Usually, being stuck in school on a beautiful spring day doesn’t seem like the perfect way to enjoy the sixth grade. But for me and my pals at St. Charles School on Moorpark, this April Fools’ Day would be one that we would never forget. Hopalong Cassidy and Montie Montana were going to put on a Western show right in our schoolyard. As we looked out the window, we could see the ranch hands finishing setting up the animal pens and the trick roping arena for Montie, the crown prince of the roping cowboys.
Every eye was on the clock as it slowly clicked its way toward the 11:00 bell that would signal freedom. Sister Jean Dolores had it in her mind that the class would learn an extra 10 words in Latin before the bell. Not with Hoppy waiting in the yard, they wouldn’t. I was sure she had never played cowboys as a child. I shuddered as a picture of the good Sister, resplendent in her black habit and shooting a pair of six-guns in the air, crossed my mind. I knew this thought was going to cost me a few extra prayers that night.
Butch Salas was the first one of the boys to start. By sitting a certain way in his chair and rubbing the seams of his bulletproof, rip-proof, stain-proof, atomic-bomb-proof, never-ever-wear-out, Catholic-school, gray corduroy pants together, Butch could make a sound like tearing paper. Needless to say, the rest of the gang took up the clarion call. The class sounded like a bunch of crickets underwater. The girls, crisp in their blue-and-white uniforms, started to giggle. Sister Jean, all 4 feet 10 inches of her, turned and, in one fluid motion, threw a piece of chalk at Butch, who broke the 11th Commandment and ducked. The chalk, now with a mind of its own, headed right for Eilene Janssen’s big, beautiful, lake-blue eyes. Without thinking, I reached up and intercepted the deadly missile, and, in an act of bravado, gently tossed the chalk back to Sister and took a bow. Thus, I also broke the same dreaded commandment: Don’t ever mess with the nuns. God must be a cowboy, because just then, the bell finally rang.
The whole school was seated on lunch tables and benches in a semicircle around the arena — little kids to the front, big kids to the back. This natural selection put the guys and me right in the middle. Sister Jean, yardstick in hand, patrolled the perimeter like a Marine drill sergeant, waiting for one of the boys to get out of line.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, here he is, in person, your favorite cowboy star … Hopalong Cassidy and his wonder horse, Topper!” Hoppy rode into the ring, dressed in black from head to toe, sitting atop his beautiful white stallion. The crowd went wild. He dismounted and Topper was led away. Hoppy walked right up to the crowd, and for the next 10 minutes, in his unique voice and style, basically told us all to be good boys and girls. We should mind our parents and the nuns and remember to drink our Adohr milk. With that, the cowboys passed out small cartons of milk to everyone and Hoppy exited, stage right. What?Hoppy, Hoppy, do something, shoot something, punch a cowpoke, do anything! No, off he went. But gosh, he could have at least shown us his shootin’ irons.
The crowd was getting restless. I was just about to volunteer to take a bunch of second-graders to the bathroom when Montie Montana came charging into the arena, spinning two huge ropes while standing on the saddle of his horse, Baron. What a showman! Montie proceeded to rope anything that moved. One rope, two ropes, three ropes, horses, cows, goats, chickens and a first-grader, who cried. He even roped Sister Jean’s yardstick, but unfortunately, moments later, he gave it back to her.
Montie then asked the lovely, talented Eilene Janssen to help with his show. Eilene had been in pictures since she was a beautiful baby. She was also my neighbor, a block or two away, on Whipple Street. To this day, she still owns the family home she was born in. Her mother designed the house and had it built around 1935. It may be the longest-held single-family-owned home in Toluca Lake. Her dad ran parts of the sound department at Universal Studios for over four decades.
In the late ’40s, Republic Pictures announced a nationwide search for two youngsters to portray a “junior” Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in their own series of films, “The Rough Ridin’ Kids.” After a long search, they signed 13-year-old Michael Chapin to play “Red” and 11-year-old Eilene to play “Judy.” This exciting series of Western films includes Buckaroo Sheriff of Texas, The Dakota Kid, Arizona Manhunt and Wild Horse Ambush. After the series, she starred opposite Shirley Booth in About Mrs. Leslie and played Bridey at 15 in The Search for Bridey Murphy. Eilene’s last movie Western was Escape From Red Rock, co-starring with Brian Donlevy.
With the decline of the movie Western in the ’50s, Eilene easily moved to television, appearing in dozens of shows, including The Gene Autry Show, The Range Rider, Tales of Wells Fargo, Sugarfoot, Hopalong Cassidy and The Rifleman. She then played the role of Donald O’Connor’s girlfriend on the Texaco Star Theater series for CBS.
I had worked with Eilene at Republic Pictures and other studios around town, and we have been friends since the first grade. Eilene and Montie did several rope tricks where she would skip in and out of the huge loops. For Montie’s finale, he asked two other big kids to come forward. Four stepped up, including Butch. “Well,” said Montie, “there are now five of you, and I only have two hands and four ropes,” as he spun them over his head. “I guess there’s only one thing to do.” He called to me in the crowd and asked me to join him on the back of Baron. Montie and his wife, Louise, were friends of my folks and knew me from the time I was a baby, but I couldn’t believe that I was suddenly a part of the act. I mounted up, took another lariat from the saddle pommel and swung it in a small circle over my head. Remembering everything that stuntman extraordinare Yakima Canutt had taught us kids at Republic about roping, I didn’t look too bad. If only it had ended there!
“All right, boys and girls, here’s what we’re going to do,” Montie yelled, as he rode to one end of the schoolyard. “You five good-looking kids, spread yourselves out, and we’ll gallop by and rope all of you.” With that, Montie and I took off like the wind, five lassos whirling overhead. With two lariats in each hand, Montie was able to rope the first four kids. Now it was up to me. Eilene stood alone, untied and unafraid. I threw and connected; she was mine. But then, in one of those moments where a young boy’s brain turns to cow chips, I jumped off the back of Baron, ran to Eilene and wrapped the rope around and around her. Just as I was about to step back and raise my hands to what I expected would be cheers from the crowd, a lasso came from nowhere and encircled Eilene and me. Montie dallied the rope around the saddle horn and Baron backed up. The rope grew tighter and tighter, bringing Eilene and me nose to nose. I was about two years away from really appreciating the position I was in. Eilene would never, ever appreciate it!
Suddenly, the always graceful Eilene tripped over my feet and fell backward, bringing me with her. The rope around both of us took up the slack and we slowly settled to the ground, still nose to nose, arms and legs akimbo. Now, the crowd cheered. The nuns went ballistic. Sister Jean was on me as fast as a minor miracle. How she could get me untied and whap me with her yardstick at the same time has, to this day, never been fully explained.
All in all, the day was a rousing success. But I never again received a valentine from the girl with the big, beautiful lake-blue eyes. Not even when, over five decades later, I was the writer/producer of the Golden Boot Awards (the Oscars of Westerns) and we presented her with her very own Golden Boot at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for her contributions to the Western and Western heritage. Still no valentine …
Oh, and about Sister Jean, our wonderful sixth-grade teacher: I don’t think you need to know a lot about college basketball to know a bit about St. Jean. For two decades or more, she has been spiritual adviser to the basketball team at Chicago’s Loyola University. Several years ago, when Loyola was in the Final Four, Sister Jean was featured on numerous television shows and publications. She even has her own bobblehead doll. Sister Jean has been a true inspiration to countless young people, still serving God and her loving students, at age 103!
In a lovely letter written to our class at St. Charles, Sister Jean had remembrances of many of our classmates. Her memory of me was that I was a “good square dancer”! Just what the skinny little 12-year-old boy in me wanted to hear! Oh, well … “Yes, Sister.”