On the beautiful eastern side of Washington State, my brother, Al III and I were growing up in Yakima. A little farther east, in Spokane, my grandpa Al Bowles, Sr. started the Spokane Diamond Spur Rodeo, right around 1950. Grandpa was a true westerner. His pride and joy was a beautiful palomino horse named “Champion”, which he rode every year in the rodeo parade.
Grandpa was a born showman who knew how to draw a crowd. He aimed to pack the rodeo grandstand. And to make that happen, he booked major western stars to perform every year.
I remember how, around 1956, he contracted with the deep-voiced cowboy singer/actor, Rex Allen, “The Voice of the West” to come and entertain at the rodeo. A man blessed with a rich, deep voice, Rex gained fame as the narrator of many Walt Disney TV shows and wildlife films, including the original 1963 version of “The Incredible Journey”. While I didn’t get to attend that year’s rodeo, I did get a copy of the rodeo program from Grandpa Bowles. It was emblazoned with a great photo of Rex. – And like a lot of folks I know who didn’t realize the value of ephemera, I eventually threw that keepsake away.
I especially remember traveling to Spokane from our Yakima home, to take in the 1955 rodeo, when Grandpa Bowles booked Gene Autry and Gail Davis (TV’s “Annie Oakley”). We visited the beautiful Davenport Hotel, where we met Gene and Ms. Davis in a luxurious suite. I sat on Gene’s lap and visited with him for a while. He was very kind and gentle. Then, my brother, Al III, did the same. We of course, asked “Annie Oakley” where “Tag” was. “Tag” was her young co-star on the TV show. She said he was way out West, on an adventure. So we didn’t get to meet him. But we were thrilled to meet Mr. Autry, and Ms. Davis. As a parting memento, they gave Al III and me autographed rodeo programs (once again, I tossed mine, sometime in the 1970’s. – What was I thinking?)
Another year brought a star whom we didn’t get to meet personally; but who wound up figuring in our lives. Around 1957, Grandpa asked Leo Carrillo to be the Diamond Spur’s guest star. Leo Carrillo played Pancho in the very popular TV series, “The Cisco Kid”. My brother and I used to watch that show every week on KIMA TV. At the rodeo, Leo sang, rode his palomino “Conquistador”, told funny stories, displayed his marksmanship with a pistol, and shared tales of the making of the Cisco Kid series. He was a big hit. And, Grandpa and Grandma Bowles made a friend for life.
While my brother and I didn’t get to meet Mr. Carrillo, because we didn’t venture with our parents to Spokane that year, he became like an uncle to us. He began sending us presents through our grandparents, or directly to us via the mail, at Christmastime. I remember one year, he sent us the coolest banks, which were shaped like rockets. These were super-special banks, the likes of which I never saw in Yakima at J. J. Newberry or Grant’s. (I broke mine years and years ago – it’s long gone.)
Periodically, Grandpa or Grandma Bowles would say, “Pancho says to say hello to you boys”. It really was neat to have such a famous man for our surrogate uncle. – In 1961, Al III and I were so sad to hear that he passed away from cancer. But Leo Carrillo, who was born in 1880, was 81 when he died. So he had a pretty long life. In case you didn’t know this, here’s an interesting fact: Leo was 70 years old when he signed on to play Pancho. He’d already had a whole career. Leo Carrillo appeared in early science fiction movies, mobster movies, and of course, many westerns.
“The Cisco Kid” was a wildly successful TV series. In fact, the show, which ran from 1950-1956, was the most popular filmed children’s series of its day. Back then, most TV shows were filmed in black and white; but “The Cisco Kid” was filmed in color.
I’m not sure how it fell into my possession, but I somehow wound up with this wonderful photo which Leo Carrillo signed and dedicated to my grandpa and grandma. I’m so happy to still have it. I guess my mom gave it to me sometime around 1980. I truly can’t recall. It seems like I’ve always had it. I had it professionally framed about 20 years ago. When I gaze upon the smiling face of Pancho, warm childhood memories come back to me.
Throughout his life, Leo Carrillo was passionate about preserving the beauty of the California coast. He served on the California Beaches and Parks commission for eighteen years. The Leo Carrillo State Park, which is a 1.5 mile-long beach west of Malibu, was named in his honor. Leo’s home, Rancho Carrillo, which features hand-crafted adobe buildings, is a registered California historical site.
Now, here’s what I call Pancho’s surprise: Although he often played Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, including the great and always funny Pancho, Leo Carrillo was Castilian Spanish-American –- not Mexican. He could trace his ancestry in Spain to the year 1260! But he loved playing Pancho. He loved making people — young and old — happy. He had a sign over the front door of his Rancho Carrillo, which when translated, said, “My house is yours”.
Rest in peace, Leo Carrillo. Descansa en paz.
Here is a very early color clip, filmed in Santa Barbara, CA during Fiesta. Leo Carrillo is the cowboy who rides up on the horse, with guns a-blazing. The featured song is the original version of “La Cucaracha”:
Click here to view an excellent documentary short, entitled “Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park”. You’ll learn a lot about the man:
For those who want to see a full episode of “The Cisco Kid”, here is episode one/season one, entitled, “Boomerang”:
I should point out that Duncan Renaldo, who played the Cisco Kid, was not Mexican. He was born in Romania! He lived until 1980. He was a mere 50 or so when he took on the role of Cisco.