PAGOSA SPRINGS – The raw artistic talent of Fred Harman Jr. – creator, writer and illustrator of the Red Ryder comic strip and painter of oil-on-canvas Western scenes – is on display here at the art museum named for him.
“My father never took an art class in his life,” his son, Fred Harman III, curator of the Fred Harman Art Museum, told a visitor recently. “He had a photographic memory and simply captured what he saw.
“He probably did 400 oils in 18 years,” Harman said. “He also worked in watercolors and pen and ink. And he sculpted in bronze, too.”
Fred Jr. never dated his paintings, his son said.
Fred Harman Jr. was born in 1902 in Saint Joseph, Mo.; his parents were there visiting from Pagosa Springs, where Fred Sr. homesteaded in 1879.
Even as a child, his father was a compulsive illustrator, his son said. As a youngster, he would use a nail to create a scene on a frosted window, and years later when he hired out as a ranch hand, he sold pen-and-ink sketches to people he encountered.
In the early 1920s, Fred Jr. and two younger brothers, Hugh and Walker, moved to Kansas City to work as animators for the Film Ad Co. One of their co-workers was Walt Disney.
A few years later, Fred Harman and Disney formed Kaycee Studios, but when the business fell apart, Disney headed for Los Angeles and Harman returned to Pagosa Springs. Walker accompanied Disney, and Hugh collaborated on the animation for Loonie Tunes and Merrie Melodies.
In 1934, Fred Harman Jr. created a full-page Sunday comic-page serial featuring a cowboy he named Bronc Peeler, a man handy with his fists and a firearm. The strip lasted until 1938 when he spun it off into Red Ryder.
The first Red Ryder full-page comic strip is among the oils and memorabilia hanging on the museum walls. It tells how the white-hatted cowboy adopted a Native American youngster.
The lad was, of course, Little Beaver, whose “You betchum, Red Ryder” became a national catch phrase.
The comic strip was an instant success after the inaugural strip appeared Nov. 5, 1938. The serial ran in more than 750 newspapers, including some overseas.
There were Red Ryder comic books and Red Ryder movies with Wild Bill Elliott in the title role and a young Robert Blake as his sidekick.
Another offshoot was a Red Ryder BB gun, which is still in production today.
Joe Murfin, vice president of marketing at Daisy Outdoor Products, which manufactures the rifle, said contracts with Red Ryder Enterprises is the longest continuous marketing agreement in the country.
“We don’t release production figures, but we really don’t know how many Red Ryder BB guns we’ve sold,” Murfin said. “But the number has to be in the millions.”
In the museum, Norma Harman, wife of Fred Harman III, keeps a scrapbook in which she asks visitors to relate their misadventures with a Red Ryder BB gun.
The rifle is well-known to fans of the 1983 comedy classic “A Christmas Story,” in which the movie’s 9-year-old protagonist, Ralphie, when speaking of his most desired Christmas gift, repeatedly is greeted with the response, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Harman drew the strip until 1963.
“Circulation was dropping,” Fred Harman III said. “My father was tired of trying to make deadlines since he was in Pagosa Springs and his editors were in New York.”
He died in 1982.
Fred Harman III is creating a historical park on five acres adjacent to the museum that will include the homestead cabin in which his grandfather lived as a child. Other buildings are a schoolhouse and a store. All the buildings were donated.
Fred Harman III, an electrician’s mate in the Navy during World War II, turned his communication skills into a career in television. He was a cameraman for ABC Sports before spending 30 years behind the cameras with CBS for 60 Minutes, political conventions, space launches, the Rose Bowl Parade and Miss America pageants.
There was no pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps, Harman said.
“My father was for doing what comes naturally,” he said. “He believed in doing what you like to do.”
Fred Harman IV drives a taxi in Albuquerque.