Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

TV, Radio, Film

Spade Cooley plays
Spade Cooley plays

Cooley reached the peak of his popularity as Ella raised their children.

In 1946 he debuted a radio show, "Spade Cooley Time," on L.A.'s KFVD. He also retooled his band into an orchestra, adding six horns that intensified its swing sound and allowed for even more sophisticated arrangements and instruments.

By 1947, the Riverside Rancho was no longer large enough to accommodate the crowds clamoring to see Cooley and his orchestra perform live. So he signed a seven-year lease on the Santa Monica Ballroom, which became his band's new home base. It played to crowds of up to 8,000 people there.

In 1948, Cooley began hosting a KTLA-TV variety show, called The Hoffman Hayride after its advertising sponsor.

The show program, filmed at the ballroom every Saturday night, was a cross between "Hee-Haw" and The Ed Sullivan Show. As a KTLA ad put it, "Spade Cooley's formula for a show with top musical entertainment, a dash of western flavor, and a good sprinkling of comedy has proven to be just what the viewers ordered."

Guests included budding young stars like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Cooley gained a huge new audience through the program. At the show's peak, three out of every four television sets in greater Los Angeles were tuned to the Hoffman Hayride on Saturday nights.

In the meantime, he stayed busy on Hollywood projects. He appeared in about 50 films, most of them westerns. Some were between-reel "shorts," but also Cooley starred in a few westerns, and he and his band performed in dozens of others. His credits include titles such as The Kid from Gower Gulch, The Silver Bandit, Border Outlaws, Singing Sheriff and Texas Panhandle.

The Kid from Gower Gulch
The Kid from Gower Gulch

East of the Rockies, Spade Cooley was just another western movie mug in chaps and spurs. But he was famous from Seattle to San Diego as one of the west coast's biggest stars. His band often toured up and down the coast Sunday through Friday, always returning to Santa Monica for the Saturday night TV show.

When lucrative potential bookings cropped up for dates that were already taken, Cooley would send a look-alike, sound-alike band. At his zenith, Cooley and his manager, Bobbie Bennett, were marshalling three or four western swing bands that performed under the Spade Cooley brand. He sometimes would dash from one gig to the next — lest someone notice that Spade Cooley was absent from a Spade Cooley show.

Between film work, recordings, TV, radio and concerts, Cooley was pulling down $10,000 a week.

Even a heart attack in 1950 did not break Cooley's stride. Life was good. He must have thought it would go on like that forever. But it didn't.

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