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Rex Trailer, Boston’s cowboy, dies

For 18 years, Rex Trailer’s “Boomtown” taught children rope tricks, riding, respect, and other lessons of the West.handout

Rex Trailer was at a fork in the road in 1956. He had a hit cowboy-themed television show in Philadelphia, then Westinghouse sold the station and gave him a choice of finishing the 13 weeks in his contract in Boston or Cleveland.

“I had never been to Cleveland,” he told the Globe in 1995. “The times I was in ­Boston, I liked it. But whether a cowboy show would go over was another question.”

The answer was a resounding yes. Mr. Trailer created “Boomtown” on WBZ-TV, and his remaining weeks turned into an 18-year run of shows that ran on Saturdays and Sundays. With songs, sketches, horse riding, and rope tricks, he dazzled the millions of New England children who tuned in.


Mr. Trailer — who later taught at ­Emerson College, where some former fans became his students — died Wednesday in Florida. The Sudbury resident, 84, was visiting family and friends when he became ill with pneumonia.

Rex Trailer, with a Boston police escort, greeted pedestrians along Cambridge Street.DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 1997

“If you grew up here in ­Boston, no one saw the West,” said comedian Jimmy Tingle, who was among the more than 200,000 children who participated on the show through the years, 100 or so per show, as part of the “Boomtown” posse.

Riding in astride Goldrush, his horse, Mr. Trailer would holler, “Howdy, kids,” and the show would unfold with sidekicks including Pablo, Cactus Pete, and Sergeant Billy.

“He was introducing you to the frontier, to a roundup, to a stampede, to a bunkhouse, all these things that were out of the folklore of the American West,” Tingle said. “You could have a little bit of the West and the prairie and Texas in ­Cambridge and Somerville and Boston. That was a beautiful thing.”

The show was more than just entertainment, said Bill O’Brien, who performed as Sergeant Billy from the late 1960s through 1974, when the show ended.


“There were always lessons to be taught,” O’Brien said.

Chief among them was ­respect, and Mr. Trailer set such an example that he became known as the gentleman cowboy.

“He taught me that you respect everybody,” said O’Brien, who was a teenager when he started working for the show as a horse handler. “He never turned down an autograph, never turned down a picture.”

Mr. Trailer “was doing educational TV before educational TV was in the lexicon, so he was a pioneer in many ways,” said Michael Bavaro, who made the 2005 documentary film “Rex Trailer’s Boomtown Gold” and became his friend and business partner.

The comedian Steven Wright was among the “Boomtown” fans who became Mr. Trailer’s students at Emerson College.

Mr. Trailer was active outside his television studio, addressing 8,000 youngsters at Paragon Park in Hull.1968 GLOBE FILE PHOTO/Boston Globe

“I grew up in Burlington, and we watched him all the time as little kids,” he recalled. “It was automatic. That was part of the weekend for many, many years. Everyone likes the West and cowboys, and here’s this cowboy talking directly to you, not like in the movies.”

Born in Texas, Mr. Trailer spent free time as a child on his grandfather’s ranch in the tiny town of Thurber, about 70 miles west of Forth Worth, where hired hands from the rodeo circuit taught him to rope and ride.

“One taught me how to play the guitar,” Mr. Trailer told the Globe in 2005. “Another taught me trick roping. Another one taught me trick riding. Another one taught me trick shooting. All of these things I was learning, I never thought I’d put them into action.”


He left Texas to ride the ­rodeo circuit and sing. He was performing in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1949 when the comic cowboy actor Gabby Hayes noticed his talent. Hayes hired Mr. Trailer to be the entertainment director at a summer camp for children in upstate New York.

“He told me I should get ­into television, that I could make my livelihood at this,” Mr. Trailer said in 1995. “He said I had this rapport with the kids that few people had.”

A few years later, he was performing on “Rex Trailer’s Ranch House” on WPTZ-TV in Philadelphia, when Karoline Waldron, who was known as Cindy, came on the show to sing. They married in 1956.

“When I met her, it was love at first sight,” Mr. Trailer said after she died in 2011. “She wasn’t so sure about me, but I knew I loved her.”

A two-time beauty pageant winner, she dedicated her time to assisting urban children, psychiatric patients, and animal welfare organizations, some of which Mr. Trailer featured on his show.

“That’s what the show was: all about the community,” O’Brien said.

Roping and riding tricks were but part of Mr. Trailer’s repertoire. His grandfather owned a Piper Cub and taught him to fly, letting Mr. Trailer pilot the plane after he turned 14.

Mr. Trailer started a helicopter and airline company in the early 1960s, offering shuttle service to business executives. He also was a hypnotist.


After “Boomtown” ended in 1974, Mr. Trailer hosted “Earth Lab,” a science show that was syndicated across the country, and revisited “Boomtown” as a cable show. He also had brief roles in movies, ­including “Jaws” and ­“Mermaids.”

In 2007, Mr. Trailer was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and he often would attend the organization’s events dressed in his cowboy regalia, said ­Arthur Singer, the hall’s president. “He was unique in that he related to young people and adults alike.”

Information on services was not immediately available for Mr. Trailer, who leaves a daughter, Jillian Trailer ­Rollock, along with a brother and a sister.

At Emerson, “the title of his course was ‘Performance for Television,’ but he brought far more than that to the class,” said Paul Beck, manager of operations-­administration at the college. “He would teach students not only how to sit stand speak and how to move and conduct themselves, but also about the technical side, the staging, the execution of all the production techniques. He knew more about the cameras than the engineers.”

Mr. Trailer’s lessons and assis­tance, he added, extended beyond the classroom as he helped former students get jobs in television.

“The thing I love most is that you get a fresh view on the past with young people,” Mr. Trailer told the Globe in 2005. “They make me their contemporary. Even though I’m a professor, I’m Rex to all my students.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@