In a touching tribute that became emotional at times, the Emerson community on March 12 laughed and fondly remembered local legend Rex Trailer, the television cowboy and faculty member who wowed millions of children with his show Boomtown.
“In my career, I’ve met a lot of important people,” said Tonight Show host Jay Leno ’73, in a video message, “but no bigger star than Rex.”
Trailer died in January at the age of 84.
More than 200,000 children appeared on Boomtown, which aired on Boston’s WBZ-TV from 1956 to 1974. Trailer, a Texas native, taught television classes at Emerson from 1974 to 2012.
A large number of people attended the tribute at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, including comedian Steven Wright ’78; America’s Funniest Home Videos creator Vin Di Bona ’66; Jack Williams of WBZ-TV; Ernie Boch Jr.; Frank Avruch, who once played “Bozo the Clown,” Emerson President Lee Pelton; and Emerson President Emerita Jacqueline Liebergott.
“I was a student of Rex Trailer’s at Emerson College and he was such an incredible teacher,” said Maria Menounos ’00, host of Extra, in a video message. “He said he was always so proud to have been my teacher, but he doesn&rsquot; realize how much more thankful I was to have him as my teacher.”
Menounos described Trailer as “passionate about his work,” while Trailer’s daughter, Jillian Trailer-Rollock, called him a “natural teacher.”
“If it was flying, he’d say, ‘Here, take the controls,’ Trailer-Rollock said. “If it was boating, riding a motorcycle, horseback riding…you name it, I always felt safe to try anything because I had the support and guidance.”
Williams, the longtime news anchor on WBZ, first met Trailer when he began working for the station in 1975, just after Boomtown went off the air.
“He gave me a warm welcome to Boston and wished me the very best, and he meant it,” Williams said. “That personified Rex Trailer—classy and sincere.”
Their shared interest in helping children with disabilities drew Trailer “more near and dear to my heart,” Williams said. Trailer regularly featured children with disabilities on his program, while Williams continues his decades-long Wednesday’s Child series on WBZ newscasts that helps foster children find adoptive families.
At one point during the tribute, Trailer’s longtime business partner Mike Bavaro showed video clips of Trailer leading a horse-drawn caravan of disabled children across Massachusetts in 1961—camping overnight at spots along Route 20, where Trailer would play guitar and hold sing-a-longs—that ended at the State House as a way to raise awareness.
“It’s because of people like Rex that [change] has taken place,” said Leo Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities.
Di Bona, who began his career as a production assistant on Boomtown, recounted a harrowing story that displayed Trailer’s devotion to children.
“This one time, there was a circus in town and there was a Bengal tiger that came into the studio,” Di Bona said. “The tiger pushed the trainer down and got on top of the trainer. The trainer lost control. Rex went over and pulled the tiger off the trainer—a Bengal tiger. He was so concerned about what could have happened to the kids. It’s a very special man who could even attempt to think about doing that.”
Di Bona also mentioned how Trailer regularly took large groups of children on trips to Disneyland, while others, including Liebergott, recalled how Trailer stopped displaying guns with his cowboy costume after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“He built values,” Liebergott said. “He was the perfect role model for our students and for millions of children who watched him on television.”
The tribute ended with a musical performance with Ernie Boch Jr., who played guitar with Trailer’s old performing buddies, including Dave Shaheen; Jon Aldrich; Sam Donato; Jon Finn; and “Sergeant” Billy O’Brien, Trailer’s former sidekick on Boomtown.
O’Brien choked up at several points during his speech before the performance—including the point when he acknowledged it would be the Boomtown band’s final act.
“There was no greater man that I could think of,” O’Brien said. “He was a father figure and a best friend.”