He wears big spurs that jingle-jangle-jingle as he walks the hallways of his South City dreamchild, the Silver Spur, billed as "the Midwestern United States Home for Retired Cowboys and Cowgirls."
That bold claim is pure overstatement, carved into an elaborate Plexiglas-encased sign that includes a wagon wheel, fake six-shooters, an ersatz lever-action rifle and the infamous dead man's poker hand -- aces over eights -- Wild Bill Hickok was holding when "Broken Nose" Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Even though Joe Arena's assisted-living home sits at the corner of Utah Street and Texas Avenue, there are no retired bronc busters or barrel racers among the 34 residents housed in the two-story corner building, which started out as a one-doctor hospital back in 1898. Instead, the denizens of the Silver Spur are challenged by mental and physical infirmities that make it impossible for them to live on their own anymore.
"I call them desperadoes," says Arena, 55, sporting a leather vest with snakeskin inserts, a pearl speed-snap shirt and lots and lots of turquoise-and-silver jewelry. "These are our outlaws and dancehall girls."
They live in fourteen shared rooms that bear the names of such Old West luminaries as Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean, Doc Holliday and Buffalo Bill Cody and pass by a mock jail cell fronted by the bars from the Beatrice, Nebraska, jail that held Hickok after he killed three men in a gunfight -- killings that were ruled self-defense. Residents can also kill time around the whiskey-barrel tables of the Gilded Lady Saloon, a common room with bullets hammered into wooden wall beams.
No redeye or who-shot-John served here, though. Residents can wander down to the mock general store and take a look at Cody's fringed gloves, a human scalp Arena swears was lifted from a settler, a moonshine still and other gewgaws he has collected over the years and placed in display cases.
All are hallmarks of a cowboy fixation that has gripped Arena since childhood, a Gunsmoke obsession he shares with his father, Joe Sr., a retired riverboat engineer. A decade or so ago, father and son picked up the quick-draw tricks of the pistoleros who staged mock gunfights for tourists at a now-defunct attraction down Eureka way, Poco Loco Western Town.
"I'm a baby boomer," says Joe Jr. "I watched Roy Rogers on TV, and Hopalong Cassidy. I've always been fascinated by the Western gunfighters. They had to be gutsy to step out in the street at 27 paces and face each other down."
How this fascination got translated into an Old West home for assisted living is a story that spans three decades. Arena's parents, Joe and Helen, bought the building back in 1975. Mother, son and a daughter all had experience in nursing homes and decided to give it a go as owners.
In 1988, Joe Jr.'s parents retired, and he and his two sisters took over. One night, around midnight, Arena awoke with an Old West vision for the place.
"It just came to me," he says. "I said, 'What if I just ripped this thing apart and made it Old West, a Six Flags atmosphere?' I called my parents, woke them up and said, 'What do you think about this?' They said, 'Great. Let's do it.' "
Easier dreamed than done, though. To rip out cheap paneling, suspended ceilings and ancient wiring and replace them with flame-retardant-laced beams and white plaster fill-ins that replicate the chinking of a log home cost Arena about $20,000 a room -- about $10,000 over the average nursing-home setup. He and his sisters inched the project along as money permitted. They only have three rooms to go.
"If I knew then what I know now, I might not have done this," says Arena. "Many a time I said, 'Boy, I hope I'm not laying an egg here,' but it really took off. I've been in nursing homes, and they're so depressing, and they don't have to be that way. I wanted to get away from the same-old-same-old. I was trying to make a place where people were happy to be here."
Residents seem to groove on the Old West theme and the care they receive in the small-scale facility.
"I love it," says Frances Renneke, 69, a retired waitress who shares the Wyatt Earp Cabin with two other female residents and has lived at the Silver Spur for six years. "It puts you in a good mood to go to sleep."
Pat Jamison, 56, a disabled security guard with kidney disease that forces him to undergo dialysis three times a week, agrees.
"This is a lot better than a nursing home," says Jamison, who moved to the Silver Spur in November. "I realized I couldn't take care of myself, so I thought living in a place like this would help. I got to the point where just washing dishes or clothes was the effort of Hercules."
Regina Bradley, 40, is a medical technician at the Silver Spur with about twelve years as a nursing-home staff member on her résumé. Her other jobs depressed her. This one doesn't.
"I've never seen anything like it," she says. "Joe just comes up with more and more ideas with each room he remodels. The difference to me between here and other nursing homes is the smell -- too many people, too many bosses, too many residents, too much to give good care."
Even the state's nursing-home inspectors buy into the Silver Spur theme and say Arena runs a good outfit.
"It's different," says Pam Clark, regional manager of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services office that inspects homes such as the Silver Spur. "Its ambience, its motif -- it's definitely different from the standard."
Only one thing is bothersome about Joe Arena's Old West obsession, says Trish Pate, his sister-in-law and a Silver Spur administrator.
"The only thing I don't like is when he wears those spurs in here," she says. "I'm afraid he'll trip and fall and they'll wind up somewhere painful."