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Western Movie Historian Shares his Collection with Public for Kansas Day
Save the silver screen
John Birdeno talks about Western Movies for an early Kansas Day presentation at the Santa Fe Trail Center Museum in Pawnee County. - photo by Michael Gilmore

LARNED — Kansas Day wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the Old West — the cowboys, Indians, settlers, herds of cattle and buffalo and a few notorious bank and train robbers thrown in.

In the latter part of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century, they were there, on horseback, around a campfire, in a saloon playing cards. They are still there, some of them, smiling down on us from the “Silver Screen.”

John Birdeno, Burrton, is a Western movie film expert. He has spent the past 50 years researching and collecting western movies and memorabilia. On Saturday afternoon, he was in the western gallery of the Santa Fe Trail Center in Larned, surrounded by a good portion of his collection, to explain how Kansas played a role in the development of the movie themes based on the lives of actual cowboys, outlaws and lawmen. Birdeno’s collection of cowboy memorabilia started after he was asked to give a program for his son’s third-grade class and the few pieces he had obtained barely covered a card table. “After that program, the teacher across the hall wanted me to do a program,” he recalled. “The local paper got wind of it and they wanted me to do one for the whole school.”

An exhibit on Western films can be seen at the Santa Fe Trail Center museum. - photo by Michael Gilmore

His favorite topic is the silent movie era, which began in 1903 to about 1927, when talking pictures were developed. Out of the nearly 11,000 silent features, about 900 were westerns.

Only a few of the original silent movies exist today, however, “because when the talkies came out, people in the movie industry said they didn’t need those any more, so they burned ‘em,” Birdeno noted.

From ‘bad’ to ‘good’

In those early days, there were still some “bad actors” on the Plains. They served their time and then made good out in Hollywood.

Only a few true lawmen and cowboys made the movies. As for real-life robbers and outlaws, Birdeno knows only the one member of the famed Dalton brothers, Emmett, who survived to make his way to Hollywood as a consultant to movie-makers.

The last Dalton

Emmett Dalton (May 3, 1871 – July 13, 1937) was an American outlaw, train robber and member of the Dalton Gang in the American Old West. Part of a gang that attempted to rob two banks in Coffeyville, on Oct. 5, 1892, he was the only member of five to survive, despite receiving 23 gunshot wounds. Two of his brothers were killed.

After serving 14 years in prison for the crime, Dalton was pardoned. He later capitalized on his notoriety, both as a writer and as an actor. His 1918 serial story “Beyond the Law” was adapted as a like-named silent film in which he played himself.

His 1931 book “When the Daltons Rode” was adapted after his death as a 1940 film of the same name.

Birdeno’s collection remains displayed at the SFTC in the West Gallery until the end of May.