April 14, 2000
By Peter John Stone
PARK COUNTY, Colo - Disappearing cowboys found fresh air last Monday, as a Kurtis Productions film crew visited Colorado's oldest working ranch shooting segments of a History Channel documentary due for broadcast June 3.
Narrator Bill Kurtis paced through a busy corral, among locally cast cowboys and their horses at the Salt Works Ranch. He leaned on a saddle as they galloped by, every word carefully chosen, every angle calculated, and every sound monitored. It was hard to imagine this as the source of the seemingly spontaneous and natural scenes that make it to the screen.
Fans of A&E's Investigative Reports and American Justice will recognize Kurtis as the host of the legal-oriented programs. For Kurtis such projects bring together a lifetime in broadcasting and a long-standing interest in law.
Kurtis says he began in radio as a Kansas high school student. College took him into legal studies, but he continued work with the college radio stations. This eventually led to television, where he spent 30 years with CBS.
Now retired from CBS, he owns his own production company and does legal-oriented programs. He also owns a ranch in Kansas, and is restoring several historic buildings in a town near it.
The Vanishing Cowboy brings his concern for western heritage to the medium that has supported him most of his life. It examines the mythos and reality of cowboys in the growth of America and the minds of Americans.
Meeting Kurtis one finds his video persona is nothing short of his true personality. Friendly and quietly enthusiastic, he seems to really care about people. He asks questions as readily as he answers them, and it's clear that this is a man who has never stopped learning.
It is also clear that scripts only give Kurtis expressive precision. He has an apparently global cultural awareness at his immediate command, and converses intelligently on whatever subject those around him choose. Heritage resources were the topic of the day at Salt Works Ranch. The Fannings discussed what they are doing on their ranch, and Kurtis discussed what he is doing on his. Topics included conservation easements, resource protection, and heritage tourism, all this between filming sessions.
Karl Fanning believes in film production consistent with the county's heritage resource protection goals.
"What these people are doing up here is the kind of industry we need to encourage," he says. It's low-impact, and pays to preserve rather than alter the landscape.
Salt Works Ranch is accustomed to film crews. A prominent cigarette company often films its western-oriented advertisements at the ranch. Producers like it because of its unspoiled rugged terrain and its classic vistas.
"The last time they were here," Karl Fanning says, "I think they brought about $100,000 into the local economy." Advertising and feature film producers have large crews, specialized tasking, and often private trailers for the stars. They pay well for catering, lodging, and on-site emergency services.
Documentary production has a tighter budget. The most prestigious feature of this film crew is its Ford Excursion. Its members approach their project as a truly ensemble production.
Producer Nicole Ewing held the cue cards herself. Why pay someone to just do that, when a producer is there and often has little else to do during actual shooting anyway?
The whole process seemed more like a bunch of friends getting together to make a video for fun. It was a modern equivalent of Andy Hardy bringing in his friends to do a play, with an added air of professionalism.
The spoken words were written on cue cards, but they might as well have been carved in stone. Everything else seemed subject to creativity. Director Gregg Hoerdemann filmed a sequence with riders sauntering their horses away in the background. Then he shifted.
During the same narration, Hoerdemann had the riders gallop behind Kurtis near the end of the monologue. The camera left Kurtis' face to follow the horses, as Kurtis' voice continued discussing the drama of the American Cowboy.
Then Kurtis fell silent, and the camera stayed on the riders. The only sounds were hoofbeats fading into history, the only sight, four horsemen dwindling toward the horizon.
The Fannings, as well as others in South Park, hope that the cowboy won't vanish altogether. The production company helps support this by using local talent.
The riders for sequences filmed locally were Randy Myers, Chuck Willards, Lee Cable, and Loy Curr. They are all part of the Colorado Cowboys, a local chapter of the Single Action Shooting Society.
The Kurtis Productions crew included Producer Ewing, Director Foreman, Associate Producer John Siskel, Director of Photography and Cameraman Gregg Hoerdemann, and Steady Cam Operator Joe Hoerdemann. They stayed at Myers' M Lazy C Ranch, Mule Creek Outfitters, near Lake George. Mule Creek Outfitters also provided a simple lunch from a chuck wagon.