Memphis Film Festival attracts legions of admirers of old TV cowboys
Posted: June 10, 2016
By John Beifuss of The Commercial Appeal  
[Memphis Film Festival guest Robert Fuller.]







Some entertainers attract followers whose shared enthusiasm expresses itself through nicknames, fan clubs and social media networks.

Young Justin Bieber has his "Beliebers." Katy Perry has her "KatyCats." Taylor has her "Swifties."

The Beatles disbanded 46 years ago, but "Beatlemaniacs" remain. Elvis died in 1977, but Elvis love seems eternal.

We're not surprised when pop music superstars and matinee idols earn such ardor. But what about when fans fixate on less exalted figures?

"Meeting him is, like, wow!" said Cherril Fomby, sounding like a teenybopper rather than a 47-year-old as she described the experience of being in the presence of her particular pop-culture hero at this weekend's Memphis Film Festival.

"Your knees will buckle, and your heart will speed up," she assured a listener, after reporting that she drove two days from Pittsburgh with "two cats and an oxygen tank" to meet her idol.

Jutta Schmale, 41, understands such effort. Her visit to the film festival is the second time this year she has spent a nice chunk of her high-school music teacher's salary to fly to America from her hometown of Westerburg, Germany, to meet the same person Fomby admires.

And Schmale and Fomby are hardly alone. Making connections via social media, close to 90 women from all over the U.S. as well as Canada, England, Australia and Japan are here, also hoping for weak knees and sped-up hearts.

Who attracts such admiration? In this case, the answer is 82-year-old Robert Fuller, the two-fisted TV he-man and dependable authority figure who starred on "Laramie" and "Wagon Train" in the 1960s and on "Emergency!," a medical program, in the 1970s.

"He's been a doctor, he's been a cowboy, he's been a wagonmaster," said Fomby's mother and fellow Fuller fanatic Antoinette Fomby, 73, as if reviewing a résumé rather than reciting a list of acting credits. The shared mother-daughter Fuller love was perhaps inevitable: Anoinette gave birth to Cherril in the Redondo Beach hospital used to represent fictional Rampart General on "Emergency!"

"They're very good friends of mine," Fuller said of the fans who follow him from festival to festival. Tall and lanky and wearing a cowboy hat, Fuller looks every inch the real-life horse rancher he has become. He credits his popularity in part to the "message" delivered in his old programs, which he said used drama to enact moral lessons about the difference between right and wrong.

Fuller is just one of about 20 celebrity guests attracting hundreds of fans to this year's edition of the Memphis Film Festival, which is now somewhat misnamed: The convention began Thursday and ends Saturday at Sam's Town Hotel & Gambling Hall, Tunica County, Mississippi. (Admission Saturday is $20 per person, with children under 12 admitted free.) Today's final panel begins at 1 p.m., but screenings of such films as "Ghost of Zorro" (1949) continue through the late afternoon.

An annual celebration of classic cinema and vintage television that traces its history to a 1972 B-Western convention at The Peabody, the festival offers proof of the distressing truth that none of us are getting any younger. Among those signing autographs and meeting fans at the event are such former towheads and teen idols as "Hardy Boy" Parker Stevenson, who is now 64; Jon Provost, 66 better known as Lassie's boy owner, Timmy, on seven seasons of "Lassie"; Darby Hinton, 58, who was young Israel on "Daniel Boone"; and two of "My Three Sons": Chip (Stanley Livingston, 65) and Ernie (Barry Livingston, 62).  Yet there's also something reassuring about the apparently unbreakable bond between these actors and the fans who grew up watching them (or discovered them later on TV Land and other retro channels). This is nostalgia as therapy as well as entertainment, and it seems rejuvenating. Joked festival guest Mark Goddard, 79, who was Major Don West on "Lost in Space": "I was only in the reruns. I was too young to be in the original."