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ART : Life of a Saddle Champ : Del Jones has donated memorabilia from her never-dull past to the Gene Autry museum.

March 05, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1914, Odille Osborne ran away from her home in Philadelphia and traveled to New York, alone.

She made her way to Madison Square Garden, where the 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show was appearing, and she asked for a job in the show. After passing an audition to prove that she could ride a horse, Del, as everyone called her, was hired and then talked her new bosses into an advance on her pay so that she could buy a Western outfit and rent a room.

At the time, she was 13.

"I've been independent all my life," the former trick rider, now in her 90s, said with a hearty laugh.

She is living on her own in a North Hollywood home full of memorabilia from a career that spanned the Wild West shows, traveling circuses, silent pictures, early talkies and her marriage to cowboy movie star Buck Jones that ended with his death in the 1940s.

Del Jones recently donated three ornate saddles, a beaded jacket and hat from her Wild West show days, and numerous other items to the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park.

"The saddles are particularly significant," museum curator James Nottage said. "Two of them were made by Edward Bohlin, who had a major role in creating the Hollywood cowboy image with the saddles and other pieces that he made for the stars."

Shortly before the two Bohlin saddles were donated to the museum, they were appraised at about $50,600.

"They are splendid examples of Bohlin's work, with silver mounting and fine tooling. And they are also significant simply because they were used by Buck Jones and Del during the time they worked in films."

For Del Jones, it has been a life of not only chutzpah, near-poverty, riches and Hollywood fame, but also tragedies that have left her with no immediate family. Except for the loneliness she feels in the wake of those she has outlived, she seems to have relished it all.

She was born in New York to a mother who was a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl and a father who was one of the designers of that city's subway. Her parents separated when she was young. "My father was the jealous type," she said.

She was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Darby, outside Philadelphia. When she was about 7, her aunt and uncle bought a farm.

"I got along with the horses right away," Jones said. "I just loved to ride."

So much so that on weekends, she took to sneaking into nearby farm fields and using fences to climb up on the horses and ride bareback. "The farmers would come to the house and say, 'Keep that little red-headed brat out of our pastures,' " she recalled, and the hearty laugh came again.

When her aunt and uncle sold the farm and moved back to the city, she was so miserable that she ran away. "I fixed my hair so I looked a lot older than 13," Jones said. "If they would have known my real age, I don't think I would have gotten the job in the show."

Jones appeared in the "grand entry" parade that began the show and in several other parts that called for riders.

"One day I walked out and there was one of the cowboys lying over a couple bales and groaning like he was in pain," Jones said. "I asked if I could do anything for him and he told me he had a hangover. He asked if I could get him a cup of coffee.

"That was the first time I met Buck."

Buck Jones, whose real name was Charles Gebhart, was born in Indianapolis. He served in the Army and was wounded in the Philippines.

They became friends. Buck, nine years her senior, asked permission from the owners of the show to take her to the movies and on other dates. By then, the head of the cowboys and his wife had discovered Del's real age and had taken a parental role in her life. But they approved of Buck.

"They thought so much of him that they gave their permission," Jones said.

A year later, when she was only 14, they were married. At the ceremony, everyone was on horseback, including the minister.

In 1917, they joined the Ringling Bros. Circus and traveled around the country. When they got to Los Angeles, Buck met some cowboys who were working in the movies. " 'You ought to stay,' they said to him," Jones recalled. " 'We are working as extras in the movies for $5 a day!'

"At the time, I was getting $35 a month to be in the circus."

Because of his riding skill, Buck got almost constant work in silent pictures right away, doubling for Tom Mix, William Farnum and other leading men. Del did a bit of stunt riding for actresses who could not ride, even though she was pregnant with their daughter at the time.

She even stood in for Douglas Fairbanks when his regular double was injured, but she can't recall the name of the movie. "Most times I never knew which movie I was working on," she said. "I just showed up and did the ride."

Farnum liked Buck's work as a stand-in and wanted Buck to take an small acting role in one of his films. The scene Buck did impressed executives at Fox Studios so much that they offered him a contract for $500 a week. "We could not believe that kind of money!" Jones said.

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