Ken Curtis went from crooner to Gunsmoke’s Festus

July 2, 1916

On this day, the actor son of a real lawman and made famous by TV’s Marshal Matt Dillon, was born in small-town Lamar, Colorado.

Multi-talanted Curtis Wayne Gates, better known as Ken Curtis and even better known as Festus Hagen, spent his childhood above his father’s  jail.  According to Curtis, one of its frequent tenants named “Cedar Jack,”  inspired his portrayal of Dodge City’s savvy bumpkin decades later. 

 The young Curtis was originally headed for a career in medicine.  But success as a singer/songwriter while still a student at Colorado College, however, prompted him to abandon his studies for a job singing on NBC Radio.

In 1941 at the age of 25, he was hired by Tommy Dorsey as the dance band’s crooner.  Some said it was insurance against the departure of Dorsey’s star singer, Frank Sinatra.  But Sinatra did leave in 1942 and Dick Haymes got the job as Sinatra’s replacement.

 The time spent with Dorsey wasn’t wasted, however.   Parts as a folksy cowboy character  in a bevy of “B” Westerns and the lead in a number of “oater” musicals at Columbia Pictures opened the door to country music stardom for Curtis.  

Curtis, second from left top row.

During most of 1948, Curtis hosted the popular country music show WWVA Jamboree.   In 1949 he joined the  premier Western vocal group of the day, Sons of the Pioneers. One of their biggest hits during Curtis’s three-year tenure was “Room Full of Roses.”

His transition to full-time actor seemed inevitable after Curtis married Barbara Ford, (right) daughter of famed director John Ford in 1952.  He joined Ward Bond, Ben Johnson and Harry Carry as a stock player in his father-in-law’s production company that year.  Despite being cast by Ford in a number of classic movies including “Rio Grande,” “The Alamo,” and “Cheyenne Autumn,” none propelled the actor into star status until Festus.

Curtis outlasted Matt Dillon’s other five sidekicks.   He appeared in 239 episodes over the final 11 years of the popular series.

Following Gunsmoke’s cancellation, Curtis continued to appear in Western-themed live productions and cameo roles on television including “How the West Was Won” and “Yellow Rose.”

His final movie made shortly before his death cast him as an aging rancher  in the made-for-TV “Conagher,” starring Sam Elliot and former “Gunsmoke” co-star Buck Taylor.  

Curtis died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack April 28, 1991, at his home in Fresno, California, at age 75.   Returning to the place of his youth, his ashes were scattered over the flatlands of Colorado. Second wife, Torrie Ahern Connelly, survived her husband by six years. (Left, Connelly and Curtis}

He was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and a statue of Curtis as Festus is located at 430 Polasky Ave., in Clovis, California.  

The Clovis Museum in Old Town Clovis, 401 Polasky Ave, Clovis, California, is located in a former bank made famous by a 1924 robbery.  It maintains a collection of Ken Curtis memorabilia in honor of the actor and Clovis area resident. In addition, an outsized statue of Curtis as “Festus” has become a favorite selfie spot for visitors. 

The museum, which welcomed some 10,000 visitors last year, is administered by the Clovis-Big Creek Historical Society.  It’s open 10 to 2, Tuesday through Saturday and by special arrangement,  Admission is     free.  For more information go to, e-mail or call  (559) 297-8033. 

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain.