In my 1950s coming-of-age romance novella Tomboy, crushes on movie and television stars a major factor in Harriet’s sexual awakening. One of those crushes is Amanda Blake, who played saloon owner Miss Kitty on the Western television series Gunsmoke.
The television version of Gunsmoke launched in 1955, but it was already a popular radio show that had been running on the CBS radio network for three years. The radio version was truly groundbreaking among Western dramas when it launched in 1952. Up to then, most radio dramas set in the Wild West had been geared toward kids. The good guy always won and the crimes were family-friendly fare like low-casualty train robberies.
Gunsmoke had an adult audience in mind. The hero of the series, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, wasn’t squeaky clean, and he was clearly scarred from the violence he’d seen and participated in during his life on the frontier. He frequently visited Miss Kitty (played by Georgia Ellis in the radio version) for companionship in his downtime—and though it was never explicitly stated that he was paying her for sex, the fact was obvious to astute listeners.
Gunsmoke dealt head-on with other gritty, realistic themes like rape, domestic violence, the mob lynchings of innocent men, opium addiction, and racism against Native Americans (though the show also had problems with its portrayal of non-Anglo characters that are easy to spot today).
Gunsmoke‘s realism was augmented by distinctive, layered sound effects. While most radio shows focused on sound effects that were directly relevant to the plot, the sound effects of Gunsmoke were as much about building a sense of place. Snippets of conversation in the background, kids playing in the streets, the rattle of wooden wheels on a dirt road—all helped bring radio listeners right into frontier Kansas.
That kind of storytelling was just as attractive to kids as it was to adults. While the parents in Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best would have forbidden their kids to listen to Gunsmoke, Harriet’s father is fairly permissive and doesn’t see the harm. Harriet’s mother goes along because she believes the husband should make the rules of the home.
Harriet’s initial interest in the show is all about the drama and the guns. She also admires Miss Kitty’s status an unmarried, independent businesswoman. (The prostitution aspect of Miss Kitty’s job flies right over her head.)
But once Gunsmoke makes the switch to TV in 1955 with a new, prettier cast, Harriet’s primary interest turns to Amanda Blake. With her flaming red hair, a beauty mark on her cheek, and a deep, husky voice, Amanda Blake imbued Miss Kitty with a clean-cut sex appeal.
Harriet keeps listening to the radio show (it continued with the original cast through 1961), but now she imagines Amanda Blake in the place of Georgia Ellis. She collects celebrity magazines that have features on Gunsmoke so she can save the pictures of Amanda Blake—and throw those of Blake’s male co-stars away.
She also began to collect autographed photos from Amanda Blake, a popular teen pastime of the 1950s. You can see examples of photos Blake signed for fans on my Gunsmoke Pinterest board:
The Gunsmoke television show ran for twenty years before its cancellation in 1975, making it the longest-running live-action US television drama of the twentieth century. It continues to be syndicated widely on daytime television, including on the cable stations TVLand and MeTV, and has been popular outside the US as well. (My first exposure to Gunsmoke was to a dubbed version on German TV.) My mom, who grew up around the same time as Harriet, still watches Gunsmoke as part of her daily routine, despite the fact that she’s seen every episode multiple times.
Interested in listening to the radio drama? You can stream or download episodes from the Old Time Radio Researcher’s Group or Old Radio World. (Some of the episodes were digitized from old tape recordings of the shows, so sound quality varies). Select episodes are occasionally featured on Old Time Radio Drama, a program that airs and streams Saturday and Sunday nights on Wisconsin Public Radio.
To learn more about American life in the 1950s, check out my Tomboy history posts.
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