Hollywood, “Happy” Shahan, and Texas Longhorns

DCC Ranch e-News #312 - 4-26-23

by Darol Dickinson

Bandolero (Spanish “bandit, robber”) 1968 is one of my favorite Westerns of all time. It’s easy to like James Stewart, Dean Martin (born in Steubenville, Ohio, just a couple of towns away from DCC), and of course the lovely Raquel Welch. As I watched Bandolero again, twice in the last month, it was fun to see the horses, harness, all the period décor, and the movie set itself—the famous Alamo Village on the Shahan Ranch north of Brackettville, Texas.

Once again I was right there in the building where the Bishop gang was holing up, where the Val Verde bank was robbed. I remember seeing Texas Longhorns in the guajillo and mesquite brush pastures where the posse went hell-bent-for-leather pursuing the convicted, almost-hung Bishops.

This is the street over 30 famous Westerns were filmed at Alamo Village.

This is the street over 30 famous Westerns were filmed at Alamo Village.

Today there is a big surge of appreciation for the old Westerns. Especially, rural people like to see a movie where right off the bat the bad guys are identified, the beautiful brothel gal is kidnapped, and the good guy wins. At the end, all the bad people are "blown-away," while the good guy and the tired old brothel gal peacefully ride away to live happily ever after. Americans want real justice—but it doesn't happen often in real life any more. It feels good to see it happen even in a bygone movie era of 140 years ago.


James T. "Happy" Shahan of Brackettville, Texas, was important in making those Westerns possible, but he was also a dedicated Texas Longhorn cattleman. A tall, straight-up, proud-walking Texan who captained varsity basketball at Baylor for three years, he never wore a free feed-store ball cap—he was Stetson only. He also wore some kind of face make-up, which I thought was a connection to his Hollywood background. But after thinking it was kind of odd, I found he had spent a lot of time in the saddle. Happy had skin cancer issues that he dealt with cosmetically.

In 1966, he ran a small ad in the Cattleman magazine, offering Texas Longhorns for sale. It was the first ad I had seen after deciding to buy a starter herd. My uncle Art Shahan of Pleasanton, Texas, told me that, yes, he was related to Happy but not close. He recommended that I follow Happy’s lead and buy cattle from Graves Peeler, the old Texas Ranger of Atascosa County. That was good advice, so in 1967, Art selected for me 6 pair and a bull from Peeler. That was the start of Dickinson Cattle Co.

Happy Shahan was a man of many talents. His head was full of ideas unique only to him.

Happy Shahan was a man of many talents. His head was full of ideas unique only to him.

Sometime in the ’seventies, Happy Shahan started registering his cattle and participating in the political part of the Longhorn industry. He served on the board of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America (TLBAA), the International Texas Longhorn Association (ITLA), and was an early TLBAA President. Happy was a force in creation of the Texas Film Commission in 1971.

He was a leader and talked of grandiose things, shooting above most of us on the board with ideas and often large budgets. He was into breed promotion, but his views were much different from most of us other board members. When others disagreed with his ideas it was often an immediate butting of heads. He made a better leader than a committee person.

I sat across the table from Happy for years, often with differing ideas. My goal was raising and selling $20,000 herd sires. I was for AI, embryo transfer, and rapid breed improvement. He was for the old historic Longhorn, the kind that ate lots of cactus and white brush. He used multiple sires in his herds, and he sold cheap at the local cattle auction when he had a surplus or during the annual West Texas droughts. I thought that with his 22,000-acre ranch he could aim for higher-dollar cattle.

Happy and I simply did not agree at all about Texas Longhorn business promotion and practices. Once at an intense board meeting in the old Menger Hotel in San Antonio, he reached over the table and knocked a director out of his seat. Even though we sometimes differed, I never took my arguments that far with him.

Years later during a heated board meeting, Happy and I got cross-ways. Fortunately, we didn’t come to blows, and after adjournment he said, "We have similar goals. We both want to promote the breed. Let me make a suggestion. Perhaps I don't know you. Maybe you don’t know me. I’m going to fly to Colorado and spend a day with you. I want to learn who you are, about your family, about your cattle. Then I’ll invite you to spend a day with me. We need to get along."

In a couple months, he showed up at our DCC ranch in Colorado. He saw our embryo transfer program where we were flushing 86 great cows. He met our cast members. We looked at cattle and talked the Longhorn business. He asked a hundred questions. When he left, he knew me. It was a visit to remember, always.

The test of a friendship is always the cost a person will go to save it. Happy passed his test. He was very sharp. His idea for the two of us to get to know each other was brilliant. I have used this same method and invited people to come to Ohio, but few have been as receptive as he was. Happy proved by his action that my friendship was as important to him as his was to me, and that made us fit.


Back to Western movies and Happy’s contribution to Hollywood. In 1959, John Wayne started producing—and starring in—The Alamo, a $12,000,000 movie with a huge budget like Cleopatra of the Nile in 1963. He was a hands-on producer and decided this epic effort had to be historically accurate in every respect. High on his priorities were a realistic Alamo fort and a Texas Longhorn stampede.

The Alamo was a film of mammoth undertaking and a $12,000,000 budget.

The Alamo was a film of mammoth undertaking and a $12,000,000 budget.

For an authentic setting, Wayne wanted an Alamo built exactly like the real fort in San Antonio. He had visited Happy’s huge (35-square-mile) Shahan Angus Ranch in 1957 and decided to film The Alamo there—not in California but instead not far from the original Alamo, in Brackettville, Texas. Over a period of several months, Happy and Batjac Productions built Alamo Village on his ranch, as close as possible to the style and craftsmanship of 1836. It was the first major movie set in Texas, and they spared no cost. Many Hollywood fake towns built only the fronts of buildings, but he built the full structures, some of wood for a Western look and others of adobe in the historic Mexican style. Happy split the construction costs with the producers building the street fronts and he finished the entire buildings for future uses. When the film was released in 1960, the whole set was left in place. Shahan used the buildings for tourism and marketing of everything western that guests expected to invest in.

As for the stampede, Happy raised Black Angus—but an Angus stampede wouldn't work historically in The Alamo. So Wayne looked around, contacted Jack Phillips, of Brazoria county, and found a cooperative gatherer of a Longhorn herd. Jack bred the great bull Texas Ranger and had more big-horned steers than any other producer at that time. But they weren't enough for a stampede. Gathering one here, two there was a big job, so he called everyone he knew who owned big steers. Phillips finally assembled a herd of genuine Texas Longhorns and rented them to perform in The Alamo stampede at Shahan's Alamo Village.

Unfortunately for filming, the steers weren't the hand-fed pets of today, so the stampede got pretty wild. Then one of the Phillips steers hit something at full-blast and broke off a horn. When Jack complained, "What was a Texas Longhorn with only one horn?" Wayne wrote a check and gave it to him on the spot. The actors playing Santa Anna and his soldiers processed the steer and roasted it right there on the film set. A staff of hundreds shared in the cook-off, and Phillips kept the head for taxidermy.

For my part, after watching The Alamo I was anxious to see Alamo Village, which stood tall at the Shahan Ranch. When I later visited Happy’s desert guajillo brush pastures, I saw some of the prettiest Texas Longhorn alley-cat striped brindles I had ever seen. Their hides were strong contrasts of black, gold, white, and every color. He had a bull that was unreal with wild vertical colors.

Stan Searle of Monument, Colorado, visited the Shahans and fell in love with the prettiest brindle steer named El Alamo Capitan. He bought the steer, which soon after won the Denver National Western Championship Steer Show. El Capitan was considered the state-of-the-art steer of the day. No steer could beat him.

El Alamo Capitan had the signature Shahan wild brindle colors that immediately caught the Texas Longhorn judges eye.

El Alamo Capitan had the signature Shahan wild brindle colors that immediately caught the Texas Longhorn judges eye.

I finally traveled to Shahan’s on a Sunday morning and did my rubbernecking with hundreds of tourists at the Village. When Happy said it was church time, we went to the Alamo Village Baptist church—the same one I had seen in films. One film had a brutal gun fight in that very church, but on this day it was filled with the Shahan family, tourists, and ranch staff. After church, we went to the Cantina (the one in Bandolero) and ate wonderful delicious Mexican food. It did not take long for me to find out who Happy Shahan was.

Afterward we drove by the war-torn Alamo that John Wayne used in his film. We saw the bank that James Stewart robbed and the street where the final Bandolero shoot-out took place. As at the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, nearly everyone was killed, yet the lovely Raquel departed mostly unblemished. That kind of movie is irreplaceable.

After lunch, Happy took us to his big Mexican style ranch house on a slight hill where he and Virginia raised two daughters and a son. He immediately turned on the TV where a basketball game was in full run. He hollered, commented, complained, and was glued to the set until the last whistle blew. He loved basketball.

At this house while he and Virginia were raising a family, on any particular day John Wayne, Slim Pickens, George Kennedy, Richard Widmark, Ray Price, Kenny Rodgers, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Tom T Hall, Raquel Welch, Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, Robert Duvall, Richard Boone or any one of a passel of famous Hollywood elite might be eating Virginia's good food. As the kids grew up, they never knew who would come to the family dinner table nor how many Academy Awards their visitors had won. It was just something that happened -- nothing special to the kids.

With guests at the big house a twinkle of mischief was a familiar sight on Happy’s face, but he never failed to solemnly pray at meals in memory that all their blessings are totally due to the Lord’s grace.

From 1960 to 2013, more than thirty major films were staged at Alamo Village. A few everyone knows: The Alamo, Centennial, Two Rode Together, Bandolero, Good as Gold, Barbarosa, Lonesome Dove (1988), Bad Girls, Jerico, Bullfighter, etc. Each film required new and specially designed buildings. Happy and the production crews built these (for a fee) and Alamo Village continued to grow. The producers did not like it, but Happy insisted that his tourism business continue during all filmings. As a result, tourists could watch at a distance, take photos, and sometimes get autographs. Alamo Village and the Shahans were a circus day and night. Even Red McCombs went to Brackettville to watch the show. When a new movie rode into Alamo Village, that whole area of Texas profited from gas stations, restaurants, motels, everything. Commerce boomed during a shooting.

Happy was appointed to many boards and served as Mayor of Brackettville six terms. His son, James “Tully” Shahan II, is an attorney, served as a County Attorney, County Judge, and currently practices law in his home town. At their home, the Shahan kids were raised with Hollywood happenings a thick book could be written about.

From all the films shot at Alamo Village,Tully knew all the cast members. He said Raquel Welch was difficult. She didn’t like Happy’s running a tourist business at the same time as the filming. She complained continuously about the burden of people wanting autographs. Tully said that Jimmy Stewart once had a face-to-face with her and in his slow methodical drawl said, “Ms. Welch, these fans are all your employers. They pay you to be here. Think of them as writing all your pay checks. You owe it to them to do autographs and to be nice about it.” Tully said she totally changed after that little chastising chat.

Although Happy may not have sold any $20,000 bulls, his income on the Longhorn herd was substantial. After he found out what it cost to gather the steers for John Wayne, from then on he captured the Hollywood fees for renting his herd. He soon had over 400 head of cattle, but not Angus, because no one would pay to watch a bunch of Angus driven through the Village. Instead, he collected—and rented—the flashy, big, brindle, huge-horned kind.

I thought selling cattle was a good business, but Happy rented steers for the same kind of profit and kept the herd to rent over and over. Most Hollywood Westerns drove roping steers or cheap white-faced cattle--but if they wanted real Texas Longhorns and could pay the price, they rented the cattle herd at Alamo Village. During the filming of Centennial 215 head of steers, cows and calves were leased to the production company for $15 per day, plus feed, for two weeks, just over $45,000.

Today, Tully Shahan respectfully admits, “He touched people’s lives. If I’m trying to get something done anywhere in Texas, people will tell me, ‘I knew your dad, what do you need?’ That honor is something you can’t buy. Tully accurately described his dad as, “A man that did not accept being told he couldn’t do something.”

Happy Shahan used the history and sizzle of the old Texas Longhorn to find a niche market with this breed known for its multiple spin-off values. He was a brilliant organizer and promoter. He could keep all the monkeys swinging in his ten-ring circus, and the lions never shot the elephants, or ate the tightrope artists in the Alamo Village mesquites.

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Gratitude to Stan Searle, Tully Shahan, David A. Richardson, and J. G. Jack Phillips.