by Don Stradley
It was little more than a glorified publicity stunt for the Fourth of July. Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard, a pair of cowboy stars, were set to compete at the National Air Races at the Los Angeles Municipal Airport.
Gibson and Maynard were licensed pilots scheduled for a match speed race, the winner to be awarded a trophy by Will Rogers, another avid flyer. They were part of a legitimate festival of aviation that would include a three-mile parade beginning at City Hall, free-fall parachutists, aerial stunts by German war ace Ernst Udet, pyrotechnic displays, women flyers, and 40 of the top air racers in the country. Mary Pickford, the long-reigning queen of Hollywood, was hosting the event, while such stars as Gene Autry, Harold Lloyd, Myrna Loy, and Wallace Beery sat among a crowd of 48,000 spectators. Jean Harlow, the most famous platinum blonde in the business, was slated to lead the parade in a platinum-painted automobile.
Despite the overflow of glamour, there was a sense of unease around Gibson. Gray-haired and 40, Gibson was going through a rough year. His home in Bouquet Canyon had been burglarized, and crooks selling counterfeit tickets had marred his annual “Hoot Gibson Rodeo” in Saugus. Topping off his bad run of 1933, Gibson’s marriage to actress Sally Eilers was on the rocks. It also seemed the stardom Gibson had worn so easily during the era of silent films was frayed. No wonder he took to the skies.
Gibson had been flying since 1929 and was often featured in aviation magazines of the period. He owned three airplanes, or “sky-horses,” and for the afternoon race would commandeer a Swallow J-5, a single engine, open cockpit biplane that was popular among recreational flyers and racers.
The event’s promoters, Phil and Cliff Henderson, had gambled in bringing the National Air Races to L.A. for the first time, and star wattage was key to their success. It was one thing to have celebrities in the audience, but it would be far more helpful to have a couple of well-known stars up in gaily-colored little racing planes. When the National Air Races announced a special “Motion Picture Day” to honor the Hollywood flying community, Maynard stepped forward and challenged anyone willing to race him. Gibson accepted the challenge.
He’d barely escape with his life.
Gibson wasn’t in the air long before spectators noted something seemed off. “They saw his ship start sliding out of control,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “saw it nose downward, saw the lower wing rip through the open field a mile beyond the north airport boundary and turn over in a cloud of dust.”
As the Swallow lay crushed like a discarded paper cup, Gibson was rushed to an ambulance. Word swept through the crowd that he was dead.
“Something was wrong with the controls,” he told the L.A. Evening Post Standard. “I knew I was going to crack up – knew I couldn’t avoid it.”
Initial reports said Gibson suffered only a few scratches, but within a day it was announced that he had three fractured vertebrae, three fractured ribs, plus a concussion. Dr. George O. Berg at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital marveled at how the cowboy aviator had survived. “Gibson is the most indestructible person I ever saw,” said Berg. The injuries to his vertebrae, Berg declared, were almost equal to a broken back. “It’s a miracle he wasn’t killed outright.”
Gibson eventually recovered but his hard luck continued. Before the end of the year, Eilors sneaked off to Mexico for a quickie divorce and then eloped with director Harry Joe Brown. Gibson would also appear before a Los Angeles judge to declare he was bankrupt and couldn’t pay off several outstanding debts. When 1933 rolled into 1934, the Internal Revenue Service sued him for back taxes.
Walking with the use of a cane, divorced, and near destitute, the once mighty cowboy star was a pitiful figure as he battled his way out of debt. He made personal appearances throughout the Midwest, and sold off some personal items including one of his beloved planes.
In February of 1935 Gibson signed a four-movie deal with First Division Pictures, a minor distributor that later evolved into Grand National Films. Unfortunately, Gibson’s type of western hero had become unfashionable in the new era of singin’ cowboys. He hit the road again, appearing in circuses, rodeos, and vaudeville theaters. In 1943-44 he appeared in a series of low budget films for Monogram, often paired with other aging cowboy stars such as Bob Steele, Harry Carey, and even his old racing rival, Ken Maynard. This, too, amounted to little.
The remainder of Gibson’s life was a cycle of tired comebacks, tax liens on his various properties, and his gradual absorption into the past. Gibson told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1950 that his agent had mentioned his name to a young movie producer, but there was no recognition. “Things like that break your heart,” Gibson said.
The early days of television brought Gibson back to some degree. As his old movies were programmed in between primitive kiddie shows, he endorsed a line of Hoot Gibson clothes and comic books. He even opened Hoot Gibson’s Silver Spur Restaurant & Lounge on Ventura Boulevard. Still, he never outran his financial problems.
Gibson busied himself with personal appearances, and there were still stories of kids mobbing him for his autograph. Children had always been his biggest fans. In fact, there was an incredible story that dated back to the plane crash. If it wasn’t just nonsense dreamed up by a press agent, it bears repeating.
It happened in the ambulance as he was being taken away from the airfield. Hoot asked a favor. “Sit me up,” he said, “next to the window.”
Apparently, Gibson had seen a crowd of sad kids along the road. They were upset, watching their hero carted away. Bloodied and battered, he summoned his last bit of energy and waved to them. When Gibson was sure his young admirers could no longer see him, he passed out.
Was it true? Maybe. Gibson came from an era where cowboy stars knew what they represented to children, and it isn’t unreasonable to think he might’ve waved to let them know the old Hooter was all right. Granted, Gibson had just fallen from a plane and was probably comatose all the way to the hospital. And children probably weren’t allowed near the airfield, anyway.
Yet movies are all about suspending your disbelief. It might suit us to think Hoot Gibson really did wave at some kids that day. He may have also been waving goodbye to an era of tough old cowboys, an era of which he’d been a cornerstone, an era that more or less died on an airfield alongside a ruined Swallow J-5.
As a companion to the above article, Don Stradley narrates our homage to Hoot Gibson in our ongoing, "Legendary Faces," series.