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FAMILY

Ride 'Em, Cowgirl!

Female riders who worked in arena shows as well as Hollywood are in the spotlight at the Autry Museum.

March 02, 2000|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When she was 10, Polly Burson's dream was to trick-ride in Madison Square Garden. Not only did she turn up in the Garden 14 years later, hitting the ground running, turning somersaults over her saddle horn and landing on her horse's neck sitting backward, she also became one of the most respected female stunt riders in the motion picture business.

One of Pat Paul Siva's fondest career memories is of a trip she took to England in 1952. Her traveling companion was her horse--and a posse of performers put together by actor Tex Ritter. The troupe rustled up the energy for 119 performances, delighting audiences with sequins, saddles and precision prancing.

Donna Hall Fishburn loves cattle calls, bull dogging and the exhilaration a gal gets from leaping from a horse onto a moving train--a thrill few people are likely to know. In her prime, Fishburn doubled for Doris Day as Calamity Jane, Debbie Reynolds in "How the West Was Won" and Barbara Stanwyck in "The Maverick Queen."

Fishburn, Siva and Burson, along with dozens of other cowgirls of Hollywood's western film era, were members of a talented, determined and privileged sorority of sorts. They made a living on horseback, doing what they loved as the motion picture cameras rolled.

"We couldn't wait for the sun to come up and hated to see it go down," said Fishburn, 72, who lives just below the Hollywood sign, not far from the trails she still rides several times a week.

In honor of Women's History Month at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, and in conjunction with the new "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" exhibition opening Saturday, these women and other former professional cowgirls will share their stories of boots and bridles on March 25 at 2 p.m. Moderating the cowgirl panel will be Pat Riley, director of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was among the first to put women riders in the spotlight, with as many as 12 female performers at a given time.

By the time the former wrangler, Army scout and buffalo hunter turned tales of the Wild West into an arena show, the West was fairly tame. Even Sitting Bull was a featured performer in 1885.

On opening day of the "Wild West" exhibition, Katherine Siva Saubel (Pat Paul Siva's sister-in-law) will present a one-act play on the Native American experience at 2 p.m. Saubel, a Cahuilla elder from the Morongo Reservation in Cabazon, Calif., will offer some insight into Southern California's Native American culture through traditional Cahuilla stories.

Honoring the Most Famous U.S. Cowgirl

On March 19, the Autry will honor perhaps the most famous cowgirl in the nation's history, Annie Oakley, with a 2 p.m. screening of the 1935 film "Annie Oakley," starring Stanwyck. Glenda Riley, author of "By Grit and Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West," will introduce the film and talk about the role women played in Buffalo Bill's show.

Oakley was one of the biggest stars--male or female--with the Wild West Show, and her gold-plated, single-shot rifle will be on display in the Autry's "Wild West" exhibition, which runs through July 9.

Although movie cowgirls were decades removed from Cody's arena shows, the western films, TV shows and live horse shows that were popular in the 1930s through the 1960s were all influenced by Cody's "productions."

Getting hitched with the movies was a natural move for the cowgirls who were trick riders on the rodeo circuit and took part in competitions, including the sheriff's rodeo that used to draw thousands of spectators to the L.A. Coliseum (Siva, Burson and Fishburn all rode at the Coliseum). But not just anyone could hop on a horse and ride off into a movie sunset.

"There were so few girls who were really capable," said Fishburn, who did the stunt work on the "Annie Oakley" TV series for several years.

"It was a Catch-22," added Burson, who now lives in Oxnard. "You had to have a [union] card to work, but you had to be working to get in the union."

One day, Burson got a call from the Republic studio, which needed a woman to do a high fall.

"I'd never fallen any farther than off a horse," Burson said, but she took the job, got her card and kicked off a stunt career that lasted more than 30 years. A real career turning point came, she said, when she got a job at Paramount, doubling for Betty Hutton in 1947's "The Perils of Pauline."

Pat Paul Siva, 76, who now owns her own realty company in Banning, said her work as a trick and fancy rider led to movie jobs, including "The Will Rogers Story" and "Westward the Women" with Robert Taylor. She was recently nominated for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Siva said--and the other cowgirls agreed--that the Western riding community was a close-knit one, and she still keeps in contact with people she worked with more than 40 years ago.

Siva and Fishburn still ride horses at least once a week. Burson, 80, no longer does. "Now I'm hung up on boats," she said.

BE THERE

"Buffalo Bill's Wild West," at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. Saturday through July 9. Cowgirl panel: March 25 at 2 p.m. Information: (323) 667-2000.

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