Last year, Greg Killingsworth was Donny. But this year, he vows, he’s going to be Marie.
That means he’s is going to be “a little bit country” instead of “a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.”
Killingsworth won Sweepstakes in last year’s Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade with a massive metal elephant belching fire in sync with the Guns N’ Roses head-banger “Welcome to the Jungle.” Not everyone on the water was thrilled.
So he’s come up with kinder, gentler theme for this year’s parade: A Campfire Cowboy Christmas. The best part: He’s going to have a real live cowboy on board: Country Music Hall-of-Famer Rusty Richards, who happens to be his neighbor in Modjeska Canyon.
Richards, a former member of the Sons of the Pioneers, will be cruising the parade route Dec. 18, alongside a life-size metal stallion that snorts flames and a real campfire. Speakers on the boat will send the country crooner’s songs out over the water.
“I wanted to do a theme honoring the American cowboy,” Killingsworth said. “No rock ‘n’ roll. No LED lights. No animation. Nothing slick.”
Well, except for the cactus he built to shoot fireballs 100 feet into the air (he couldn’t help himself).
Richards arrived at Killingsworth’s 42-foot yacht, Paradise Found, docked at Newport Dunes, earlier this week for a quick rehearsal. He was wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a red silk “glad rag” tied around his neck. Amy, his sweetheart of 61 years, was by his side.
Richards said Killingsworth’s boat brings to mind the Sons of the Pioneers’ hit song “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” which has one line that goes: “Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel.”
Although he doesn’t do many shows anymore, he still sings each spring on private horseback trail excursions, from the canyons to Catalina — songs like “Ghost of Serrano Ridge,” which he wrote back when there were more tumbleweeds in Orange County than houses.
His wife just bought him a registered quarter horse for his 86th birthday. On nights when the moon is full, he still rides up to the hilltops.
Rusty came to Modjeska Canyon in 1933 just after he was born and still lives there in a little rustic home with a wood-burning stove, cowboy paintings on the walls, bookshelves filled with Westerns by his good friend novelist Louis L’Amour (they used to meet every month at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills) and a pine tree trunk that holds up the ceiling in the kitchen.
He learned to brand and castrate as a kid alongside real cowboys with names like Whiskey Bill.
“They just saw me as a jelly bean, which I was,” he says.
But not for long. Rusty was breaking colts by 10 and later running cattle.
“They were really wild,” he says. “It was dangerous just to feed them.”
One day his dad’s friend, Mally Roundtree, taught him to play a guitar. When he was 13, he sang “Hand me Down my Walking Cane” on a radio talent show in Santa Ana. That led to a TV show called “Song Trails with Rusty Richards.”
“Meantime I’m breaking horses, and I knew I was gonna be a cowboy,” he says. “That’s all I wanted to be.”
But in 1950, the Korean War broke out, so, at 17, he joined the Marines. Along with letters, his mom would send him cowboy magazines, like Hooves and Horns, and that’s when Rusty fell in love with the rising rodeo star Casey Tibbs.
“I’m fantasizing about rodeoing myself,” he says. “I couldn’t have known that Casey would one day be my best friend, and I would write his biography.”
After the war, Richards returned to his canyon home, trained to become a firefighter for the Forest Service and started riding bucking horses and bulls (and broke both of his shoulders).
One day in ’57, he was out riding at Irvine Ranch where director Billy Wilder was shooting a scene with Jimmy Stewart for his film “The Spirit of St. Louis.” He met wingwalker/stuntman Cliff Rose.
“Cliff said, ‘You teach me how to ride, and I’ll teach you how to rig stunts,’ ” Rusty recalls. “We tried to kill each other for a couple years.”
Before long, Richards was a stuntman himself, jumping out of airplanes, falling over waterfalls and off of horses in TV shows like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” and classic movies like “How the West was Won.”
Then in 1963, a call came inviting Richards to join the popular harmony singing group Sons of the Pioneers. They played everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and toured with “Happy Trails” king and queen Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
In fact, Richards sang the very last song at Roy Rogers’ graveside, “Peace in the Valley,” as the Cowboy King was lowered into the ground.
“Dale stood beside the casket,” he recalls. “The sun was setting over the hills.”
Richards has since been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Western Music Hall of Fame. The honor he most cherishes though is the Chester A. Reynolds Award for “unwavering commitment to … the ideals of individualism, honesty, humility and integrity that are closely identified with the American West.”
The kind of person who will sing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” under a cowboy hat on a yacht in the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade.