A World War II prisoner of war, a cowboy radio personality, a songwriter who had connected with Bing Crosby in her early 20s and a young music director who was beginning to reshape Christian music — they were part of the troupe who created Billy Graham’s first-ever feature film 70 years ago.
Dick Ross was the screenwriter-director for “Mr. Texas,” which premiered on Oct. 1, 1951, at the Hollywood Bowl. Redd Harper and Cindy Walker played the lead roles. Ralph Carmichael scored and directed the music.
They helped launch a Graham enterprise — World Wide Pictures — that produced more than 30 feature films from the early 1950s to mid-2000s and fostered an enduring vision for Christian moviemaking’s place at the box office.
Dick Ross, screenwriter-director
As a navigator aboard a B-54 bomber shot down over Germany, Ross spent eight months in Stalag Luft III, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, one of several prison camps operated by the Luftwaffe (German air force) for downed American and British airmen. He subsequently was transferred to a POW camp in Austria before the war’s end.
Ross anchored World Wide Pictures as a director and screenwriter for 15 years, beginning with “Mr. Texas” and progressing to feature films set at Graham crusades in London; New York City; Sydney, Australia; and other locales.
He had made films for the Moody Institute of Science in Los Angeles and traveled to China for a World Vision documentary when he was introduced to Graham at the evangelist’s highly publicized 1949 crusade in Los Angeles. He subsequently produced a documentary for Graham, “The Portland Story,” based on the 1950 crusade there, followed by spearheading “Mr. Texas” at the Graham crusade in Fort Worth in early 1951.
For the Billy Graham Pavilion at the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair, filming “Man in the 5th Dimension” took Ross and his crew to the Holy Land to capture part of the theme that, as Graham put it, “life has a fifth dimension to it, the dimension of the spiritual.” The film was shown in a 400-seat auditorium from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with earphones to provide translation into six languages.
In Jerusalem, Ross recounted, “We had to span continents to communicate with friends less than a quarter of a mile away,” relaying messages through London because phone service was restricted between the side of the city then controlled by Jordan and the Israeli side.
In 1965, “The Restless Ones” about teen issues became the first Graham film to move into commercial theaters beyond churches, schools, prisons and military bases. As an independent producer in 1970, Ross helped shape “The Cross and the Switchblade,” starring Pat Boone. The film, which found a measure of respect among critics, was based on the David Wilkerson book about street ministry to Nicky Cruz and other gang members in New York City.
Joan Winmill Brown, an English actress who found faith at Billy Graham’s 1954 London crusade, was enlisted by Ross for a lead role in “Souls in Conflict,” the third release by World Wide Pictures.
“Dick Ross was a spiritual ‘gentle giant’ who would pray before we shot each scene,” Brown said in an obituary after Ross’ death in 2009 at age 90. “Working with him was a joy I had never before experienced in the movie industry.”
Redd Harper, singing cowboy/lead role
Harper, who played rodeo bronc-rider Jim Tyler in “Mr. Texas,” moved to Hollywood to be a singing cowboy in the mid-1930s. Unable, however, to garner a film role, he was hired by a band named “The Musical Host of the West Coast,” playing at movie star parties and Academy Award dinners. He next found work in radio, which he had done in Oklahoma and Iowa, writing and producing for the Mutual Broadcasting System.
After three years in the Coast Guard during World War II, he launched “Redd Harper’s Hollywood Roundup” for the Armed Forces Radio Service focusing from 1945 to 1950 on the western scene along with interviews of such stars as Eddy Arnold and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Harper’s turn to faith was stirred by the conversion of a former drinking buddy, Stuart Hamblen. The popular western singer and syndicated radio host had made a profession of faith in Christ after attending a number of nights at the 1949 Graham crusade in Los Angeles.
“I laughed and said to myself that the big phony was just putting that on,” Harper reacted, before going to a meeting where Hamblen told of the change in his life. Harper became friends with a number of Christians and found that he, too, wanted Christ in his life.
Harper spoke at showings of “Mr. Texas” and embarked on an evangelistic career in 1956 that included missions trips to the South Pacific, Africa and Europe.
He died in 1992 at age 89.
Cindy Walker, singer/songwriter and co-star
The Country Music Hall of Fame, when Walker was inducted in 1997, lauded her as “one of the finest composers in country music history. … Renowned for her ability to tailor songs for diverse stylists, Walker had Top Ten hits during each of the five decades spanning the 1940s through the 1980s.”
In her early 30s, Walker brought that talent to “Mr. Texas,” in which she played Kay Tyler, sister of the former rodeo star who would turn to Jesus by movie’s end.
Singing her soulful “Beloved Enemy,” she beckoned any “enemy” of God, especially Jim Tyler, to faith:
Oh, beloved enemy,
Oh how I hope and pray
That you will come and walk with me
The bright and shining way
How can I leave you behind
Where death and sin abide
When you might have eternal life
Stepping over on my side?
You were born to find God’s love
Life has no other quest
And till your soul has reached its goal,
Your heart can find no rest
So, beloved, heed His call
He waits so patiently
To be your own beloved friend,
George Beverly Shea included “Beloved Enemy” in his 2003 album “Songs & Music of God,” on YouTube here. Walker returned for another Texas-based Graham film in 1953, “Oiltown, U.S.A.,” with the evangelist’s Houston crusade as its preaching point. She wrote and sang “Christian Cowboy,” warning with ranch-hand terminology: “The devil is a rustler and many are his men, / Who ride the plains and valleys, damning souls with death and sin,” on YouTube here.
Walker also wrote 18 songs in a compilation, “Of Thee We Sing,” for youth choirs and young adults. Among them, “Child of the King,” has long been a gospel concert staple, proclaiming: “Oh yes, oh yes / I’m a child of the King / His royal blood / Now flows in my veins / And I, who was wretched and poor, now can sing / Praise God, Praise God / I’m a child of the King.” The Gaither Vocal Band’s version of the song can be heard on YouTube here.
She was known as “Sister Walker” at First Presbyterian Church in Mexia, Texas, 40 miles east of Waco, where she lived with her mother after leaving Hollywood, noted David Rose, a pastor of 50 years and Texas historian who authored the 2018 book “God and Texas.” “She sang in the church choir and even led the children’s ensemble. Often, she would visit the church members who were ill or had just given birth. Her faith was deep and touched many lives.”
Walker, granddaughter of regional hymn writer Franklin L. Eiland, began composing songs at age 12. Rose added in his undated blog post that she was not a “self-centered celebrity” but “owned a modest house and kept most of her trophies under her bed.”
Willie Nelson released a tribute album, “You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker,” shortly before her death in 2006 at age 87. The title song was performed by Eddie Arnold in the mid-1950s followed by Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé, Mickey Gilley and more than 40 others over the years.
Walker’s first break in songwriting — “Lone Star Trail” performed by Bing Crosby — came in the early 1940s after a trip to the Los Angeles area with her father, a cotton broker, and mother. Noticing a building with the word “Crosby” on Sunset Boulevard, she told her father to stop the car. She learned that Crosby’s brother, Larry, was in the office and told the receptionist to say “somebody from Texas is here to see him.” Impressed by the song, he invited Walker to a studio for Bing to hear it the next day. Crosby, also impressed, scored a Top Ten hit with the song after its release in 1941.
Ralph Carmichael, music director
Carmichael, who began violin lessons when he was not yet 4, sparked a whirlwind of musical ventures at Southern California Bible College (now Vanguard University of Southern California) during the 1940s, first as a student and then, at age 22, as a faculty member. A local Emmy was awarded to “The Campus Christian Hour” which Carmichael created with several dozen singers and instrumentalists and directed for 76 consecutive weeks.
Then Dick Ross called in need of an orchestral score for “Mr. Texas.”
“The fact that I had never done anything like this before didn’t seem to bother either of us, so I went full steam ahead on the project,” Carmichael wrote in his 1986 autobiography, “Ralph Carmichael: He’s Everything to Me,” using the title of a popular song he had written.
He paid about a third of the $1,200 spent on union players and other musical elements for “Mr. Texas,” but “it was worth it. … Dick Ross had given me the chance of a lifetime to be involved in a brand new kind of gospel music — scoring Christian motion pictures!”
As a collegian and budding choir director, Carmichael had heard a big band’s studio rehearsal for an armed forces music show. “It was all there” — a rhythm section, brass, woodwinds, strings and a male choir, he wrote in his autobiography. “On the way home that day, I talked to God … that there had to be a way to use the sounds I had just heard to proclaim the gospel. Why not? All melody, harmony, pitch and rhythm belonged to Him.”
Beyond his work on “Mr. Texas” and other Billy Graham feature films during the 1950s and ’60s, Carmichael has sometimes been called “the father of contemporary Christian music” for penning songs such as “Reach Out to Jesus,” recorded by Elvis Presley; producing an array of albums conducting a choir, orchestra or ensemble reflecting big band and pop influences; working with Andrae Crouch, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, BeBe and CeCe Winans and other young artists on various projects and tours; and co-writing two youth musicals. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1985.
Carmichael’s career also blossomed in secular music. He was the musical director for Nat King Cole’s recordings and road shows for several years and arranged and conducted for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee and Roger Williams, including his famed 1966 “Born Free” recording. TV shows such as “The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show,” “I Love Lucy” and “Bonanza” were among his credits. In addition to Presley, numerous other stars picked up his songs and arrangements, including Tex Ritter and Rosemary Clooney.
Carmichael’s legacy, which also includes the altar call hymn, “The Savior Is Waiting,” is being preserved on a Facebook page and YouTube channel by Jim Pedersen, a retired Seventh-day Adventist minister who first heard Carmichael’s music while in elementary school, and Paul Stilwell, Carmichael’s producer for 20-plus years.
Pedersen’s friendship with Carmichael began when he wrote a three- or four-page single-spaced letter in 1997 expressing appreciation for his music and specifically the albums that had touched his life for more than 25 years — and Carmichael responded with a grateful call.
When Pedersen’s parents bought a large stereo, for example, the early “Rhapsody in Sacred Music” orchestral album “filled the house. I was in heaven.” The album “I Looked for Love” was “probably the soundtrack of my college years.” And there was “Ralph Carmichael Brass Choir” that “I practically wore out through the years.”
Pedersen and Carmichael kept in touch by email every several weeks, an occasional phone call and personal visits, such as concerts in the Sacramento area where Pedersen served as president of the Northern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for 12-plus years before retiring in 2018.
At the Facebook page, Pedersen has written more than 240 brief articles about Carmichael’s career, fact-checked by Stilwell, drawing from notes of his recollections through the years; his autobiography; liner notes of various albums; and contact with some of the artists with whom Carmichael, now 94, worked, such as Pat Boone in 1970’s “The Cross and the Switchblade” and Joni Eareckson Tada in 1979’s Billy Graham film “Joni” about her faith journey as a quadriplegic.