Dames IV: Susan Secord
Susan, Dale and The Throne of Gene Autry
Reading time 38 Minutes
SUSAN, DALE, AND THE THRONE OF GENE AUTRY
Finally, somebody who actually knew Dale Berry: his daughter. But don’t expect her to reveal much about the movies, because Dad never talked about them.
Susan Secord was Dale’s only daughter. An ex-stewardess, she still lives in Texas. A very good sport, Susan put up with many inane questions and requests. She was incredibly generous, sharing not only her photographs and memorabilia (down to his western suits).
I wondered why Dale liked to end his exploitation movies with long, drawn-out shoot-outs often featuring himself as one of the gunslingers. As Susan explains, Dale wanted nothing more than to be a cowboy star.
Dale Shelby Berry was born on the family farm in Sunnyvale, Texas, September 3, 1928, the only child of Roscoe (aka R. S.) and Ida Myrle Berry. In addition to being a farmer, Roscoe ran Berry Bros Machinery, and bought chunks of land for investments. A high school drop-out, he was “a brilliant businessman,” according to Susan. (Robert Ellis, Dale’s grandfather on his mother’s side, “was murdered in downtown Dallas during a bar fight,” she adds. “It happened July 31,1910. It's well-documented. His grandmother never remarried and had five children to raise alone. That incident weighed on Dale…the guy who did it went free and is buried within a few feet of Robert Ellis.”)
Considered one of “the heartthrobs of highway 80,” Dale also left school, determined to establish a career in the entertainment industry. “By the late 1940s I had learned to play the guitar and sing and was heard daily over several different radio stations and touring with a lot of the western stars, playing theater circuits, high school auditoriums, fairs, etc, and had all kinds of hopes and aspirations of being the next singing cowboy of the big silver screen.” Berry was the featured singer with a pioneering western swing group, Bill Boyd and the Cowboy Ramblers, and he appeared on WRR in Dallas. He also performed with the Wild Bill Elliot Rodeo and Wild West Show.
In 1947 Berry met the infamous Kenne Duncan, the “King of the Western Badmen,” who made around 120 pictures for Republic between 1937-1950. Duncan was playing the Ervay Theater in Dallas and Dale went backstage and pitched Kenne the idea of his five-piece band backing him up. “We toured with him up into the 50s,” said Berry.“Kenne was one of my best and dearest friends…when he was not being pummeled, hung, shot chased or beaten by the good guys in white hats.” Duncan was extremely helpful to Berry in the early days. “I was hanging around Hollywood waiting to be discovered into the next singing cowboy sensation in the late 1940’s and while I could ride, fight, shoot, sing and play a pretty mean guitar, this dream just did not materialize,” writes Berry.
Kenne got Dale acting work at the Iverson Ranch, where they shot “some of the lowest of low-budget oaters.” (Duncan also got Berry a small role in the 1959 western The Natchez Trace.) Duncan and Berry (along with Cactus Mack McPeters) “toured all over the United States playing theater circuits,” according to Dale. “We would do three or four songs with some quick comedy routines, and then I would introduce Kenne Duncan, the King of the Western Badmen. Kenne would come out firing blanks in his pistol.” Duncan also starred in two Ed Wood, Jr. pictures, Night of the Ghouls (1959) and The Sinister Urge (1961).
A boozing buddy who sometimes went by the nickname “Horsecock,” Kenne was a notorious carouser who threw wild parties aboard his 28-foot yacht “The Oil Ken.” Duncan was “extremely popular with the ladies,” according to Berry, who was also friendly with Wood and claimed that Ed’s wife Kathy had an affair with Kenne that was “no secret” even to her husband. (Did Ed and Dale talk shop? Did Ed ever offer an opinion on Hot Thrills and Warm Chills? We’ll never know.) “Kenne had a book of the women he had in bed…there was over a thousand in there. A thousand women,” Wood crony Ronnie Ashcroft told Wood biographer Rudolph Grey. On the set of Night of the Ghouls,“Kenne Duncan kept whispering obscene things in my ear,” said co-star Valda (according to what Kenne told Ashcroft, one of them being, “Gee, I’d like to chew on your tits.”)
Remington rifles booked Duncan for a sharpshooting tour. Dale was also part of the show. “Kenne used .22 caliber lead bullets,” said Berry. “When that lead would hit that steel target board it would splatter, so no matter what target you had hung up in there, no matter where, it broke it.” Ed Wood directed a short featuring Duncan, “Trick Shooting with Kenne Duncan.”
Kenne was known to be a cantankerous, frugal character. “When he went to a restaurant, he’d grab up all those little bags of sugar,” said Berry, who frequently visited him at his apartment at 1842 N. Edgemont St. in Hollywood. Later in life Duncan had a stroke. On February 7, 1972, Ed Wood called Dale in the middle of the night “to tell me Kenne had died of a massive heart attack.” The actual cause of death was ruled suicide by way of a barbiturate overdose. “He was tired of living,” Ashcroft told Rudolph Grey. “Just like George Sanders.” Berry maintained the death was an accidental combination of pills and booze, insisting that Duncan loved life and that “each day was a new conquest to him, especially if she was good-looking.” Days after his death, a box of Kenne’s guns arrived at Dale’s house, including a chrome-plated Colt .45 with a note stuck in the chamber of the cylinder saying the gun would bring Dale luck when he “hit the big time.” Duncan’s death hit Dale hard. “I know that cowboys are not supposed to cry, but I sure missed ‘the man you love to hate, Kenne Duncan, King of the Western Badmen.’”
Dale’s dream of being a western star never materialized, and he made his living working for the family business. But Berry continued to act, both in westerns and low-budget Texas independent films, and in the mid-sixties directed (and starred in) his handful of exploitation movies: Passion in the Sun a.k.a. The Girl and the Geek(1964), The Hot Bed (1965), Hot-Blooded Woman (1965, as Harry Epstein) and in 1967, both Hip, Hot and 21 and Hot Thrills and Warm Chills.(1961’s Beauty and the Cave, which Dale has an acting credit for, might be his as well.)
–So, Susan: was your Dad proud of these movies?
I don’t really remember him saying one way or another. I think his ultimate goal was to get his foot in the door. The B-westerns were his big love. He would’ve loved to have been Roy Rogers’ sidekick. I think Dad would have enjoyed being recognized for other his contributions to the industry rather than for those films. I don't believe Dad ever knew they were out on DVD.
Originally Dad worked for his father at Berry Brothers Machinery Company. That was the breadwinner. He was a salesman for Caterpillar machinery. My grandfather ran the machinery company and wanted to hand the reins over to my Dad at some point, but that wasn’t his goal in life, to sell highway equipment. It made the money to pay the bills, but it wasn’t his passion. Acting was.
After Berry Brothers Machinery closed, Dad opened a sporting goods store in Dallas. It was a venture partly to help my brother Robin find his niche. A lot of Dad’s memorabilia was at the sporting goods store. There was a fire and the whole place was destroyed.
For as long as I can remember, we went to Los Angeles every summer. We’d drive there in a station wagon. My mom's sister lived in Redondo Beach, so Dad would do a commercial or movie bit, who knows. We'd all stay with my aunt, and Dad would stay in LA and do his thing. He had a lot of contacts in Los Angeles and here in Texas. He never met a stranger, always had a great story, and loved to travel, so he was always out and about. Celebrities never made him nervous, he made tons of friends in the industry. People seemed to always love him.
–Mom wasn’t so crazy about the movies, I hear.
It never was her cup of tea. What was funny about my parents was, mom taught Sunday school at the Baptist church while Dad was making movies with scantily-dressed women.
–Somehow I don’t think Hip, Hot and 21 would go over well at the Baptist church.
Mom didn't care for the films or the music. I think my Mom was probably annoyed. But she didn’t mind drivin’ a new Cadillac when Dad brought it home. Starting around the sixties, we began to live in some pretty nice homes, had new cars, took vacations, so I know she liked that part. She never had to work, played bridge, always had a housekeeper, etc so what's not to like?
Both my parents were from Mesquite, Texas. My grandmother passed away when my Mom was ten and she moved in with older sister –across the road from my Dad and his grandparents. They went to the same high school in Mesquite. He’d climb out of a two story window to go see Mom, then he had a hard time sneaking back in the house. [laughter] On Dad’s Alka-Seltzer Song, it says “Me and Lou got married on the 4th of June.” Dad called Mom Dottie Lou (for Dorothy Louise) and her birthday was June 4th.
Transcontinental Artists Corporation
–Did you hear the name Transcontinental Artists Corporation growing up? It’s credited on his pictures.
Yes, Dad’s company. He had a Transcontinental credit card.
I tried to find others listed in the credits for Dale’s movies. For example, Whit Boyd—who directed no-budget Texas sexploitation like Spiked Heels and Black Nylons (1969) as well as 1969’s Dracula (The Dirty Old Man)–worked on (and acted in) Berry’s The Hot Bed and Hot-Blooded Woman. Efforts to find Boyd (or find out anything about him) led nowhere. The mysterious Charles Martinez also gets production credits on Dale’s movies. Together Martinez and Berry produced a shocking 1966 Dallas oddity, Burn Baby Burn: The Carolyn Lima Story, which was based on a sensational true-crime case from 1961. Lima was a prostitute who, in tandem with her transvestite boyfriend Leslie Douglas Ashley, murdered a john and torched his body after a three-way sex encounter that went awry. Both received the death penalty, which was subsequently overturned, and later Ashley escaped from the mental hospital he was sentenced to only to be found six months later working as Bobo the Clown in a traveling carnival. Ashley went back to prison and once out, got a sex change (which was paid for by his mother) and became an activist. Carolyn Lima did five years in prison and was an advisor on Burn, Baby Burn. Outside of an excellent online article by Chris Poggiali, nothing is known about the film. Dale never discussed it with his daughter.
Charles Martinez–what was his relationship with your father? I’ve uncovered zero about him.
He and Charlie were friends. He and Dad travelled together and seemed to get into a lot of mischief. Charlie had a boat in Kima. Mom was not real fond of Charlie’s wife Vera. They were both sort of strange, what little I was around them.
She and Vera came from different ethnic groups, different ways of life. She felt Vera talked down to her. It wasn’t a good mix. They clashed from the get-go.
The most irritating thing about Charlie and Vera was that would sit around and speak in Spanish around mom, even though they spoke perfectly good English. That irritated Mom because she assumed they were talking about her. That was always the case on the boat. I think Mom thought Charlie was a bad influence, but probably Charlie and Dad just wanted to get a foot in the show biz door. Dad used to mention that whenever he and Charlie traveled, they'd get questioned by various authorities because they thought Charlie was Cuban. He had a skinny mustache when I knew him. Those were the hijacking years. I don't recall Charlie Martinez have a "real" day job. No telling where Charlie got his money. Could have been out of Vera's pocket. Seems like dad and Charlie parted ways maybe after the movies were shot. I started flying in December, 1971 and it seems like Charlie was out of the picture by then.
–There appear to be a lot of pseudonyms in the credits for your Dad’s movies. Big Daddy Epstein III, Myrtle Pennypacker, Major Jefferson Davis Beauregard Lee III, Phineas Psmythe, Herman Queer, Horace Appleblossom, Judas Christian, T. Hatfield Curd…
He had a great sense of humor. I know he used Harry Epstein as a pseudonym.
–Do you remember Dale’s movies playing locally?
I don’t, but I was in the 10th grade. They probably wouldn’t have let me in. I remember Dad being involved with Beauty and the Cave. And The Eye Creatures, which was filmed in Dallas in the White Rock Lake area, where we lived then. John Ashley was in town and I was there for part of it. Dad's IMDb doesn't give him credit for the 1960 film The Natchez Trace with Zachary Scott and William Campbell. I was only 12 years old, still remember being on location.
–What do you recall about Kenne Duncan?
He would come to the house and hang out. Seems like they were doin’ some sort of marksman show stuff. Dad did talk about Ed Wood. I remember him talking about Ed splicing scenes together and it didn't matter if it flowed right or not. Budget was more important.
–Dale seemed to know a lot of interesting characters.
Dad did mention Jack Ruby a few times. He knew Jack from the night club, the Carousel Club. They weren’t friends, but rather acquaintances. He thought Jack was sort of dark and broody.
Dad was friends with Johnny Crawford [star of The Rifleman]. Johnny was my idol all through middle and high school. Johnny came to Dallas and spent the night at my parent’s house. I came over the next day to see where Johnny had spent the night. A rat had died up in the attic and it was the most awful smell ever, especially in Johnny's room. Funny, he never came over again.
The actor Pat Buttram [best known for playing Mr. Haney on Green Acres] was a pal of Dad’s and did a meet-and-greet, signed autographs, etc, when Dad’s sporting goods store first opened. I have a photo where I’m sitting in Pat Buttram’s lap. Pat looks pleased with himself. He fancied me, and Dad told him flat out, he did not want Pat for a son-in-law–no way, no how. Dad was definitely ready to polish the shotgun over that one!!!
One year Dad, Mom and I went to Honolulu to meet up with Jack Lord, star of Hawaii 5-0. Dad had an idea of buying celebrity vehicles and either reselling them or renting them out. We met Jack and he took us out to dinner, flowers were delivered to our room and we toured the Hawaii 5-0 bus that was used as a dressing room on set. It was a memorable trip, but Jack and Dad couldn't agree on the price. The car project never went anywhere but we had a great adventure.
–What music influenced Dale?
Roy Rogers, Gene Autry–the singing cowboys. He knew then both. I found a picture of dad with Roy and Dale when we had dinner with them in Dallas. Dad admired Roy tremendously. Dad played guitar but could also play piano. Guitar was his favorite and he would torture my friends, chasing them around the house with a serenade.
Besides his TV and film works, Dad wrote articles for Westerns & Serials and Western Clippings magazines. He designed his own western wear and then would have Nudie the Tailor (or later his son Jaime) put it all together. Dad always had a custom made suit for the Golden Boot awards. People paid the price just to sit at Dad’s table and there was never an empty seat. There was always a party at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City the Friday night prior to the awards–the Jim Roberts pre-Boot party. It was always full of celebs and everyone was approachable. Dad would sing and play guitar there.
Dad and I traveled together, whether it was an audition, western celebrity convention or Golden Boot awards. I’m a better sidekick than my Mom was. My Mom wasn't really into the film industry.
The Golden Boot Awards
Founded in 1983 by Dale’s pal Pat Buttram, The Golden Boot Awards was an annual dinner held every year “honoring our western heroes,” as Berry writes. Dale was a fixture at this and many other western events, often playing music at them. Jeff Hildebrandt, The Cowboy Poet,” said that Berry a great help to him early in his career. “He was very supportive,” said Hildebrandt. “He was always looking out for ways to help somebody else and he did that for me a number of times.” Despite not being a western star himself, “he had the type of personality people were just drawn to. Dale was always dressed cowboy. He was just a good ol’ boy.” Dale’s column “Ranch House News” for Westerns and Serials magazine would feature pictures of Berry with stars like Brian Keith, Chuck Connors, and Lash LaRue as well as action shots of himself wearing a cowboy hat and toting a gun. Dale continued his acting career and had a reoccurring role as a sheriff on the Chuck Norris TV show Walker, Texas Ranger, which aired from 1993-2001.
–Your Dad was pals with Caruth C. Byrd, who produced a few pictures himself, including a 1968 Larry Buchanan western, Comanche Crossing. Byrd got into a big legal battle with Aubrey Mayhew, producer of many a great Johnny Paycheck record. Both claimed to own the actual Texas book depository window that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from.
Caruth's window was supposedly THE window. Seems like Caruth's father owned the building. At one point, the window was on eBay or something like that and was for sale for a million or two. I believe the documentation on the window was challenged, and (as far as I know) it was not sold.
Caruth was a wild man! Caruth's family was very well-to-do, real estate, old money, etc. He and Dad were good buds. Caruth would perform with Dad at the Sportsmen's Lodge pre-Boot party. He drove to Studio City and brought his organ or piano along. Caruth had a place in Van, Texas, outside of Dallas. He had lions, tigers and bears... he ran an animal rescue, I guess. His house was a huge, custom-built log cabin with the biggest bar I've ever seen. Caruth either liked you or he didn't, but you knew which way it was.
–Tell us about the Dale Berry gun (AKA The Berryblaster).
He got several celebrities to sign up to get their own rifle issued. And in the course of that they designed one for Dale. My brother Mark, my niece and I all have one, but none of us want to part with it. I don't know who else has one. [Editor’s note: my boss is desperate to get a Dale Berry gun. If you happen to have one you want to sell, please contact us.]
–So was Dale a strict father?
He did care about the grades. He was strict. And when I dated…I’d always everybody when I was dating in high school he’d sit in the living room and clean his shotgun. His biggest advice was, "You can love a rich guy as much as a poor one." That was dadspeak for when his shotgun needed polishing.
–That must’ve had an effect.
There wasn’t any long dating history, I’ll just put it that way. I was at my fiftieth high school reunion recently and a couple of the guys mentioned how much they feared my dad. Guess that routine worked.
–Didn’t your Dad catch a mugger?
My parents came home after picking up mail at the post office, banking, etc. They pulled into the driveway, in back of the house. They had been followed down the alley by another car. My Mom got out and was mugged in the alley by these people. They broke her finger, cut her purse off her arm, knocked her down on the driveway. My Dad went inside the house, while she's screaming bloody murder. He wrote down the license plate number, called the police, and the muggers were caught within a few hours. Good guys always wear white hats!
–Can you tell me anything about the end of his life?
Dad was diagnosed with cancer in Aug 2011. I went with him since the oncology doctor is down the street from me. Since mom had Alzheimer's, she was watching her soap and not on top of things. What was interesting was this: he went into action. Bought a head stone, laid out his suit, some money for the preacher–and he wrote a script for the preacher to follow. Everything was on the bed–notes, photos and money. There were some interesting people at the service, like James Drury, Anne Lockhart (June's daughter) and Tippie Pyle (Denver's widow). When the preacher mentioned Dad had written his own eulogy at the funeral, everyone got a big kick out of it.
–Do you have a favorite memory of your father?
Every year for the Boot, we went on Southwest Airlines. We'd grab a window and aisle seat so hopefully the middle would be empty. We'd drag out the barf bag and take turns pretending to be sick. Our performances were Academy Award worthy and usually no one wanted that middle seat. One year the flight attendant brought him a cold napkin, dabbed his head and offered water. He asked for a Bloody Mary after takeoff.
Dale Berry passed away at high noon on October 20, 2011. In his obituary, Dale’s quoted as saying, “I had a great life and enjoyed every minute of it. I would not change a thing, even if I could do it all over.” Presumably that includes making Hot-Blooded Woman…but we’ll never know for sure.
Once when Dale was visiting the house of the late Gene Autry, he snuck into the bathroom to sit upon on the Autry commode and had Susan snap a photo.
This picture, which says so much about our lively subject, seems the best ending possible for the Dale Berry story. A laugh, then perhaps a flush.
NOTE: As this story goes live, we may have uncovered more information about the women of Dale Berry--and we may be bringing you further installments on this unbelievable story....
Special thanks: In regard to the Kenne Duncan material, I also relied on articles by Boyd Magers (www.westernclippings.com/heavies/kenneduncan_charactersheavies.shtml). Chuck Anderson (http://www.b-westerns.com/villain2.htm), and Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy. Rudolph also supplied the late-era photo of Kenne. Thanks as well to Chris Poggiali for the Burn Baby Burn: The Carolyn Lima Story ads, his story on the film is here: templeofschlock.blogspot.com/2012/06/endangered-list-case-file-120 The no-longer-available Dale Berry rifle can be found here: americaremembers.com/product/dale-berry-tribute-rifle. More on Rainbow Sounds records: rainbowsoundrecords.wordpress.com
A very special thank you to Susan Secord, who made all of this possible.
Jimmy McDonough is a biographer and journalist. He has written acclaimed biographies of Neil Young, Tammy Wynette, Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan. Time magazine declared his Milligan biography The Ghastly One "a masterpiece" and John Waters has repeatedly named it one of his all-time favorites. McDonough has also authored profiles on Jimmy Scott, Gary Stewart, Hubert Selby, Jr., the Ormond family and Link Wray. His latest book is Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green. Jimmy’s website: www.jimmymcdonough.com