Can’t you hear the six-shooters blazing? “Gunsmoke” once came to the River City when cast members from the TV show graced a local stage, twirling to what appears to have been a hoedown. The shindig took place during a cerebral palsy benefit telethon probably in 1958. (The Florida Archives indicates that the year was either 1957 or 1958, but a couple of Florida Times-Union articles from 1957 don’t mention the “Gunsmoke” crew among the special guests in that year’s telethon.)
His arm flung in the air, the young man on the left was actor Dennis Weaver as Deputy Chester Goode, the limping lawman who took great pride in his home-brewed coffee. Goode also took himself quite seriously and even proved rather prissy. This assistant to Marshal Matt Dillon “might be described as a more solemn version of Mayberry’s Deputy Barney Fife,” according to Harry Castleman & Walter J. Podrazik in their fun book Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows. Next to Weaver was Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, the proprietor of the Longbranch Saloon. This spunky character, perhaps a former prostitute, carried on an intriguing, undefined relationship with the stoic Marshal Dillon. On the right was Milburn Stone as Doc Adams, Dodge City’s learned, crusty old physician who liked to tilt the bottle now and then. “Gunsmoke” ran from 1955 until 1975, with Milburn Stone and James Arness (Marshal Dillon) as the only actors who stayed through all 635 episodes.
Big names also entertained local crowds at the 1957 telethon for area cerebral palsy victims. Maybe 5,000 kids waited to meet the event’s most popular star, lovable Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan). The line of little fans snaked almost completely around the George Washington Hotel, from whose auditorium the telethon was broadcast by TV station WMBR. (Until its demolition in 1976, the 14-story George Washington stood at 305-307 West Adams Street, not far from the Greyhound Bus station.) The good Captain greeted his admirers for six hours during the telethon. Other crowd pleasers that day included retired baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio, former boxing champ Jack Dempsey, football star Sid Luckman, singers Danny Costello and Glenn Reeves, and emcee Hal March, host of the TV game show “The $64,000 Question.” Also on hand for most of the program was Jacksonville’s Mayor Haydon Burns. Clocking in at 16 1/2 hours, the Golden Deed Crusade telethon raised over $100,000 from checks, pledges, and piggy banks. This translates into roughly $650,000 in today’s money.
~written by Glenn Emery