1907 - 1998
Gene Autry, America's Favorite Singing Cowboy, passed away at his home in Studio City, California on October 2, 1998, after a long illness. He was 91 years old. His career spanned some 60 years in the entertainment industry, encompassing radio, recordings, motion pictures, television, rodeo and live performances. He also became a broadcast executive and major league baseball owner.
He is the only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for radio, records, film, television and live theatrical performance (including rodeo). In his ability to transcend media and in the sheer scope of his output, Gene Autry was unsurpassed as a popular image-maker of the American West.
Born in Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907, Orvon Gene Autry bought his first guitar at the age of 12 for $8. By the late 1920s, he was working as a telegrapher for the railroad in Oklahoma. While he was singing and playing in the office one night, Gene was discovered by the great cowboy humorist Will Rogers. Rogers advised the young Autry to try radio, and the rest is history.
Gene Autry began his radio career in 1928 and made his first recordings a year later. His first hit came in 1931 with That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine, the first record ever certified gold for having sold more than a million copies. Gene made his film debut as a dude ranch cowboy singer in the 1934 Ken Maynard film In Old Santa Fe. In 1935, he made his first starring appearance in the science fiction Western serial The Phantom Empire. By 1937 he was America's Favorite Cowboy, voted the Number 1 Western Star by the theater exhibitors of America. In 1940 the theater exhibitors voted Autry the fourth biggest box office attraction, behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy. Autry remained in first or second place among cowboy stars in terms of box office draw until he retired from motion pictures in 1953.
He appeared in 93 feature films and made 635 recordings, more than 300 of which he wrote or co-wrote. Some of his best known movies are based on his hit records, including South of the Border (1939), Mexicali Rose (1939), Back in the Saddle (1941), The Last Round-Up (1947) and Strawberry Roan (1948). Gene's recordings have sold more than 60 million copies and brought him more than a dozen gold records. Be Honest With Me was nominated for an Academy Award in 1941. Gene Autry's beloved Christmas and children's records Here Comes Santa Claus (1947) and Peter Cottontail (1950) went platinum (for more than two million copies sold), while Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949) remains the second best selling single of all time, with sales totaling more than 30 million.
In addition to his movie and recording success, Gene Autry's Melody Ranch was heard weekly over the CBS Radio Network between 1940 and 1956. During World War II, Autry enlisted for service on the air during a broadcast of the show. Sergeant Gene Autry served his country as a flight officer with the Air Transport Command. From 1943 until 1945, he flew large cargo planes in the China-Burma-India theater. When the war ended, Autry was assigned to Special Services, where he toured with a USO troupe in the South Pacific before resuming his movie career in 1946.
Realizing that the days of the B-Western were numbered, in 1950 Autry became one of the first major movie stars to move into television. For the next five years, he produced and starred in 91 half-hour episodes of The Gene Autry Show, as well as producing such popular TV series as Annie Oakley, The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill Jr. and The Adventures of Champion. In the late 1980s, Gene and his former movie sidekick Pat Buttram hosted 93 episodes of the 90-minute Melody Ranch Theatre show on Nashville Network, spotlighting the telecasting of his old Republic and Columbia movies. The show was one of the highest rated programs on TNN.
Gene Autry's great love of baseball prompted him to purchase the American League's California Angels (now the Anaheim Angels) in 1961. As was his trademark, through the team, Gene provided the fans with quality entertainment. Long active in Major League Baseball, Autry held the title of Vice President of the American League until his death.
He was a 33rd Degree Mason and Honorary Inspector General and was given the prestigious award of the Grand Cross of the Court of Honor. Among the many hundreds of honors and awards Autry received were induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame; the American Academy of Achievement Award, the Los Angeles Area Governor's Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; and the Board of Directors Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Achievement in Arts Foundation. Gene Autry also was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He received the Songwriters' Guild Life Achievement Award and the Hubert Humphrey Humanitarian of the Year Award. He was honored by his songwriting peers with a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP.
A long cherished dream came true with the opening, in November 1988, of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. Gene stated: "It has always been my intention to build a museum which would exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West, and show how it has influenced America and the world." The Autry Museum is now acclaimed as one of the foremost museums of the American West, with important collections of art, artifacts, and documents, drawing millions of visitors from around the world. Gene Autry's legacy will live on at the museum he founded, and in the hearts of his fans.
Gene Autry's Cowboy Code
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
10. The Cowboy is a patriot.