“Wichita Town” should have been a resounding success. A sturdy 30 minute western with an established western star, Joel McCrea, at the peak time for TV westerns, 1959. But NBC sabotaged the series by airing it at 10:30pm Eastern and affording it very little publicity. “It’s pretty much my own fault,” Joel allowed when the sponsor of the series (Proctor and Gamble) canceled the show in late March 1960, before a full season had even aired. “I didn’t insist on an earlier time slot, I should have. I knew it was wrong from the start. I told them, people aren’t going to stay up until 10:30 to see another western. I’m crazy to see myself on the screen, but even I won’t stay up that late when I have to work the next day. And what about the kids? Even the older ones can’t stay up that late on school nights. I knew no one was going to wait up til 10:30 to see Joel McCrea in a western when he could tune in a couple of others earlier and still get his sleep. But,” McCrea shrugged, “I went along with their ‘let’s see’ attitude.”
Even though NBC had a strong Wednesday night lineup leading into “Wichita Town” (“Wagon Train”, “Price Is Right”, “Perry Como”, “This Is Your Life”), CBS with the popular “Armstrong Circle Theatre” and ABC with the strong male pull of “Wednesday Night Boxing”, both got a half hour jump on McCrea by starting at 10 EST. It more or less left “Wichita Town” eating Kansas dust in the ratings. Some NBC stations even replaced it on their schedule with syndicated action shows like “Rescue 8”.
The short-lived black and white 26 episode “Wichita Town” produced by Revue began September 30, 1959, and ended April 6, 1960. (Reruns on Friday nights ran from June-Sept. ‘60.)
“Wichita Town” evolved from McCrea’s 1955 film, “Wichita”, produced by Walter Mirisch for Allied Artists. It was Mirisch who persuaded McCrea to take the plunge into TV with him. McCrea explained, “I loved making pictures, but there came a time when you could make a good movie and nobody would go to see it. TV was booming. I like to keep active. We (Mirisch and McCrea) figured because of my maturity we needed a young and attractive guy. So why not make it someone we knew we liked? Later, he’d be in a position to take over as the star. So we nabbed (my son) Jody coming out of the Army.”
Joel played Wichita Marshal Mike Dunbar, a trail boss who brought a cattle drive up from Texas to Wichita and decided to remain to keep law and order. His deputies were Jody McCrea as Ben Matheson and reformed Mexican pistolero Rico Rodriguez (played by Carlos Romero, 1927-2007). The rest of the recurring cast included the town doctor (George Neise, 1917-1996), blacksmith (Bob Anderson, 1927-1996), bartender (Robert Foulk, 1908-1989) and Mayor (Frank Ferguson, 1899-1978). The excellent themesong was written by Hans Salter and Jack Brooks.
McCrea made only a couple more westerns (“Gunfight at Dodge City” ‘59, “Ride the High Country” ‘62 and “Mustang Country” ‘76) before retiring to run his 2,300 acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley with former actress/wife Frances Dee. McCrea died in 1990. Jody (born 1934) worked sparsely after the series. He died in April 2009.