HISTORY WORTH SAVING - For over 50 years Alamo Village has served as an active movie set and Richard Curilla has been there for most it. Follow along as I meet Mr. Curilla and take the behind the scenes tour of the now closed Alamo Village. I'm hopeful that someone watching will be able to help Richard and those who love this place write the next chapter. FYI, the complete interview transcript is posted below with lots of pictures from my visit. Thanks for reading! ~ Matt Jolley
Slide show for this episode below.
Podcast Download: History Worth Saving - The Alamo's Last Man - Episode 1
Natural Sound – The old swinging Saloon doors start creaking as MJ and Rich’s boots can be heard walking in and sitting down at one of the Cantina tables.
MJ - Why is this important?
"It's important to history because the motion picture industry is well over a hundred years old, and this is more than half of that time. It's also important, representing history because of the Alamo."
"We have people that come here all the time, that honestly don't quite get it in San Antonio, because of the city streets. They'll get out of the car and go, “here it is.” This is what's it's like, not like it is in San Antonio."
MJ - How did you come here?
"Well, I have to blame Walt Disney for that in many ways. In the 1950's he did Davy Crockett on television and in the movies. I was a seven-year-old, then eight-year-old, and it hooked me, I was a Davy Crockett nut. Every time as a kid, I’d start to forget about Davy, something new happened and one of those things, was John Wayne’s - The Alamo. When I heard that was made, and had just been released, I wrote to Happy Shahan. I didn't know who this guy was, I just wrote to the movie set in Brackettville, Texas and Happy responded and sent me pictures of the place and maps and everything else and I was hooked."
I saw the movie 13 times in two months when it came out. When you had to go to the theater and see a movie. And by the time all that was over, my dad and mom said, “let’s take the kid down there and get it out of his system. We really did a summer vacation out of it, and it was very, very special. Four days out here at Alamo village and on the ranch, was just the best of my life in many ways."
Note: Rich graduated high school in 1965. Started college at Penn State in theater and film production. Rich worked at Alamo Village as an entertainer for 5 summers.
"My thing was always, the drama, the comedy drama, the gun fight. Little by little I worked into them at first. I'd be working in the gift shops, but coming out and doing a small part. And because I was the one that kept coming back, I ultimately was directing those shows. And then when I moved down in 1988 I ran the shows, I was the Director of Entertainment. I worked with a lot of people. Some of it was un-professional, you're always up against people wanting to do their fun stuff and they forget there's an audience out there. Because of my theater training, I was always into "hey, these are the guys you're entertaining, not the staff from the kitchen." Do it right, and it will be funny. Do it wrong and it will be silly and you'll leave the people out. Interestingly, Happy Shahan always said the population was in the four thousands (people who lived in Brackettville). After, when Ft. Clark closed down as a military post in town, in 1946, the population dropped to fifteen hundred. Cause everybody was leaving. That's when he started to promote for movies. When the Alamo came out here, they spent three million dollars in two counties. They really upgraded the economy. Shahan was a visionary in making this happen. Nobody understood this, he was Mayor of Brackettville and he couldn't get their support, they thought he was nuts, until he went and started bringing movies out."
MJ - So the young boy moves from PA to Brackettville, does he fall in love?
"(Laughter) No, pretty much I was a loner out here that whole time. Because, and still am in a way, although, I have very close friends. It's just the kinda thing, where I, even back then, I knew it was gonna be my life and I couldn't see bringing somebody through that. You know, its uh, the income just isn't really there that much. It was the love, more than anything else of the place and Virginia Shahan nailed it precisely - she said “you're married to Alamo Village.” Well, maybe."
"Although, it was far more than that to me, because it wasn't just their movie set, the place and situation it was the whole history of the Alamo and the back history and everything else that's very important to me, and been a big part of my life. Even though I’m here, and it's limited, my world, particularly since new media and everything, my world has become much grander and I’m doing a lot of stuff now that I’m hoping will be legacy and will able to hand it to young people to keep whatever spirit there is here - alive."
MJ - how are you on a horse?
"Terrible. I'm usually under the horse. Now, I’ve ridden, I use to own a horse, back in Pennsylvania, but I remember the last time I was on a horse actually, was during the filming of a commercial here, when Happy Shahan was still alive and he just stood on the sidelines and told me how bad I looked on the horse. He was like that. He'd say "hey, that's terrible.” “Don't do it that way. Let me tell you how, let me show ya’ll' how." And, uh, you respected him for that, because he was very accurate with that stuff. But I just, never felt comfortable on a horse. I don't have the desire for the horsemanship to make that work. I'm a chronicler, not a doer."
MJ - John Wayne, did you meet him?
“No, I never did, I was in his office once, but he was in Mexico at the time.”
MJ - Jimmy Stewart?
“I met and worked with him for ten weeks on Bandolero, and I’ve never met a more gracious person. Warm, soft spoken and quiet. Un-anything that you think about movie stars. I kept up a correspondence with him. I sent him a Christmas card for years. About the middle of March, I’d get a very nice hand signed thank you note. Very precious man.”
MJ - Raquel Welch?
“Um yeah, from that movie, from Bandolero, of course Raquel is dynamite now and is remembered for "what she was, what she did". When the movie was planning to shoot, we heard that it was Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch and we were all looking at one another, going "Raquel, who, who’s Raquel Welch"? Nobody knew, the people on the preliminary crew, that came out here, thought she was some country singer, that Dean Martin was helping by giving her a leg up into a movie. When she got here, we were just bedazzled, she was just awesome! And very professional, she was brand new to the business, she could've been very ill mannered with the press and everything, but she knew what to do. I found out later, that her manager, with her, was her husband. He's now a big Hollywood producer, she had good training. She was a very elegant lady. I never got to know her, because I wasn't in that position, to smooze that much with people and yet, there's Jimmy Stewart."
MJ - Did Dean Martin ever sing on the stage?
"Nope, and it's a funny thing, because Martin was always my mother's favorite, because his show was very popular at that time on television, but I never cared for him. I never heard a note of music come out of that man on the set. I still don't know how to read that. Was that just his job and he wasn't in to it? Whereas Happy Shahan, who couldn't sing a note, was always getting' up on that stage and singing. But he loved it! He felt it, his heart was in it. I didn't see that with Dean Martin. Interestingly, about Martin, I worked with a man, ten years ago, who's first job in Hollywood, was being a body guard for Martin. I told him this story - that I was so dazzled by Jimmy Stewart, I just wasn't impressed with Martin. He said, let me tell you about that man. He was the most wonderful employer I’ve ever had. If I’d go over and knock on his door, and I was just the security guy, he'd invite me in and we'd have lunch together, played cards, just a friendly, friendly man, I really miss him. Not that I had a negative opinion of him, I just didn't have any opinion of him, until that moment.”
MJ – So what are you working on now? Rich’s Virtual Model & Legacy Building
“Well, it doesn't have anything to do with this place. I have already done a model, or partial model, for David Jones, the fellow that's been trying to buy the place. Which incorporates a correct San Antonio, in the correct direction that comes from my background and research on it. In doing that model, it's in a program called sketch up. Which is simply an architectural design program where you do three dimensional buildings. I've turned it into my own art form and research tool. I took what I did there and expanded it and geo-located it onto Google satellite images of the Real San Antonio. So, all my streets are laid out, precisely where they are and where they were then. I've adapted two 1800's maps that are US Army maps that are, very precise. I've got a three mile by three-mile virtual model of 1835-36 San Antonio and the Alamo, the way it was. Not the way you build it for a movie. This is a movie set. It was built to make a movie. It wasn't really built to represent history.”
MJ - What do you think the future is for this ranch?
"What I think it is, or what I wish it were, and hope it will be? I think what it is, is a future visualizing something that most people don't get to see. You're talking real history, you're talking, motion picture history. Like it or not, the motion picture industry, has a major history. It's over 100 years old and we're half of that. We've been here making movies since 1959, we've made 38 motion pictures, 39 now with the one we did a little bit of last year. Of course, we get a major audience here, for John Wayne’s the Alamo and for Lonesome Dove. But they also have come here in the past, not even caring about those movies, but knowing a movie, maybe a simple, as Jericho which was made here for a million dollars, in 1991 and nobody has seen it. Yet, sometimes you get somebody that knows that movie and they want to see where it was made. So, what this becomes, is a show and tell for every movie that was made here.”
"People from Texas will come here and say, what is this place, why don't you advertise. People from Germany will plan their trip around coming here, because know it. They know every angle, where everybody shot here. That's how popular we are, we are international, and we still have that capability.”
MJ - What do you hope people remember about this place?
"Walking into the past, that's what the movies are about. When you watch a western, you're virtually stepping into the past. It was the same here. I think if we did this up now, we would do it even better. We always had the modern thing of doing the gun fights, the music shows, this is such a Mecca, for reality, for virtual reality, where you could put people in the streets, when you walk in the place, you are 150 years ago, and nothing reminds you that you're in a modern world. That's what I’d like to see it be. Ultimately. "
MJ - I just noticed there's a hangmen's noose over the that sign?
"That's a perfect example, of how people can learn another thing and understand out here. There's a pair of steps, we're a one-story building. There is no upstairs. Those stairs were built for a movie called up hill all the way, because, this was supposed to be the downstairs of the two-story building across the street. They built the upstairs, but they didn't build it here, because there's no upstairs here, they built the upstairs over there in that two-story building, but they built the upstairs over there, downstairs, because, there's no upstairs over there either.”
MJ - What famous cantina scene came out of this particular cantina?
“Well, the most famous one of all was John Wayne’s feather scene. There's two of them over there. Anyone who wants to balance feathers on their nose, the opportunity is here. That is an iconic movie in John Wayne’s movie, no matter how silly it was. Eleven minutes of John Wayne’s the Alamo, in these two rooms. If you think about movie pacing today, you could never do a scene on one set for eleven minutes, it would have to be cut to two minutes. It's all very special, and one of the things that happens is John Wayne’s men, insist on having a brew-ha with and a fist fight, they're gimmick is to balance feathers on their noses. Wayne and his opponent, to blow them off to see who gets the first punch. It's goofy as heck. It's memorable. All I have to do is have that little glass over there with feathers in it, and the photographs up above it, I don't even have to tell people, they walk in and find it. And I find them trying to balance feathers on their noses right here, because that’s where it happened. That’s where it happened, and that’s what’s important.”
MJ - What's the condition?
“(Responding to cat outside meowing) And that's hopeful, that cat wasn't there a few weeks ago, I don't know where it came from or how it got in. Its doing quite well, its eating on its own, we don't feed it. We've been closed formally since Virginia Shahan died in 2009. For about a year, I was enabled by the owner, and bring people in, have about 3 or 4 hours a day. We didn't have a staff. That became very hard to do, but I wanted to do it as long as we could because people were coming. If they come, you must build it. That's sort of the reverse of that story. I just couldn't give up, I couldn't let them down. I couldn't let myself down by not being around people like that. So, we did that for about a year and then, basically what it amounted to was a financial thing. Jamie, who owns it now, one of the daughters, never did this, she's a retired school teacher, she can't handle the kind of cost that it would take to keep this up and fix it up. It’s basically the kind of thing where she couldn't even do the liability insurance, once we stopped that, then we couldn't have groups of people coming. I could still bring people in a car, like I did you, once in a while. With a liability release, we can have fun, but we can't do events. That hurts.”
“The place is in bad shape, it looks like it’s in much worse shape, then it really is, a lot of the bad look of it is the movie sets that were built in later years. The way you build it out of plywood, that stuff, rots away in a couple years if you can't take care of it. The original John Wayne sets are built for real. Adobe brick, plastered over, and yes, there's problems in places, but mostly that stuff is all still fine and capable of being restored. We have a lot of roof problems, that means we have floor problems. I won’t say it’s all cosmetic, but it’s all something that can be solved by the person with the right plan and the right dream.”
MJ - You've devoted your life to this place?
“I’ve devoted my life to all things Alamo and uniquely in that regard to, movie making. My degree is in theater arts because I wanted to get to film making and what better opportunity to do film making than here at Alamo Village. I worked in Bandolero with Jimmy Stewart and many other movies since. I'm not into the acting part of it, but I have acted in a few movies and I’ve made one of my own here (very low budget) that happy and I did, shortly before he died. That was a large part of it too. It wasn't just the kick of being in the old west town.” MJ - Anything new for you? How much longer will you wait around here?
“That's a very good question, and I don't know the answer to that. The future brings that answer. I'm lazy. It's very unlikely that I’m going to make a major effort to go somewhere else and pickup like I was 21 years old again. Except, one situation perhaps, and that is what's going on right now in San Antonio. In 2018, San Antonio will be celebrating its 300th anniversary. I didn't plan my virtual model with that in mind, I did it because I wanted to do it. I wanted to grow with and teach with it but that's a natural with what’s happening. People are starting to focus on the history of San Antonio again and not just the Alamo. And doggone-it, I get in such arguments with close friends, who are Alamo buffs that want me to stay so focused on the Alamo, which I am, but I’m also an historian, and growing historian, on colonial San Antonio, de Bexar. Another very important part of the Texas war of independence, happened in San Antonio three months before the Alamo. And nobody knows about it! Nobody! Except, historians. The Texians captured, the town of San Antonio and the Alamo, from Mexican General de Cos. This was not Mexican verses white, it was Centralist Verses Federalism. The Texians and the Tejanos in San Antonio were Federalist and Santa Anna had just taken over the Presidency, this was all Mexico, and he, tore up the constitution and set up a Centralist Dictatorship. So, the whole war was based on that, until they decided to declare independence. And a very equally sided battle happened here in 1835 that the Texians should not have been able to win, and yet they won it. And its almost by serendipity that they won the doggone thing, but it is an amazing something 50-day siege and an unbelievable 4-day, 4-night battle, right in downtown San Antonio capturing the plazas and San Fernando Church.”
MJ – Well, now you're the commander of the Alamo. Tell me what you said back there at your office?
“Well, you saw the sign that says Commandant, which was actually a prop from a movie, I thought about it, I’m not going to put that up, when we were all here, I was a spoke in a wheel, but when everybody was gone, I was taking care of the place, basically for a while, then I was the only person bringing people out here, I thought, hey I am the Commandant, I’m going to put my sign up. It's for fun you know. It’s for fun, just so I can tell that story, actually.”
MJ - Do you still have your coon skin cap?
“Actually, I went through a childhood problem with that. Because, I was eight, when the Davy Crocket craze hit, with Walt Disney and my dad and mom, got me all kinds of stuff, books and plastic rifles and that coon skin cap. I had seen the movie, I’d seen Fess Parker with the coon skin cap and this one didn't make it. It had a wool, dark brown wool side and it had a bear top that said, official Walt Disney - Davy Crocket - coon skin cap and it had a real raccoon tail. So, what I did finally, and later years, was I through the doggone hat away and kept the tail. So now, I have the real tail on a real, fake, coon skin hat.”
MJ - You may be Davy Crocket out here, you're the last man standing.
“That's very true. The Crocket thing is really interesting because, he started out being my favorite character, in the Alamo, because I was a kid and everybody was singing Davy Crockett. But then as I learned the real history, which happened very quickly, I moved for a long time to Bowie, because he was a new adventure and there was also a television show about him, that was very important. But then Travis captured my imagination for his incredible bravery and his unwillingness to succumb to what everybody thought of him, he was just doing his job with the Alamo and making it work. He was the one who really led the stand. So, Travis was the guy, in the long run, but nowadays, I’m looking at Crockett and saying "well, if one of those three guys, did what I’ve done now, it wouldn't be the other two, it would be Crocket."
MJ - You've come full circle?
MJ - Is Happy still out here? You ever run into him?
“Not literally, I don't think that way, but I know he's watching. I don't worry about that, because he did his job, with me, with helping mold me into something he wanted me to be. And I think he understands that it wasn't precisely what he was after, but that has caused me to help develop. He was one of the very important people in my life, he didn't supplant my own family and everything, but was definitely a guide and there were a lot of things about him I didn't like, and a lot of things I did like. Some people could never separate those two. They'd just go away mad. I gave and I got.”
MJ – Give me your 30 second mentoring speech. What should people take away from this?
“Follow your dream. Zero in on what is most important to you and in some way or another keep that as your focus. Get a good education. I'm around so many people that I get frustrated, because they can't think. Whether a good education is going after something with your education or its just broadening your mind, it’s very important. Don't think about the money. If I’d thought about the money, I’d left here before I ever got hired. (Laughter) It's not about that.”
“Kathleen Kennedy, who was the producer of the movie, has worked with Stephen Spielberg for many years, commented on the fact that the Star Wars universe, as they call it, they're developing now, for all the movies in the future, that the Star Wars universe, was a paracosm for people. Now, I went and looked that up and I found out it was indeed a psychological term. A paracosm means - a world you can escape into. When you don't like the world you're in.”
“I clearly, my life has been full of paracosms. I think many people won't allow that to happen. Obviously, when you're a kid, you have paracosms all the time. You play on the floor with your play set and you're in it. You're imagining it, your en-visioning it, if you have a creative mind. Coming out here and working at Alamo Village, and living in the Alamo (which I did for five summers) was clearly a paracosm for me.”
“And now, that is running the risk of disappearing, I’ve continued to exist here in my paracosm after everybody else left. It may not be there anymore, and I’m finding what is happening, is, I’m creating new paracosms. And I think that’s what my new virtual Alamo and San Antonio de Bexar is. I can spend 10 hours straight, navigating around my own little set. In the computer, and that's a scary thing in some ways, but, its telling me that, for me, if Alamo Village is no longer here, it can't be reclaimed, I’ve got another life yet. But what I regret, is people that can't come here and step into a paracosm.”
“For a short time, and that's what it’s always been, an escapism. As I said before, you step into another reality, you step into the past. And that's why this place needs to be saved, and done so well, for over a half a century.”
MJ - This may be too personal, but what were you escaping?
“No, no, it’s not like I had a terrible childhood or anything like that, I had a wonderful childhood, great parents and everything, it’s just, I have a runaway imagination, I love to go to a place that I come up with. I think we're all that way, but we give it up at childhood. Everybody beats into your head, this is what you have to do, you're an adult now, nahuh, not yet! I've been able to, the tradeoff is, I have had to give up a lot of other possible things, I’ve established this as my world. Whatever that is, and I may be going overboard a little bit on that whole concept of paracosm but, it’s a way that I’ve started looking at things. Well, this is really what I’ve done, and so, I’m not so worried about losing Alamo Village, because I know, there’s another thing there for me. I'm worried about the world losing Alamo Village cause it’s too important. Not enough people have paracosms they can go to.”
“And another thing, every place in the world that's unique, being homogenized. One of the most unique places in the country, is the San Antonio River Walk. I love that place. It was always unique. No other place like it. Then suddenly, there's a Planet Hollywood, there's a Hard Rock Cafe, there's a Hooter's - we're turning into Generica. This place, Alamo Village, is one of those very unique places in the world and I don't think we can afford to lose it.”
MJ - Most of us, who love these movies, present company included, we're only there for an hour and a half, what you've given up has allowed you to literally live in that world for a lifetime.
“Yeah, yeah, that's pretty cool.”
MJ - You're the smartest man alive!
“I think that's true too... (laughter)”
MJ - What do you do out here? When you're by yourself, the 12-year-old boy that's inside of you? What does he do?
“It's more a cerebral thing than anything else, because sometimes I come here and I’m just looking at the place, I’m going, okay, look at all the problems, look at the walls, and the windows and everything else. Then other times, I come out here and the sun is right, the light is right, the air smells the way it used to smell when I first started coming out here. The colors are all vivid, and everything, and I’m going, this is wonderful. And I don't want to give that up. So, it’s not so much anything I do here, although I’ve certainly done things here, like build that model, that physical model, in fact I’ve got an Alamo model over there, I haven't shown you yet. There are those things, let's put it this way, I have done so many things here in the past, that have either been movies, or people, or historical events, history re-enactments that we've done, that the memories are all here from that. Even though they're not done anymore here, that's all part of it. I can walk around the streets. I would say the most exciting thing is when I can I show somebody around the place as you and I have done. “
“Fortunately, I’ve started charging for that lately, which helps. Showing the place to people, hearing what their interest is, being fortunate enough to go in the direction that they want with it, whether it’s the Alamo or the history of the Alamo, or some other movie, or whatever, I’m very privileged to be able to experience everything with them.”
“As I’m telling them that, I’m re-living it again or living it anew.”