WILLCOX — Long before Willcox began leaning a tad trendy with its stately wine-tasting rooms and award-winning vineyards along the stretch of open desert on Interstate 10, the tiny ranching community in the Sulphur Springs Valley was one of the least-likeliest of places to spawn one of America’s first major superstars.
Willcox’s Rex Allen was the real McCoy, who took radio and the silver screen by storm in the 1950s.
With an astounding voice that not only turned the heads of recording studio moguls and Hollywood bigwigs, his popularity as a top-shelf film and television actor — as well as a singer and songwriter — was off the charts during the mid-20th century.
Known worldwide as “the Arizona Cowboy,” the former Cochise County rodeo rider — with his handsome features and a voice as distinctive and resonant as Hollywood actor Sam Elliott — was a major box office draw in Hollywood’s early Western movies. He also narrated more than 80 Walt Disney films and received a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1975.
Not bad for an Arizona country boy who grew up in Mud Springs Canyon 40 miles north of Willcox and learned to play guitar to accompany his father on the fiddle at local barn dances.
Yet despite his enormous fame and popularity, Allen never forgot his roots and never failed to let anyone and everyone know he was a Willcox boy through and through.
And Willcox never forgot Allen. It has been honoring his legacy for more than a half century with an annual four-day celebration of Rex Allen Days that runs this year from Sept. 30 through Oct. 3.
”Everything has gone really smoothly this year, as far as preparing and organizing for the event,” said volunteer Michael Clement, who has helped with Rex Allen Days for the last nine years. “I guess you could say I’m an old pro at this, but everything has just fallen into place very nicely without any surprises or hitches. We’re ready to go.”
Despite the presence of COVID-19 last year, which almost prevented the event last year, Clement said he doesn’t expect the delta variant to put a damper on this year’s crowds.
”We had about 5,000 people last year, and I think we should be pretty equivalent to that number again, if not a littler more,” he said. “The same people who were afraid of COVID and didn’t come last year probably won’t attend this year because of the variant. I don’t see a huge uptick in crowd numbers this year.”
Last year, Clement said volunteers worked closely with the health department and applied their recommendations to the festival.
“They were extremely helpful,” he added. “They helped in every way they could to make it all work, and they were great.”
Starting with the Wild Bunch Film Festival Screenings on Thursday, Sept. 30, this year’s 70th Rex Allen Days features returning events like the Saturday parade, the weekend-long carnival and fair and with a car show on Saturday. It will also include the two-day Grand Canyon Pro Rodeo Association Rodeo, Arizonagunshows.com gun show Friday-Sunday and John Schneider in concert. Live performances at the fair include Western Music Association Best Female Vocalist Carol Markstrom.
Rodeo events include bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc, steer wrestling, calf roping, breakaway roping, team roping and barrel racing.
Tractor pulls, car shows, softball and golf tournaments also highlight the weekend.
Visit rexallendays.org for information.
Tickets for the rodeo, stage shows and Hall of Fame dinner are available by calling the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture at 520-384-2272.