recognize it as the Alamo. Now why that wouldn’t cue somebody to recognize it as a Taco Bell I don’t know but that appears to be the thing.

 

Hightower For the movie set in Alamo Village, they shaped the jagged top of the chapel façade to mimic the general form of the real Alamo’s modern pediment. Of course this wasn’t historically accurate, but it at least made the Alamo look a little bit more like the Alamo.

 

Unlike most movie sets which are usually built as false-fronts, the rest of the mission compound was built as real buildings with concrete foundations and adobe walls. This was true of the nearby frontier town that in the movie acted as a stand-in for San Antonio. The quality of the set’s construction would prove critical for Alamo Village’s future.

 

When principal photography began in the fall of 1959, Brackettville became a radically different place. Even as a kid, Judge Shahan remembers what it was like when Hollywood came to town.

 

Tully It was like Barnum and Bailey coming to a little small town back then.

 

You know, you could go to the grocery store or a basketball game and see people like Richard Widmark or John Wayne shopping for stuff or watching a ball game and it was exciting, of course.

 

But they came here and it took them about three months to film that thing – to film the movie – and they spent a lot of money here and helped a lot of people. A lot of people got to work. A lot of people rented their homes.

 

Hightower The movie was released the following year and it did reasonably well at the box-office. But because of its unusually large budget - $12 million was a sizable sum in its day – John Wayne ended up losing money on the deal. It didn’t do so well at the Academy Awards either. Despite seven nominations including one for Best Picture, it only took home one Oscar – a technical award – for best sound.

 

And that could have been the end of the story of Alamo Village. Except it wasn’t.

 

In telling the story of how Alamo Village became a famous tourist destination, Happy Shahan would often describe it as an unplanned series of events. This is how Rich Curilla remembers the story.

 

Rich Happy always said that when John Wayne left he closed the gate – Happy closed the gate – and he was hoping to do other movies here but he had no plan to open it for tourism.

 

Hightower But because of the popularity of the film, people wanted to see where the movie was shot and started trespassing onto his property.

 

Rich And Happy said, “I didn’t want to arrest people but I had to do something about it so I hired a gate man and charged a dollar a carload for people and let ‘em come down and I used the money to pay for the gate man. But when they got down here you never knew when they were going to walk off with something or ruin something so I had to put somebody down here.” And he added personnel. And he said, “And then they’d get hungry and so we put in a restaurant.”

 

Hightower And since people had traveled all the way to Brackettville, Happy wanted to make sure everyone had plenty to do. And so he hired actors to stage gunfights. He had covered wagons and stagecoaches cart guests from one part of the village to the other. Before he knew what happened, Happy had built a unique tourist destination unlike any other.

 

This idea that Alamo Village developed organically over time as a service to the public makes for a great story. But like so much of the Alamo story, it isn’t entirely true. Rich told me about how a colleague had uncovered the truth about Happy’s plans for his Alamo.

 

Rich John Farkis came up with a radio interview – a transcript in a newspaper of a radio interview with Happy during construction – before John Wayne even filmed the movie – where Happy is waxing prolific and saying, “When John Wayne’s done we’re going to turn this into a world-class tourist attraction and they’ll be stagecoach rides and Indian attacks and, you’ll be able to come out here-“ He had it all figured out.

 

Hightower Over the course of next fifty years, Alamo Village became a most-see destination for anyone traveling along US 90. During this time production companies would still utilize both the Alamo replica and the nearby western town for various movies, TV shows and commercials. Because of the relatively accurate recreation of the Alamo, it also served as a teaching tool and helped history come alive for local students. Andres Rodriguez grew up in Brackettville and fondly remembers school fieldtrips to the Village.

 

Andres When I was young – probably second or third grade, we all went – I think they took the whole class to the Alamo Village to see what the wild wild west looked like back then…

 

Alamo Village was – I mean – it was really like going back in time… When we all went there that’s what we did. We stepped back into a time when this country and this area was rough and rugged and we didn’t have automobiles and it was just like stepping back in time. And it was an experience you will never forget.

 

Hightower After serving 25 years in the Army, Andres returned to Brackettville and is now serving as its mayor.

 

Being himself a singer, it was only a matter of time before Happy would add live music shows to the entertainment offerings. Over the years, Alamo Village employed hundreds of young men and women who had the opportunity to rub shoulders with movie stars while perfecting their own skills as performers.

 

One of these performers was Penny Campbell Loewen. Looking back, she has one word for the time she spent at Alamo Village:

 

Penny Magical – that’s the one word – magical. And I’m tearing up right now. It was – it was the best time in my life. It really was… I was doing what I loved and meeting all these wonderful people and we made a movie the first year I was there and that was awesome. And Happy and Virginia were like second parents to me. They treated me with love and kindness… and they were always ready to teach us something. Mostly integrity.

 

Hightower If the real Alamo acted as a turning point in the fight for Texas Independence, the other Alamo – the one run by Happy and Virginia Shahan at Alamo Village – acted as a turning point for thousands of young men and women who worked there in the 50 years it was open. Happy used a unique architectural artifact to create a place that was – well – happy.

 

Penny I was just a little green country girl that probably would have had a boring life if I hadn’t of said yes and went to Alamo Village and taken everything that Happy had to offer and use it. And that’s what he was all about - he was about trying harder, reach harder, do more. And I believed him, you know? I totally believed in everything he said.

 

Hightower Alamo Village also energized the local economy and demonstrated how two remarkable people could make a significant difference in their community.

 

Tully My Mom and Dad were industrious people. You know, thinkers and they were always trying to improve things and they established that thing for many, many years and had hundreds of thousands of people go through it.

 

Hightower The story of the Alamo as told in Alamo Village helps us understand why we create legends and the importance of telling them even if after we learn they aren’t entirely true. Historical legends tell us just as much about who we are today and what are values are as a society.

 

Rich We all want something different from our Alamo. You know there is no one Alamo. Some people want the movie Alamo, some people want the real history, some people don’t even want to hear that and believe the myths that they’ve heard for fifty years.

 

Hightower One of the challenges of telling any story is choosing which one to tell. Everyone I spoke with about Alamo Village had a slightly different take on what the place was and what it meant. For Mayor Rodriguez, it was a great place to visit. For Penny, it was a great place to perform. For Judge Shahan, it was a great economic generator that created jobs and revenue.

 

Of course, Alamo Village was all of those things. Like any good piece of architecture, it is built of layer upon layer of history and meaning and memory. That’s what has allowed it to be so many different things to so many different people. And in that sense, Alamo Village in Brackettville is just as real as the other Alamo. You know - the one in San Antonio.

 

Happy Shahan died in 1996. His wife Virginia ran the village until her own death in 2009. Alamo Village has remained closed ever since and now is itself becoming the stuff of legend.

 

Chorus In the southern part of Texas

Near the town of San Antone

Sits a fortress all in ruins

That the weeds have overgrown…

 

Hightower Thanks today to Rich Curilla, Mayor Andres Rodriguez, County judge Tully Shahan and Penny Campbell Loewen who also sang the intro music. Thanks also to The Walt Disney Company and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios for the use of clips form their respective properties. In the past I’ve been fairly conservative in my incorporation of copyrighted material. I hope Mr. Disney and Mr. Wayne would use good judgment when deciding weather or not to consider my usage of their work as fair use.

 

John Wayne (as McKlintock) I know, I know. I’m going to use good judgment. I haven’t lost my temper in 40 years. But pilgrim, you caused a lot of trouble this morning and might have gotten somebody killed. And somebody ought to belt you in the mouth. But I won’t. I won’t.

 

Hightower In addition to the music from The Alamo and Davey Crockett At The Alamo, the rest of today’s music was by Chris Zabriskie. As always, special thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood who came up with our podcast’s logo and to Clara, the Napoleon of my West, with coming up with its name.

 

The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com. There you can find links to the music that was played and the films that were referenced. While online, please do subscribe to the podcast and rate us or leave us a comment on iTunes.

 

Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.