The Singing Cowboy
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Date Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 09:10:14am
Cowboy Tycoon Gene Autry Dies
The Los Angeles Times
October 3, 1998
Gene Autry, the singing cowboy superstar of the silver screen, media entrepreneur and original owner of the Anaheim Angels, died Friday. He was 91.
Autry, who also founded the 10-year-old Autry Museum of Western Heritage, died at his home in Studio City after a long illness, according to Karla Buhlman, vice president of Gene Autry Entertainment. His death came three days after his 91st birthday and three months after that of his celluloid rival and friend Roy Rogers.
Viewed as the kindly gentleman in the white hat, Autry was the only entertainer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame--one each for films (more than 90 of them), recordings (635), television (91 episodes of "The Gene Autry Show") and radio (16 seasons of "Melody Ranch"), and one for live performance.
He was enormously successful at almost anything he tried--radio, records, songwriting, television, real estate and business, as well as movies and museums. He ranked on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans for several years and in 1990 was the elite group's only entertainer. By 1995 he had slipped into the "near miss" category with an estimated net worth of $320 million.
To moviegoers in the 1930s and '40s, Autry was a red-blooded American hero whose films featured a dashing horse, Champion, a flood of happy endings and simple Western songs.
In the world of baseball, he was "the Cowboy," one of the most popular owners in sports, who purchased the rights to the expansion Angels, spending his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion. He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died.
To historians, preservationists, artists and lovers of Western lore, Autry was the man who could package the Old West for future generations. Always a collector, he contributed his own memorabilia and art as well as the money and vision for his Griffith Park museum. Along with the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, where he was formerly chairman of the board, the Autry Museum has become a classic Western showcase.
Despite a lack of formal education, Autry became a business tycoon when he retired from show business in the mid-1950s, holding a majority interest in Golden West Broadcasters radio and television stations, a national radio time sales firm and major hotels, as well as the Angels.
But it was feature films and a movie serial titled "The Phantom Empire" in 1935 that catapulted Autry from an obscure telegraph operator in Oklahoma to one of Hollywood's most successful and best-loved entertainers.
Humble Beginnings in Rural Texas
Autry's movies all had the same basic plots--save the good guys from the bad guys, never kiss the leading lady or shoot first, sing a song and ride off into the sunset. Autry often joked that his films were so simple "we could do them in a week." But they exhibited a certain charm and have endured nearly 50 years. Many are still shown on late-night TV.
Orvon Gene Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907, in Tioga, Texas, population fewer than 500. "When I grew up on the [railroad] line between Texas and Oklahoma, X was not a rating for dirty movies," Autry once said. "It was the legal signature of about a third of the population."
An associate once said of Autry's education: "It was high school, newspapers and experience." Autry often read two or three papers a day, all the way through the classified ads.
He began singing in the church choir at age 5 and was taught to play guitar by his mother when he was 12.
In his autobiography, "Back in the Saddle Again," Autry described his musical beginnings.
"I was 12 when I ordered my first guitar out of the worn and discolored pages of a Sears, Roebuck catalog. The story that I bought it on the installment plan is untrue, the invention of a Hollywood press agent. Local color. I paid cash, $8, money I had saved as a hired hand on my uncle Calvin's farm, baling and stacking hay. Prairie hay, used as feed for the cattle in winter. It was mean work for a wiry boy, but ambition made me strong."
In 1927, Will Rogers stopped by the telegraph office in Chelsea, Okla., and heard Autry playing his guitar. Autry sang a few songs for Rogers, and the humorist advised him to go to New York and get a job on radio.
After one unsuccessful audition there, Autry took a job at a Tulsa, Okla., radio station and became known as Oklahoma's Yodelin' Cowboy. And Oklahoma always remembered Autry, even naming a town for him recently.
He was signed to a record contract in 1929. Two years later, Autry made his first salable record, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," a tune he co-wrote with Jimmy Long. It sold more than 1 million copies, and a record executive devised a special award that became an industry standard: the gold record. Later, the platinum record had to be invented for Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which sold more than 25 million copies and remains the third-biggest-selling single in history.
Autry's other million-sellers were "Peter Cottontail," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "You Are My Sunshine," "South of the Border," "Mexicali Rose" and his theme song, "Back in the Saddle Again."
In the past few years, his music has received renewed interest and been reissued in CD collections including: "The Essential Gene Autry: 1933-1946" in 1992, "Gene Autry Christmas" in 1994, "Gene Autry: Blues Singer" in 1996 and "Gene Autry: Sing Cowboy Sing" late last year.
Ironically, Autry didn't want to record "Rudolph." But his first wife, Ina, who died in 1980, sold him on the idea. "I wasn't crazy about it, but she thought the kids would really like it."
"Rudolph" was cut in one take during the last few minutes of a recording session in 1949.
Autry's film career began in 1934 when he first went to Hollywood to sing one song in a Ken Maynard Western, "In Old Santa Fe."
"The Phantom Empire" series began the next year, and Autry was on his way.
A Film Role for Roy Rogers
In 1935, he also made "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," considered the first singing-cowboy movie. He gave a youngster named Roy Rogers his big break with a role in that film, and the two became fast friends despite their box-office rivalry. Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, were among those honoring Autry at his 90th birthday party a year ago.
Autry's movie sidekick was Smiley Burnette, who appeared in 81 of Autry's more than 90 pictures. On television, Burnette's place was taken by Pat Buttram. Autry outlived them both and mourned their passing, as he did Rogers'.
In 1938, Autry starred in "Melody Ranch" with Jimmy Durante, Ann Miller and George "Gabby" Hayes. It is considered the classic Autry movie.
His success was unusual in that his early pictures were not popular in major metropolitan areas. But rural America was another story. He had tremendous appeal throughout small towns.
Each year he made personal appearances at as many local fairs as he could pack into his schedule. He later was the promoter for the first professional rodeo in the nation.
From 1937 through 1942, Autry was voted the top Western star in Hollywood. No cowboy had ever done as well.
"My friends kidded me about going so far on such modest talent," Autry said. "I always agreed with them. I had no illusions about my films, nor did I consider myself anything special as an actor or a singer.
"I always used my own name. I wasn't like John Wayne [a close friend]. He could be one character in one movie and somebody else in the next movie. I think the image was good for me. My movies were always clean. There was never anything obnoxious in them that might offend anybody."
In 1939, Autry took his show to Dublin, Ireland, where a crowd of more than 200,000 lined the streets to see the American cowboy star.
"P.K. Wrigley saw him in Dublin," George Goodale, a late Angels aide, once said. "At the time, he was looking for a radio show for Doublemint gum to sponsor.
"He went back to his advertising department in Chicago and told them he had just seen a singing cowboy draw 200,000 in Ireland. What followed was the 'Melody Ranch Show' on CBS Radio." It became a weekend listening tradition for 16 years.
Showing his ability to capitalize on his success, Autry became the first star to endorse a mail order product--a guitar. He later became the first film star to go into television.
By 1941, Autry was making $600,000 a year from movies, recordings, radio and personal appearances.
But World War II erupted and Autry decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps.
"I didn't intend to look for some loophole to keep me out," Autry said in his biography. "There was nothing noble about it. I would have much rather kept counting my money and firing blanks. But there didn't seem to me to be any choice. If you were healthy and able, you either served or learned how to shave in the dark."
Autry was 35. He served in the Air Transport Command as a flight officer until the war ended in 1945.
He made $125 a month in the service, a pay cut of about $598,000 a year.
"It started me thinking," he said. "If it hadn't been for royalties from such things as sweatshirts, pistols, boots, hats and records, I would have been a mess.
"I knew I could make good money as long as I could work. But suppose I was incapacitated? Where would I get my income? I decided I better start investing in some business."
Years before, when he was still a railroad telegrapher, Autry had taken a correspondence course in business administration.
"I had to learn to figure freight rates," he said. "I had to be able to keep the books balanced."
Autry became enough of an accountant through the courses so that he later was able to check his own box-office receipts.
Autry liked to tell this story about his philosophy:
"Whenever a lone cowboy or Indian needed to take a long journey by horseback, it was customary for him to ride on a saddled horse while leading another bareback. When his mount began to tire, instead of stopping for a rest, he merely slipped the saddle onto the spare horse and rode on. In just about that way I eased out of my life as a performer and began to devote my full energy to business. I just changed horses."
Branching Out Into Business
Near the end of the war, Autry bought radio station KPHO in Phoenix. Shortly thereafter, he acquired a television station in Phoenix, KOOL. His radio and TV empire began to grow. He purchased KMPC for $800,000 in 1952 and KTLA for $12 million in 1964. He sold KMPC in 1984 for a reported $18 million and KTLA in 1982 for $245 million. His Golden West Broadcasters had also included radio stations in San Francisco and Seattle.
At one point, Autry owned a string of hotels, including the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, the Ocotillo Inn and Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs, the Sahara Inn in Chicago and the Hotel Continental in Hollywood. He also had land and oil investments throughout the country.
He had maintained a second home in the Autry Hotel until earlier this year, when he sold it to Merv Griffin.
A former business associate, Bob Reynolds, described Autry this way: "He's the hardest-working guy I've ever seen. He's also easy to sit down with and talk with and arrive at a decision with. It's partially because he's so even-tempered.
"He has a great ability to attract people to him and he also had a great faculty for instilling loyalty. He demands loyalty from everyone, but in turn he gives it right back."
Maxine Hansen, who worked as Autry's secretary in recent years, said Friday he was "a very gentle, sweet man . . . a real treasure. He had the most beautiful smile that could light up the whole day."
She said that when she was packing up his office items at the KTLA building on Sunset Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue after Autry sold KTLA, she was sitting on the floor sorting records. Autry saw her pull out "The One Rose" and started singing it.
"He just burst into song," she said. "I thought, 'This is a special moment for me.' There he was in his cowboy hat singing this beautiful song. He really was a cowboy in a white hat."
In the past few years, the aging, infirm Autry and his long-time business associate and second wife, Jackie Ellam Autry, whom he married in 1981, had been selling off their property. In 1995, he even agreed to sell his beloved Angels. Disney purchased 25% and assumed control, with an agreement to acquire the remaining rights to the team at Autry's death.
The Cowboy got into baseball in 1960--through the back door.
"I was always a frustrated ballplayer," he said. "I played semi-pro baseball in Oklahoma. I could hit good, but wasn't very fast.
"We'd always been known as a sports station at KMPC," Autry said. "We'd been carrying the Dodgers for three years, but they went to another station and left us without a ballclub.
"A group headed by Hank Greenberg [the former baseball player] seemed in line for a new [expansion] American League franchise, but its bid collapsed. We decided to protect ourselves and buy the club rather than broadcast someone else's games, promote them, build them up and [then] have them switch somewhere else after three years."
So Golden West Broadcasters formed a subsidiary, Golden West Baseball Co., and on Dec. 5, 1960, Autry and Reynolds joined the American League as co-owners of the then-Los Angeles Angels. They paid $2.5 million. At the time of the Disney purchase agreement, the team was valued at $120 million.
The Angels played one year at old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, moved to Dodger Stadium for four seasons, and in 1966 went to the new Anaheim Stadium and changed their name to the California Angels. They became the Anaheim Angels in 1997.
"For sure," Autry said after years of failing to capture a pennant, "baseball has been the most exciting and frustrating experience of my life. In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball, I hardly ever won one."
Read more at: http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-gene-autry-19981003-story.html
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