Sagebrushing Up on the Past at the Big A

Times Staff Writer

During his heyday as "America's favorite singing cowboy," Gene Autry adhered to a strict set of standards for his on-screen character.

He called it the Cowboy's Code.

That meant the white-hatted hero of 93 sagebrush sagas would never shoot first, hit first, hit a smaller man, down a shot of whiskey, smoke, or kiss the leading lady.

Of course, there were a few early exceptions.

"To start with, there were a couple of girls I kissed in a picture," concedes Autry, "but the kids wrote letters. We got letters from so many people. They thought it was sissy for me, a two-fisted cowboy, to go around kissing, so that was more or less eliminated. The kids like action. They like the fights and they like the chases on the horses."

All the grown-up buckaroos who spent Saturday afternoons watching Gene Autry and his fellow movie cowboys win the West during the '30s, '40s and '50s will have a chance to relive a part of their childhoods Friday at Anaheim Stadium.

As part of the All-Star Celebration Week, the Angels will be hosts of a pregame salute to Western heritage.

Beginning at 6:45 p.m. are country and mariachi bands, a parade of equestrian units and enough old Western stars to cast a prairie schooner version of "The Love Boat": Clayton Moore, Cameron Mitchell, George Montgomery, Casey Tibbs, Cliffie Stone, Buddy Ebsen, Monte Hale, Rex Allen, Eddie Dean, Denver Pyle, Iron Eyes Cody and Autry's old sidekick, Pat Buttram.

"We'll have rearing horses and all that kind of stuff--it'll really be the color and pageantry of the Old West," said Johnny Grant, who is producing the All-Star Celebration Week events.

Grant has even lined up Glen Campbell, who rode with John Wayne in "True Grit," to sing the national anthem.

But the highlight of the evening, for Autry fans at least, will be a rare public appearance by Autry's four-legged former co-star, Champion.

Actually, it will be one of three horses Autry used in films. The original Champion died while Autry was in the service during World War II. The surviving Champion, a still-healthy 39-year-old, lives on Autry's ranch near Newhall.

Character actor Richard Farnsworth, who appeared in a number of Autry Westerns, will lead Champion onto the field. It will be the horse's first public appearance with Autry in more than 25 years.

"I think it will be a very sentimental moment for a lot of folks," said Grant.

And that includes Buttram.

In a voice someone once described as sounding as though it never quite got through puberty, Buttram said in a phone interview: "I'm anxious to see Champion. The sidekick always had to ride a little bit behind the star, and so I've never seen the front end of him."

The 40-minute Western heritage salute will culminate with the Orange County Centennial committee making a presentation to Autry in honor of his contribution to the preservation of America's Western heritage.

Then Grant, chairman of the Hollywood Walk of Fame committee, will present Autry with replicas of his five Walk of Fame stars. Autry is the only celebrity to have received stars in all five categories: motion pictures, radio, television, recording and live performance. The public is invited to a special ceremony Saturday at 11:30 a.m. when replicas of his Walk of Fame stars will be unveiled on the sidewalk in front of the stadium.

Autry, born in Texas, was a popular cowboy recording star and had his own show on radio station WLS in Chicago when he came to Hollywood in 1934 to sing a couple of cowboy ballads in a Ken Maynard film, "In Old Santa Fe."

The next year, Autry starred in a serial, "The Phantom Empire"--playing a radio singing cowboy named Gene Autry. That was followed the same year with "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," the first in a long series of musical Westerns.

He was the first cowboy star to use his own name for his screen character.

"In a way, I thought it hurt me a lot," said Autry. "I thought I'd be better off if I used a different name (in his movie roles), but at the time I did not have much to say about it. I guess it helped in the long run."

At his peak, Gene Autry received more than 20,000 fan letters a week. He was the top money-making Western star from 1937 through 1942, the year he went into the Army Air Corps. He also was among the top 10 box office favorites from 1940-42. And he sold more than 50 million records, earning 12 gold and four platinum records. ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," his all time best-selling single, sold more than 25 million copies alone).

Although other Western movies had featured a song or two, Autry was the first singing cowboy. Actually, one of Autry's fellow cowboy stars at Republic studios had a stab at playing a cowboy who sang in 1933. But there was one problem with John Wayne's role as Singin' Sandy: Wayne could not sing. (Both his voice and guitar playing were dubbed in the film).

"Old Duke used to kid me," Autry recalled the other day with a laugh. "I was at dinner once with Wayne and he had had a couple of drinks. He said, 'You know, Gene, if I could have played a couple of chords on the 'geetar' and carried a tune, I might have been the first singing cowboy and you might not have ever happened. I said, 'Duke, it was not my singing that actually put me over. It was my outstanding acting ability.' We used to kid about it."

Autry, who would tour the country twice a year with Champion in a musical Western show, demurs when asked how he would define his screen image.

"I couldn't do that myself," he said. "I'd rather somebody else did. I never considered myself a Barrymore or anybody like that. I never considered myself a Caruso or anybody like that. But I was, I guess, born with a voice that people liked."

Buttram, who appeared regularly on Autry's CBS radio program and co-starred with Autry in 17 pictures and on television, has his own ideas about what made Gene Autry a star.

"Gene was the greatest at picking a hit song than anybody I ever knew," he said. "Also, the simplicity of his singing and acting was real great. He didn't overdo it. He was kind of laid-back. And he was a real good-looking guy and good horseman and he did good, wholesome pictures.

"The singing cowboy picture was a different form of Western. Westerns had pretty much died down until Gene came along. . . . Action, comedy and song were the three main ingredients of his pictures."

The days when Autry and a score of other Hollywood cowboys kept young audiences enthralled at the local Bijou are long gone. Television, of which Autry was one of the pioneers, was largely responsible for their demise in the early '50s.

"There were so many of the old pictures that were being shown on television at that time that the B theaters that played all the Western pictures just simply went out of business because the kids were staying home and watching them on TV," Autry said.

"So I think, in a way, it's too bad, because a lot of the kids, instead of going out now and getting in trouble, they used to spend Saturday going to the movies. Their folks would give them 35 cents. They could see a movie, buy a Coke, a candy bar, popcorn and they'd stay and watch the picture two or three times."

Buttram is also saddened by the demise of Western movies.

Like Camelot, he said, the Hollywood that turned out dozens of Westerns a year is a "time and place that's probably gone forever."

"It was a time in history of the Western hero, and the cowboy was the only real American hero we had, outside the athletes," he said. "It was the cowboy against the elements and nature and the bad man and the Indians. The settling of the West was a great adventure, and the one man against all of those things made a great setting for pictures."

Preserving Western heritage is important to Autry, whose longtime dream became a reality last year with the opening of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles.

"What I'm interested in is preserving the Western heritage for these young people who are growing up today to let them know and see some of the memorabilia from people that helped develop this great Western country of ours," he said.

The museum, which contains artifacts of Western history from the 16th Century to the present, also includes a section devoted to the Hollywood cowboys. As Autry sees it, the movie cowboys "more or less" took up where Buffalo Bill and his Wild West rodeo show left off. Along with such items as Tom Mix's Stetson hat, Tim McCoy's six-shooter and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans' rodeo costumes the museum contains about 100 Gene Autry artifacts--from saddles to original records.

"I feel very happy with being named among all those people," said Autry. "Whatever I was doing I tried my best to do the very best job I could do. On the stage and working to an audience, I tried my darndest to entertain them. If I was doing a radio program, I tried to do it to the best of my ability. And if I was making a record, I tried to select songs that were commercial and songs I liked to sing. And the same thing happened with the movie industry.

"Whatever I did, I tried to give the best that I knew how."

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