PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

October 22, 2013

Cowboy John, Circle 4 Club made memories for many

Sherry Koonce
The Port Arthur News

— Long before there was Reality TV, Port Arthur had its own version of live television — one that has been on the minds of many since John Garner, more fondly known as Cowboy John, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer.

Garner starred in The Circle 4 Club, a Port Arthur kiddy show that imparted life lessons to children through the often comedic interactions of good guy Cowboy John and bad guy Black Bart.

“I was what you call his old kick in the side. I was looking for trouble to get in and he always gave it to me,” John Stevens said of the many years he played Black Bart. “I would end up getting myself in trouble and getting caught trying to hide it.”

Black Bart was always plotting some type of skullduggery.

Whether involved in a shoot-out, and accidentally shooting himself in the foot, or hiding all the treats to be given away to the children — Banana Flips, Twinkies, Hi-C — his treacherous antics were always foiled in such a way that children could learn a lesson in morality.

“We had a lot of fun in those times, but now we could not get away with what we did back then,” Stevens said.

Port Arthur District 6 City Councilman Robert E. “Bob” Williamson, 63, was among the 20 or 30 kids who “circled their wagons” around Cowboy John and Black Bart as part of a live studio audience.

To get on the show children had to sign up and wait for a call from the producers, or wait in line hoping someone was a no-show.

Many times, area school classrooms comprised the audience, or scout troops.

“The bleachers were always filled,” Williamson said while remembering the long lines often filled with kids from his neighborhood.

Because he lived just four blocks from the station, Williamson, and especially his younger sister, were often waiting in line.

“My sister was a real fan; she was on there five or more times,” he said.

Port Acres resident Jerry Norris, 54, remembers when he was part of the Cowboy John show.

Long before Norris, or Captain Jerry as he’s now known, started a career as a professional fishing guide on Sabine Lake, he was on television, sitting in the bleachers wearing what any self-respecting kid would wear to a taping of the The Circle 4 Club.

In keeping with the western theme, girls, and especially boys, would dress in cowboy garb — complete with boots, a cowboy hat, and a holster slung around the hip with a a cap pistol dangling just in case the need arose to shoot a bad guy.

“At that time you could go on TV with a fake gun; now you probably couldn’t,” Norris said.

There was plenty of laughter on the set derived from the unscripted children’s comments, or from cartoons and films that were part of the program such as “Woody Woodpecker,” “Popeye,” “The Little Rascals” and “The Three Stooges.”

Norris remembers if not one of the show’s funniest moments, one of the most infamous.

“When Leroy farted, that’s what everybody remembers about the show. That was the high point of the whole show,” Norris said.

Stevens recalls the episode too — as if it were yesterday — when Cowboy John was interviewing a group of children and asked a little girl what she was giggling about.

“She said, ‘I cannot say,’ so Cowboy John asked her to whisper what was so funny into his ear, and she told him — ’Leroy farted.’”

Of course the microphone picked up her words, and then the words of the next youngster, who, when asked his name, replied, “My name bees Leroy.”

Leroy became famous that day once the network’s news chief Ralph Ramos sent the segment to the national news show Huntley-Brinkley. That night when Huntley signed off, he bid Leroy goodnight on national television.

“We always said we were the only show in the marketplace that got famous for flatulence,” Stevens said.

Because of the show’s popularity, Cowboy John was often asked to attend public events, where he’d sign autographs, or, as Port Arthur resident John Beard remembers, put a Circle 4 brand on children.

“He wrote it on my hand, probably with a magic marker,” Beard said of the time Cowboy John was at Jefferson City Shopping Center meeting children.

Beard, who grew up to become a Port Arthur City Councilman, and now a Pleasure Island Commissioner, watched Cowboy John every Saturday morning.

“I watched Cowboy John on the old Philco TV. It was a portable TV,  but came with a stand. I can still remember those days watching the show,” Beard said. “I just like the idea of the show now. It was a great time to be growing up in Port Arthur, great time to be a kid.”

While it’s been years since the show aired, and most of the children who watched it are grown with grandchildren, Stevens said he and Garner remained good friends.

“He lost his brothers and I lost mine, so we became brothers in arms. We drank coffee once or twice a week, we visited together and talked about the old times,” Stevens said. “We are going to miss him, going to miss him a lot.”

E-mail: skoonce@panews.com

Twitter: skooncePANews