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Also Known As: Orvon Gene Autry Died: October 2, 1998
Born: September 29, 1907 Cause of Death: lymphoma
Birth Place: Tioga, Texas, USA Profession: actor, producer, singer, songwriter, author, railroad telegrapher, railroad baggage handler

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

The only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for radio, records, movies, television and live performances including rodeo and theater appearances, Gene Autry parlayed an $8 mail order guitar, charm and smooth voice into a career as Hollywood's first singing cowboy, debuting in Ken Maynard's "In Old Santa Fe" (1934). "John Wayne had made an earlier movie in which he played a singing cowboy, but he didn't do his own singing," Autry once said. The singer, who had first made his mark on the radio with his pleasant tenor voice and modest, genial personality, caught on quickly in films as the star of dozens of enjoyable B-films for Republic Studios through the 1940s with his horse Champion and sidekick Smiley Burnette. Autry's popularity was largest in small towns, the Midwest, the West and South, and even though Republic was not one of the eight "major" Hollywood studios (it WAS the biggest studio on Poverty Row), he actually made the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten box-office stars an impressive three years in a row in 1940, 1941 and 1942.Autry was working as a railroad telegrapher on the Oklahoma to Texas line when Will Rogers heard him singing and encouraged him to...

The only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for radio, records, movies, television and live performances including rodeo and theater appearances, Gene Autry parlayed an $8 mail order guitar, charm and smooth voice into a career as Hollywood's first singing cowboy, debuting in Ken Maynard's "In Old Santa Fe" (1934). "John Wayne had made an earlier movie in which he played a singing cowboy, but he didn't do his own singing," Autry once said. The singer, who had first made his mark on the radio with his pleasant tenor voice and modest, genial personality, caught on quickly in films as the star of dozens of enjoyable B-films for Republic Studios through the 1940s with his horse Champion and sidekick Smiley Burnette. Autry's popularity was largest in small towns, the Midwest, the West and South, and even though Republic was not one of the eight "major" Hollywood studios (it WAS the biggest studio on Poverty Row), he actually made the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten box-office stars an impressive three years in a row in 1940, 1941 and 1942.

Autry was working as a railroad telegrapher on the Oklahoma to Texas line when Will Rogers heard him singing and encouraged him to pursue a career in radio. Using his railroad pass, he visited NYC and knocked unsuccessfully on the doors of radio stations and record companies, returning to Tulsa to acquire experience as 'Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy' on station KVOO. He had his first gold record ("That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine") in 1931 and went on to star on the "WLS Barn Dance" in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles in 1934. In 1939 P K Wrigley, who at the time was looking for a radio show for Doublemint gum to sponsor, saw Autry's live show in Dublin and went back to his advertising department, saying he had just seen a singing cowboy draw 200,000 people in Ireland. What followed was "Melody Ranch", which aired on CBS Radio from 1939-1956. His best-selling record (and first single ever to go platinum) was "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", a song then-wife Ida Mae convinced him to record in 1949, and he also enjoyed sales of over a million for "South of the Border" and "You Are My Sunshine" (two other songs he did not write), as well as for five that he did ("Peter Cottontail", "Here Comes Santa Claus", "Tumbling Tumbleweeds", "Mexicali Rose" and his signature song, "Back in the Saddle Again").

World War II interrupted his momentum and income of $600,000 a year, and true to his white-hat tradition, Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps (during one of his "Melody Ranch" broadcasts) and went off to fly supply planes in the Far East. Finding himself supplanted at Republic by friend Roy Rogers on his return from the service, he eventually switched to Columbia ("The Last Round-Up" 1947) where he made features with new partner Pat Buttram (starting with "The Strawberry Roan" 1948). Autry then became one of the first movie stars to move into TV as star of "The Gene Autry Show" (CBS, 1950-56) and later purchased stations, first in Phoenix (KOOL) and later in Los Angeles (KLTV), to go with Phoenix and Los Angeles radio stations he had bought in the 40s and 50s (Golden West Broadcasters also included radio stations in San Francisco and Seattle). His radio station KMPC in Los Angeles had aired the Los Angeles Dodgers' games, but when the Dodgers moved to another station, the former semi-pro baseball player (once offered a chance to play in the minor leagues) bought the expansion Los Angeles Angels for $2.5 million in 1960, providing broadcast product for KMPC beginning with their inaugural season in 1961.

After more than 20 years in the saddle, Autry hung up his spurs in 1956 to concentrate on his business empire, which at the time included hotels, real estate and oil investments, in addition to his media holdings. He had never played any character but Gene Autry, a clean-cut, clean living hero who subscribed to his own Cowboy Code. Handsome, approachable and even a bit ordinary, he had also never kidded himself about his abilities, recognizing that his strengths were his very likable charm, a good sense of humor, fine horsemanship and pleasing tenor voice. His "Cowboy Code" served him just as well in business where his handshake and word stood for the integrity of his dealings. Autry considered his baseball Angels' inability to make it into a World Series the biggest disappointment of a life that knew few failures. Throughout his career, he had collected Western memorabilia and art, and when the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum opened in Los Angeles' Griffith Park in December 1988, he called it a gift to the world rather than a monument to himself.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 It's Showtime (1976) Himself
2.
 On Top of Old Smoky (1953) Gene Autry
3.
 Pack Train (1953) Gene Autry
4.
 Winning of the West (1953) Gene Autry
5.
 Goldtown Ghost Riders (1953) Gene Autry
6.
 Saginaw Trail (1953) Gene Autry
7.
 Last of the Pony Riders (1953) Gene Autry
8.
 Barbed Wire (1952) Gene Autry
9.
 Night Stage to Galveston (1952) Gene Autry
10.
 Wagon Team (1952) Gene Autry
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1923:
Went to work as a railroad baggage handler at the Ravia, Oklahoma depot, where he learned telegraphy from the station master
1927:
Heard singing by Will Rogers who advised Autry to pursue a career in radio (date approximate)
1928:
Debut as radio singer ("Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy") in Tulsa; also made first of 635 career recordings, 200 of which he wrote or co-wrote
1930:
Began singing on Sears-owned Chicago station WLS for $35 a week, appearing on such programs as "National Barn Dance" and the "National Farm and Home Hour"
1931:
Recorded "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine", a song he co-wrote; sold more than a million copies, many of which went out via the Sears, Roebuck mail-order house; record executive devised a special award that became an industry standard: the gold record
1934:
Moved to Los Angeles for film acting debut in "In Old Santa Fe"; first film with Smiley Burnette who had teamed with him previously on radio
1935:
First major role in films, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds"; gave a youngster named Roy Rogers his big break with a small role in the film
1937:
Voted the top Western star in Hollywood
:
Became a master merchandiser with Gene Autry toy guns, Western wear, comic books and bedspreads
1939:
Wrote signature song, "Back in the Saddle Again"
:
His "Melody Ranch" aired on CBS Radio
1940:
Starred in quintessential Autry film, "Melody Ranch", with Jimmy Durante, Ann Miller and George 'Gabby' Hayes; became the fourth-biggest box office attraction behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy
:
Ranked in the Top Ten of all movie boxoffice favorites
1941:
Town of Berwyn, Oklahoma officially changed its name to Gene Autry
1941:
Received Oscar nomination for Best Song for "Be Honest With Me" from the film "Ridin' on a Rainbow"
:
Served in the US Army Air Corps, ferrying cargo in the Far East; as a concession to his fame, allowed to wear his cowboy boots with his uniform
:
Following his discharge, toured extensively for the USO
:
Laid cornerstone of broadcasting empire with purchase of Phoenix radio station KPHO
1946:
Returned to films after military service
1947:
Wrote "Here Comes Santa Claus"
1947:
Original movie horse Champion (Champion I) died
1948:
First film with Pat Buttram as his sidekick, "The Strawberry Roan"
1949:
Had hit record with "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer"; second best-selling single in history, runner-up to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"
:
Formed Flying A Productions
:
Hosted "The Gene Autry Show" (CBS); show also featured movie sidekick Buttram and Champion (III)
1950:
Recorded "Peter Cottontail", which went on to sell two million copies
1952:
Bought KMPC Radio (Los Angeles) for $800,000
1952:
When Monogram Studios folded, purchased the 110-acre Santa Clarita ranch where he had made his early movies in the 1930s; renamed it Melody Ranch and continued it as a working movie set, hosting the likes of John Wayne, Gary Cooper ("High Noon" 1952), "Lone Ranger" Clayton Moore and James Arness in the long-running "Gunsmoke"
1953:
Retired from films after appearing in 93 features
:
Produced a number of TV series including "Annie Oakley", "The Adventures of Champion" and "Buffalo Bill Jr."
1960:
Bought the Los Angeles Angels professional baseball team for $2.5 million; in 1965 team renamed California Angels; became Anaheim Angels in 1997
1962:
Spectacular fire destroyed more than a $1 million worth of movie sets, including 54 buildings and countless items Autry had collected; Autry then sold all but 10 acres (reserved for Champion III, the last of his movie horses) of "Melody Ranch" to developers
1964:
Bought KTLA (Los Angeles TV station) for $12 million
1966:
Hosted the syndicated TV series "Gene Autry's Melody Ranch"
1969:
Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame
1981:
Orange County (California) Sports Hall of Fame presented him with its first Lifetime Achievement Award
1981:
Sold his interest in KOOL Radio-TV Inc (Phoenix) for $35 million
1982:
Sold Golden West's television division (Los Angeles TV station KTLA) for $245 million, acquiring full interest in the Angels baseball team, the radio broadcast division and KAUT-TV in Oklahoma City
1982:
California Angels retired uniform No. 26, signifying Autry's presence as an extra player on the club's 25-man roster
1987:
Became the only person to receive five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one each for his work in movies, TV, radio, music and theater
1988:
The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, built largely with funds from Autry's foundations, opened in Los Angeles' Grifith Park; estimated worth of collection at the time of Autry's death was $54 million
1989:
Unveiled replicas of his five Hollywood Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk in front of the Angels' stadium
1990:
Champion III died (born c. 1950); Autry sold the remaining ten acres to a movie production company
1991:
City of Anaheim named a street running into the Angels' stadium Gene Autry Way
1993:
Signature song "Back in the Saddle Again" returned to the charts as part of the soundtrack for Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle"
1994:
Sold KMPC Radio for $18 million
1995:
After years on the FORBES magazine list of the richest 400 Americans, fell to the magazine's "near miss" category with an estimated net worth of $320 million
1995:
Sold one-quarter ownership of the California Angels to Disney for $30 million; Disney had agreement to acquire Autry's remaining share of the team at his death; Walt Disney had, in fact, sat on the original Angels board when the franchise began in 1961
1998:
Attended his final California Angels game in September, less than a month before his death
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

In 1998, Autry was honored with a bronze statue at the California Angels stadium in Anaheim.

"Back in the Saddle" [the 1978 book] frankly discussed the star's onetime drinking problem: "Without knowing it, I had grown dependent on liquor to relax. Drinking was a way to celebrate ... I was always on the go, fighting another deadline, racing to another studio or a business meeting. The more tired one gets, the easier it is to look for energy in a bottle."

"When I grew up on the [railroad] line between Texas and Oklahoma, X was not a rating for dirty movies. It was the the legal signature of about a third of the population ..."

"I was 12 when I ordered my first guitar out of the worn and discolored pages of the Sears and 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." --Gene Autry quoted in Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1998.

"When I went into the Air Force, I thought to myself: 'Last year--it was 1940 or 1942--you made half a million dollars out of six pictures, weekly radio for Wrigley's, personal appearances, records. Suddenly it all drops to a tech sergeant's pay of $145 a month.'

"If it hadn't been for royalties from my records and endorsements, I couldn't have survived.

"That should have been a lesson not only for me but for every performer and athlete. I was OK as long as I was performing. But supposing my voice went haywire, or I became ill and couldn't work. That's when I decided to get into some kind of business." --From The San Francisco Chronicle obituary, October 3, 1998.

Asked in 1992 what he considered his proudest accomplishment, Autry replied: "I've always maintained a good association with all the people that I've worked with on everything."

"I'll always harbor this secret feeling that he gave up when the Angels didn't make it this year (collapsing in the last week of the season)." --Dick Clark, widely quoted at the time of Autry's death

"He [Autry] used to ride off into the sunset. Now he owns it." --quote attributed to Pat Buttram, widely repeated at the time of Autry's death

"My biggest disappointment was not being able to win it for him in '82 and '86. I always remember he promoted good feeling among the players and coaches." --Gene Mauch, former Angels manager who won two American League West Championships but was unable to lead the team to a World Series

Gene Autry's Cowboy Code: The Cowboy must ... Never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage. Never go back on his word or a trust confided in him. Always tell the truth. Be gentle with children, the elderly and animals. Not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas. Help people in distress. Be a good worker. Keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits. Respect women, parents and his nation's laws. Be a patriot.

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Ina Mae Spivey. Schoolteacher. Married from 1932 until her death in 1980; Autry co-wrote "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine" with Spivey's uncle, Jimmy Long; terms of her will required Autry to sell off her portion of their community property and put her share of the money in a charitable trust, The Autry Foundation.
wife:
Jackie Ellam. Former banker. Married in 1981; born c. 1942; survived him; instrumental in opening the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum.

Family close complete family listing

sister:
Veda Autry. Survived him.

Bibliography close complete biography

"Back in the Saddle Again"

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