When Junior Bonner Came to Town

By Parker Anderson

Steve McQueen with bronc saddle. (SHMRC 1100.2021.4402)

This year, Prescott celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of Sam Peckinpah’s motion picture, “Junior Bonner,” starring Steve McQueen. In 1972 it was not a commercial success nationwide, but locally, Prescott has always regarded it as “our” movie, filmed entirely in Prescott and set in Prescott against the backdrop of the Frontier Days rodeo.

Today, it’s interesting to peruse original coverage of the filming of “Junior Bonner” as it appeared in the Prescott Courier in the summer of 1971. These news articles tell fascinating side stories that have largely been forgotten.
For instance, auditions for extras and bit players were held in the Palace Saloon. Studio public relations requested that locals between the ages of 25 and 55 who looked like “tourists or local VIPs” attend the auditions. Pay was $15.00 per day with a free lunch.

On July 20, 1971, the Courier ran a front-page story profiling a young, blonde starlet named Rita Garrison, accompanied by a photo of her in a red miniskirt on the set of the movie. Courier reporter Bob Early depicted her as a major player in “Junior Bonner,” and said that many viewed her as the next Marilyn Monroe. He further wrote that top Hollywood directors were seeking her out; Garrison told Early that she had previously been in Peckinpah’s “Ballad of Cable Hogue” (if so, she did not have screen credit).

Today, fifty years later, Rita Garrison’s interview with the Courier comes across as quite a snow job. She apparently told the Courier she played the role of the girl the cowboys fight over, starting the brawl in the Palace – but this role was actually played by Barbara Leigh. Although Rita has screen credit (as “Flashie”), her only appearance in the film is during the brawl scene where a cowboy extra chases her into the restroom.

Barbara Leigh, Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah stride across the rodeo arena during production. (SHMRC 1100.2021.4403)

The Internet Movie Database indicates Rita Garrison never made another movie after “Junior Bonner.” Her only other credit is a guest appearance on an episode of the TV series “Ironside.”

The cast and crew of “Junior Bonner” didn’t want Prescott to think they were Hollywood elites, and they worked hard to show they were friends of the townspeople. Led by veteran actor Don “Red” Barry, the cast and crew agreed to participate in a fundraising event on July 25th to benefit the Yavapai County Youth Center. The event, titled “Doogy Fisher’s Birthday Box Social”, consisted of entertainment and an auction of box lunches presented to the winning bidders by the stars of “Junior Bonner.”

Participating were Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor, Barbara Leigh, Mary Murphy, champion rodeo rider Casey Tibbs and Rita Garrison. Don “Red” Barry was the auctioneer, and Courier reporter Bob Early was Master of Ceremonies. Rod Hart’s Country Western Band provided the music; the event was a huge success for the Youth Center.  Afterward, Barry was presented with the keys to the city for his efforts.

One can only speculate today, but somebody must have told Steve McQueen he was developing a bad reputation locally. He had not ridden in the Frontier Days parade after initial reports that he would, nor did he participate in the Youth Center fundraiser.

So, McQueen agreed to personally sponsor a showing of his movie “On Any Sunday” at the Studio Theatre on Cortez Street to raise money for the Yavapai Indian Children’s Educational Fund. A $1.00 minimum donation was requested from all who attended. The very small coverage this event got from the Courier, compared to the Youth Center event, would seem to indicate people were not too impressed by McQueen’s gesture.

“Junior Bonner” remains a major part of Prescott’s history.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to dayspast@sharlothallmuseum.org Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at archivesrequest@sharlothallmuseum.org for information or assistance with photo requests.

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