Martial arts meets marshal arts
Whether it’s martial arts or marshal arts, Ralph Castellanos is not someone you would want to cross.
Thinking about starting trouble at the Horizon Casino Resort? Well, that gray-haired guy coming toward you is a kick-boxing expert, he’s armed, and he’s wearing a badge. Perhaps you should try somewhere else.
Yes, Castellanos, 63, has been kicking people out of the Horizon at gunpoint for nearly a decade – exclusively, as far as is known, as a member of the casino’s annual wild-west show. He packs a pair of replica 1867 Colt 45s and knows how to use them. And he’s a karate expert, having run his own martial arts studio in South Shore for several years.
But underneath the foreboding exterior, Castellanos is the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. His forays into trick shooting and self-defense have taught him more about staying out of trouble than getting into it.
“What I teach my students is that we are all here as a test for each other,” said Castellanos. “Martial arts is a way of life, not a way of violence. It’s about peace and control.
“And I learned the hard way about that.”
Castellanos, a South Lake Tahoe resident, has been a security officer at the Horizon for 19 years, and he’s been a Western gunfighter recreationist for about 10 years. He’s the organizer and star performer of a popular Western saloon-brawl show at the Horizon every July, in which he and some friends create a mock shoot-’em-up during the annual Rib Cook-Off in the Horizon parking lot. Castellanos and his group travel all over the state – and have even been to Japan – to perform their Old West benefit shows.
He also teaches martial arts, a skill he picked up after returning from a stint in the Navy when he was 21.
“I was young and in a bad marriage, and used to get drunk and into fights all the time,” said Castellanos. “I had taken a couple of (martial arts) classes in Japan while in the service, and when I got back home (San Jose), I started to get serious about it and went to karate school.
“But what I found was that karate made me aware of a lot of things. I got in touch with my anger and basically I made peace with myself. It opened my eyes.”
Castellanos came to South Lake Tahoe in 1980 with the idea of becoming a bartender.
“But there were no jobs, so I got into security,” he said. “I’ve been there ever since.”
It was about that time that he became interested in Old West gunfighting – staging mock shootouts for charity benefits and store openings and the like. In 1990, he put together a skit about a marshal kicking people out of a casino, and performed it at the Horizon.
It was a hit, and he’s been doing Western skits at the casino ever since – the biggest one occurring at the annual Rib Cook-Off each July.
“Ralph has taught me a lot, and we have a lot of fun.” said John “Midnight” Pegis, who has been performing with Castellanos for nine years, and is himself a black belt in karate. “The idea is to have fun and tell a story. The people seem to like it.”
Castellanos seems to glow when interacting with the children who watch the shows.
“Some of them ask me if I’m a real cowboy,” he said. “And I say, ‘I am today.'”
He has two grown children of his own – Christina, 25, and Nathan, 21. Another son, Ralph, died at age 17.
“I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason,” Castellanos said. “A lot of what I do in the show is dedicated to Ralph.”
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