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A trail of memories back to 'Boomtown'

Jay Leno, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Jordan's Furniture honcho Barry Tatelman, and Jimmy Tingle. Say ''Boomtown" to them and the millions of other baby boomers who grew up in the Boston area, and you'll get roped into a trip down memory lane.

From the era of ''Father Knows Best" to that of ''All in the Family," Rex Trailer's Western-themed show was a weekend morning fixture on local TV. Trailer made more than 1,000 episodes, spanning three decades.

A young Tommy Menino met Trailer a few times and attended some of the live broadcasts. The future mayor of Boston was a faithful fan: ''Every Saturday morning, on Channel 4," said Menino. ''It was like a religion."

Tatelman launched into the ''Boomtown" theme song when he left a message in response to a reporter's call.

''I was brought up in Boston with Rex Trailer, and 'Boomtown,' and Hubert the swan, and Pablo, and the whole group," said Tatelman. ''I have great memories of Rex Trailer. I even met Rex once at a personal appearance. I ended up going on stage with him, and it was one of the highlights of my life."

''I can still sing the song, 'Howdy there folks, we're glad to meet you in Boom, Boom, Boomtown.' "

At age 76, Trailer is celebrating a renaissance of sorts. On Saturday a new documentary, ''Rex Trailer's Boomtown," will premiere on Channel 4 at 1 p.m. The one-hour broadcast will feature recently found footage from the shows, as well as interviews with Menino, Tatelman, Leno, Tingle, and other famous fans who grew up watching ''Boomtown."

Last month, Trailer received the 2005 Governor's Award from the National Television Academy's Boston/New England chapter. And on June 23, the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City will screen the documentary and host a reception for Trailer.

But it's not as if Trailer has been out of the picture the past 30 years. He owns a television production company in Waltham, where he produces corporate videos and coaches fledgling broadcasters. And he's been teaching broadcasting at Emerson College for 27 years.

One afternoon at the Emerson studios, Boston's best-known cowboy opened a brown suitcase specially made for storing his trademark wide-brimmed hat. He plopped it on his head and explained in his deep, familiar voice why he continues teaching, performing, and public speaking.

''The thing I love most is that you get a fresh view on the past with young people," Trailer said. ''They make me their contemporary. Even though I'm a professor, I'm Rex to all my students."

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.

''In the '60s, I would look forward to 'Boomtown' because it provided stability at that time," said fellow Emerson professor Danell Tomasella. ''Little did I know he would be a future colleague and close friend."

New York City filmmaker Michael Bavaro, 46, directed the documentary on ''Boomtown," which will be archived in the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City, ensuring Trailer's place in broadcast history.

The film will be available on DVD. The full-length DVD will include additional scenes from ''Boomtown," as well as footage from Trailer's public appearances, including the Grover Cronin parade in Waltham, the Enchanted Village at Jordan Marsh in 1964, and backyard carnivals.

Bavaro, a native of Milford, Mass., estimates that more than 4 million baby boomers grew up watching ''Boomtown" and that nearly 250,000 children appeared in the live audiences of Trailer's various shows.

Viewers who contact Bavaro after seeing themselves in the broadcast or the DVD might be invited to attend a ''Boomtown" 50th Anniversary reunion, he said.

Trailer, who many also recognize from his days leading tours for Crimson Travel, continues to accept invitations to appear at carnivals, fairs, and company picnics.

''People cheer like [he's] a rock star when he's going by," said Bavaro.

For his film, Bavaro tapped some of Trailer's better-known fans, including Jay Leno, to recall their ''Boomtown" memories.

Tingle remembers watching ''Boomtown" in the '60s when he was growing up in Cambridge. The political humorist appeared on the show when he was in the sixth grade.

''I brought my brothers and sisters to the show. I was their chaperone," Tingle said. ''I was rather old compared to most of the other kids." But he wasn't too old to delight in being picked Pony Express guy for the episode.

''It was a ball," said Tingle.

At first it was difficult tracking down footage from the old shows, because ''Boomtown" was broadcast live. But as word spread about his project, Bavaro said, footage just kept surfacing.

''Boomtown" premiered on WBZ-TV in April 1956. The first part of the show would take place in the bunkhouse, and then Trailer would jump on his horse, Goldrush, and gallop across a prairie to the Main Street of Boomtown.

The popular show soon expanded to a three-hour format, in which Trailer and various sidekicks interviewed guests, sang songs, and played games. He also pulled off plenty of stunts, such as standing upright while riding his horse and using a bullwhip to snap cigarettes from men's mouths.

One of his biggest feats was re-creating the Old West on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton, at WBZ-TV. The show's run on Channel 4 ended at the end of 1974, after which it aired for two years on Channel 25.

Trailer later hosted ''Earth Lab," a syndicated science series that aired across the country until 1979. Later, he co-hosted ''Boomtown Revisited" on Continental Cablevision in the early 1990s.

Born and raised just outside of Fort Worth, Trailer learned his roping and riding skills spending summers on his grandfather's ranch in Thurber, Texas. His teachers were cowboys from the rodeo circuit.

''One taught me how to play the guitar, another taught me trick roping, another one taught me trick riding, another one taught me trick shooting," said Trailer. ''All of these things I was learning, I never thought I'd put them into action."

By age 11, he was performing with his mentors in rodeos.

''My grandfather would tell the cowboys it was OK but told them they shouldn't let me ride rough stock," said Trailer, referring to broncos and bulls.

''Stay off the rough stock," he told me.

''All those cowboys get broken bones and hospital bills,"' recalled Trailer. ''That was good advice." The only injury sustained during his decades-long career? A broken ankle.

Soon after landing a gig as a production assistant with a TV variety show, he made his television debut in 1948, hosting the ''Oky Doky Ranch" show. Two years later, he went to WPTZ in Philadelphia, where he hosted ''Riding the Trail with Rex Trailer" and ''Rex Trailer's Ranch House." When the station was sold in 1956, Trailer had to move his show to another Westinghouse affiliate. He picked Boston, and the legend of ''Boomtown" began.

In the ''Boomtown" documentary Trailer shares anecdotes from his long career, including when a Bengal tiger pinned down an animal trainer before the show's live audience. Another time, Trailer was giving Bozo the Clown a lift in his helicopter when engine trouble forced them to land in a field in Western Massachusetts. The two costumed characters were greeted by local children, ecstatic that their favorite TV cowboy and clown had just dropped down from the sky.

Bavaro said watching ''Boomtown" every weekend on his family's black and white set made him curious as to how film and television worked.

Bavaro occasionally trolled eBay for Rex Trailer memorabilia to use in the film. He found footage that was recorded on a Kinescope, a camera that filmed television broadcasts in the days before VCRs. The black and white Kinescope footage shows a young Rex Trailer from his Philadelphia days.

''It really is a historical preservation," said Bavaro. ''Without doing this, it could be lost to the ages. All these interviews tell the story. It really is not only Boston TV, it's television history."

The ''Boomtown Gold" DVD will go on sale June 30 at It includes the 64-minute documentary, plus an additional hour of ''Boomtown" scenes, personal appearances, parades, interviews, and other recently found footage. Emily Sweeney can be reached at

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