The Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo has been an annual tradition since 1937, often featuring famous entertainers alongside the champion cowboys.
“Gunsmoke,” the legendary TV series that ran for two decades, had the spotlight in 1966 and 1967 with the rodeo-circuit entertainment duo of Colorado boy Ken Curtis (Deputy Festus Haggen) and Milburn Stone (Doc Adams), from near Dodge City, Kan.
Turns out Curtis had a long Colorado history, including earlier in Colorado Springs. He was born July 2, 1916, in Lamar as Curtis Wain Gates. His family later moved to La Junta, where his father served as Prowers County sheriff. Curtis headed to Colorado College in 1935 with plans of pursuing a medical career.
However, it was music that was his calling, and at CC he started writing music, too. Off to Hollywood he went. After a stint as an NBC Radio staff singer, he was hired by band leader Tommy Dorsey to replace lead vocalist Frank Sinatra, who had left for a solo career.
Curtis soon traded swing music for country, singing with the Sons of the Pioneers, at one point with Roy Rogers, and can be heard in “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”
As is often the case in moviedom, the Curtis Gates birth name was changed contractually for his roles singing in B-grade Westerns for Columbia Pictures. Ken Curtis was born and had supporting roles in the Westerns of famous movie director John Ford, father of Curtis’ second wife.
In the early ‘60s, the clean-cut actor played some raggedy-guy roles on TV’s “Gunsmoke,” leading to 1964 when he joined star James Arness (Matt Dillon) as scraggly deputy Festus Haggen, replacing Dennis Weaver.
It was a 304-episode, 11-year run until the series ended in 1975. Over the years, there were celebrity guest appearances such as the local rodeo.
Curtis retired in California with wife three, was featured at TV events and conventions, and died April 28, 1991.