Gene Autry, the singing cowboy superstar of the silver screen, media entrepreneur and original owner of the Anaheim Angels, died Friday. He was 91.
Autry, who also founded the 10-year-old Autry Museum of Western Heritage, died at his home in Studio City after a long illness, according to Karla Buhlman, vice president of Gene Autry Entertainment. His death came three days after his 91st birthday and three months after that of his celluloid rival and friend Roy Rogers.
Viewed as the kindly gentleman in the white hat, Autry was the only entertainer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame--one each for films (more than 90 of them), recordings (635), television (91 episodes of “The Gene Autry Show”) and radio (16 seasons of “Melody Ranch”), and one for live performance.
He was enormously successful at almost anything he tried--radio, records, songwriting, television, real estate and business, as well as movies and museums. He ranked on Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans for several years and in 1990 was the elite group’s only entertainer. By 1995 he had slipped into the “near miss” category with an estimated net worth of $320 million.
To moviegoers in the 1930s and ‘40s, Autry was a red-blooded American hero whose films featured a dashing horse, Champion, a flood of happy endings and simple Western songs.
In the world of baseball, he was “the Cowboy,” one of the most popular owners in sports, who purchased the rights to the expansion Angels, spending his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion. He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died.
To historians, preservationists, artists and lovers of Western lore, Autry was the man who could package the Old West for future generations. Always a collector, he contributed his own memorabilia and art as well as the money and vision for his Griffith Park museum. Along with the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, where he was formerly chairman of the board, the Autry Museum has become a classic Western showcase.
Despite a lack of formal education, Autry became a business tycoon when he retired from show business in the mid-1950s, holding a majority interest in Golden West Broadcasters radio and television stations, a national radio time sales firm and major hotels, as well as the Angels.
But it was feature films and a movie serial titled “The Phantom Empire” in 1935 that catapulted Autry from an obscure telegraph operator in Oklahoma to one of Hollywood’s most successful and best-loved entertainers.
Humble Beginnings in Rural Texas
Autry’s movies all had the same basic plots--save the good guys from the bad guys, never kiss the leading lady or shoot first, sing a song and ride off into the sunset. Autry often joked that his films were so simple “we could do them in a week.” But they exhibited a certain charm and have endured nearly 50 years. Many are still shown on late-night TV.
Orvon Gene Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907, in Tioga, Texas, population fewer than 500. “When I grew up on the [railroad] line between Texas and Oklahoma, X was not a rating for dirty movies,” Autry once said. “It was the legal signature of about a third of the population.”
An associate once said of Autry’s education: “It was high school, newspapers and experience.” Autry often read two or three papers a day, all the way through the classified ads.
He began singing in the church choir at age 5 and was taught to play guitar by his mother when he was 12.
In his autobiography, “Back in the Saddle Again,” Autry described his musical beginnings.
“I was 12 when I ordered my first guitar out of the worn and discolored pages of a Sears, 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.”
In 1927, Will Rogers stopped by the telegraph office in Chelsea, Okla., and heard Autry playing his guitar. Autry sang a few songs for Rogers, and the humorist advised him to go to New York and get a job on radio.
After one unsuccessful audition there, Autry took a job at a Tulsa, Okla., radio station and became known as Oklahoma’s Yodelin’ Cowboy. And Oklahoma always remembered Autry, even naming a town for him recently.
He was signed to a record contract in 1929. Two years later, Autry made his first salable record, “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” a tune he co-wrote with Jimmy Long. It sold more than 1 million copies, and a record executive devised a special award that became an industry standard: the gold record. Later, the platinum record had to be invented for Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which sold more than 25 million copies and remains the third-biggest-selling single in history.
Autry’s other million-sellers were “Peter Cottontail,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “South of the Border,” “Mexicali Rose” and his theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again.”
In the past few years, his music has received renewed interest and been reissued in CD collections including: “The Essential Gene Autry: 1933-1946" in 1992, “Gene Autry Christmas” in 1994, “Gene Autry: Blues Singer” in 1996 and “Gene Autry: Sing Cowboy Sing” late last year.
Ironically, Autry didn’t want to record “Rudolph.” But his first wife, Ina, who died in 1980, sold him on the idea. “I wasn’t crazy about it, but she thought the kids would really like it.”
“Rudolph” was cut in one take during the last few minutes of a recording session in 1949.
Autry’s film career began in 1934 when he first went to Hollywood to sing one song in a Ken Maynard Western, “In Old Santa Fe.”
“The Phantom Empire” series began the next year, and Autry was on his way.
A Film Role for Roy Rogers
In 1935, he also made “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” considered the first singing-cowboy movie. He gave a youngster named Roy Rogers his big break with a role in that film, and the two became fast friends despite their box-office rivalry. Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, were among those honoring Autry at his 90th birthday party a year ago.
Autry’s movie sidekick was Smiley Burnette, who appeared in 81 of Autry’s more than 90 pictures. On television, Burnette’s place was taken by Pat Buttram. Autry outlived them both and mourned their passing, as he did Rogers’.
In 1938, Autry starred in “Melody Ranch” with Jimmy Durante, Ann Miller and George “Gabby” Hayes. It is considered the classic Autry movie.
His success was unusual in that his early pictures were not popular in major metropolitan areas. But rural America was another story. He had tremendous appeal throughout small towns.
Each year he made personal appearances at as many local fairs as he could pack into his schedule. He later was the promoter for the first professional rodeo in the nation.
From 1937 through 1942, Autry was voted the top Western star in Hollywood. No cowboy had ever done as well.
“My friends kidded me about going so far on such modest talent,” Autry said. “I always agreed with them. I had no illusions about my films, nor did I consider myself anything special as an actor or a singer.
“I always used my own name. I wasn’t like John Wayne [a close friend]. He could be one character in one movie and somebody else in the next movie. I think the image was good for me. My movies were always clean. There was never anything obnoxious in them that might offend anybody.”
In 1939, Autry took his show to Dublin, Ireland, where a crowd of more than 200,000 lined the streets to see the American cowboy star.
“P.K. Wrigley saw him in Dublin,” George Goodale, a late Angels aide, once said. “At the time, he was looking for a radio show for Doublemint gum to sponsor.
“He went back to his advertising department in Chicago and told them he had just seen a singing cowboy draw 200,000 in Ireland. What followed was the ‘Melody Ranch Show’ on CBS Radio.” It became a weekend listening tradition for 16 years.
Showing his ability to capitalize on his success, Autry became the first star to endorse a mail order product--a guitar. He later became the first film star to go into television.
By 1941, Autry was making $600,000 a year from movies, recordings, radio and personal appearances.
But World War II erupted and Autry decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps.
“I didn’t intend to look for some loophole to keep me out,” Autry said in his biography. “There was nothing noble about it. I would have much rather kept counting my money and firing blanks. But there didn’t seem to me to be any choice. If you were healthy and able, you either served or learned how to shave in the dark.”
Autry was 35. He served in the Air Transport Command as a flight officer until the war ended in 1945.
He made $125 a month in the service, a pay cut of about $598,000 a year.
“It started me thinking,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for royalties from such things as sweatshirts, pistols, boots, hats and records, I would have been a mess.
“I knew I could make good money as long as I could work. But suppose I was incapacitated? Where would I get my income? I decided I better start investing in some business.”
Years before, when he was still a railroad telegrapher, Autry had taken a correspondence course in business administration.
“I had to learn to figure freight rates,” he said. “I had to be able to keep the books balanced.”
Autry became enough of an accountant through the courses so that he later was able to check his own box-office receipts.
Autry liked to tell this story about his philosophy:
“Whenever a lone cowboy or Indian needed to take a long journey by horseback, it was customary for him to ride on a saddled horse while leading another bareback. When his mount began to tire, instead of stopping for a rest, he merely slipped the saddle onto the spare horse and rode on. In just about that way I eased out of my life as a performer and began to devote my full energy to business. I just changed horses.”
Branching Out Into Business
Near the end of the war, Autry bought radio station KPHO in Phoenix. Shortly thereafter, he acquired a television station in Phoenix, KOOL. His radio and TV empire began to grow. He purchased KMPC for $800,000 in 1952 and KTLA for $12 million in 1964. He sold KMPC in 1984 for a reported $18 million and KTLA in 1982 for $245 million. His Golden West Broadcasters had also included radio stations in San Francisco and Seattle.
At one point, Autry owned a string of hotels, including the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, the Ocotillo Inn and Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs, the Sahara Inn in Chicago and the Hotel Continental in Hollywood. He also had land and oil investments throughout the country.
He had maintained a second home in the Autry Hotel until earlier this year, when he sold it to Merv Griffin.
A former business associate, Bob Reynolds, described Autry this way: “He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen. He’s also easy to sit down with and talk with and arrive at a decision with. It’s partially because he’s so even-tempered.
“He has a great ability to attract people to him and he also had a great faculty for instilling loyalty. He demands loyalty from everyone, but in turn he gives it right back.”
Maxine Hansen, who worked as Autry’s secretary in recent years, said Friday he was “a very gentle, sweet man . . . a real treasure. He had the most beautiful smile that could light up the whole day.”
She said that when she was packing up his office items at the KTLA building on Sunset Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue after Autry sold KTLA, she was sitting on the floor sorting records. Autry saw her pull out “The One Rose” and started singing it.
“He just burst into song,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is a special moment for me.’ There he was in his cowboy hat singing this beautiful song. He really was a cowboy in a white hat.”
In the past few years, the aging, infirm Autry and his long-time business associate and second wife, Jackie Ellam Autry, whom he married in 1981, had been selling off their property. In 1995, he even agreed to sell his beloved Angels. Disney purchased 25% and assumed control, with an agreement to acquire the remaining rights to the team at Autry’s death.
The Cowboy got into baseball in 1960--through the back door.
“I was always a frustrated ballplayer,” he said. “I played semi-pro baseball in Oklahoma. I could hit good, but wasn’t very fast.
“We’d always been known as a sports station at KMPC,” Autry said. “We’d been carrying the Dodgers for three years, but they went to another station and left us without a ballclub.
“A group headed by Hank Greenberg [the former baseball player] seemed in line for a new [expansion] American League franchise, but its bid collapsed. We decided to protect ourselves and buy the club rather than broadcast someone else’s games, promote them, build them up and [then] have them switch somewhere else after three years.”
So Golden West Broadcasters formed a subsidiary, Golden West Baseball Co., and on Dec. 5, 1960, Autry and Reynolds joined the American League as co-owners of the then-Los Angeles Angels. They paid $2.5 million. At the time of the Disney purchase agreement, the team was valued at $120 million.
The Angels played one year at old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, moved to Dodger Stadium for four seasons, and in 1966 went to the new Anaheim Stadium and changed their name to the California Angels. They became the Anaheim Angels in 1997.
“For sure,” Autry said after years of failing to capture a pennant, “baseball has been the most exciting and frustrating experience of my life. In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball, I hardly ever won one.”
A Deep Interest in Western History
His popularity and generosity as an owner were well known throughout baseball. Every time a player was acquired, he would thank Autry, say how glad he was to be playing for him and pledge to win the pennant for “the Cowboy.” Autry rarely missed home games, and had a reciprocal love affair with Anaheim. In 1981, the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame presented him with its first “Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Western lore was as much of a passion for Autry as sports. His museum, which may stand as a greater legacy than the Angels, was an extension of a lifetime dream of preserving Western history.
In 1952, when Monogram Studios folded, Autry bought the 110-acre Santa Clarita ranch where he had made his early movies in the 1930s. He renamed it Melody Ranch and continued it as a working movie set. Cowboy colleagues who worked before cameras there included Wayne, Gary Cooper, William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy and Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger. As television developed, Autry shot his own show there and later hosted James Arness in the long-running “Gunsmoke.”
Autry installed a miniature railroad and dreamed of turning the ranch into a museum and amusement park open to the public.
But in 1962, a spectacular fire destroyed more than $1 million worth of movie sets, including 54 buildings and countless items Autry had collected, including stagecoaches, guns, Indian relics and his personal film wardrobe.
Disappointed, Autry sold off all but 10 acres to developers, reserving the remainder as a pasture for Champion III, the last of his movie horses, and buildings containing crates of his collections. That 10 acres was sold to a film production company in 1990, after Champion III died and was buried there.
A Museum of the West
By then, Jackie Autry and Joanne Hale, wife of friend and Western star Monte Hale, had moved the Autry memorabilia and collections to the new Autry Museum, a 148,000-square-foot structure near the Los Angeles Zoo.
A frail Autry, walking with a cane, used a Bowie knife to cut the lariat “ribbon” officially opening the museum Nov. 21, 1988. The $54-million museum, a three-story contemporary adaptation of Spanish mission and early Western architecture, includes a courtyard with a large bronze statue of Autry and Champion, and the Wells Fargo Theater, which screens classic Western films.
The museum houses more than 16,000 items, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Colt revolver, Buffalo Bill Cody’s saddle and Annie Oakley’s gold-plated guns. It also has seven permanent galleries showing how the frontier was settled and how that history has been portrayed by artists, writers and filmmakers.
Visited by more than 430,000 people annually, the museum also has revolving exhibits in its George Montgomery Gallery, currently the Southern California venue for the state’s exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of California’s Gold Rush, titled “Gold Fever.”
Autry himself always tried to keep things simple, just like his movies.
“I quickly established some principles that were to guide me,” he wrote. “Hire the best people you can find, give them trust and loyalty and pay them top money. If they do the job, that money will always come back to you.
“My friend Pat Buttram once said, ‘Autry used to ride off into the sunset; now he owns it.’ Pat exaggerates. But it always has been my favorite time of day and a pleasant time of my life. I was fortunate to have kept my name and played myself on the screen.
“When the time came to turn down the lights, I just went back to being me. Meanwhile, my pictures have been in places not even on maps.”
In addition to his wife, Autry is survived by a sister, Veda. Services are to be private.
In a statement released Friday, Jackie Autry said: “My husband was a remarkable man, and I will always treasure each and every day I had with him. He was my best friend, and my dearest love. In a way, Gene belonged to the world, not just me. He touched so many people’s hearts, and their lives are better for it.”
Times staff writer Mike Kupper contributed to this article.
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Gene Autry, 1907-1998
1907: Born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas
1928: Begins a radio career on Tulsa radio station at the urging of humorist Will Rogers who heard him sing while working as a railroad telegrapher in Oklahoma.
1931: Records his first hit, “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” the first record ever certified gold for selling more than a million copies.
1932: Marries Ina Mae Spivey, a one-time Oklahoma schoolteacher.
1934: Makes his first film debut “In Old Santa Fe,” receiving top billing, second was his horse Champion.
1937: Becomes America’s Favorite Cowboy, voted the Number 1 Western Star by the theater exhibitors of America , a rank he held through 1942.
1940: Stars on the weekly “Melody Ranch” radio show on CBS Radio Network until 1956 and becomes the fourth biggest box office attraction behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Stars on the weekly “Melody Ranch Show” on the CBS Radio Network until 1956.
1941: “Be Honest With Me” nominated for Academy Award.
1943: Enlists in the Air Force as a flight officer with the Air Transport Command, flying cargo planes in the China-Burma-India theater. Later, tours with a USO troupe in the South Pacific
1946: Resumes movie career and begins investing his show-business fortune in radio and TV stations, hotels and real estate.
1949: Records “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the third-best selling single of all time.
1950: Becomes the first major motion picture star to enter television with “The Gene Autry Show,” producing and starring in 91 half-hour episodes until 1955. Records “Peter Cottontail,” which goes on to sell more than 2 million copies.
1953: Retires from films after appearing in 93 feature films, including “Phantom Empire” (1934) and “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” (1935).
1960: Purchases the American League’s California Angels (now the Anaheim Angels) for $2.5 million.
1964: Buys KTLA-TV for $12 million.
1978: Autry’s biography “Back in the Saddle Again” hits bookstores.
1980: Autry’s wife, Ina Mae dies.
1981: Autry, 73, marries bank executive Jackie Ellam, 39.
1982: Sells KTLA-TV for $245 million and acquires the liquidity to buy out the Signal Co., the California Angels minority owner.
1988: The 148,000-square-foot Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum opens in Griffith Park.
1989: Unveils replicas of his five Hollywood Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk in front of the Angels’ stadium.
1991: The City of Anaheim names a street running into the stadium Gene Autry Way.
1993: “Back in the Saddle” (1940) returns to charts as part of “Sleepless in Seattle” movie soundtrack.
1995: The Walt Disney Co. buys 25% of the Anaheim Angels for $30 million with an option to buy the rest upon Autry’s death.
1998: Autry, 91, dies at his Studio City home after a long illness.
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
Respect women, parents and his
Be a patriot.
Compiled by Cecilia Rasmussen and Brady MacDonald / Los Angeles Times