The Saturday morning e-mail was from a friend I've known since kindergarten. It was very simple—one line, “check this out”—and a link to a TV station Website in our native St. Louis. She sent it from her home outside New Orleans, and I opened it on a beautiful dawn in New Mexico.
The headline said, “Actor Known as Texas Bruce Passes Away.”
Suddenly, I was 4 years old again, looking at a picture of the first bona fide celebrity who touched my white-picket-fence life in Webster Groves, Mo. Texas Bruce was a TV star, host of Texas Bruce and the Wrangler Club on KSD (now KSDK) in St. Louis from 1950-1963. Not just any TV star. He was the TV star for those of us who were growing up alongside this electronic media.
We were tubeside to watch Howdy Doody and Sky King. Mouseketeers and a guy who made women cry when he chose them to be Queen for a Day. It was a black-and-white world that came through our round TV tube. But my Mom had said Texas Bruce was from St. Louis, and that made him my guy.
On special summer nights, my Dad would load my brother and me and the neighbor kids into the family station wagon, and we'd all head to the ice cream stand for something to cool us off. Named John's, and located near the train station, it was a magnet for other families spending their evening the same way.
The place crawled with children with chocolate dips and smiles, and there was a happy sound of neighbors exchanging greetings with one another. The highlight of some evenings was the arrival and then departure of the shiny silver and red train called The Texas Special. Everybody at John's would stop and watch. People on board waved. The train blew a state-of-the-art horn. For whatever reason, it was riveting. Then it was gone, whisking away its passengers to an exotic locale called Texas.
One night, as I watched the train disappear to the west, I noticed a very tall, thin man in a cowboy hat standing next to me. Cowboy hats were rare where I came from, so it got my attention. It was when he began talking to the children around him that it hit me. I was standing next to Texas Bruce from TV.
After a lifetime of using words, I still can't find ones to describe the jolt of excitement and awe that gripped me at that moment. I can only say it must be akin to being struck by lightning. I couldn't move. Or talk. Or make any sound whatsoever. The chocolate dip began to run down my hand, and all I did was stare. Transfixed. Texas Bruce was real and he was standing next to me.
My other-worldly moment was broken when my Dad yelled out my name. Still I didn't move, which made him come get me.
“Hi, Harry. How you doing?” he asked of my idol as he reached down to take me by the hand.
“Great. Great. Getting the kids some ice cream,” said Texas Bruce.
Before I could take in another moment of this once-in-a-lifetime excitement, I was headed home, wondering why my father called Texas Bruce Harry.
A few years later, decked out in my best Brownie outfit, we ventured downtown to be on TV with Texas Bruce and be part of the live audience he called the Wrangler's Club. It was my first brush with an official working TV show, and my guy Texas Bruce was as exciting then as he was when I met him on a hot summer night near the train station.
Harry Gibbs, who died at 91 on July 18, was the man who made Texas Bruce come alive. He lived in our little town with his children, one of whom was in my class. I even appeared in a play with the son, who had the lead of course, and I admit to being more nervous than usual knowing Texas Bruce was out in the audience.
I went on to work in TV, to produce and write shows. Along the way, I met presidents, A-list stars and even Prince Charles. But nobody ever came close to the power of Texas Bruce standing next to me at the ice cream stand. I never told him about that moment, even though I was lucky enough to meet him several times along the way.
For an entire generation of children, Harry Gibbs brought smiles, excitement, afternoon cartoons and joy. He will be greatly missed.