'Junior Bonner' reunion revives Prescott memories
As much nostalgia as can possibly pack a room will rock the walls of the Palace Restaurant and Saloon on July 2 when Steve McQueen and "Junior Bonner" fans gather for a reunion to mark the 40th anniversary of the film's release in movie theaters across the country.
The classic western spotlights the Prescott Frontier Days "World's Oldest Rodeo" and July 4 holiday during the summer of 1971 (the film was released in 1972), and brought to town stars Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson and Joe Don Baker. The reunion's special guests will be screenwriter Jeb Rosebrook and singer Kevin Carson.
A chance meeting between Prescottonian Becky Ruffner and Carson stoked fond memories to get the idea of a reunion going, and Palace owner Dave Michelson agreed immediately to host the dinner show because, after all, a lot of "Junior Bonner" scenes took place in his historic drinking hole.
Although the crowd is bound to include old-timers who remember well the excitement that took over little Prescott that summer of four decades ago, Carson is a relative newcomer to the Junior Bonner and McQueen fan club. He is a Georgia boy, with a deep southern drawl, who is a financial planner by day and an inveterate singer/songwriter.
Carson admits that he's hooked on a western movie channel, and as he was watching "Junior Bonner" for the umpteenth time, his wife, Veronica, walked into the room and said, "Again?" He replied, "I'll do you one better. I'll write a song." And he did, whipping out a melodic vision of Junior Bonner, with the refrain, "They call him Junior Bonner ... He was a one of a kind genuine rodeo man... He drove a long white Cadillac with a one-horse trailer in back ... Just a travelin' cowboy looking for a bull to ride."
"I finished it in a day or so," Carson said, and his wife "loved it."
So did everyone else who heard it when he sang it at the Palace several years ago, he said, and he will make a return engagement to sing his song and others in his repertoire of old cowboy standards and rodeo music when he comes for the reunion.
The old "Junior Bonner" movie is "something that became special to me," he said. "It's really neat to write a song about a movie and then go to where it was shot and get plugged in."
Rosebrook's appearance will lend a poignancy to the reunion because, "It's going to be quite emotional," he said. "I'm the last person left except for Joe Don Baker. After 40 years I am here today representing people who made the film possible and are no longer with us."
McQueen died in 1980 at age 50.
Rosebrook, now a Scottsdale resident, has strong Arizona ties. As a child, he suffered asthma and came in the mid-1940s to what was then the Quarter Circle V Bar Ranch School, now Orme School in Mayer. But, it was when he was returning to Phoenix from the Prescott Frontier Days rodeo in 1970 and drove through Prescott Valley that the idea for the Junior Bonner story came to him. He saw that the Prescotthe knew as a youngster "was changing with housing developments."
"Junior Bonner" is his "metaphor" for "the changing landscape of the West I knew," Rosebrook said.
The film's title "just popped into my head" when he began writing the script in November of 1970, he said. He finished the screenplay in late February of 1971 and worked on revisions until late March. When he took his the script to McQueen in April 1971, "Steve jumped on it," he said, adding that long-time resident Bill Pierce, who represented Prescott on the Arizona Film Commission, deserves the credit for persuading the powers-that-be to shoot the film in Prescott. "He was the glue," Rosebrook said.
After a week of rehearsal, the 43 days of filming around Prescott captivated the town. "The bonding between the film company and the town was very special," Rosebrook said. "I had been on locations before, but I had never seen this kind of thing between the town and the people doing the movie."