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Melvin Durslag

Autry Wants to Ride Champion Once More

December 25, 1989|Melvin Durslag

On the occasion of Christmas, you probably should ask Gene Autry why he chooses to play Santa Claus to left-handed pitchers, enriching one of them by $16 million.

But, instead, you ask Gene a question of more worldly concern, namely, how did he become linked with the Christmas classic bearing the title, "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer?"

You listen to the radio, stroll the mall, and what does your audio system pick up?

It picks up Gene singing, "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer."

At the last audit, amazingly, close to 45,000,000 copies of that little musical confection had been sold, dating back to 1947, a year the Dodgers blow it to the Yankees in seven.

At the time, Autry isn't yet rich. He has come out of the army, returning to the cowboy business, singing astride his horse whose name is Champion.

This is a tolerant horse. He has nothing against music. The year before, he promenades down Hollywood Boulevard with Gene, grand marshal of the Hollywood Christmas Parade, and he doesn't wince once while Gene sings, "Here Comes Santa Claus."

When "Here Comes Santa Claus" sells 3.5-million copies, record promoters tap the old scalp, deducing that if America wants holiday music on horseback, it can be accommodated.

So, for an encore, the next year, Columbia Records comes up with a property called "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer," and Gene is solicited to do it.

"It is then July," recalls Autry. "In the record business, you get ready for Christmas when it's 90 degrees. I am asked to sing 'Rudolph' and I'm not sure I like it. But my wife at the time, Ina, says to me, 'When the kids hear they wouldn't let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games, they're going to love it. So, reluctantly, I do the record, and I do it with only one take, almost unheard of in the recording business."

"Did you promote it?"

"Only at the rodeo I was doing during the holiday season at Madison Square Garden. I rode out with Champion and did a chorus of 'Rudolph.' Then, on the second chorus, a blue light picks up my steel guitar player, Frankie Marvin, coming out of the chute in a reindeer costume, with a large red bulb for a nose."

A listener gasps, "What thrilling theater!"

"This was a matinee performance," continues Gene. "It goes so well that we try it at night and follow up for the rest of the time the rodeo plays there."

Watching Frankie at every performance come out of the chute in a reindeer outfit and red bulb nose, Champion shrugs.

"It's a living," he mumbles. "I could be pulling the starting gate at Belmont."

Recipient of many gold records, Autry holds a platinum for 'Rudolph.' He has appeared in 93 movies, in many of which he asks the new school marm if there is anything he and the boys can do to help. He has accumulated an immense fortune, even has an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Pepperdine, no doubt recognizing his work as marshal.

But, at 82, he has yet to win a pennant, and he is warning the gods that time is drawing short and if they want it on their conscience he went to that big roundup in the sky shut out, it is a problem they'll have to live with.

As it is, Champion died without seeing Gene win a pennant. So did Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and the guys in black hats who taunted Gene, walking into the bar and ordering a sarsaparilla.

Gene turned the other cheek. It wasn't until they kicked a dog that he went into action.

How does he propose, by the next holiday season, to have landed with his California Angels in a World Series?

"By now," he reflects wistfully, "I guess I have tried just about every system. We started out trying to build our team with old stars. Then we tried developing young players. Then we paid big sums for name players. Then we went back to young players. And now, I guess we're giving away money again."

His reference would be mainly to the free-agent pitcher, Mark Langston, snatched by Gene for more than $3 million a year.

"Aren't these $3-million players ruining the holidays of the owners?" Gene is asked.

"Probably are," he answers. "You know the ripple effect and how lesser players ask more as a consequence. I'm not sure any of us are doing the right thing."

If Langston's arm goes bad, could he come out of the chute in a reindeer outfit, with a large red bulb nose?

Autry could go back to the 'Garden and recapture his $16 million.

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