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Devoted Fans Cross The Country For 'Gunsmoke' Reunion


When I was growing up, most kids spent their Saturday mornings watching cartoons. I whiled away those magical weekend hours watching old Westerns - "Bonanza," "Wagon Train," "The Big Valley," and "Gunsmoke." It didn't matter that this show was filmed way before I was born. I wanted to be Miss Kitty, slinging drinks from my saloon to hungry travelers, ne'er-do-wells and, of course, Marshal Matt Dillon.


AMANDA BLAKE: (As Kitty) Hello, Matt.

JAMES ARNESS: (As Matt Dillon) Hello, Kitty.

BLAKE: (As Kitty) I was wondering where you were. You're late for lunch.

ARNESS: (As Matt Dillon) I wasn't too hungry, I guess.

MARTIN: OK, it doesn't sound exciting. But when he walked through those slinging saloon doors - oh, man, I am telling you - the show ran for 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975 and was the longest-running prime-time series in U.S. TV history. People loved this show and still do, which is why the city of Dodge City, Kan., was overtaken with "Gunsmoke" fans this weekend, six decades after his debut. From member station KMUW in Wichita, Abigail Wilson has the story of the show's 60th anniversary celebrations.

ABIGAIL WILSON, BYLINE: From as far away as Wisconsin, New York and California, fans are gathered in a dirt rodeo arena surrounding a tiny grandstand with chipping white paint. Stepping out of a golf cart and climbing slowly onto the stage are actors who played characters on "Gunsmoke." Burt Reynolds gets a lot of attention.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We love you, Burt.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I love you, Burt.

WILSON: The show was nominated for a dozen Emmys and received critical acclaim for its unprecedented realism. It's set in Dodge City, the hub of frontier cattle drives, with a reputation as a lawless town. Many of the main characters are no longer alive. Dennis Weaver, who played Chester Goode, passed away in 2006. Amanda Blake, who played the beloved Ms. Kitty, died in 1989 and James Arness, whose towering frame and distinctive voice made the character Marshal Matt Dillon shine, passed away four years ago.


ARNESS: (As Matt Dillon) My name's Dillon. I'm a lawman, a United States marshal, out of Dodge City.

WILSON: Legendary actor Burt Reynolds played the role of blacksmith Quint Asper, a half-Comanche with rippling biceps and a quick draw. Reynolds is now nearly 80, but his fans don't seem to notice.


BURT REYNOLDS: I had a great time on that show. I loved - the cast was wonderful, and I loved doing it.

WILSON: The show aired from 1955 to 1975, and reruns are still played today. Ben Costello wrote a book called "Gunsmoke: An American Institution." A lifelong fan of the series, he says he grew up watching it religiously.

BEN COSTELLO: I've come across literally hundreds of people that would say the same things. Some kid said when it was on Saturday nights that they would sneak down 'cause it came on at 10 o'clock and it was TV's first adult Western. They'd sneak down and hide behind a chair and watch while their parents were watching it.

WILSON: Costello says the key to the show's success was its ensemble cast and some strong storytelling.

COSTELLO: It didn't focus on just Marshal Matt Dillon. One week, it could be Chester. Next week, it could be Kitty Russell. Or they would focus on a guest. And then it also gave a launching pad to careers of Jon Voight - Harrison Ford did a couple "Gunsmokes" as a bad guy - several stars that went on in the '70s and '80s and '90s.

WILSON: Bruce Boxleitner played the character Toby Hogue in 1975.


BRUCE BOXLEITNER: It was totally character-driven, but it was about a character. It wasn't about the last sunset or the last cattle drive.

WILSON: On the south side of Dodge City, cars are slowly starting to line up, one next to the other, divided by old, metal speakers. They're at a drive-in theater for a screening of "Gunsmoke." One of the first to arrive - a Subaru with three women inside. To say that the driver, Sharon, is a fan of the show would be an understatement.

SHARON: It was a terrific show - great stories, fantastic writers, great actors.


SHARON: Great cast.

WILSON: The women drove here from Wisconsin. And if there's any doubt about how much they love the show, just read their license plate. It says, Gunsmoke, For NPR News, I'm Abigail Wilson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Abigail Wilson
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