"Merrano of the Dry Country"
Fort Lewis College stages adaptation of L'Amour story


by Judith Reynolds

Mirror Valley is out of water. Dust hovers over starving cattle. All but one rancher, a Mexican-American, is about to go under.

Sounds like a tale of jealousy, rage, and possibly racism. Sounds like a Louis L’Amour story.

At 8 p.m. on Thursday, August 24, all those ingredients and more will come into focus at Fort Lewis College’s final summer play reading. The series closes with an adaptation of L’Amour’s short story, “Merrano of the Dry Country.” The performance is free, and it’s high time.

L’Amour (1908-1988) was an enormously popular American writer with important Durango ties. Having spent his young manhood wandering the globe, working all kinds of jobs, reading everything he could get his hands on, and engaging everyone he met in conversation, L’Amour embarked on a writer’s life. Incredibly productive, he wrote more than 100 novels, 250 short stories, and lived to see more than 30 movies made from his vivid tales. At the time of his death at age 80, sales of his books topped 200 million. Since his death over 60 million more copies have been sold. L’Amour’s books have been translated into 15 languages and almost all titles are still in print.

Starting in 1966, L’Amour brought his wife and two children (Beau and Angelique) to Durango for summer getaways from Los Angeles. Each August for the next 10 years, the family stayed at the Strater Hotel and later moved to a ranch west of Hesperus.

Beau L’Amour, now 45 and vice president of Louis L’Amour Enterprises, was in town last week and agreed to meet at the Strater for an interview. It is his adaptation of “Merrano” that will be read in the amphitheater.

“We started the project (adapting stories for audio recording) in 1986 while Dad was still alive,” Beau L’Amour said. “I had been a student at Cal Arts. I wanted to be a cinematographer, but I quickly got over that and changed my focus. I didn’t want to be a slave to technology; I knew I was more interested in the stories.”

The leap into audio publishing took place, he said, when Bantam Books (L’Amour’s publisher) wanted a guinea pig, “to test something new. They came to ‘Louie’ and asked him if he was interested, not in recording the novels, but something smaller, the short stories.”

L’Amour agreed, and they settled on an old-time radio format.

“We messed around with the style a lot,” Beau L’Amour said, launching enthusiastically into an analysis of the art of adaptation. “We discovered that you can cut an 8 to 12-page short story a lot for a 60-minute drama without changing the plot or the characters. I keep narration to a minimum. I’ve used first-person but not often. It’s dramatic, but unreliable. I prefer third-person. Narration and sound effects are the objective branch of this kind of storytelling.”

L’Amour’s general guidelines seem as clear as a high-meadow stream: Keep exposition to a minimum; concentrate on character; tighten dialogue; set the scene and evoke atmosphere with sound effects; underscore emotions with music.

Over the years, L’Amour has continued to adapt his father’s stories to audio dramas. More than 80 are available through the official website, www.louislamour.com. In addition, a large number of unabridged audio books are also available.

“Merrano of the Dry Country” was one of his first audio adaptations, and L’Amour said he’s been simplifying ever since: “A minimum of connecting tissue.”

That will be evident in the script he passed along to Kathryn Moller, chair of the FLC Department of Theatre and director of the August 24 production.

“Kathryn has split the narrator’s role into two parts,” L’Amour said. “We’ll have to see how that works out.”

Local actors Anna Johnson and Chuck Johnson (not related) will narrate the story about Merrano (Joseph Martinez), a savvy Mexican-American who arrives in Mirror Valley and achieves success. Drought ensues, yet Merrano prospers. Why? Jealous Anglo ranchers spread rumors and scheme against him. The Mirror Valley cast includes Athena Gundlach, Desiree Henderson, Dennis Johnson, Geoffrey Johnson, Terry Shellnut, and Bernard Wolsieffer.

Beau L’Amour said he would be in Durango for the reading, although he spends most of his time in Los Angeles concentrating on L’Amour projects.

“From 1986 to 2003,” he said, “I did one book a year,” all his father’s original creations, edited, shaped and crafted for publication. The output began with Louis L’Amour’s final project, his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, with an introduction by Daniel Boorstin.

“It’s entirely my father’s voice,” Beau L’Amour said. “Nothing was added. I only edited for repetition and for pacing. Dad was still writing it when he passed away. First-person.”

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