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How a Cowboy Standoff Gave Hollywood’s Gower Gulch Its Name

At the corner of Sunset and Gower, there’s a strip mall that looks like it might have been a Western set in a past life. Signs for Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, and Super Cuts hover beneath a larger one emblazoned in Western lettering with the words “Gower Gulch.” Other signs falsely advertise such frontier businesses as “Livery Forge & Stable,” “Assayer,” and “Cartwrights.”

But the Gower Gulch was never a Western set; it was the hangout of real cowboys, waiting to be hired as working extras in Hollywood westerns. The Gower Gulch earned its name in 1940, after a couple of these Hollywood cowboys riled each other up in an unscripted standoff, putting one in the ground and sending the other to a trial on homicide charges.

The intersection became headquarters for a cluster of former cowboys in the mid-1930s, when the Columbia Drugstore stood at its southeast corner. “Here, at almost any time of day, one could find 25 to 50 of [the cowboys] loitering between picture jobs,” explains Diana Serra Cary, whose father was one of these so-called “drugstore cowboys,” in her book, “The Hollywood Posse”:[1]

The drug store had become a congregating point for a practical reason: it had a phone booth that the manager would allow the cowboy extras to use in order to dial up Central Casting’s switchboard at all hours, checking on what studios or gigs were calling out.

Drugstore cowboys awaited movieland employment at the corner of Sunset and Gower, where the manager of the Columbia Drug Co. let would-be extras use the phone booth. By the time of this photograph, in 1977, Sunset-Gower news had set up shop.
Drugstore cowboys awaited movieland employment at the corner of Sunset and Gower, where the manager of the Columbia Drug Co. let would-be extras use the phone booth. By the time of this photograph, in 1977, Sunset-Gower news had set up shop. Courtesy of the Roy Hankey Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Jerome B. “Blackjack” Ward was one of these cowboys, and he came with a reputation for being a “seasoned rawhide” from the nineteen-teens, when he had supposedly been Pancho Villa’s right hand man. Since then, he’d taken up working as a horse opera actor beside other filmland cowpokes.

On one afternoon in 1940, Blackjack encountered his archenemy, John Ainsworth Tyacke – “Johnny Tyke” – outside the Columbia Drugstore. Cary relays the story:[2]

Blackjack had shot Tyke in broad daylight in the middle of Hollywood, and in front of a crowd of witnesses. Blackjack had “dry-gulched” Johnny Tyke, said Cary’s father: “an old frontier term that originally meant to kill a man in cold blood and then throw his body in a dry-gulch to conceal the evidence of the murder.”[3]

Jerome Ward at trial
Cowboy extra Jerome B. “Blackjack” Ward pleaded not guilty – in both self-defense and insanity – after he pulled a gun on his archenemy Johnny Tyke (framed in a photograph), in February 1940. The movie cowboys of the Gower Gulch testified that Tyke was "pizen mean" and that somebody "had to shoot him." Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Cowboy film extra Jerome "Blackjack" Ward talks to police during a re-enactment of his confrontation with fellow extra Johnny Tyke, Los Angeles, February 24, 1940
Ward talks to police during a re-enactment of his confrontation with fellow extra Johnny Tyke, February 24, 1940. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News Negatives, UCLA Library.
Cowboy film extras Joe Phillips and Harry Willingham at hearing of Jerome (Blackjack) Ward, charged with the murder of Johnny Tyke in Gower Gulch, Los Angeles, February 27, 1940
Cowboy film extras Joe Phillips and Harry Willingham at Ward's hearing on February 27, 1940. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News Negatives, UCLA Library.

In the trial that followed, the witness stand and the courtroom were filled with “hundreds of picturesque characters from ‘Gower Gulch,’” according to the Los Angeles Times’ coverage. [4] “Cauliflower-eared,” “Burly Yukon Jake Jackson, who came out of the Northern woods from a b’ar hunt” took the witness stand in Superior Court Judge A.A. Scott’s courtroom, in a dramatic scene:

Ward pled not guilty, claiming he shot Johnny Tyke in self defense “after the latter attacked him with a bowie knife”; he also pled not guilty by reason of insanity. [5] The trial lasted only several days (one cowboy described it as being “dizzier than a blindfolded bronc being sack-broke with a new slicker”[6]) before it was dismissed, and Blackjack walked free.

Johnny Tyke was buried Valhalla Cemetery, reported the Times. “Of course there were some who put on their Sunday clothes and attended the funeral, but the rest of them who took up a collection Wednesday to send flowers still hung around the ‘quickie’ center at Sunset Blvd. and Gower St. waiting a call for extra work.” [7]

Blackjack Ward, after being released from charges.
Blackjack Ward upon his release. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Further Reading

Cary, Diana Serra. The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

“Cowpokes Will Pay Tribute to Their Slain ‘Pard’ Today: Gower Gulch Film Extras Contribute to Flower Fund Though Dead Man Regarded as ‘Pizen Mean.’” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File). February 29, 1940.

“Gower Gulch’s Cowboy Slayer Must Stand Trial for Murder: Blackjack Ward Flouted Legal Code in Shooting His One-Time Partner in Hollywood, Court Finds.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File). March 5, 1940, sec. LOCAL NEWS.

“HOLLYWOOD ‘RANGERS’ COME TO AID OF ‘PARD’: Film Cowboy on Trial in ‘Gower Gulch’ Slaying Jury of Seven Men and Five Women Chosen to Determine Fate of ‘Blackjack’ Ward Actor Slayer Goes on Trial.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File). July 16, 1940.

“Hollywood’s Cowpokes Defend Pard in Killing: Riders of ‘Gower Gulch’ Testify Gun Victim Was Maverick Who Had to Be Taken Care Of GOWER GULCH MOVES INTO COURTROOM FOR INQUEST.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File). February 28, 1940, sec. GENERAL NEWS.

MacPHERSON, HARRY. “GOWER GULCH: Ever since That Wild West Shooting, People Have Been Asking the Truth about This Wild and Woolly Haunt of the Hollywood Cowboys. Here It Is GOWER GULCH.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File). March 31, 1940.


[1] Diana Serra Cary, The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 139, 136–137.

[2] Ibid., 140–141.

[3] Ibid., 141.

[4] “Hollywood’s Cowpokes Defend Pard in Killing: Riders of ‘Gower Gulch’ Testify Gun Victim Was Maverick Who Had to Be Taken Care Of GOWER GULCH MOVES INTO COURTROOM FOR INQUEST,” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), February 28, 1940, sec. GENERAL NEWS.

[5] “HOLLYWOOD ‘RANGERS’ COME TO AID OF ‘PARD’: Film Cowboy on Trial in ‘Gower Gulch’ Slaying Jury of Seven Men and Five Women Chosen to Determine Fate of ‘Blackjack’ Ward Actor Slayer Goes on Trial,” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), July 16, 1940.

[6] Cary, The Hollywood Posse, 142.

[7] “HOLLYWOOD ‘RANGERS’ COME TO AID OF ‘PARD.’”


Header image by Kent Kanouse. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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