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Sagebrushing Up on the Past at the Big A

July 06, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | 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).

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