Hillbilly Singers, Money Launderers and Sonny Tufts: The Story of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers and the Country & Western Drive-In Film
By Kliph Nesteroff
Reading time 18 Minutes
From the opening scene, in which a hillbilly serenades a horse
From the opening scene, in which a hillbilly serenades a horse inside a railway boxcar, it’s clear that Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers (1967) is an unusual film.
On the surface, its two leads – country and western musicians Del Reeves and Hugh X. Lewis –seem a strange casting choice. But between 1958 and 1972, drive-in theaters presented over thirty entries in the genre to which Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers belongs. All starred country musicians, none of whom knew how to act. This cheap school of motion picture was immensely profitable, an unsung subset of exploitation cinema filled with lots of singing and plenty of mugging: the country and western drive-in film.
Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers is one of the most dubious entries in an already dubious genre. Poor camerawork, odd edits, dreadful acting – one wonders how it ever got made. And why. But unlike other mystifying B-movies that orbited late night TV, the explanation may be simple enough. Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was the product of the sudden boom in country music’s popularity, midwifed by the finances of a publishing and crayon industry heir and the shady ways of its producer, the notorious money launderer Charles Broun Jr.
American drive-in content during the 1950s was mostly flying saucer invasions, radioactive monsters, and drag racing delinquents. During the 1960s the market was dominated by biker gang sadism and beach party frivolity. By the 1970s the drive-ins embraced sex and violence in the sexual kitsch of Russ Meyer and the many pushermen of the blaxploitation craze.
The country and western drive-in film spans the same long time period. Among its titles were Country Music Holiday (1958), Country Music Jubilee (1960), Country Music Carnival (1964), Tennessee Jamboree (1964), Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar (1965), 40 Acre Feud (1965), Country Music on Broadway (1965), Music City USA (1966), That Tennessee Beat (1966), Country Boy (1966), Nashville Rebel (1966), Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966), The Gold Guitar (1966), Renfro Valley Barn Dance (1966), Hell on Wheels (1967), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967), Pee Wee King’s Country Western Hoedown (1967), The Road to Nashville (1967), From Nashville with Music (1969), and Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers (1967).
The country and western drive-in film shared basic elements with its parent genre—notably threadbare plots and reliably no-budget production values—and added another, unique one: several songs performed by popular country and western artists. These films starred the musicians themselves, name performers like Waylon Jennings, Ferlin Husky and Faron Young. And most included a cameo from some B or C-level Hollywood star in an attempt to bolster credibility. Road to Nashville featured faded comedian Doodles Weaver, Country Music Holiday boasted Maytag repairman Jesse White, and Nashville Rebel, a film starring Jennings, incongruously offered up an appearance by one-liner king Henny Youngman.
Del Reeves, the star of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, didn’t gain traction as a country star until the mid-’60s, despite having kicked around the business for a decade. His onstage manner was akin to a hillbilly Dean Martin—a suave, insouciant attitude, a Carolina twang, and a cigarette dangling between his fingers. In 1965 he had his first smash record, Girl on the Billboard, an entry in the then-popular genre of trucker music, that went to number one on the country charts.
On the heels of that hit, Reeves was offered a role in Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, the first of many country and western drive-in films he’d appear in. The picture featured fellow country names like Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, and Minnie Pearl, as well as Hollywood performers who’d seen better days, including comic actor Arnold Stang and former Bowery Boys Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall.
Reeves was soon a multi-media commodity. Show Biz Inc., a Nashville production firm, hired him as host of a new syndicated program, Country Carnival, and he was cast in three new films in quick succession: Forty Acre Feud (1965), The Gold Guitar (1966), and Las Vegas Hillbillies (1966).
Forty Acre Feud was directed by Ron Ormond, the low-budget impresario famous for Mesa of Lost Women (1953). Ormond used the same cast and crew for 40 Acre Feud and The Gold Guitar, shooting them back to back and paying country stars Skeeter Davis, Roy Drusky, Bill Anderson, Hugh X. Lewis, and Del Reeves two hundred and fifty dollars for their time. Money was largely beside the point: The films were good publicity in the pre-music-video era. “We knew we weren’t making Gone with the Wind,” said Bill Anderson. “Film was one of the only ways for the fans to put a face with a name and sound.”
Del Reeves was on a roll, and excited about his next project: “I’m hoping something great will come from Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers,” he noted prior to shooting.
The film would benefit from a profitable contemporary music trend. Country had crossed over into the pop field for the first time and received tremendous amounts of airplay on national radio. The person responsible for this sudden interest and expanding success was the man in charge of RCA’s Nashville division, Chet Atkins. When the guitar virtuoso turned executive, he introduced elaborate string sections, brass instruments, and complex engineering methods to Nashville recording sessions. What had once been a traditional world of fiddles, banjos and mandolins was now a lavish, heavily-produced operation. The new approach was dubbed “The Nashville Sound” and it outraged old timers and country music purists. But, as a result, the genre was suddenly becoming profitable on a massive scale. All manner of tie-ins followed, from magazines to television programs to an explosion of country and western themed films.
Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was produced by the Southeastern Pictures Corporation
Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was produced by the Southeastern Pictures Corporation, led by its president Charles Broun Jr. Hounded by controversy for much of his life, Broun – who died in 2001 -- started his film career as a theater manager in Spindale, North Carolina in the 1940s. He and his wife ran a number of restaurants and movie houses throughout the region, until they fled to Florida after one theater was burned to the ground by local vigilantes in 1952.
It’s not clear what Broun did to upset the townsfolk, but the Sunshine State offered him a new start. In Fort Myers, Broun went to work running his own successful ad agency. He was eventually convinced by the Lehigh Corporation – the company behind one of the state’s first massive real estate developments, Lehigh Acres -- to run their operation making commercials and marketing films.
By the 1960s, Florida had become a primary market for drive-in movies as well as a common filming location for the cheap, cinematic trash of the time. Broun saw an opportunity and developed the idea for his own film company, Southeastern Pictures. He found a backer and partner in the form of a wealthy local, David Binney Putnam. Grandson of G.P. Putnam, the famous book publisher, David Binney was also, improbably, both a stepson of Amelia Earhart and an heir to the Crayola crayon fortune.
With Putnam’s support, Southeastern set up its own studio in Lehigh Acres and began making pictures in 1966. Their retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, starring John Carradine, was directed by future Porky’s helmer Bob Clark – though the film would never actually see the light of day.
Broun and Southeastern had more success with their follow-up. Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was directed by Larry E. Jackson, who had experience making a previous country and western flick also featuring Del Reeves, Las Vegas Hillbillys. That picture’s cast included Richard Kiel, Ferlin Husky, Bill Anderson, Connie Smith, Mamie Van Doren, Joi Lansing, and Jayne Mansfield. Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers did not boast the same level of star power, but it did utilize once-famous figures like Sonny Tufts, Lila Lee, and Slapsy Maxie Rosenblooom.
Rosenbloom, a former light heavyweight boxing champion with cauliflower ears who played comic relief in Poverty Row films during the 1940s, is today best remembered for the Mob-connected nightclub in Los Angeles that bore his nickname. Lila Lee, a star of silent movies, was cast in Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers largely because she lived nearby. Lee, a Key West resident, hadn’t been active in motion pictures since the 1930s, but had been coaxed out of retirement to appear in Southeastern’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Tufts, meanwhile, was a notorious joke in Hollywood, perhaps best remembered for Cat Women of the Moon (1953). When Michael Medved wrote his influential book The Golden Turkey Awards, he bestowed upon Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers the dubious honor of “the worst performance by Sonny Tufts.”
It appears that the real creative force behind Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was its co-writer, Robert V. Barron, an ambitious radio deejay from Charleston, West Virginia. Soon after Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers wrapped, Barron moved to Hollywood and appeared as a hippie in a “Love-In” themed episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, launching a long career as an actor and producer. Mostly notably, he appeared as Abraham Lincoln in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and served as an executive with international TV studio Saban Entertainment (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Robotech).
Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was a non-union shoot, allowing Barron to meddle in all aspects of the filmmaking process. “I have been putting in sixteen to eighteen hours a day, tearing the whole movie apart and putting it back together again,” said Barron at the time. “In addition to editing, I’ve had to supervise sound, music scoring, title art, dubbing, mixing, processing, optical effects – and on top of everything else, produce two 200-foot theatrical trailers and two TV trailers. At one time I had three editors working on the film.”
Though the film looks and feels like it was shot in a single day, star Del Reeves noted, “We took eight weeks to film Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers. I don’t know why I enjoyed it. I swear I don’t, but I do.” In a recent interview Broun’s son, Charles Broun III, offered one guess: “They worked for little or nothing,” he said. “What did flow freely was a lot of alcohol.”
In addition to Reeves and Lewis, the picture also featured performances by country singers David Houston and Mel Tillis. Neither were well-known at the time, but Houston’s song “Almost Persuaded” would become hit just as the movie was released, and Houston gave Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers a plug when he appeared on a 1967 Grammy special. Tillis had written a new song that would also chart just as the film was released. Though not featured in the movie, Tillis’ tune would become a country standard: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers had its premiere at the Lehigh Acres Auditorium on April 28, 1967. The film’s initial run came in South Carolina. Broun secured legitimate venues like the Capri Theater in Spartanburg and the Hamrick Theater in Gaffney before sending it out on the drive-in circuit, where it was usually paired with other films in the country and western genre. In Shreveport, Louisiana, patrons celebrated Christmas with a triple bill of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers, Las Vegas Hillbillys, and Hillbillys in a Haunted House. Over the next few years Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was often used as drive-in filler. It accompanied the Richard Widmark film Moonshine War (1970) in Ohio, shared the bill with Cry of the Banshee (1971) in Indianapolis, and joined Albert T. Viola’s Preacherman (1971) in Hattiesburg. Five years after its initial release, Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers was still screening at the Jolly Roger Drive-In in Cincinnati.
Broun was pleased with the number of bookings Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers received. A newspaper report following its release claimed that Southeastern Pictures had immediate plans to expand its scope. “Broun hopes to develop an attractive industry for the area, and eventually establish this operation as Florida’s West Coast Film Center.” This never happened; Broun only completed two other films before shuttering the studio: the Bob Clark-directed She-Man: A Story of Fixation (1967) and The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968). Even after Southeastern went bust, Broun continued in the business for a time, distributing European “art films” of a decidedly adult variety.
The subject or quality of the films didn’t matter to Broun. Ultimately, it appears that most of his business interests were a front for more nefarious activities. In the early ’70s Broun abandoned movies entirely to become president of the national Red Carpet Inn chain. That job would lead to the indictment of the Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers producer in “one of the largest [drug] money laundering takedowns in American history.”
The DEA, FBI, and IRS monitored Broun throughout the 1970s. FBI agent Robert Mazur said that Broun, as head of Red Carpet Inns, “often prepared records to show every room occupied, even though the hotel was virtually empty. It allowed them to push dope money through as hotel revenue. With all the hotel’s write-offs, no taxes had to be paid, and the dope money was legitimized.”
Broun sealed his own fate one evening when he bragged about his laundering methods to an undercover agent. In License to Steal, a study of several precedent-setting organized crime cases, author Jeff Burbank wrote, “The agents masqueraded as members of a Chicago-based cocaine smuggling ring, attempting to organize a money-laundering scheme with the DEA agent posing as a cocaine trafficker.”
Mazur – whose book about his experiences as an undercover agent would form the basis of the 2016 film The Infiltrator – noted that “after half a year….and dozens of recorded meetings with Broun [and his associates], we had more than enough evidence to take them down … My final challenge in the case was to set up the sting.” The scene of Broun’s takedown was a Red Carpet Inn in Mississippi. Burbank wrote that Broun and his business partner “offered to arrange to launder the proceeds of illegal drug sales in the United States ‘and claimed to have personally perfected a method of smuggling cash on board commercial airlines to fly to off-shore islands.”
By the early 1980s, Broun found himself facing more than 100 years in prison. Rather than risk a trial, he made a deal with the feds, becoming a key prosecution witness and offering information in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Broun would ultimately spend three years in jail as a result of his activities as a hotel magnate. But in the context of his work as a film mogul, most viewers of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers would agree -- such punishment was far too light.
Kliph Nesteroff is a consulting producer on CNN’s History of Comedy and the author of The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy from Grove Press.