Knowing that Spencer, who looks every bit the part of a grizzled old cowboy, used to hang out with an All-American hero like The Duke makes it easier to understand how he could be single-handedly responsible for bringing World War II to a close. Or so his father claims.
"I went into the army in September of 1945," Spencer recalled. "My dad said, 'This war won't last much longer. Duke has never held a job for more than 30 days in his entire life.' Darned if he wasn't right."
Knowing that Spencer ended up doing Westerns in Hollywood also helps to explain his first passion old-fashioned Western melodramas. In fact, for a long time, Spencer owned a theater in Park City, Utah that featured authentic melodramas exclusively.
That passion is why he has come out of retirement to stage an authentic Western melodrama right here in Payson. Called "The Dastard" (or "There's Dirty Work Afoot"), the production is scheduled for two performances at the Payson High School Auditorium, Friday, Sept. 1, at 7 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee Sept. 2.
"The Dastard" is part of the first Rim Country Western Heritage Festival being held Labor Day weekend in conjunction with Art in the Park and the Rim Country Museum's Grazing Saddles exhibit.
What possessed Duke Spencer to undertake a full stage production at an age when most people are sipping lemonade from the friendly confines of a rocking chair?
"We came to Payson to retire 10 years ago," Duke explained, "but show business is something that just won't leave the blood. I told my wife, Annie, that I needed to do one more melodrama before I died.
"I've been in show business since I was four, when my grandmother had me recite a poem at this old folks social club she belonged to called the 3 Score and 10 Club. Once I heard applause, I was hooked," he recalled.
What lured Spencer, who was raised in Elgin, IL, to the West? "I've always been a cowboy buff, and I've always had a fascination for the West," he said.
Spencer not only directs but also stars in "The Dastard," along with a local cast of 10. "Actually, we're all stars. It's an ensemble piece," he explained.
Like all good melodramas, "The Dastard" has a manly hero (named what else but Handsome Harry), a vile and wicked villain (Black Jack Dalton), and a vulnerable damsel in distress (known to one and all as Little Nell). It is billed as "A GRAND, DRAMATIC, AND HEART-RENDING SPECTACLE PORTRAYED by an Internationally-Renowned Company of SUPERLATIVE players gathered together (at Great Expense to the Management) for your GRATIFICATION."
The plot revolves around the murder of a young miner named Willie Culpepper, and his family's attempts to track down the killer. Spencer plays Willie's father, Colonel Culpepper, a southern gentleman who, succumbing to the wiles of rum and gambling, signs the deed to his slain son's silver mine over to Dalton.
There's lots of singing in the production ("most everybody in this show sings," bartender Sniffy explains), and members of the audience are encouraged to hiss and boo the villain and cheer the hero ("but throwing objects will be frowned upon"). A special session will be held before the curtain rises to teach all those in attendance the proper technique for hissing and booing.
While the outcome of the play cannot be revealed, here are a couple of hints:
1) It's a melodrama, for gosh sakes.
2) Since it's written and directed by a guy who was a buddy of John Wayne's, who do you think is going to prevail?
Tickets are $5 and are available at the Rim Country Museum, the Payson Public Library, the Payson Roundup and at the door.