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Born: Rex Trailer September 16, 1928 in Thurber, Texas, United States
Died: January 9, 2013 (aged 84) Miami, Florida, United States
Occupation: Cowboy, actor, singer, film producer
Years active: 1947 - 2013
Rex Trailer (September 16, 1928 – January 9, 2013) was a Boston based regional television personality, broadcast pioneer, cowboy and Country and Western recording artist. He is best known as the host of the long running children's television show Boomtown.
Rex Trailer grew up just outside Fort Worth, Texas. He spent his summers on his grandfather’s fifty acre quarter horse ranch in nearby Thurber, Texas. There at age four or five Trailer rode his first horse, which was named “Bamboo”. The hired hands on the ranch were rodeo cowboys. One of these men taught him trick roping, one taught him how to handle a bull whip, and another taught him how to play the guitar. Trailer recalls, “All those cowboys were good at what they taught me, but after I learned each (skill), I was the only one of the bunch who could do all three!” By age 11, the student had begun performing with his mentors in Texas rodeos. Trailer’s grandfather only warned the cowboys that they shouldn’t let him ride “rough stock”, meaning the broncos and bulls. As a young man in Texas, Trailer found other opportunities to employ his skills. At age 16 he started his own band, “The Ramblin' Rustlers”, which performed locally. “I was always a ham who loved to perform”, he said. “I could always play guitar, sing and tell stories.” Trailer also began calling square dances. At 18 years old, Trailer left Texas for the national rodeo circuit. “I traveled the country a little bit”, Trailer reminisced. “The audiences got a kick out of a teenager being out there and trick riding and roping and bull whips and singing.” In 1948 Trailer was working in the traveling rodeo when he met Western movie star Gabby Hayes backstage at Madison Square Garden. That meeting proved to be life changing. An impressed Hayes hired him to work at his Catskills summer ranch for kids as entertainment director. Trailer was the oldest child in a large family, and so was already practiced at engaging the young ones. Hayes, recognizing Trailer’s rare natural talent over the course of that summer, encouraged him to break into the fledgling world of children’s television as an on air personality.
Around 1947 Trailer, not yet out of his teens, had gone to work for the DuMont Television Network in New York City. He started out as a scenery painter, but quickly rose to the position of production coordinator, and soon after to assistant director. Then in 1949, acting on Hayes’ advice to seek on air work, he responded to a casting call for a cowboy who could do stunts; Trailer overwhelmed the competition and became the host of the network’s Oky Doky Ranch (formerly The Adventures of Oky Doky). The show featured Rex Trailer as a cowboy and Oky Doky, a cowboy puppet, operated by Dayton Allen. The Oky Doky series was successful, but it ended when its production company went bankrupt. Dayton Allen went to NBC and soon joined the cast of the nascent Howdy Doody show. Meanwhile, Trailer heard that the Westinghouse TV station in Philadelphia (WPTZ) needed a host for a Western style children's show. Rex Trailer and his horse “Gold Rush” moved to Philadelphia and hosted a number of television shows from 1950 until 1956. "Ridin’ the Trail with Rex Trailer" featured him as the host for movie Westerns on Saturday mornings, with some live action segments featuring Rex spliced in. “They sort of built me into the movie,” Trailer explained. “The kids loved it because they never knew where or when I was going to show up in the action.” He also had a daily 15 minute program featuring songs, games, dances, lore and lessons. This was the only one of the shows that was just Rex Trailer and the kids; called “Hi-Noon with Rex Trailer,” it ran from 1950 to 1955, achieving high ratings as it entertained the kids who came home from school for lunch. “Rex Trailer’s Ranch House” was a half hour variety show on Saturday nights. With its self explanatory title, “Saddlebag O’ Songs” was yet another show he hosted in that era.
Trailer always seemed to have more than one “iron in the fire”. Even as his television career was blossoming, Trailer found success in recording Country and Western Music for ABC Paramount Records, among other labels. At one time, around 1950, he recorded with Bill Haley and his Saddlemen, who gained fame later as Bill Haley and His Comets. In 1955, “Cowboys Don't Cry” and a song later used regularly on the Boomtown show, “Hoofbeats”, were released together in the 78 rpm and 45 rpm vinyl record formats. Trailer released at least two 33-1⁄3 rpm 12" vinyl albums, as “Rex Trailer and the Playboys”, one titled Country and Western in 1960 and one titled Good Old Country Music, released by Crown records (CLP 5484 monaural), date unknown. Another album with some overlap in playlists also exists, by “Rex Trailer and his Cow Hands”, titled Western Favorites, which was released in 1961 on Spin-O-Rama records. In his later years, Trailer offered a CD through his website, called All the Best. “Boomtown”, “Hoofbeats”, “Cowboy’s Don't Cry”, “Pow Wow the Pony” and other songs from the 1950s and 1960s were included, along with some more recently recorded songs. Trailer recorded introductions for each track. Trailer was a featured guest on the 2002 eponymous Nate Gibson and the Gashouse Gang album. He played and sang on two songs written by Gibson, “Immaculate Confection” and “The Remote to the T.V.” The former song is a tribute to Necco Wafers candy.
The Boomtown / Boston years
The Philadelphia station that employed Trailer was sold to NBC. The young star, with short time remaining on his contract to Westinghouse Broadcasting, was presented a choice of two Westinghouse station cities as his next stop: Cleveland or Boston. In 1956, with a wealth of broadcasting experience and not yet out of his twenties, Rex Trailer chose the move to Boston to host a new weekend morning children’s show Boomtown on WBZ-TV. Trailer was familiar with Boston from his performing as an intermission act singing western songs and calling square dances years earlier when he travelled with big bands who played the Copley Plaza Hotel. The show, named by Rex after the title of a Clark Gable film he saw on TV at the time, had a format which combined elements of the other shows he had done. Though the original commitment was only for a few months, this series proved to be his greatest success, airing on WBZ through 1974. Boomtown established Trailer as a major (and enduring) local celebrity within the signal of Boston’s TV Channel 4. Trailer performed songs while playing guitar, and showed off his authentic cowboy skills with horse riding tricks, rope tricks, skilled use of the bull whip, and shooting (though he banished weapons from the show after JFK’s assassination in 1963). He led the studio audience of children in sing alongs and contests of skill, and introduced cartoons and other children’s programming segments. The young viewers “adored him for his consistent kindness and competence.” Trailer was aided by many guests, such as John MacFarland (for “Critter Corner”), and by his various sidekicks over the years, including “Pablo” from 1956 to 1967 (played by actor Richard Kilbride), then “Cactus Pete” from 1967 to 1969 (played by Terrance Currier), and “Sgt. Billy” (played by actor Bill O'Brien). Rex Trailer’s fame, good name, and crowd pleasing talents made him a dependable draw at his many personal appearances in the area. He was also able to team with a local travel agency in chaperoning children on an annual series of large scale school vacation trips to California tourist attractions.
Trailer was recognized as a strong advocate for children with disabilities. In 1961, Trailer (and Gold Rush) led an actual wagon train across the state of Massachusetts ending at the State House in Boston, to call public attention to the needs of the mentally retarded, and the organization The Arc (then called the Association for Retarded Citizens). Trailer insisted on including children with disabilities in his show, and is said to have been one of the first to do so. In addition, Trailer also encouraged his young fans to hold neighborhood charity fund raisers called “Backyard Carnivals Against Dystrophy”, offering how to kits on air. As a result of such efforts, Trailer came to be perceived as the “cowboy with a conscience” on and off the air. Shooting live three hour shows in the Brighton studio every Saturday and Sunday morning left Trailer little opportunity at that time to contemplate his place in television history. “We just did it. It was a blast,” he said, adding that the show was the most enjoyable thing he’d ever done, because its genuineness made the fun contagious. “We were doing educational TV before there was educational TV,” Trailer asserted. “Children need role models. I wanted them to understand their obligation to take care of each other.”
When Boomtown ended on WBZ TV, Trailer briefly put his Western costume aside and hosted Earth Lab, a syndicated science series that aired across the country until 1979. A second, short lived run of Boomtown aired on WXNE, Boston, also on Saturdays and Sundays, for a year in the late 70s, and was complemented by weekday “Good Time Gang” inserts during which Rex or other featured players of Boomtown hosted afternoon runs of other pre-produced children’s programming, announcing the shows and giving away prizes. The WXNE version of the show also starring Rex, brought back sidekick Sgt. Billy, and Uncle Sam Donato and the Boomtown Band, and added magician “Denver Dave,” played by David Rich. Rich had been a one time audience member of the show in the early 60s.
Rex was part of the successful “I Love New York” tourism campaign, playing a New Hampshire fisherman in a 1982 TV commercial. Trailer had a minor but memorable role as a doctor in the 1990 Cher / Winona Ryder movie Mermaids, saying to Ryder’s character, “Then why did you think you were pregnant? You're still a virgin!” Later, he co-hosted Boomtown Revisited on Continental Cablevision in the early 1990s.
Besides his cowboy, musical and broadcasting skills, Trailer had other talents. He was a licensed pilot, having flown fixed wing craft including the Boeing 747 as well as helicopters and gliders, the latter at the (now defunct) Northeast Gliderport in Salem, New Hampshire. He would often arrive at personal appearances at the controls of a helicopter, sometimes seasonally accompanied by Santa Claus. Once, Trailer was flying with Bozo the Clown (Frank Avruch) in his helicopter; engine trouble forced them down in a Western Massachusetts field, where they were greeted by incredulous children who had followed their descent. Trailer owned a helicopter shuttle company in the 1960s and 1970s that at its peak transported 500 - 600 passengers a day. He was an accomplished sky diver, scuba diver and water skier. Trailer also worked as a travel agent and was a certified hypnotherapist.
In his later years, Rex Trailer continued to work in the television industry. He owned a video production company in Waltham, Massachusetts, and taught on air performance at Emerson College in Boston, both until his death. Among his past students are WHDH-TV Channel 7 news anchor Jonathan Hall, Fox 25 morning news host Gene Lavanchy, and Entertainment Tonight correspondent Maria Menounos. He made regular personal appearances, and performed on occasion, including sets at Boston rock clubs in his later years as a special guest. Rex Trailer was also a perennial participant in Natick Massachusetts' annual July 4th parade, in which he rode Goldrush. Trailer’s initial association with the parade ran from 1955 into the early 1980s; Trailer revived the tradition beginning in the early 1990s, continuing it each year until 2012. In 2013, he was named “grand marshal in memoriam” by Natick Friends of the 4th.
On December 10, 2006, Rex Trailer performed several songs (including the Boomtown theme and some of his own Christmas songs) and signed free autographs for hundreds of fans at That’s Entertainment in Worcester, Massachusetts. The event was part of Trailer’s official “50th Anniversary of Boomtown” celebration tour. Then Worcester Mayor Tim Murray officially proclaimed it “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown Day” throughout the city to mark the occasion, and Worcester City Councilor Frederick C. Rushton read the proclamation to the crowd.
In 2011, Trailer donated his three .45 caliber revolvers with staghorn handles to the Massachusetts State Police Museum in Grafton, Massachusetts. Just prior, the gun shop where Trailer was storing them had gone out of business. The guns very nearly went on the auction block before Trailer and Michael Bavaro learned of the situation and retook possession. On September 11, 2011, Trailer appeared at That’s Entertainment in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, to meet fans, sing songs and sign free autographs as he marked the 55th anniversary of Boomtown. The appearance coincided with the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and Trailer sang a song he had written to honor the victims of 9/11, “I Appreciate You”. He had first performed this song on 2002/09/10 at the Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall. He explained the song’s significance before that earlier event: “Ever since 9-11, the world has changed for all of us. We have to stick together, protect each other, and let those you love, respect, and admire know how much you appreciate them.” On Dec. 18, 2011, Rex Trailer wrapped up his 55th Anniversary Tour in Waltham, Massachusetts at Café on the Common. Trailer debuted a long lost Boomtown segment called “Pablo’s Used Cars,” which featured the physical comedy of Trailer’s beloved sidekick, Pablo (actor Richard Kilbride). In 2012, Trailer continued to appear at events in towns all around Massachusetts. On September 15, 2012, Trailer was at the Ayer Town Hall, where a gathering of fans joined him for his 84th birthday celebration.
Trailer’s family remained largely out of the public spotlight throughout his career. Trailer was married to Karoline “Cindy” Trailer, a two time beauty pageant winner, from 1956 until her death on May 30, 2011. They had one child, Jillian. Between raising her daughter and attending charity events, Mrs. Trailer had dedicated her time to helping people in need through volunteer work with hospitals and various organizations. She also gave her time to Friends of Animals as well as to animal shelters, and opened their Sudbury, Massachusetts home to many lost or abandoned pets. His daughter Jillian Trailer said, “One of the most important lessons I learned from my father was to appreciate both big and small opportunities. Learn from the tough experiences and most of all appreciate every day of life.” She recalled that her father was much the same person in public and private life, and that he had a talent for making everyone feel special.
Recognition and legacy
The retrospective book Rex Trailer: The Boomtown Years by Shirley Kawa-Jump was published in 1997.
Trailer was inducted into the Massachusetts Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. He received the 2005 Governor’s Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Boston / New England chapter and inducted into the Academy’s Gold Circle in 2008 for 50 years of service to the broadcast industry in New England. He was included in the first group of honorees inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame in Brockton, Massachusetts, on May 5, 2007.
A documentary film titled, “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown” was produced by Milford, Massachusetts native Michael Bavaro. The film was broadcast on WBZ-TV on June 18, 2005 as a special and was nominated for a New England Emmy award for best historical documentary. Jay Leno, Jimmy Tingle, Mayor Tom Menino, Steven Wright and more than 100 grown up kids share their Boomtown memories, and attest to the enduring stature of its host. The broadcast version of the film and archive material were presented to and are now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. The film enjoyed an encore presentation on WGBH Boston on August 26, 2010.
Trailer was honored for his lifetime of contributions to people with mental and intellectual disabilities at the 50th anniversary Gala for The Arc of Massachusetts on September 10, 2005. In 2011, The Arc chapters in Massachusetts launched a state wide event called “All Aboard the Arc!” This bus caravan event was modeled after the wagon train led 50 years before by Rex Trailer. Trailer was honored at the 2011 event. The organizers note, “Sadly, his horse was not invited.”
In March 2012, the Massachusetts tourism and cultural development committee endorsed Trailer’ proposed designation as the state’s “official cowboy.” The bill, officially called S 1704, is sponsored by Senator Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln). Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell), co-chair of the committee, said during the executive session, “His history and connection to Massachusetts is very strong. Not only is he a cowboy from Massachusetts, but he is a wonderful role model who gave a lot back.” On April 7, 2014 the bill, now sponsored by Fargo’s successor, State Senator Michael Barrett, passed the Senate. “Long before PBS he was engaging kids in valuable ways. And long before The Americans with Disabilities Act he was determined to make his youthful audience inclusive,” stated Barrett. Barrett chairs the Senate committee on children, families and persons with disabilities.
Rex Trailer died in 2013 when he was visiting family in Florida for the holidays. He fell ill with pneumonia, and died on January 9 at the age of 84. Trailer’s life was celebrated at a memorial service held at Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College on March 12, 2013. The Rex Trailer Memorial Fund was established to support the causes the man championed.
Comedian Jay Leno eulogized his boyhood hero: “I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of important people, but no bigger star than Rex.