Buck Jones continued
Charles and Dell soon formed their own riding expedition circus, touring many towns in the West.
Dell became pregnant with their only child, Maxine, who later married actor Noah Beery Jr., and Charles looked for work in Hollywood at Universal Studios where he was hired as a stuntman for $5 a day. He soon went to Canyon Pictures where he appeared in several short westerns before landing a job at Fox Studios as a stuntman for $40 a day.
Fox cowboy star Tom Mix was causing problems with his salary demands, and the studio felt they needed a backup. Twenty-nine-year-old, five-foot-seven Buck was good-looking, likeable, funny, talented and a surprisingly good actor. The studio decided to make him a star and his first role was in The Last Straw (1920), billing him as Charles Jones. Later, he became Charles "Buck" Jones, finally settling on Buck Jones. Though rivals on screen, Buck and Tom became good friends.
Buck and his horse Silver made dozens of popular western films throughout the 1920's, and his film The Fighting Buckaroo (1926) brought a new slang word for a riding cowboy, “buckaroo,” into the language. Later, Buck decided to produce films on his own. His first effort was The Big Hop (1928), which did poorly at the box office, and he lost a fortune. Then he produced the live Buck Jones Wild West Show and Roundup Days, which folded after a couple of months. Next, Jones joined the Robbins Brothers Circus where he became the main attraction. He returned to Columbia Studios and made his first talking film, The Lone Rider (1930). Other films that followed include The Texas Ranger (1931), Branded (1931), Gordon of Ghost City (1933), Sundown Rider (1933), The Red Rider (1934), The Phantom Rider (1936), Hollywood Roundup (1937), California Frontier (1938), and Wagons Westward (1940). Jones also made a few non-western films that include Child of Manhattan (1932), High Speed (1932) and Unmarried (1939).
In 1936, Jones was ranked the number one cowboy star in polls conducted by Box Office and the Motion Picture Herald. The national Buck Jones Rangers Fan Club boasted five million members, and for a brief period of time, Jones received more fan mail than any actor in the world, including Clark Gable. In 1941, cowboys Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton starred together in eight movies of the popular Rough Riders film series for Monogram Pictures. All three cowpokes were already in their 50's.
Jones went to Boston on a publicity and bond selling tour for the war effort. While there, on November 28, 1942, six days before his 53rd birthday, he was invited to a testimonial dinner thrown in his honor by his manager, with 24 friends and associates, held at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a tropical paradise where the entire roof was able to roll back in summer for people to dance under the stars. In the lower level of the club, just after 10 p.m. in the Melody Lounge, a 16-year-old barback lit a match to see how to replace a lightbulb that a young couple had unscrewed for privacy
Suddenly an artificial palm tree ignited, and after what seemed like the boy's humorous attempts to douse the flames with a seltzer bottle, the fire raced across the shimmering satin fabric-covered ceiling which fell and ignited patron’s hair. Huddled under tables, running, and then jamming the six-foot-wide stairway, people burned while the flames exploded up the stairs to the mezzanine and raced across the elegant dance floor toward the stage where the Mickey Alpert band was about to begin playing the Star Spangled Banner. There, Buck and his party were sitting at several tables where the leather walls, although treated for fire resistance, instantly burned and emanated thick clouds of choking, toxic smoke.
The side exits were locked, as was the rolling roof, and an estimated close to 1,000 panicking patrons screamed and ran in the sudden darkness lit only by fire. People headed towards one revolving door, which was the only way out. Only a few made it through before the exit became hopelessly jammed. It was later determined that an enormous fight had taken place in the eclipsed room, so vicious that burning bodies were literally torn apart. News accounts reported Buck Jones as a hero trying to save the burned victims as he ran in and out of the building, though Jones was found near where he had been seated. The badly burned star was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital where he died November 30, 1942. Dell arrived from California too late to say farewell to her beloved cowboy.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, Starr is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online-www.EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
You may email Steve at [email protected], and visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view part of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy many of the letters, photos, and autographs he has received from his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to various periodicals, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind
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