Spade Cooley, was an American Western swing musician, big band leader, actor, and television personality. The career ended in 1961 when Spade Cooley murdered his wife, Ella Mae Evans. Cooley appeared in thirty-eight Western films, both in bit parts and as a stand-in for cowboy actor Roy Rogers.
Beginning in June 1948, Cooley began hosting a variety show on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, California broadcast from the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom. The show became a mainstay of television in the area, and won local Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953. Guests included Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. The Hoffman Hayride was so popular that an estimated 75 percent of all televisions in the L.A. area were tuned into the show each Saturday night. Although by 1956 Lawrence Welk was achieving increasing success at the nearby Aragon Ballroom, Cooley’s ratings continued to drop, largely due to declining interest in western swing music.
In 1959, Cooley’s television show was cancelled. Throughout his career, he was known to imbibe and go off the drunken deep end. Sometimes the victims were his bandmates, who’d drunkenly fire and then apologetically seek out the next day. Other times, they were his family. Most notably, his wife Ella Mae took the brunt of his abusive, cowardly attacks.
Cooley suspected his second wife, Ella Mae Cooley, (who had been a singer in his band before they married 15 years earlier, of repeatedly being unfaithful. In March 1961, she told a friend she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or 1953. She soon asked Cooley, who had had many of his own affairs, for a divorce.
On April 26, 1961, Cooley was indicted by a Kern County grand jury for the murder of his wife on April 3 at the couple’s Willow Springs ranch home. Cooley’s then 14-year-old daughter, Melody, recounted to the jury how Spade Cooley murdered her mother. She said she was forced by her father to watch in terror as her father beat her mother’s head against the floor, stomped on her stomach, then crushed a lit cigarette against her skin to see whether she was dead. Cooley claimed his wife had been injured by falling in the shower.
In 1968, only 7 years into his life sentence for the murder of his wife, Cooley received unanimous votes granting his parole from Vacaville in 1970. Cooley had suffered a heart attack years earlier, and his declining health combined with nostalgic popularity certainly gave him the upper hand. As a show of thanks, he agreed to perform a charity function in Oakland in November 1969. Cooley performed the first half of his show to a rousing standing ovation. As he walked offstage for intermission, Cooley suffered his second heart attack and died on the spot. He was scheduled to walk free in less than 4 months.
At 3:00 a.m. on April 4, 1961 in a small room of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department substation in Mojave, California, Spade Cooley was interviewed by Harman Cooper, a Kern County Sheriff’s Department detective. Also present was Sergeant Thomas Shuell. The statement lasted for one hour or until 4:10 a.m.