‘Gunsmoke’ celebrates 50th anniversary in Dodge City

? There were many Old West cowtowns in Kansas, but it was Gunsmoke with Marshal Dillon, Miss Kitty and all the assorted characters that made Dodge City the cowtown known around the world.

This weekend, faithful fans flocked here to pay homage to Gunsmoke on the 50th anniversary of the start of its 20-year run on television. It lives on in reruns, so Matt Dillon never rides off into the sunset and Doc Adams still shuffles into the Long Branch to quaff a brew.

“When we learned that nobody was doing anything for the 50th anniversary, we said ‘That’s crazy.’ We said we’re not going to let this pass,” said Jim Johnson, president of the Dodge City Trail of Fame, which spearheaded the celebration.

Set in frontier Dodge City of the late 1800s, Gunsmoke made people aware of the town’s real Old West history, which included the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday.

“As far as the tourist trade is concerned, Gunsmoke has been huge because it put the name of Dodge City in everyone’s living rooms for 20 years,” said Johnson, whose group promotes tourism and preserving the town’s history.

None of the leading Gunsmoke actors attended the celebration. At age 82, James Arness, who played Matt Dillon, doesn’t travel. But his wife, Janet, was on hand.

Others, like Dennis Weaver, the limping deputy Chester Goode, and Buck Taylor, who was gunsmith Newly O’Brien, were working on projects elsewhere. Amanda Blake, who was Long Branch owner Miss Kitty; Milburn Stone, who played Doc Adams; and Ken Curtis, who was deputy Festus Haggen, all have died.

One familiar face to Gunsmoke fans at the celebration was Morgan Woodward, who appeared in 19 episodes, often playing a variety of menacing bad guys.

“I don’t think I survived many of those episodes. Usually, I was shot by Matt Dillon,” Woodward recalled with a chuckle.

On Saturday – the date that Gunsmoke first aired in 1955 – there was a daylong symposium about the show with about 160 people from around the country signed up to attend.

Many showed up in western outfits, complete with cowboy hats and boots. Several sought out Janet Arness to talk about how much they enjoy the show.

“Give him a big hug for us,” one woman told her.

Janet Arness said she enjoys talking to the fans, and her husband appreciates them.

“He’s just very honored. Jim always felt very fortunate that Gunsmoke had the quality that it did,” she said.

During a question-and-answer session, Ben Costello, author of “Gunsmoke: An American Institution,” was asked why the show lasted so long.

“It’s message was simple. Good versus evil, and good triumphs over evil. It was good wholesome entertainment, and it will live on forever,” Costello said.

Today, the Trail of Fame was scheduled to dedicate four large bronze sidewalk medallions honoring Arness, Blake, Stone and Curtis.

Thousands of visitors each year check out this western Kansas town of 25,000. They come from just about every state and many foreign countries, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom.

“You would be surprised that some people still expect us to be in the era of horses and buggies. Some people probably really do think that, but that is a small percentage,” said Linda Wilson, of the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

At times, it seems history and Hollywood get blurred.

“Some people ask if Matt Dillon’s family is still in the area or if Miss Kitty’s family is still around,” said Gloria Barngrover, Boot Hill Museum general manager. “They don’t distinguish between the Dodge City they see on TV and the real life Old West Dodge City.”