MISSOULA — The story still has wheels.
Lyndon Baines Johnson walked into a ballroom at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1964, a surprise visitor at a banquet for Montana Centennial Train riders and such Treasure State luminaries as actress Myrna Loy and newscaster Chet Huntley.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” came the announcement, “the president of the United States.”
An excited Kitty Ann Quigley of Deer Lodge, Montana’s Miss Big Sky Country for the territorial centennial year, pulled out her six-shooters and fired them into the ceiling.
“You never saw so many Secret Service men in your life,” Ovando outfitter Howard Copenhaver wrote years later. “They were all over Kitty immediately and had her guns – just about scared poor Kitty to death.”
So the story goes.
“I honestly shouldn’t say this to you because you’re media, but a lot of things get exaggerated,” confided Quigley, now Kitty Ann Taaler, 69 and living in Helena. “It’s kind of sad to blow the legend of this story.”
Truth is the teenage songbird, an applied voice major at the University of Montana, was in the middle of a performance that April evening 50 years ago. She was decked out in boots and hat with her trusty .32-20 Colt Bisleys at her sides. The six-shooters were loaded, Taaler said, with “wonderful blanks” from Montana.
“I was at one end of a very fancy, ornate hotel ballroom and it was my turn to do the singing,” she said last week.
Understand, this was the girl who at age 5 or 6 worked at her father John’s Frontier Town on MacDonald Pass, lying in a hollowed-out log at the base of the road and pushing a tape recorder button to make a replica of a dog bark at a replica of a bear whenever she heard a car approach. (“Half the time they’d forget to bring me lunch,” Taaler moaned.)
This was the kid whose life was changed forever while she watched “Fantasia” in the Rialto Theater in Deer Lodge.
“When that hippo was doing a twirl with her little tutu on, I knew I wanted to be a singer,” Taaler said.
She was runner-up to a Butte cowgirl, Judy Morstein, for Miss Rodeo Montana in 1961 before the winner went on to become Gov. Judy Martz.
Another talented UM music student, future opera singer Bonnie Jo Robbins of Great Falls, headlined the entertainment program in 1964 as Miss Montana Centennial. Quigley Taaler was anointed Miss Big Sky Country for coming in second.
Now, with 200 pairs of eyes on her in the nation’s capital, she launched into “Madame Butterfly,” then “Hello Dolly” and on to Western favorites.
President Johnson was announced at the far end of the room just as Quigley began her “Annie Get Your Guns” medley.
“It just happened to be the timing,” she said. “And I’m quick on the trigger.”
It had been less than five months since President John F. Kennedy was killed by a bullet in Dallas. People might’ve been excused for jumping when gunfire erupted in the D.C. ballroom.
Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Charleston – six times in the 11 preceding evenings as the Montana Centennial Train made its way across the country toward New York and the World’s Fair, the spirited Montana delegation had watched Quigley do her rootin’-tootin’ singing and shootin’.
“When I blew those guns off the Montana people knew what was going on because they’d heard the routine, probably to boredom,” Taaler said. “But they didn’t tell the press it was coming.”
There was screaming and yelling, she allowed, but news reports of swarming Secret Service agents grabbing her and confiscating her guns were off the mark.
“I just kind of stepped to the back of the stage when all the confusion was going on, and the only thing I did was I had a little tube of lipstick in my Western jacket pocket and I dropped it,” Taaler said. “But no one ever came near me.”
After all, she added mischievously, “I could have shot ’em.”
The Montana Centennial Train of 1964 has been called Montana’s biggest publicity stunt.
Twenty-five railroad cars and more than 300 passengers who shelled out $500 apiece to ride the train.
Sixteen thousand excited Montanans bidding bon voyage in Billings on April 5, NBC television cameras taking it all in.
Thirty-one days of riding the rails through 18 states to Long Island, N.Y., and back.
Some 150 panels of massive Western murals, painted for the sides of the rail cars over a period of eight months by Lyman Rice and assistant Bud Wert.
A million dollars in gold, silver and other native gems for display to the world at the 18-month World’s Fair.
“Free” publicity to the tune of an estimated 18,000 column inches of news copy, read by more than 17 million people, a TV audience of 37 million, and personal contacts with more than three million Americans through parades, luncheons, banquets, art and wildlife exhibits, etc.
“What started out as a one-man show has involved literally thousands who have contributed time and money to show their love, loyalty and respect for this broad, buxom Big Sky Country,” wrote Howard Kelsey, the dude rancher and outfitter from Gallatin Gateway who was the instigator and became director of the Montana Centennial Train and World’s Fair exhibit.
One Montana governor, Tim Babcock, was on board for parts of the trip and there were two future ones – Tom Judge, director of special events, and a 20-year-old Morstein (Martz), just back from the speed skating competition at the ’64 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
Seventy-five horses and mules were along to step high and pull hard in parades at each of the 16 stops along the way, trained through the winter at the fairgrounds and around the streets of Missoula.
There were millions of memories and stories made, most that have improved with age, like fine wine or the Old Yellowstone whiskey that flowed freely on the train.
Oh, and one appearance on “Candid Camera,” with Allen Funt and Durwood Kirby.
That’s a Howie Fly tale. It had to do with salmonella, a railroad station restroom in Pittsburgh, TV cameras hidden behind a screen, and a bar of soap that turned out to be a very breakable egg.
Fly, of Ovando, was a high school classmate of Kitty Ann Quigley in Deer Lodge, a protégé of Copenhaver, and one of five wranglers for the horse and mule strings on the train.
Because they could, the cowpokes in the Montana party like Quigley and Fly walked the streets of Chicago and New York with six-shooters on their hips.
“I wore mine daily,” Taaler said.
“Mine were loaded, but I didn’t tell anybody,” Fly admitted.
Because he could, Montana-born trick roper and rider Owen Mickels, aka Montie Montana, rode the elevator and performed on stage at the banquet hall in New York’s Commodore Hotel on April 23 with Rex, his rubber-shoed paint horse.
At New York, most of the Centennial Train cars fit through the rail tunnel to Long Island and Flushing Meadows, where the World’s Fair was setting up. But the exhibit cars and three “horse parlor” cars that each held 25 head of stock and tack were too wide.
They had to be tugged across the harbor, and the rule was strict: No humans allowed on the barges.
That didn’t sit well with Fly and another young wrangler, Bob Hoffman of Helena.
“You can’t leave the horses by themselves,” reasoned Fly, who spent more nights than not sleeping on the train floorboards between horses and went weeks without a shower.
They hid in a car and locked the main doors, opening them to get some fresh air when the barge was safely out in the harbor. The captain spotted the two men and beckoned them to the tugboat cabin, Fly recalled.
He had his mother’s camera in hand, and last week Fly pointed in the Brand Bar Museum in Ovando to photographic relics of that trip across the water.
“There’s the (New York) skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty off in the distance …” he said. “This is the steering wheel and the pilot.”
These aren’t Fly’s best pictures. Long ago he sent those to someone, he thinks in Havre, who was putting together a book on the centennial train. Robbins and Taaler have similar stories, he said. A house fire destroyed them all.
He’s been on the Internet looking for more. Last fall Fly located a section of paneling from the train depicting pronghorn antelope, presumably part of the wildlife scenes Rice produced. A man in his 80s from Laurel had bought it at a yard sale in the late 1960s and it had been decorating his basement for 45 years.
The owner was asking $200 online. When Fly explained his quest, “he said I’ll take it off the Internet right now and when you get time, just come and get it.”
Other than several panels in the Centennial Train theater at the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone, the pronghorn panel is the only Rice painting still in decent shape that Fly knows of.
“It’s funny,” Fly said. “It was like it didn’t happen when you start poking around.”
Fly has posted Copenhaver’s reminiscences and a Youtube video of a PBS documentary on the making of the centennial train on the Ovando website, ovandoinn.com. He recently opened an old trunk stored in his barn, in which newspaper clippings of the experience had been rolled up by his mother. Even written memories of the centennial train are scant.
“There’s got to be something somewhere,” he said. “Somebody had to have written some things down.”
A reunion is in the works at the Montana Historical Society in Helena on May 10. Organizers have a list of the 300 passengers on the train and are beating the bushes for contact information. One of them is Norma Ashby of Great Falls, a longtime Montana television personality who served on the centennial train and World’s Fair committee in ‘64.
“There’ll never be another publicity stunt like that in the history of the United States,” Ashby said. “Today it just wouldn’t be possible, it wouldn’t be financially possible.”
Taaler returned to the Montana Pavilion at the World’s Fair in 1965 and resumed what became a life of promotion for causes and ideas she embraced. Many more stories came from that visit.
“It’s just incredible, all the things that can never, ever be repeated again,” she said. “That’s something to say, isn’t it?”