There was a time when the name Tom Mix was as recognizable as any famous movie star of today. When he rose to fame in the early 1900s, Mix personified an Old West that still partly existed. Mix was an authentic cowboy whose moral code, sharp shooting and athleticism rescued damsels in distress and set the frontier aright. Between 1909 and 1935, Mix appeared in 291 films, mostly of the silent variety. Although he would be usurped in the sound era by singing cowboys Tex Ritter, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Mix, along with William S. Hart and “Bronco Billy” Anderson, defined the essential traits of the cowboy genre to come.
Mix was born in 1880 in the tiny hamlet of Mix Run, Pennsylvania, a town named after his great-grandfather Amos Mix. Like his forebears, Mix was a rugged lumberman and skilled horseman. When Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show came to town when he was about ten, Mix dream of becoming a cowboy performer was fired in earnest. At the 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis, Missouri, he met the not-yet-world-renowned Will Rogers playing a rodeo clown in a Wild West show. Besides the two of them becoming lifelong friends, the experience rekindled Mix’s cowboy performer dreams. After a stint with a cowboy brigade that performed at the inauguration of President Teddy Roosevelt in 1905, he finally became a full-time cowboy, working at the famous Miller Brother’s 101 Wild West Ranch which provided “authentic” western experience for East Coast vacationers. The Wild West Ranch was a proving ground for many western film stars, including Tex Cooper, Ken Maynard and Will Rogers. He later joined the Will A. Dickey Circle D Wild West Show, which contracted with director William Selig of the Selig Polyscope Film Company. Seeing potential in Mix’s rugged good looks, easygoing charm and well-honed riding skill, the company cast him in the short The Cowboy Millionaire in 1909 and as the lead in his next film, Ranch Life in the Great Southwest. Released in 1910 and shot at Selig’s new studio in Edendale (present day Silver Lake), the film was a huge hit and catapulted Mix into a movie star.
When Selig moved his movie business from Chicago to Edendale, Mix became a partner in the company and built his own studio which became known as Mixville, just up the street from Selig Polyscope on Glendale Boulevard. At the apex of fame in 1922, he moved into a rented bungalow in Silver Lake at 1610 Golden Gate Avenue (the house is still standing today). On the Mixville lot, the cowboy mogul built a mock western town, replete with dusty streets, a saloon, a jail, a bank, a hotel and simple wood frame houses typical f the frontier, surrounded by a simulated desert dotted with Indian tepees and ringed with majestic mountains made of plaster.
Mix made his last film in 1929; at forty-eight years old and with a voice judged as “not recording well”, his career was finished. The blow to his superstar ego, however was nothing compared to the financial disaster he suffered at the hands of the stock market crash of 1929, through which he lost his new mansion in Beverly Hills, a stock portfolio estimated to be worth more than a million dollars and his “dream ranch” in Arizona.
It all came to an end on October 12, 1940, along a lonely highway eighteen miles from Florence, Arizona. Mix was scheduled for an appearance in Tucson, when his custom-built Cord roadster swerved to avoid a crew of highway workers slid down a dry wash and overturned, leaving him pinned beneath the wreckage Eyewitnesses claimed that he “died with his boots on”, wearing his familiar white, ten-gallon Stetson and a diamond-studded belt. A monument was erected at the crash site: a rider-less pony mounted on a granite column and a plaque with the inscription, “In memory of Tom Mix whose spirit left his body on this spot and whose characterizations and portrayals of life served to better fix memories of the Old West in the minds of living men.”
Adapted from Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles. Please do not us this material without permission. © All rights reserved.