By Biz Carson
Times Staff Writer
The Dry Creek railroad president is getting laid off, but he doesn't look disappointed enough.
His lip is too pouty. Cut. Still not sad enough. Cut.
An airplane flies overhead, and taping halts. The conspicuous purring of a jet engine wouldn't be there in the late 1800s.
Les McDowell watches take after take. He was laid off as a radio announcer in 2009, and all he had left was family, a 40-acre plot of land and his cowboy poetry.
Slapped by reality, McDowell hauled some logs and began nailing them together to build a place he calls Dry Creek.
In the backwoods of his Parrish ranch, the 1880s-style timber storefronts form a shelter from the harshness of a world in which terrorist attacks and deficits saturate the news.
The jet engines fade until the only noise is the buzz of cicadas and someone shouting — "Roll sound! Camera ready! Scene two, take four! Good energy!"
Now in its second season, Dry Creek: America's First Frontier is a 30-minute exercise in fixing modern ills with old-fashioned values. The show has been picked up by three cable channels and is broadcast to more than 4.5 million homes across the nation. If he can keep it growing, McDowell hopes to make it to the Hallmark Channel.
The only threats to Dry Creek's survival are the crashing stock market and its cash-strapped creator.
"If I knew this mountain was going to be this hard to climb, I wouldn't have started up it," McDowell said.
With a thick horseshoe mustache and cowboy hat, McDowell has made his life in the modern world but with one foot always propping open a door to the past.
He bonded with his father building antique stagecoaches. He still feels just as comfortable on top of a horse as he does behind the wheel of his Ford Ranger. Yet McDowell is a fixture on YouTube, and he loves his iPhone.
His 22-year career was in radio. His work as Tampa's WQYK-FM morning traffic reporter and resident cowboy poet won him a Country Music Award in 2003.
In 2005 McDowell joined the morning team at Clear Channel's WFUS-FM, but he was handed a pink slip in April 2009 as part of nationwide company layoffs.
The radio man understood the realities of the business, but the cowboy in him was offended by the broken trust.
In his mid 50s, he was too young to retire but too old to be hired. As radio slammed the door in his face, he threw himself into building Dry Creek to work himself out of a depression.
"I just thought, 'I'm going to do this,' and I just started hauling lumber," McDowell said. "People forgot how to dream."
In January 2010, McDowell started by holding a camera to tape himself reading cowboy poetry.
Friends soon joined him around the campfire to act out small scenes in which McDowell would break out into poetry. He'd already published his first book of poems called Tales From the Trail, but his fans wanted more, he said, so he kept building.
Over the next 14 months, McDowell and cast members constructed a general store, saloon and blacksmith shop. Along with a church he had built for a friend's Western-themed wedding 10 years before, McDowell had created a town.
Antiques lined the shelves of the general store and the saloon. Horses stood hitched to the wagons and stagecoaches he built. His YouTube videos went from three-minute poetry readings to 30-minute episodes.
A call for extras in the local newspaper brought 200 e-mails from people who liked the idea of wearing suspenders and coattails while chewing a hand-rolled cigar. Fans started showing up on the set.
At the real post office and the real feed store in Parrish, patrons often step in to ask for directions to the fictional town. McDowell said he received a call from a fan who was driving on Interstate 75 and was confused that he hadn't seen any signs for Dry Creek.
"Fourteen months ago, there was no town," McDowell said. "But it's the heart and love the people have for this that's turning into something more than a show."
• • •
Dry Creek: America's First Frontier is McDowell's attempt to bring family programming back to American households.
McDowell described the show as a mix of Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons and The Andy Griffith Show. He grew up with Western, family-friendly shows whereas today's generation has Jersey Shore and Desperate Housewives.
"It seems like America is tired of reality," McDowell said. "They want something to get away."
While he doesn't have anything against Snooki and the rest of the Jersey Shore cast, he knows his show is filling a niche in today's programming. YouTube commenters send McDowell messages of support and ask for more.
One online viewer said about Dry Creek, "We need a show like this on one of the major TV networks to teach and remind everyone of the morals and values that have somehow managed to escape today's society."
Each show intertwines Florida's frontier history with a modern issue. In one of the newest episodes, "The Time Bandit," that issue is unemployment.
"I'm just so sorry, Art," railroad owner Chuck Campbell says to Art Faschan, the town's railroad president. "We're going to have to let you go. It's just better for business. Chandler can do your job for more reasonable wages."
Those words could have been spoken to anyone in today's workplace. Still, getting laid off in Dry Creek doesn't hurt quite the same as it does in 2011.
While Faschan is struggling to find a way to pay for his daughter's education in the episode, he's able to find some small jobs to put together the money. McDowell plans to bring Faschan's character back in later episodes as an artist, his true calling.
The creator wrote the episode to tell his own story. He loved his job in radio, but now he has found something he loves even more.
Filming the show has given the 19th century characters and 21st century actors a chance to find their passions.
The first season's director, Debbie Wolfe, once worked at the St. Petersburg Times. Roger James, who plays the Indian character Power for Four Mountains, couldn't get a bank to finance his business in Utah, so he came to Florida to ride bulls and create his Navajo art.
Some of the actors are trick ropers, bull riders and blacksmiths who now add acting to their list of old-world skills.
"It's easier to give a stagecoach driver some lines than teach an actor how to drive a stagecoach," McDowell said.
But half an hour of televised old-world values isn't enough to solve all the problems of today's world.
On the day of "The Time Bandit" taping, family members of former cast member Gabriel Libraty somberly walked through the set, their flip-flops and shorts standing out among the cast's long hemlines and bare feet.
It was the first time his family had seen what Libraty had been working on the spring before he was hit by a drunken driver. He died of his injuries in July.
Libraty was the show's Civil War specialist who made saddles for TV stars, both in Hollywood and Dry Creek. McDowell had written a new role for him as the owner of the saddlery shop he was going to build.
The episode taped while Libraty's family watched will be dedicated to his memory.
• • •
Dry Creek is just a TV set — storefronts propped up with 2-by-4s — and there's no guarantee how long the show will last.
The cast and crew are in the middle of filming the second season, but in this economy, money will always be tight.
"I'm not making money; I'm spending it," McDowell said, laughing. "We've built it one board at a time. I just hope it's able to continue. We've got a headwind with this economy."
The show is financed by McDowell himself. He pays for everything from the food for the cast, crew and animals to gas money, insurance and website costs.
He dipped into his savings and sold his Hummer and two motorcycles to keep the show afloat. Some think of him as a stimulus package in a Stetson.
McDowell estimated that a normal week of production would cost $40,000, but donations bring the cost down. The actors work for free, and the production crew members donate their talents. All of the clothes are handsewn by one of the cowboys, Terry Smith, and his girlfriend. Everything from the horses to the saddles is donated.
"Everyone has sacrificed," McDowell said. "We keep riding along, but sometimes it gets pretty dramatic."
When McDowell ran out of money for wood, the cast found people and businesses to donate scraps. If he runs out of money, he said he'll go back to filming with the $100 camera he used for his cowboy poetry videos. McDowell will do whatever it takes to keep alive a town that never was.
"I don't care about making a dime," he said. "What it really comes down to is Dry Creek has heart. It slows us down to look inside ourselves. In this fast world, we've just lost sight of it."