It must have been a bit of heaven for a 13-year-old Missouri boy whose parents were migrant workers to step through the doors of the Grand Dame of Entertainment during the height of the Great Depression.
Billy Dennis Weaver spent a year of his youth in Manteca helping clean the fabled El Rey Theatre that in 1998 was resurrected as Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. in the 100 block of East Yosemite in the heart of Manteca after it was gutted after a showing of “The Towering Inferno” on Aug. 6, 1975. Today work is being done to transform the structure built in 1937 into a major events center.
Weaver’s parents hit the road in 1934 during the Dust Bowl looking for work. They found harvest season work in the packing sheds of Manteca that once lined Oak Street. They spent five years traveling from their home in Joplin to work packing fruit in Manteca.
They rented a home known then as the Duval home on the southern edge of Manteca. Weaver in his autobiography “All the World’s a Stage” told of the fun he had playing in a South San Joaquin Irrigation District canal that ran south of Woodward Avenue along Tinnin Road.
In his autobiography Weaver wrote of Manteca that “we were able to rent the old Duval house at the edge of town. The move to the Duval house proved to have an unpredictably strong effect on my life.”
Weaver made friends with an older Manteca boy, George Hogrefe.
Hogrefe’s family took a liking to Weaver and offered to let him spend a year with them from 1937 to 1938 when the Weavers returned to the Show Me State. Weaver was in the 8th grade at the time. The Hogrefe family lived just north of Manteca in the vicinity of Southland Road and Cottage Way.
Weaver attended Yosemite Grammar School (now Manteca Day School) on West Yosemite Avenue. The young Weaver is part of the school pictures from 1937-38.
Weaver in his book credited Hogrefe with providing him not just with his first bicycle but a wealth of characteristics and habits that he built his life on. That included being honest, to be the best you can be, to play chess, to enjoy poetry, and how to drive a car.
Weaver got a part-time job alongside Hogrefe to clean the El Rey to help pay for room and board as well as provide spending money.
It was there where he was able to take in movies that Weaver developed a love for acting.
Most remember Weaver as Marshal Matt Dillon’s sidekick Deputy Chester Goode in “Gunsmoke.” It was back in the days when TV shows didn’t need gratuitous sex, saucy language, or violence to enthrall viewers.
Weaver as Chester walked with a slight limp and could be expected at least once a week to utter his trademark line, “Mis-ter Dil-lon, Mis-ter Dil-lon” as he hurried down the streets of Dodge City to summon the marshal.
He starred in three other TV series, “Gentle Ben”, “The Buck Smith Television Series” and “McCloud.” McCloud ran from 1970 to 1977. It was a show about a Taos, New Mexico deputy assigned to the New York Police Department. His character’s tendency to repeat the line “there you go again” numerous times during the show helped make those four words part of the American vernacular.
But what made him a Hollywood legend was his starring role in a movie that many film critics deem as one of the industry’s all-time classics, “Duel.”
Weaver passed away in 2006 age 88.
Relatives have said that over the years he often mentioned the town of Manteca and how it helped shape his life.
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