Currently airing weekdays on Starz’s Encore Westerns premium cable-satellite channel, Death Valley Days was a 30-minute program sponsored by Borax. Syndicated across America for 18 years, it is the second longest running Western series, sandwiched snugly between Gunsmoke [20 seasons] and Bonanza .
Anthologized stand alone segments, narrated in chronological succession by the “Old Ranger” [Stanley Andrews], Ronald Reagan, matinee idol Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson, depicted the settling of the Western frontier utilizing real life historical accounts. The location shooting and guest stars merited positive results even though the writing and direction wasn’t always up to par particularly in the later seasons.
Each host also starred in certain episodes. A notable one featuring Reagan center stage is “No Gun Behind His Badge ,” a tragic 1965 story focusing on a hard-headed city policeman whose brand of law and order finds resistance in a cutthroat cowboy border town. It’s been said that the series played a significant role in securing Reagan’s win as governor of California. What cannot be disputed is that he resigned prematurely just before the conclusion of the 14th season in 1966 and never acted again.
An example of Taylor’s moment in the sun is 1967’s “The Lone Grave.” Portraying a grief-stricken husband hell bent on marking his recently deceased wife’s final resting place in the face of relentless mocking from “concerned” townspeople, the original teleplay finds the naturally gifted actor traipsing through the middle of nowhere with nothing except a burdensome headstone, wheelbarrow, canteen, and the sweltering clothes on his back.
Reruns apparently stalled by 1975, five years after Death Valley Days ceased produced. Why? The Borax corporation directly marketed the series as commercial programs to individual TV stations, so no television network was ever granted syndication rights. By the late 1980s Rhino Entertainment, a retro pop culture company based in Southern California perhaps best known for spearheading the Monkees’ revival campaign, released a limited run of VHS copies that are now collectors’ items.
Death Valley Days was pretty much forgotten for 40-odd years — barring scratchy fan uploads on YouTube — until New Year’s Day 2015 when Encore Westerns resurrected a completely restored and revitalized group of color episodes taken from the last seven years of the series. Earlier black and white seasons were subsequently reissued, so Western aficionados can see what they’ve been missing.
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