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Gene Autry
(September 29, 1907 – October 2, 1998)

Orvon Grover Autry, better known as Gene Autry, was an American performer who gained fame as The Singing Cowboy on the radio, in movies and on television for more than three decades beginning in the 1930s.  Autry was also owner of the Los Angeles/California Angels Major League Baseball team from 1961 to 1997, a television station and several radio stations in Southern California.

Gene AutryAlthough his signature song was "Back in the Saddle Again", Autry is best known today for his Christmas holiday songs, "Here Comes Santa Claus" (which he wrote), "Frosty the Snowman", and his biggest hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".

He is a member of both the Country Music and Nashville Songwriters halls of fame, and is the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Biography

Autry, the grandson of a Methodist preacher, was born near Tioga, Texas. His parents, Delbert Autry and Elnora Ozment, moved to Ravia, Oklahoma in the 1920s. He worked on his father's ranch while at school. After leaving high school in 1925, Autry worked as a telegrapher for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway.

Talent with the guitar and his voice led to performing at local dances.

Early career

Singing

While working as a telegrapher, Autry would sing and accompany himself on the guitar to pass the lonely hours, especially when he had the midnight shift. One night he got encouragement to sing professionally from a customer, the famous humorist and wit, Will Rogers, who had heard Autry singing.

As soon as he could collect money to travel, he went to New York. He auditioned for Victor Records, at just about the time (end of 1928) it became RCA Victor. According to Nathaniel Shilkret, director of Light Music for Victor at the time, Autry asked to speak to Shilkret when Autry found that he had been turned down. Shilkret explained to Autry that he was turned down not because of his voice, but because Victor had just made contracts with two similar singers.

Autry left with a letter of introduction from Shilkret and the advice to sing on radio to gain experience and to come back in a year or two. In 1928 Autry was singing on Tulsa’s radio station KVOO as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy," and the Victor archives shows an October 9, 1929, entry stating that the vocal duet of Jimmie Long and Gene Autry with two Hawaiian guitars, directed by L. L. Watson, recorded “My Dreaming of You” (Matrix 56761) and “My Alabama” (Matrix 56762).

Autry signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1929. He worked in Chicago, Illinois, on the WLS-AM radio show National Barn Dance for four years, and with his own show, where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. In his early recording career, Autry covered various genres, including a labor song, "The Death of Mother Jones" in 1931.

Autry also recorded many "hillbilly"-style records in 1930 and 1931 in New York City, which were certainly different in style and content from his later recordings. These were much closer in style to the Prairie Ramblers or Dick Justice, and included the "Do Right Daddy Blues" and "Black Bottom Blues", both similar to "Deep Elem Blues". These late-Prohibition era songs deal with bootlegging, corrupt police, and women whose occupation was certainly vice. These recordings are generally not heard today, but are available on European import labels, such as JSP Records.

His first hit was in 1932 with "That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine", a duet with fellow railroad man, Jimmy Long, which was parodied by Sesame Street as "that furry blue mommy of mine"

Autry also sang the classic Ray Whitley hit "Back In The Saddle Again," as well as many Christmas holiday songs including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," his own composition "Here Comes Santa Claus", "Frosty the Snowman", and his biggest hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".

Autry was the original owner of Challenge Records. The label's biggest hit was "Tequila" by The Champs in 1958, which started the rock-and-roll instrumental craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He sold the label soon after, but the maroon and later green label has the "GA" in a shield above the label name.

Autry made 640 recordings, including more than 300 songs written or co-written by him. His records sold more than 100 million copies and he has more than a dozen gold and platinum records, including the first record ever certified gold.

Films

Discovered by film producer Nat Levine in 1934, Autry and Burnette made their film debut for Mascot Pictures Corp. in In Old Santa Fe as part of a singing cowboy quartet; he was then given the starring role by Levine in 1935 in the 12-part serial The Phantom Empire. Shortly thereafter, Mascot was absorbed by the newly-formed Republic Pictures Corp., and Autry went along to make a further 44 films up to 1940, all B Westerns in which he played under his own name, rode his horse Champion, had Burnette as his regular sidekick, and had many opportunities to sing in each film.

Pat Buttram was picked by Gene Autry, recently returned from his World War II service in the Army Air Force, to work with him. Buttram would co-star with Gene Autry in more than 40 films, and in over 100 episodes of Autry's television show

In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars poll, Autry was listed every year from 1936 to 1942 and 1946 to 1954 (he was serving in the US Army Air Corps 1943–45), holding first place 1937 to 1942, and second place (after Roy Rogers) 1947 to 1954. He appeared in the similar Box Office poll from 1936 to 1955, holding first place from 1936 to 1942 and second place (after Rogers) from 1943 to 1952 While these two polls are really an indication only of the popularity of series stars, Autry also appeared in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films from 1940 to 1942, His Gene Autry Flying "A" Ranch Rodeo show debuted in 1940.

Gene Autry was the first of the singing cowboys in films, succeeded as the top star by Roy Rogers when he served in World War II. Autry briefly returned to Republic after the war to finish out his contract, which had been suspended for the duration of his military service and which he had tried to have declared void after his discharge. He appeared in 1951 in the film Texans Never Cry, with a role for newcomer Mary Castle. After 1951 he formed his own production company to make Westerns under his own control, which continued the 1947 distribution agreement with Columbia Pictures.

Melody Ranch

Autry purchased the 110 acre Monogram Movie Ranch in 1953, located in Placerita Canyon near Newhall, California in the northern San Gabriel Mountains foothills. He renamed it the Melody Ranch after his movie Melody Ranch. Autry then sold 98 acres of the property, most of the original ranch. The Western town, adobes, and ranch cabin sets and open land for location shooting were retained as a movie ranch on 12 acres. A decade after he purchased Melody Ranch, a brushfire swept through in August 1962, destroying most of the original standing sets. However, the devastated landscape did prove useful for productions such as Combat!. A complete adobe ranch survived at the northeast section of the ranch.

In 1990, after his favorite horse Champion, who lived in retirement there died, Autry put the remaining 12 acre ranch up for sale. It is now known as the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio and Melody Ranch Studios on 22 acres. The ranch has Melody Ranch Museum open year-round; and one weekend a year the entire ranch is open to the public during the Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, another legacy of Autry's multi-talents.

Radio and TV

From 1940 to 1956, Autry had a huge hit with a weekly show on CBS Radio, Gene Autry's Melody Ranch. His horse, Champion, also had a CBS-TV and Mutual radio series, The Adventures of Champion. He created the Cowboy Code, or Cowboy Commandments, in response to his young radio listeners aspiring to emulate him. Under his code, the Cowboy must:

  1. Never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage;
  2. Never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him;
  3. Always tell the truth;
  4. Be gentle with children, the elderly and animals;
  5. Not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas;
  6. Help people in distress;
  7. Be a good worker;
  8. Keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits;
  9. Respect women, parents and his nation's laws;
  10. Be a patriot.

Beginning in 1950, he produced and starred in his own television show on CBS, and made several appearances on ABC-TV's Jubilee USA in the late 1950s.

Military career

Autry served as a C-47 Skytrain pilot in the United States Army Air Forces, with the rank of flight officer in the Air Transport Command during World War II flying dangerous missions over the Himalayas, nicknamed the Hump, between Burma and China.

Rodeo

Few are aware of Autry's longtime involvement in professional rodeo. In 1942 Autry, at the height of his screen popularity, had a string of rodeo stock based in Ardmore, Oklahoma. A year later he became a partner in the World Championship Rodeo Company, which furnished livestock for many of the country’s major rodeos.

In 1954 he acquired Montana’s top bucking string from the estate of Leo J. Cremer, Sr. and put Canadian saddle bronc riding champion Harry Knight in charge of the operation. A merger with the World Championship Rodeo Company in 1956 made Autry the sole owner. He moved the entire company to a 24,000-acre ranch near Fowler, Colorado, with Knight as the working partner in the operation.

For the next 12 years they provided livestock for most of the major rodeos in Texas, Colorado, Montana and Nebraska. When the company was sold in 1968, both men continued to be active in rodeo. For his work as a livestock contractor, Autry was inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.

Retirement

Autry retired from show business in 1964, having made almost 100 films up to 1955, and over 600 records. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969, and to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. After retiring, he invested widely and in real estate, radio, and television, including the purchase from dying Republic Pictures the rights for films he had made for the company.

In 1952, Autry bought the old Monogram Ranch in Placerita Canyon (Newhall-Santa Clarita, California) and renamed it Melody Ranch. Numerous "B" Westerns and TV shows were shot there during Autry's ownership, including the initial years of Gunsmoke with James Arness.

Melody Ranch burned down in 1962, dashing Autry's plans to turn it into a museum. According to a published story by Autry, the fire caused him to turn his attention to Griffith Park, where he would build his Museum of Western Heritage (now known as the Autry National Center).

Melody Ranch came back to life after 1991, when it was purchased by the Veluzat family and rebuilt. It survives as a movie location today as well as the home of the City of Santa Clarita's annual Cowboy Festival, where Autry's legacy takes center stage.

Baseball owner

In the 1950s, Autry had been a minority owner of the minor-league Hollywood Stars. In 1960, when Major League Baseball announced plans to add an expansion team in Los Angeles, Autry—who had once declined an opportunity to play in the minor leagues—expressed an interest in acquiring the radio broadcast rights to the team's games. Baseball executives were so impressed by his approach that he was persuaded to become the owner of the franchise rather than simply its broadcast partner. The team, initially called the Los Angeles Angels upon its 1961 debut, moved to suburban Anaheim in 1966, and was re-named the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels from 1997 until 2005, when it became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Autry served as vice president of the American League from 1983 until his death. In 1995 he sold a quarter share of the team to The Walt Disney Company, and a controlling interest the following year, with the remaining share to be transferred after his death. Earlier, in 1982, he sold Los Angeles television station KTLA for $245 million.[citation needed] He also sold several radio stations he owned, including KSFO in San Francisco, KMPC in Los Angeles, KOGO in San Diego, and other stations in the Golden West radio network.

The number 26 (as in 26th man) was retired by the Angels in Autry's honor. The chosen number reflected that baseball's rosters are 25-man strong, so Autry's unflagging support for his team made him the 26th member.

Death

Included for many years on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, he slipped to their "near miss" category in 1995 with an estimated net worth of $320 million. Gene Autry died of lymphoma 3 days after his 91st birthday at his home in Studio City, California and is interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, Plot: Sheltering Hills section, Grave 1048, just in front of one of the statues

His death on October 2, 1998 came fewer than three months after the death of another celebrated cowboy of the silver screen, radio, and TV, Roy Rogers.

Personal life

In 1932 he married Ina May Spivey (who died in 1980), who was the niece of Jimmy Long. In 1981 he married Jacqueline Ellam, who had been his banker. He had no children by either marriage.

Legacy

In 1972, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Autry was a life member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Burbank Lodge No. 1497. His 1976 autobiography, co-written by Mickey Herskowitz, was titled Back in the Saddle Again after his 1939 hit and signature tune. He is also featured year after year, on radio and "shopping mall music" at the holiday season, by his recording of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer". "Rudolph" became the first #1 hit of the 1950s. CMT in 2003 ranked him #38 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music.

When the Anaheim Angels won their first World Series in 2002, much of the championship was dedicated to him. The interchange of Interstate 5 and State Route 134, located near the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, is signed as the "Gene Autry Memorial Interchange." In 2007, he became a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.

Johnny Cash recorded a song in 1978 about Autry called "Who is Gene Autry." Cash also got Autry to sign his famous black Martin D-35 guitar, which he plays in the video for "Hurt".

Autry was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2004, the Starz Entertainment Corporation joined forces with the Autry estate to restore all of his films, which have been shown on Starz's Encore Western Channel on cable television on a regular basis to date since.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Autry is the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one in each of the five categories maintained by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

The Museum of the American West

The Museum of the American West in Los Angeles' Griffith Park was founded in 1988 as the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, featuring much of his collection of Western art and memorabilia. Its mission is to preserve everything related to the "mythic aspects" of the American "old West" from true historical lifestyles to the 70-year saga of the Hollywood Western movie genre.


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