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Around the Valley

At 83, Cowboy Montie Montana Still Ropes In an Audience

September 09, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Give a guy enough rope and he'll figure out a new rope trick.

At least that's how it's always been for Montie Montana, once known as the "Rope Spinner" from Montana for his catalogue of exotic tricks, which included roping six galloping horses. His most famous stunt was lassoing President Eisenhower as Montie rode in Ike's 1953 Inauguration parade.

But Montie is facing a knotty crisis. He is down to the last few feet of his sturdy old Samson Spot Cord, a tightly woven cotton rope of such quality that it makes modern nylon-center ropes seem like kite string.

He bought a thousand feet of the Samson 40 years ago, which you might think would last him. But, at 83, Montana is proving tougher and longer-lasting than his equipment. He's already gone through eight performing horses, all named after an early movie beast called Rex the Devil Horse. He's worn out 60 pair of custom-made boots. And he's used up 20 Stetson and Resistol hats, always white because, according to wife Marilee, "He's always been a good guy."

Now it's his rope.

What's a feller to do?

Well, if you're Montie Montana you just keep a-moseyin' along, a little slower maybe, but also a little taller in the saddle since he had both knees replaced with steel joints a couple of years ago to correct bowleggedness caused by a cowboy's life. And you still keep up a rugged schedule, making 300 appearances every year.

"I've never felt better and had less," he said the other night, ambling into the Wilkinson Senior Center in Northridge, where he was appearing at a square dance fund-raiser.

Montie, who lives on a ranch in Agua Dulce, showed up in a red bibbed shirt, carrying a gym bag stuffed with four coils of rope. The mostly middle-aged square dancers in western shirts and skirts puffed out by crinolines gathered around him like children.

This was fitting because many of these people remembered Montana--not from his movies, ranging from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" to "Tumbleweed Kid," or the 59 consecutive years he has ridden in the Rose Parade, but from his appearances in the 50s and 60s at schools across Southern California.

"Montie, how you doin? I haven't seen you since I was, oh, 13," said a bald man.

"I thought I recognized that face," Montana chuckled mildly, his usual response to old fans.

He was representing Weber's Bread then. The shows combined some entertainment and some good citizen propaganda.

"Do you play hooky?" he always asked the horse in front of the kids. Rex always shook his head.

He figures he saw 8 million kids over the 20 years he worked for Weber's.

The square dance where Montie was about to perform was a benefit for the Valley Trailers Square Dance Club, so named because the club began in a trailer park.

Square dancers tend to be messianic. They talk urgently about the benefits of dancing for health and happiness. Where else can you go to have a full evening of fun for only $4? they ask.

And it's a safe social environment, women said, noting that there's no drinking and they can meet and get to know the men without going off alone with them.

"It's changed our whole lives," said Andi Drake, a woman with short, dark hair and an eager way of speaking. Others chimed in. "Until you do it, you don't know what it is," said one dancer.

Their urgency might be driven by a need to persuade others that square dancing is not . . . well . . . square. The literature they hand out makes a point of noting that square dancing is the official folk dance of the United States, and also of California. The literature does not say what other dances were in the running.

After signing autographs, Montie strolled out to begin his show before 200 people who gathered around eagerly to see the man who has been called the best trick roper in the world. His self-published autobiography, "Not Without My Horse," contains pictures of him standing atop a galloping horse and twirling two ropes at once.

He was without his horse--Rex number nine--this night. It was just him and his Samson Spot Cord.

He got off to a rocky start, knocking his own hat off with one of his tricks. But as he warmed up, the rope surrendered to his steady hand. He twirled it around his own feet, hopping in and out of the circle, drawing loud applause and whistles.

He grabbed a second rope and began spinning both. Louder applause.

Finally, he pulled a woman out of the crowd and lassoed one arm, then the other, until her hands were bound in front of her. He roped both legs, binding them tightly. A few more loops and she was neatly trussed up in the middle of the dance floor.

As the coils encircled the woman's body, the response from some in the audience shifted from warm approval to half-embarrassed snickers. Even this audience of wholesome square dancers had heard of unusual practices involving ropes. Perhaps one or two had even sneaked into a Madonna movie.

Meanwhile, Montie Montana, born Owen Mickel, a true chivalrous son of the West who wore a white hat all his life, continued throwing loops over the woman's body, apparently oblivious to the mental images foisted on his art by audiences who have come a long way from those innocent playgrounds.

When Montie was finished, the woman's husband, a balding man with a mustache, brought it all out in the open.

"I was just going to ask her how it feels to be the other way around," he shouted.

"You're in trouble, Jack," the wife shot back, laughing.

"He's being funny," she confided later. "I never wrap him up with rope."

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