Sixteen years ago, as a member of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Horsemen's Association, Pam Turner created the Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival—an event that has launched the likes of singer Boomer McClennon and groups such as the California Cowboy Band and the Cross Town Cowboys.
Just don’t misconstrue songs like “Don’t Fence Me In,” “When the Bloom is on the Sage,” and “I’m an Old Cowhand” as country western music, said Turner, a vivacious redhead, whose parents, aunt and uncle, and grandparents were products of Hollywood’s golden age of cowboy movies—the days of Will Rogers, Tom Mix and Roy Rogers.
“It’s cowboy campfire music,” the 63-year-old Culver City resident stressed, explaining how the music inspired the idea of the festival held annually at the Empty Saddle Club in Rolling Hills Estates. “The difference is that these were songs of the range. They didn’t sing about love and heartache, ‘I lost my wife’ … ‘My dog got run over by a train,’ you know? (The campfire songs) are talking about the life of the cowboy.”
A lot of the cowboy songs of the 1930s and '40s derived from poems. “They were called windies because they were long-winded,” the lively festival founder said over the weekend. “They would recite them around the campfire when they were on the cattle drives.”
Someone would bring out a guitar or a harmonica and set the poems to music, she added. “Cowboys also liked to sing to the cattle to keep them calm on night watch.”
Pam Turner’s back story, as they say in Hollywood, began in Culver City. Once known as “The Heart of Screenland” because that’s were all the studios and back lots were located. Thewe were places where her father, Paul Pitti (“a real singing cowboy,” Turner said), and her grandfather, Bennie Pete Pitti, worked as stuntmen, she said.
Bennie Pete Pitti was renowned in the film industry for his expertise with bullwhips, roping, stunt riding and knife throwing.
One legendary family story revolves around Paul’s wife, Shirley, who as a bride of two months was selected by her father-in-law to participate in his knife throwing act at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
“They had rehearsed it,” Turner said, except for the part where Paul and his brother, Carl, covered Shirley with butcher paper. “And what grandpa would do was outline her body by throwing the knives at her without being able to see her.”
Randy Turner, 62, who was participating in the interview with his wife, said, “The brides had to stand for the knives; that was a family ritual.” (Aside from being an integral part of the Rolling Hills Estates festival, Randy has produced the Backlot Film Festival in Culver City, which both Turners are heavily involved in.)
What was so funny about the Shrine incident, Pam Turner said, was that a microphone set up backstage to catch the thwack of the knives also caught Shirley’s repeated expletives. “The audience was just cracking up.”
The family’s Western trajectory started when Turner’s grandfather, Bennie Pete Pitti, left St. Louis, Mo. at age 13 to join the circus. He met his wife, Ethel, while touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in 1913.
“There were all these little circuses,” Turner said, explaining how her grandfather learned his craft by touring with the Al G. Barnes Circus and the Tom Mix Circus. “Tom Mix was a very big cowboy star, and they used to winter out here in California.”
Culver City was a brand-new town back then, she said, so Bennie and Ethel bought a house, now an historic landmark: "We were among the first 500 families to settle there."
Bennie got a job as a stuntman at the Culver Studios, known then as the Ince Studios (founded by Thomas Ince in 1918). During this period, he met Will Rogers Sr.
“Will hired my granddad as a chauffeur, but what he really wanted him to do was teach his sons how to rope,” Pam Turner said. Since Will Sr. was always on the road,” she said, “he didn’t have the time to teach the art to Jimmy and Will Jr.”
Armed with a family album, Turner showed a picture of her grandfather sitting behind Will Rogers, Jr. on a bicycle built for two and teaching him to rope for the movie “The Will Rogers Story.”
Bennie’s two sons, meanwhile, Paul (named after silent film star and friend Pauline Frederick) and Carl learned all the tricks of the cowboy trade and became cowboy stuntmen like their father. Carl also acted in bit parts in silent movies and got his first screen credit in Hal Roach’s Of Mice and Men.
At one point, Paul, Carl and Carl’s wife, Mickey, formed a singing group called The Westernaires. “They sang on the radio on KFI in the 40s and 50s,” Turner said, “and were on one of the first KTLA-TV shows, a Western family show."
Her parents became good friends with Will Rogers Jr., who owned two ranches in Los Angeles. “He had one up on Sunset (Blvd.) and one in Culver City," she said. "It’s long gone, but grandpa bought the ranch (in Culver City) and we lived on it. We had movie stunt horses, and that’s what I learned to ride on.”
One stunt horse, a beautiful, white Arabian/Morgan cross, was her “babysitter,” said Turner, who was riding at 19 months. “He’d walk around, and I would just sit on his back. His name was Warrior.”
Another favorite childhood memory is of the stunt cowboys visiting on weekends and her grandfather coaching them in “roping and bullwhip tricks" as well as knife throwing.
Pam and Randy are currently working with friend and writer/documentarian, Ross Hawkins, columnist for The Front Page Online, on “The Celluloid Cowboys,” a documentary tentatively set for release in April.
Turner, who graduated from Cal State Dominguez in theatre arts, worked for years in the entertainment industry. “I got into the behind-the-scenes stuff,” she said, adding with a laugh, “Unlike actors, I always had work.” A lot of it was at UCLA. “I did lighting for all kinds of concerts.”
Hired as technical director at the Norris Theatre in Palos Verdes in 1983, she lasted only six months. “The theatre was overbooked … I was putting in 80 hours a week.” She also worked the 1984 Olympic Games, doing tech for gymnastic events at UCLA.
That was the year she met Randy Turner.
“We met basically at Church on the Beach in Hermosa (sponsored by Hope Chapel),” said Randy, who has operated a window washing business for 30 years. He previously owned two delis and a restaurant in Hermosa called The Garden of Eden, and both Turners are ordained ministers.
“We’d both been married twice before and were divorced," Randy said with a big smile. "I’m reading a book about counseling … because I wanted to learn how to be really married. So Pam walks up, and I’m brown as an Indian with long hair, and she didn’t know if I was an Indian or a white guy.”
“Turns out he is part Indian,” she said, laughing. They married in 1985.
When Pam decided to go back to Cal State Dominguez to get her Masters in marriage and family therapy, Randy went along with her to complete his undergraduate degree.
“It was really nice going back to school and having classes with my husband,” said Turner, who graduated in 1989 and interned in a drug rehab program in Gardena. “I wanted to help people. The fact that I had this background in theater and I’m outgoing, it’s been really helpful.”
The Turners lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where they kept horses, and Pam joined the Palos Verdes Peninsula Horsemen's Association. “I started going to meetings and said, 'I like this!' They are into preserving trails … horsekeeping. They are really good service organization,” she said.
Elected to the PVPHA as vice president of education, she was in charge of booking monthly educational and entertainment programs. But back in January of 1998, “usually a down month after the holidays, we needed some pepping up,” she said.
She remembered a famous cowboy poetry festival that takes place later in January in Elko, Nev. “So I thought that it would be fun to have our own festival, sort of a warm up for Elko; or, as it turned out, a platform for our local cowboy poets to share their works,” she explained.
There were only about 20 people at the first one, she said, among them cowboy/poet Steve Deming and Wanda Smith, who writes “lovely poems” about the Peninsula. It was very casual, the poets reading their work in front of the fireplace at the Empty Saddle Club.
“Over the years we grew and audiences packed the clubhouse enjoying the music, poems and eventually the free chili dinner provided by the PVPHA Board," she said. "The sound system got larger and we added some set dressing, a western backdrop and more musicians.”
Redondo Beach resident Steve Deming, author of The Source—Poems of the Trail and member of the California Cowboy Band, can’t believe it’s been 16 years since the Turners started the festival. “Who's counting when you are having fun?” said the poet musician, who is also managing director of U.S. Energetics, Inc., a new real estate development company in Redondo Beach dedicated to clean energy projects.
“It was certainly fun again this year as the California Cowboy Band and the Cross Town Cowboys teamed up again to make for a wonderful evening,” Deming added.
A few years into the festival, Pam Turner asked her parents to join the festivities as The New Westernaires: “Mom sang and dad brought out his old guitar and started picking out songs, cowboy campfire songs.” Pam and Randy played with the group, as well.
Paul Pitti, Turner said, would tell the stories behind the songs, saying things like, “There was a song written back in the 1930s, and the poem was set to music. And Cole Porter was going to use it in some movie. And then more people began to record it, including Bing Crosby. The name of the song was ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’”
Where Turner’s mother passed away in 2007, 2012 turned out to be Paul Pitti’s last year at the festival. He suffered a major heart attack, and after a stay at UCLA Medical Center, he died at home in Culver City.
Beforehand, friends stopped in to say goodbye to the former U.S. Marine and movie cowboy, who was known to do so much for others. A member of St. Augustine Catholic Church for all his 88 years, Randy said, “Paul was a (World War II) vet and … went through four beachheads without a scratch.”
Pam Turner was with each parent when they passed. “They were around when I came into the world,” she said, “and I wanted to be around when they went out of this world and into a better place.”
Pam and Randy Turner now live in the second Culver City house her father owned. It is located behind the Sony Pictures main gate.