September 4, 1997 in City

Museum Honoring Hollywood Legend Is No Stunt

By The Spokesman-Review

On the summit of nearby Steptoe Butte where friends scattered his ashes, the spirit of the man known as “Yak” should be chuckling heartily as he takes in the scene below.

He’d laugh at how the hometown that forgot about him is only now - 11 years after his death at age 90 - discovering it produced a Hollywood legend and the greatest bronc-busting cowpoke who ever jumped on a saddle.

He’d be plumb tickled that the museum honoring him is not stuck in some antiseptic Chamber of Commerce tourist trap, but on the top floor of a Main Street saddle shop pungent with the tangy scent of tanned hides.

“He’s laughing his ass off at us,” says John Crawford, Yak’s longtime friend. “People here may have forgotten about him and yet from his end, he always had a true love affair with Colfax.”

Tonight the town will begin to give Yak his rightful due. A 6:40 p.m. banquet at the Elks Temple will be followed by the grand opening of the museum that bears his memorable name atop Hickman Boot & Saddlery, N. 203 Main.

It’s about time. Yak was a superstar long before anyone coined the word.

Born in a farmhouse a few miles south of Colfax, Enos Edward “Yakima” Canutt learned to ride early and went on to win four world rodeo championships.

He was first to ride Tipperary, an ornery horse that dumped 83 hapless cowboys until Yak climbed aboard. Once asked to explain his uncanny riding ability, Yak paused and replied, “Well, hell, you just catch the rhythm.”

Moving to Hollywood, he acted in silent films and turned to stunts when his scratchy voice couldn’t make the transition to talkies.

Yak revolutionized the fledgling, often deadly, stunt industry with innovations and safety measures. He is the only stuntman ever to receive an Academy Award.

That honor came for directing the famed 1959 chariot race in “Ben Hur.” Many critics still call it the greatest action sequence ever filmed.

But there is so much more. Yak performed one of moviedom’s most amazing feats in the 1939 classic John Ford western, “Stagecoach.”

Doubling as John Wayne, he leaped daringly from horse to horse, working his way to the head of a team as it galloped at hell-to-breakfast speed.

Standing in for Clark Gable, Yak led the wagons through Atlanta’s burning in “Gone With the Wind.”

Many of Yak’s famed stunts were later recreated in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Harrison Ford, who played the intrepid Indiana Jones, said appreciatively that “it can all be traced back to the pioneer stuntman, Yakima Canutt. That man left us a legacy.”

Getting Colfax to realize all this took a wakeup call from saddle shop owner Bob Hickman, Crawford and Yak’s widow, Audrea, who lives in Los Angeles.

Hickman, 36, became interested in Yak last year. He began beating the drum at civic groups to raise money for a museum.

“I’d ask people to name the most famous person to come out of Colfax,” recalls Hickman. “I’d ask them if they knew someone from here won an Oscar.”

Few did. But Hickman, a Colfax native, kept on. What he lacked in persistence and gall, he borrowed from Crawford, who is no stranger at getting Colfax to jump through hoops.

Crawford brought to town the 1988 Codger Bowl, a touch football grudge match between former high school rivals of 1938. An actor who played the sheriff on the famed TV series “The Waltons,” Crawford then convinced unsuspecting locals that they could spruce up their downtown by planting a giant carved Codger Pole to commemorate the offbeat game.

Crawford got his way and a bonus when the mesmerized Colfax City Council named a street after him.

The Yakima Canutt museum is a contrast to the garish Codger Pole. Arranged like an upscale gallery, the museum is loaded with photographs, posters and memorabilia from Yak’s amazing life.

Most of the items were donated by Audrea Canutt, who is in Colfax for the dedication. Her famous husband, she says, was a modest man who would have been greatly touched by the attention.

Listen. You can almost hear Yak chuckling.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON DISPLAY The museum is loaded with photographs, posters and memorabilia from Yak’s amazing life.

This sidebar appeared with the story: ON DISPLAY The museum is loaded with photographs, posters and memorabilia from Yak’s amazing life.

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