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Singing Cowboys - Star of the Month
Remind Me

Gene Autry
5 Films - Friday, July 8

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.

Biographical data provided by TCMdb