Walt Disney might have seen Orange County’s potential first, but Gene Autry, who died Friday at his Studio City home, wasn’t far behind.
And when Autry’s Anaheim Stadium began taking shape in the midst of orange groves in 1964, it put a stamp on the former farm town as a key economic and entertainment center amid Los Angeles’ rapidly sprawling suburbs.
“What that signified was that this area had arrived, it was growing up,” said Jack Lindquist, former Disneyland president. “Anaheim was now a major league city, and there aren’t a lot of those in the United States.
"[Autry]'s up there with the Walter Knotts, the Walt Disneys, the James Irvines, the people that in many different ways played an important role in the development of Orange County and Anaheim in the last half of this century.”
In some ways, Autry’s transformation from singing cowboy to successful businessman mirrored Southern California’s explosive transition from a parched corner of the country to a central force in the entertainment industry.
And in Orange County, his California Angels baseball team helped define, and thus influence, how the area developed, said James Doti, president of Chapman University in Orange.
“It would have developed more slowly and probably in a different way” without the stadium,” Doti said. “Something needed to be a core in Orange County for it to be something other than simply a bedroom community to Los Angeles. When you have a baseball team, that’s a symbol . . . of an urban entity that is self-contained and has a life of its own.”
But more than symbolic identity was involved.
“As a result of the Angels’ presence, there was a great deal of redevelopment and investment in infrastructure that paved the way for so many other businesses,” Doti said.
The stadium was built around the time as the Anaheim Convention Center. At that time, the Santa Ana Freeway cut through Anaheim, but the Orange Freeway wasn’t built for more than a decade, positioning the stadium’s famous Big A sign as a landmark for what became the Orange Crush.
Angels’ fans might not like it, but they have the Dodgers’ Walter O’Malley to thank for Autry’s entry into baseball and the team’s relocation to Anaheim.
During the late ‘50s, Autry’s KMPC radio station had the rights to broadcast Dodger games, but the station’s signal was too weak to reach O’Malley’s home in the San Gabriel Mountains. So O’Malley moved the games to KFI.
Autry attended the baseball owners’ annual meeting in 1960 hoping to buy the broadcasting rights from whoever was awarded the new Southern California franchise. When one franchise deal fell through, Autry saw the potential of owning a team himself, and bought it.
After a few seasons sharing space with O’Malley’s team at Dodger Stadium--and watching O’Malley grab all the concession business--Autry began looking around for his own stadium outside Los Angeles. He assumed that if he could establish a separate market for the team, it would be more successful.
Lindquist said Autry first considered the west end of San Fernando Valley, where he owned property.
“That was roughly eight to nine years after Disneyland opened,” Lindquist said. “Walt said you really ought to look at Disneyland and where we were. This is really going to be a booming place, a much better place to put a baseball stadium than the San Fernando Valley.”
Long Beach officials also tried to land the franchise, but insisted that the team be renamed the Long Beach Angels, which didn’t ring right with Autry, who wanted to name the team either the Los Angeles or California Angels.
Anaheim officials didn’t have such concerns. According to an official city history, then-Mayor Rector L. “Rex” Coons believed landing the franchise would spur other business development. And even if Anaheim wasn’t part of the team name, it would show up as the newspaper dateline on every home Angels game reported around the country.
“Maybe 15 years before Anaheim Stadium opened, Anaheim was only known from a comic bit on the Jack Benny Show,” Lindquist said. “There was a train conductor who would call out ‘Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga,’ and 15 years later this area has a major league ball club.”
Keith Murdoch was Anaheim city manager during those years. “It certainly identified Anaheim as an area that could support commercial activity,” he said. “Of course, this was the first major sports franchise. That calls attention to the fact here’s an area that can accommodate a major sports franchise and do well with it.
“It kind of rounded out not just Anaheim but Orange County. It certainly accelerated the sports activities in the area.”
Doti described the Angels’ presence as an incubator both to business and to Orange County as a home for other professional sports franchises, including the football Rams in the 1980s through early 1990s and the Mighty Ducks now.
Yet Autry’s involvement with Orange County predated the Angels by three decades, according to Orange County author and historian Jim Sleeper, who recalled marching as a Cub Scout in the Fullerton 1937 Armistice Day parade led by Autry.
Autry, by then a music, radio and movie star, had driven his own horse trailer down from the San Fernando Valley to take part in the parade, Sleeper said.
“Orange County was a pretty horsy place in those days,” Sleeper said. “It was my first glance at the singing cowboy, and that was pretty hot stuff.”
Later, the success of the Angels reflected what former Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogart once described as Autry’s intuitive sense for what would or would not work in an entertainment business.
Bogart rode bucking horses and bulls during the 1930s for Autry’s traveling rodeo shows, which went to places like Denver, Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah.
“Gene was the first guy to have entertainment in rodeos,” Bogart said in a 1995 interview when Autry sold part of the team to Disney. “He had the cowboys, but he also put in shows with longhorn steers, wagon trains and square dancing in the rings.”
Autry used his marketing ability in 1961 when he bought an old Holiday Inn in Palm Springs and renovated it. He renamed the property Melody Ranch, playing off his hit television show. Later, the property became known as The Autry.
“Just look at the Angels and you know that he knows how to market things,” said Rose Narba,who managed The Autry hotel in Palm Springs until the Autrys sold it at the end of 1995. “He’s lived by a cowboy code that’s most unique. He’s a legend, but he still believes in shaking hands. To him, that makes a deal.”
Long-time Palm Springs residents said Autry bought the former Holiday Inn because he saw a niche that needed to be filled when the Desert Inn was knocked down.
Autry also owned the Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs, the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco and the Continental Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Narba said.
“He’s an absolute gentle man, a gentleman,” Narba said. “He’s unbelievably kind, thoughtful and very generous. He’s the antithesis of what you expect a tycoon or a mogul to be.
“And how many cowboys do you know who made it to the Forbes 400?”
Times staff writer Greg Johnson contributed to this report.
* JERRY HICKS: Screen-savvy Autry had no illusions about being a cowboy hero. A35
* KNOWN AND LOVED: Even strangers knew Autry as a down-home friend in all his guises. A35
* BILL PLASCHKE: You can forget the Angels’ record. Gene Autry was a real winner. C1