Gilbert Roland is the only local boy to make it big in Hollywood and continue coming back to El Paso. Roland – his real name is Luis Alonzo – was born in Juarez but his family skipped north of the border when Pancho Villa’s bullets began raining on that city. He worked as a delivery boy for the Times after the turn of the century and later recalled being threatened with jail for shouting headlines in a residential area before dawn one morning. Roland often returned to visit Alma Bartlett, his seventh-grade teacher at Vilas Elementary School, until her death, claiming she encouraged him to do something with his life. The impressionable 13-year-old took that encouragement and hopped a freight train for California and the silent movies. His first big break came in “Camille.” A string of swashbuckling, adventurous roles followed. Some of his most popular movies included “Bad and the Beautiful,” “Cheyenne Autumn,” “Last Train to Madrid” and “Around the World in 80 days.”
Roland often said he didn’t approve of modern movies with their violence and sex. His heart stayed with the glamorous cinema of Hollywood’s heyday, before television took the sheen off moving pictures. He was parade marshal of the Sun Bowl Parade in 1960 and guest speaker at a LULAC banquet honoring the Southwest’s Medal of Honor winners in 1976. In between, he made many personal trips back to see old friends and familiar scenery. As the early-day leading man grew older, he began to reflect more and more on his past.
Several years ago he told a Times reporter El Paso still felt like home. “You go everywhere, do everything, still there are some places you can’t forget. The people and the land. If you forget the beauty of your youth, you are no more than an animal.” Today Roland is semi-retired and lives in California.
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