The man about to shoot a hole in his hat is Orvon Grover Autry — Gene Autry, the first certifiably famous “singing cowboy.” His voice carried across the nation from Melody Ranch, his radio show — on the air from 1940 to 1956. And he sat tall in the saddle on the silver screen throughout my childhood. Autry was born in — whoopi-ty-oh-ky-yay — Tioga, Texas in 1907, and became the fourth biggest box office attraction in America just a few decades later, hard on the heels of Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy, in that order. But nairn one o’ them three dudes were a big enough toad in a puddle to sell a hunert million records like Gene Autry did.
Even if you’re not of a generation likely to have carried Autry’s likeness on a lunchpail, you’ve no doubt been reintroduced year after year, since childhood, to one of his greatest hits: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Rudolph’s scarlet snout upstaged Autry’s own Champion the Wonder Horse. And Champion was pretty famous. (Hence the long face.) “Peter Cottontail” amongst other critters also featured in Autry’s menagerie and his repertoire of eponymous hit songs. But it was “Smokey the Bear” that first got me to sing along as a four-year-old.
Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear
Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air
He can find a fire before it starts to flame
That’s why they call him Smokey
That was how he got his name.
A lunchpail was the social media of schoolyard culture in the 1950s and 60s — slackening into the early 80s with a hard stop at Rambo. Then came the faceless Tupperware bento box. But the little tin hamper with a handle we used to carry before we hit five feet tall said much about the kinds of kids we were: Zorro fans or the Lone Ranger; Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers; Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy; Superman or Batman; Annie Oakley or Wonder Woman; Howdy Doody or Bozo the Clown; Davey Crocket or Daniel Boone; always the androgynous Mouseketeers and the Flintstones. There were so many more. But a Gene Autry lunchpail was the perfect accessory for my pudgy little frame in Levis with diluvial cuffs, black-and-white hightop Keds, a t-shirt, and a crewcut.
Gene Autry was “always your pal.” No, really. That was his trademark. And he aimed to thwart evildoers with his adenoids, if not with his sixshooter. His movie posse, a happily feckless cast of characters, was always on hand to help him win the West — and win the girl. Autry’s horse operas featured Smiley Burnette as Frog Millhouse riding an old cayuse with a black eye, and wearing his signature checkered shirt and black Stetson with an upturned brim; Sterling Holloway as Poky, whose sui generis high-pitched rasp is instantly recognizable to anyone who enjoys classic movies and cartoon characters like Winnie the Pooh and Disney’s Archimedes the Owl; and Pat Buttram played Gene’s forever flummoxed sidekick whose voice broke with unintended yodels. Champion, too, got star billing. And Gene sang to his horse as sweetly as he serenaded his leading ladies. Off screen he and Annie Oakley were honeyfuggled in a long lasting affair — rather it was Gail Davis who played the lady sharpshooter for several seasons on her own TV series. Maybe he wasn’t his wife’s best pal.
After “Rudolph” and “Smokey,” Gene’s most famous recording was “Back in the Saddle Again.” It became his theme song:
I’m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly jimson weed
I’m back in the saddle again
Ridin’ the range once more
Totin’ my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again
Rockin’ to and fro
Back in the saddle again
Whooda thunk Aerosmith would cover that tune? The title, anyway. But it will always belong to Gene Autry. At one time half the state of California belonged to Gene Autry. His marketing skill was sharper than an Apache arrow. He was as shrewd as he was quick on the draw, putting all of his movie star loot into real estate when you could buy land for a song even a cowboy could sing. There are streets named after him all over America. He also owned a Major League Baseball team (the Angels), a film and TV production studio churning out Westerns, a restaurant chain churning out chimichangas, and a broadcasting empire. He even gave Ronald Reagan his last gig, before the Gipper turned to politics, as host of Death Valley Days.
Among Gene’s Los Angeles holdings were the KMPC radio and KTLA television stations. KTLA was was the first television station licensed west of the Mississippi, in 1947. Autry bought it in 1963 and turned it into America’s first satellite-linked superstation. The site, at 5800 Sunset Boulevard, was originally a bowling alley before it became a movie studio in 1923, an adjunct facility of Warner Bros., later acquired by Paramount. When I met Gene there, in 1982, and because of my infatuation with movie lore, I was delighted to learn that his office, where we were to shoot his portrait, was a whoop and a holler from the first soundstage in history; where the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson (in blackface) was made in 1927. The Warner Bros. Looney Tunes were produced there, too. So was the TV series Gunsmoke. The studio still stands. KTLA still shows classic reruns. The news is still broadcast from Stage 6. But the lot now rests in the shadow of a gleaming new multi-story office building housing Netflix’s LA headquarters.
Jeff Wald, a high school friend (he still is), was KTLA’s television news director. He was thrilled that his innovative boss spent money on the country’s first fleet of live mobile news units and the first “telecopter” in the business. Jeff made the introduction.
The old cowboy came out wearing a towel. (There was a shower in his office.) He introduced himself and insisted I call him Gene before he went away to get dressed for our photoshoot. I asked him, kindly, to grab a shootin’ iron and a ten-gallon hat while he was at it. I think he would have put on spurs if I’d asked him. He was that kind of nice.
Jeff told me he’d never seen Autry angry. He also said he’d never seen him in a towel before. We both found to be him generous with his time and gracious in his manner. “Genial Autry,” I said to Jeff, who stuck around to watch the shoot. As my memories pooled, here he came again in full buckaroo, the real Gene Autry in the flesh — no towel but wearing a Nudie, a Western-tailored suit made by the one-and-only Nudie Cohn of North Hollywood who invented the rhinestone cowboy. He dressed them all. Gene, always genuine, wore a conservative example in his executive persona. He was ready to pose. I told him I had a lunchpail with his picture on it when I was in the 4th grade. I was beaming. He was beaming. I’d set up a bellows 4x5 camera with lights ahead of time. A whitewashed brick wall would be my background. But, to my eye, something was missing from my composition. I spied a Frederic Remington bronze “Broncho Buster” on a table near Autry’s desk. Not a copy, by the way. I placed it out of frame and used a spotlight to cast its shadow on the wall, for effect.
Gene was plainspoken. He didn’t seem to me like he’d have patience for terminological inexactitude, as in mendacity, duplicity, hooey, poppycock, bunkum, malarkey, codswallop, or any other flavor of a person’s economy with the truth. I don’t know how that went down with Annie Oakley and Ina Mae Autry but I’m sure every one of those words was used at one time or another in his scripts, and delivered with the conviction of a true Texahoman. I could imagine Gene reciting the Cowboy Code of Ethics he composed.
When I brought Gene a print to autograph for me, and one for him to keep, he wrote, “To Tom, a fine partrait [sic] photographer whom I respect very much. My best wishes, always yours.” He signed his name and dated it July 8, 1982. The first “a” in “partrait” looks exactly like the second. And that’s how he spoke. But maybe he started writin’ and thinkin’ pardner, then dee-cided to git more specific.
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