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Devoted Fans Flock To Dodge City For 'Gunsmoke' Reunion

This story originally aired during Morning Edition on 09/27/2015.

Dodge City, Kansas, is a town synonymous with the Wild West. It again lived up to that cowboy reputation this past weekend by hosting a reunion of some of the actors from the iconic TV show “Gunsmoke,” the longest-running network drama in television history. KMUW's Abigail Wilson reports that fans swarmed Dodge City to celebrate the show's 60th anniversary.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
"Gunsmoke" fans gather in Dodge City for the show's 60-year reunion.

From as far away as Wisconsin, New York, and California, fans are gathered in a dirt rodeo arena, surrounding a tiny grandstand with chipping white paint.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
Burt Reynolds greets fans at a reunion for "Gunsmoke" in Dodge City.

Stepping out of a golf cart and climbing slowly onto the stage are actors who played characters on “Gunsmoke.“ Burt Reynolds in particular gets a lot of attention.

The show was nominated for a dozen Emmys and received critical acclaim for its unprecedented realism. It’s set in Dodge City — the hub of frontier cattle drives, with a reputation as a lawless town.

Many of the main characters are no longer alive. Dennis Weaver, who played Chester Goode, passed away in 2006; Amanda Blake, who played the beloved Miss Kitty, died in 1989; and James Arness, whose towering frame and distinctive voice made the character Marshal Matt Dillon shine, passed away 4 years ago.

Legendary actor Burt Reynolds played the role of blacksmith Quint Asper, a half-Comanche man with rippling biceps and a quick draw. Reynolds is now nearly 80, but his fans don’t seem to notice.

"I had a great time on the show," Reynolds says. "The cast was wonderful and I loved doing it. Doc [Milburn Stone], who was kind of our guru, he told us what we were going to do and everything, and he said, 'Get the the hell off the show because you're going to go be a movie actor.' And I didn't believe him. But I left and he was right. I got a couple of movies after that."

Credit Wikipedia/CBS
The main cast of "Gunsmoke" in an on-set photo in 1967.

The show aired from 1955-1975 and reruns are still played today. Ben Costello, a lifelong fan of the series and author of the book “Gunsmoke”: An American Institution, says he grew up watching the show religiously.

"I’ve come across literally hundreds of people that say the same thing. Some kids said that when it was on Saturday nights they would sneak down because it came on at 10 o' clock," Costello says. "It was TV’s first adult western. They’d sneak down and hide behind a chair and watch while their parents were watching it."

Costello says the key to the show's success was its ensemble cast and some strong storytelling.

“It didn’t focus on just Marshal Matt Dillon. One day it could be Chester, next week it could be Kitty Russell, or they would focus on a guest," he says. "It also gave a launching pad to careers of Jon Voight; Harrison Ford did a couple 'Gunsmokes' as a bad guy, several big stars that went on in the 70s, 80s and 90s.”

Bruce Boxleitner portrayed the character Toby Hague in 1975 and says the series was totally character driven.

“It was about a character. It wasn’t about the last sunset or about the last cattle drive or Dodge burns down or something. And I think that's really what the legacy of it was that it shows us through these stories that our pioneer forefathers and mothers were real people," he says.



Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
Sharon and her friends drove all the way from Wisconsin--in a car bearing the license plate "GUNSMKE"--to Dodge City for the reunion.

On the south side of Dodge City, cars are slowly starting to line up, one next to the other, divided by old metal speakers. They’re at the drive-in theater for a screening of "Gunsmoke."

One of the first to arrive is a Subaru with three women inside. To say that the driver, Sharon, is a fan of the show would be an understatement.

“It was a terrific show. Great stories. Fantastic writers. Great actors. Great cast," she says.

The women drove here from Wisconsin. And if there’s any doubt about how much they love the show, just read their license plate: It says GUNSMOKE.

Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

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