March 30, 2013

Who remembers `Hot Rod Gang’ premiere?

World movie premieres are big-time stuff. Ask anybody who has attended one.

World movie premieres are big-time stuff. Ask anybody who has attended one.

Surprisingly, you may not have to go far to find someone who fills that bill. There just may be someone in your neighborhood who attended the premiere of a genuine Hollywood movie in Wichita 55 years ago.

The movie was "Hot Rod Gang," starring John Ashley, and it opened for all the world to see at the Wichita Theater on East Douglas back in 1958. And Ashley, with his perfectly styled rockabilly hairdo, was on hand to sign autographs and check out the local hot rods and custom cars that turned out for the event.

Fortunately for us, someone at Knetsch Photo on South Broadway was there to document it all for us, from the star’s arrival at the airport to the festivities under the marquee at the movie theater.

But the event, like the movie itself, had pretty much faded into obscurity over the last half century.

Imagine then, Rocky Burris’ surprise one day a couple of months ago when he was searching under "hot rods" on eBay (one of his favorite pastimes) and he happened across a collection of those original photos being offered for sale by someone in California.

When he saw the Wichita connection, he said, "I didn’t hesitate. I hit `Buy It Now’ and bought ’em."

He has been poring over them ever since, looking for familiar faces in the crowd and trying to identify cars in the photos.

"How cool are these pictures?” Burrus said. “How many places did you go back then without a herd of your buddies along? So if you can ID one, you should be able to ID a bunch of them."

But so far, he has been pretty much stymied. "The only guy I’m sure of is Ron Coleman," said Burris, who was about 8 years old when the photos were taken.

He did recognize a couple of the custom cars, though — a mid-’50s Oldsmobile and a black Cadillac customized by Darryl Starbird. He talked with Starbird, who was there, about about the movie premier and learned a bit more.

In almost all of the photos, there is an unidentified young woman alongside the movie star, Ashley. Starbird told Burris that a co-star of the film was supposed to appear at the Wichita premiere, but could not attend, so a "popcorn girl" at the theater was persuaded to stand in for her.

An older, distinguished gent (maybe Ashley’s agent, or a movie studio executive?) also appears in many of the photos, as the group made the rounds, appearing on local TV shows and doing interviews with radio DJs.

One young fellow who apparently owned a ’34 Ford coupe featured prominently in the ceremony also appears in several of the photographs, at one point evidently receiving a check for something. Had the car appeared in the movie? We don’t know.

Burris had copies made of several of the photos and mounted them on a display board, which he showed around at the Sunflower Swap Meet in February. But his luck in tracking down people and car IDs wasn’t much better there.

So we thought maybe some Wheels readers might be able to help old Rocky out. It’s not even clear exactly why Wichita was chosen to premiere "Hot Rod Gang," which is a tale about a rich kid trying to preserve his inheritance while playing in a rock ’n roll band and doing some street racing.

Check out these photos reproduced here, thanks to Rocky Burris and the unknown photographer from Knetsch Photo. Additional pictures are posted at

If you see someone you know, or a car from long ago that you recognize, get in touch with Rocky at 316-706-5523. Or contact me at We agree with him that those moments had to be prized memories for someone.

"Can you image the time, 1958, and you could say, `I had John Ashley standing next to my car?’ " he said.

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