When professional fancy gun-handler Jim Dunham comes as special speaker to the Bent's Fort Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association at the Grand Theater in Rocky Ford July 16, he brings with him years of experience performing before crowds of Western history fans and on Hollywood film lots.

When professional fancy gun-handler Jim Dunham comes as special speaker to the Bent's Fort Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association at the Grand Theater in Rocky Ford July 16, he brings with him years of experience performing before crowds of Western history fans and on Hollywood film lots.

There is no charge for this event, to which members and non-members of the SFTA are invited. His coming has been arranged by SFTA members and longtime friends Ed and Clara Lee Stafford of La Junta, and he is flying in from Atlanta to make this special appearance.

By the time he had left the University of Colorado as an art major — being an avid Western historian and having practiced the skills of the fast-draw that were so much a part of Western fact and fiction — he was ready to perform for larger audiences.

He went to Hollywood in the late 1960s hoping to take classes at the Art Center School of Design and to visit friends who were beginning to "make it" in the film business. One was an actor who had been given a contract with American International Pictures to appear in every "Beach Party Movie" and the other had a degree in theatre and was working on his Master's in film at UCLA. He arranged for Jim to have an interview with Barry Coe, a producer at 20th Century Fox and head of studio tours, and show his skills with his Colt .45s.

Jim says that when he drove his motorcycle onto the lot at 20th Century Fox, he immediately found himself riding on cobblestone streets of the set for "Hello Dolly," which the studio had just finished filming. "I understand you can do gun tricks," said Barry Coe. After a demonstration, Coe said, "How would you like a job? You would take folks around TV and film sets. At the end of each tour, you would be on the Western town sets. "He said I could perform my show and shoot stunt men off the roof, and when an actor needed to learn fast draw or gun handling, I could work with him."

At that time, says Jim, the studio was making large budget films such as "Planet of the Apes" and "Star," and the television series "Lost in Space." On the Western set, they were filming "Bandolero!" with Jimmy Stewart and Raquel Welch.

As a contract performer with 20th Century Fox, Dunham gave four tours a day, at the end of which he and his company of stunt men gave audiences history lessons about shoot-outs in the Old West, after which they performed them in slow motion and then up to speed. In essence, he was doing the same shows he had been doing around Boulder and Estes Park for the last several years.

He had great fun because he was able to eat lunch each day in the commissary, visit sound stages where films were being made, and have full access to screening rooms where he saw films weeks before they were released to the public. Everywhere he went, he was rubbing shoulders with established actors and those on the way up.

Just about every day, when he would meet an interesting girl on the lot, he would ask if she would like to attend a "screening ahead of release" with him. "I never got turned down," he laughs.

One day, word came that Phil Benjamin wanted to talk to him. Benjamin was head of all studio casting. He wanted to see Jim ride, shoot, and wanted to see his quick draw. "I know you are good with a gun because Barry Coe told me, but are you able to ride a horse? We need a posse of riders for an upcoming picture." Satisfied, he handed Jim a script and told him he was hired for Benjamin's next film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Jim was on the way up...

Then, Jim got his draft notice. Instead of making movies, he spent the next two years at Fort Ord and in Germany.

When he got out, 20th no longer had studio tours. Universal Studios did have tours, but they were not of the sort Jim would fit into because "the folks in charge at Universal were not gun people." This was, after all, the time of the Vietnam War.

According to law, at the time, a returning serviceman had to be re-hired for the job he had left, but there was no such job anymore. He went back to 20th Century Fox, inquiring about employment. "What was your job before?" asked the agent. Jim answered, "'I was a gunfighter,' and I actually saw her write 'Gunfighter' on the application. I'm probably the only person listed as having 'Gunfighter' as a previous occupation. I was actually listed as a 'gunfighter' on California's unemployment rolls."

He made the rounds of studios, looking for work, and was hired to do several commercials, including one for Michelob Beer with Edward G. Robinson. It was, he says, "a real ball working with him." He also did some night club work with Lily Tomlin at The Ice House in Pasadena, where he performed his gun act and told stories about Western movies. The Westerns he had grown up listening to and watching were disappearing as major motion pictures. There was a great deal of difference, he says, between the "Westerns of Then and Now."

Among other jobs "in the business," he got work doing his unique opening act for Country singer Jerry Jeff Walker, best known for his song "Mr. Bojangles," then touring throughout Texas for a year. Also in the company were Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Afterward, he returned to Colorado and took a job as the opening act for the Flying W Chuck Wagon Supper in Colorado Springs, where he performed with guns, jokes, and songs for seven years. Russ Wolfe, who had begun the Flying W, had seen Jim perform at a "Chuckwagon Extravaganza" and had offered him a job.

It was at this time that Jim was married to his wife Suzanne, and the two of them relocated from Arizona and southern California to Cartersville, near Atlanta, Georgia, where they live now, and where Jim is Director of Special Projects and Historian for the Booth Western Art Museum (boothmuseum.org).

A few years ago, Wolfe invited Jim back to appear in a special 60th Anniversary Flying W Reunion Show, but that was the year of the disastrous Waldo Canyon Fire in northwest Colorado Springs when the Flying W was entirely destroyed.

A highlight of that period in his life came when he was hired by Gene Autry and Pat Butram to be part of a Screen Actors Guild fundraiser for the SAG Retirement Home. "It was called the Golden Boot Awards and was like an Academy Awards for people who had made Westerns," he says. When Jim came on stage at the Century Plaza Hotel in Beverly Hills — introduced by Dale Robertson — he says, sitting in the front row of the audience were Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Iron Eyes Cody, Clayton Moore, and Charlton Heston.

Jim told the audience of 500, "Years ago, a favorite song of mine was 'My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.' My heroes are in the audience tonight."

And when Gene Autry closed the show, he complimented Jim's performance particularly, saying, "That was the best part of the entire evening."

This is the performer and historian the Bent's Fort Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association is bringing to Rocky Ford's Grand Theater at 1:00 on Saturday, July 16. Members and non-members are invited to attend, and non-members are invited to join.

It is certain all will enjoy the show put on by Jim Dunham, "Gunfighter."