Hanging around antique stores while his wife poked around searching for treasures of her own, Clyde Lester decided he needed to start collecting something, too.
“She found a lot of stuff for sale, and I said, ‘I’m an old cowboy — I want me some stuff, too,’” Lester says. “So I started collecting B-western stuff and western stuff.”
Augustans might remember Lester for his years as the University of Georgia extension agent, his 19 years hosting “The Farm and Home Hour” on Channel 6 or his many years doing a garden show on WGAC.
Now retired, Lester is an informal western film historian who has made a niche for himself by specializing in B-westerns: low-budget, low-quality films made between 1935-1954 to be shown as the second film in a double feature.
Back then, a Saturday movie didn’t mean a trip to the multiplex that would end up costing the better part of $50, it meant taking loose change to the B theater and seeing a movie, a newsreel and another movie, with maybe a Three Stooges episode thrown in for good measure.
According to Lester, at one time 80 percent of American cities had a B theater. In Augusta, it was the Dreamland.
“The Depression Era called for cheap entertainment, and they made it,” Lester says. “They made these westerns cheap, and they made money.”
He says the return was between $40,000 and $60,000 on a $10,000 investment.
“Basically, during the Depression everyone was chasing the same dime, and if you’re chasing the same dime, you’ve got to give value or someone else is going to get your dime,” he says.
The B-western was the second part of getting that dime because at a double feature, a moviegoer got two movies for the price of one.
If the star on the second bill could shoot and fight, that was good. If he could shoot and fight and sing, that was even better. And if you had three stars that could shoot and fight and sing — what Lester calls a Trigger Trio — you got three for the price of one.
“That was just another way to get that dime,” he says.
Since the market for these films was 10-year-old boys, it was hardly sophisticated entertainment. Although there was always a pretty girl, 10-year-old boys wouldn’t stand for any kissing and the quality of the finished product didn’t have to be good. In many cases, it didn’t even have to make sense.
“We didn’t know you can’t go behind a rock on a brown horse and come back around it on a black horse,” he says. “We just never noticed that. And we never knew what these guys did for a living — they’d just start out riding along.”
The formula never varied.
“You had the good looking girl, the brains villain, the heavy villain, the horse, the sidekick and the star,” he says. “And by the way — these actors were no good. If they were any good, they would have been in A-westerns, like Jimmy Stewart and Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea.”
None of that mattered to Lester, however, or any of the other kids who were looking for something to do on a Saturday morning. Growing up in Rome, Georgia, Lester only knew he couldn’t wait to see the next one.
“When I started going to the picture show, I could go for a dime,” he says. “That’s what they called show fare. It was really good entertainment for the money and great babysitting. For a quarter, my mother was rid of me from 11 a.m. to about 5 p.m. — 10 cents to get in and 15 cents to eat.”
Once he started collecting movies and memorabilia, Lester wanted to see where these films were made, so he and a buddy started traveling to different locations — at one time, he says, there were 119 studios making westerns — and eventually he started going to western shows, which are kind of like Star Wars conventions for fans of westerns.
While at a western show in Charlotte he was able to meet his first love, the actress Linda Stirling.
“I went up to her and I said, ‘Ms. Stirling — you’re the first woman I ever fell in love with,’” he says. “She just cackled and told me I must have been six years old, which I was.”
And like the Star Wars franchise, which has been selling products since the film’s release in the late 1970s, westerns in general could be marketing machines.
“If you look at William Boyd, who played Hopalong Cassidy — he sold more stuff in the late 1940s and early 1950s than Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and the mouse put together,” he says. “You drank your milk from a Hopalong Cassidy glass, you ate off a Hopalong Cassidy plate and you had a Hopalong Cassidy outfit and gun.”
Now, after 40 years of collecting, Lester’s got an extensive collection of memorabilia, including between 900 and 1,100 movies.
“I probably watch three or four a week,” he says. “When I first started, people were selling 16mm movies for $100 apiece and now, with DVRs, you can go buy these westerns for $3 apiece, or they’ll put 10 on a DVR and sell it for $10.”
One of his favorite pieces of memorabilia is a business card from the TV western “Have Gun Will Travel.”
“I got in a trivia fight with Matt Stovall, a disc jockey over at WGAC,” he says. “He said Paladin, the main character, didn’t have a first name, and I said he did.”
The card, which he bought at an antique store and was a fixture in every episode, clearly has “Wire Paladin” on the same line. Though it’s meant as an instruction, Lester claimed Wire was his first name, and Stovall eventually gave in.
Though Lester is a recognized authority on B-westerns and westerns in general — he co-hosted a western exhibit at the Richmond County Library in March and participated in a documentary film about western actor Dub Taylor, who spent much of his childhood in Augusta — he says he still responds to the same simple pleasures that entertained him as a boy.
“You had the good guy and at the end of that hour, he’s going to win,” he says. “Good is going to triumph over evil every time. It might take him 55 or 56 minutes to do it, but he’s going to win out.”