They Went Thataway
The book takes the form of a quest journey, with Horwitz using the idea of researching and locating the old western actors of the past for a writing project. However, Horwitz uses the journey as a way to reconnect with his much more innocent past, and wonders what happened to himself and the world around him.
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The Front Row Kid
Serving as the title of the book's first section, the Front Row Kid is a phrase that Horwitz uses to describe the children of his youth and how they would congregate at the local movie theaters and watch the latest movie serials and westerns and re-enact them in their play throughout the week. It also becomes a metaphor for his lost youth, as well as for the fans of the old movie westerns who grew up and moved on.
As the section advances, Horwitz muses on a stay in the legendary Hotel Chelsea in New York City, as well as on his brief life in Paris. He decides to escape New York, and to hunt down the surviving western heroes of his youth. For his pilgrimage, he takes along some relics of his "Front Row Kid" past—his Hopalong Cassidy boots and spurs; his favorite Gene Autry records; and his Lone Ranger comic books. As he drives across the country, he stops off at a variety of places that he had known only through western movie legends: Dodge City and Tombstone, only to find them too modernized.
The Wild West Tale and the Hollywood Cowboys
The second section of the book is a thorough analysis of the advent of the western movie, and focuses on the early, deceased cowboy film legends. Horwitz notes that the first true American movie, The Great Train Robbery, was a western, despite being filmed in New Jersey. A bit-player in that movie, Bronco Billy Anderson, ultimately formed his own production company, Essanay Studios, and brought the western to the West, namely California. Other early screen legends that followed in Anderson's path include William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Fred Thomson and Ken Maynard, whose funeral Horwitz attended after failing to reach him in time for an interview. Horwitz analyzes their careers, especially their successes and failures out of the saddle.
Early on, Horwitz intended not to interview John Wayne, despite the fact that he was a fan of his (even admitting that his friends would question his sanity if he admitted that to them). He decided that Wayne's conservative politics and adamant support of the Vietnam War ruined the image of his hero, and Wayne was still a popular performer who had not 'disappeared' like many of the other film legends.
Horwitz covers Hopalong Cassidy's career with detail, in particular the seminal image of William Boyd as the original "man in black". Other performers Horwitz recalls with nostalgia include Tex Ritter and Audie Murphy, as well as the role that television played in the death of the old-time Hollywood cowboys.
Headin' Them Off at the Freeway
This section of the book documents Horwitz's journey to Hollywood, where he gamely tries to locate the surviving Western film stars. Almost immediately he confronts barriers, such as the Screen Actors Guild refusing to release the mailing addresses of the now-retired stars or even tell him who is alive or dead. So, he is forced to leave his contact letters at the Guild office, of which several return unanswered (and one informs him that Allen "Rocky" Lane is deceased). He then places an ad in The Hollywood Reporter, asking for any of the actors willing to participate in the writing project to contact him.
While in Hollywood, Horwitz attended the funeral of western hero Ken Maynard, partially out of respect, but also as a way to meet screen legend Gene Autry, Horwitz's childhood idol. He describes the service as depressing, with only about seventy-five mourners—many of them dressed in full-Western costume (Autry, who allegedly had supported Maynard though his last years, did not appear at the funeral). The funeral motivated Horwitz to track down as many of the surviving actors as he could before they died before their stories could be told.
Horwitz's first interview wound up being Autry, after an article documenting a brief encounter with him was published in Rolling Stone. Autry proved to be a friendly man, though unwilling to give out much information as he was planning his own autobiography at the time. What distressed Horwitz the most was that Autry had not aged gracefully, and that his once-melodious voice was now rough and harsh.
Other interviews went poorly. Producers William Witney and Sol Siegel refused to discuss their western past, and Jay Silverheels' agent flatly rejected Horwitz's request. An attempt to interview Clayton Moore, aka The Lone Ranger, was a tremendous disappointment, as Moore was unwilling to discuss anything except the Lone Ranger, and even then he suggested Horwitz use information from old interviews, as Moore would not offer anything that hadn't been said before. An attempt to interview Lash LaRue ended when he found that LaRue had just been arrested for drunkenness and drug possession.
Horwitz also makes a stop at the Roy Rogers Museum (after repeatedly being refused an interview), where he is overwhelmed by the collection of kitsch and memorabilia (he even considers stealing a Hopalong Cassidy drinking glass just like one he had as a child) until he sees Rogers' horse Trigger, stuffed and mounted, a sight that disgusted him.
The interviews that went well for Horwitz included:
- Sunset Carson, whom Horwitz meets at a country western movie festival in Siler City, North Carolina, and who proved to be a witty, giving man (even though he was robbed at a similar festival after a car accident)
- Charles Starrett, "The Durango Kid", who actually contacted Horwitz himself because he was happy to still be remembered after twenty-two years in retirement
- Russell Hayden, "Lucky" in the Hopalong Cassidy movies, who was a movie fan who actually became a movie hero himself, and who was trying to make a success out of an old movie set that he wanted to offer as a tourist attraction
- Joel McCrea, who actually made a name for himself as an actor outside of westerns, but who returned to the medium he loved, and who starred in the last "true" old western, Ride the High Country with Randolph Scott (who refused to be interviewed by Horwitz, as a matter of protecting his privacy). On the paperback edition of They Went Thataway, Joel McCrea's name is misspelled on the cover ("McCrae").
- Jimmy Wakely, the "last" of the singing cowboys
- Duncan Renaldo, The Cisco Kid, who took Horwitz to see Diablo, his horse from the Cisco Kid television shows
- Tim McCoy, who was the last of the 'original' movie cowboys, who proved to be the most open and emotional about his career and life, and to whom Horwitz devotes the most time in the text
Horwitz ends the book at the site where Tom Mix died in a car accident. He takes out his childhood cowboy boots, tries to polish them, and leaves them at the monument marking the location. He felt that such a sacred place was a good place to leave a memento of his childhood, and of memories that "went thataway".