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Cowboy Tycoon Gene Autry Dies

His Angels Put County in a New League

October 03, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE and JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Yet Autry's involvement with Orange County predated the Angels by three decades, according to Orange County author and historian Jim Sleeper, who recalled marching as a Cub Scout in the Fullerton 1937 Armistice Day parade led by Autry.

Autry, by then a music, radio and movie star, had driven his own horse trailer down from the San Fernando Valley to take part in the parade, Sleeper said.

"Orange County was a pretty horsy place in those days," Sleeper said. "It was my first glance at the singing cowboy, and that was pretty hot stuff."

Later, the success of the Angels reflected what former Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogart once described as Autry's intuitive sense for what would or would not work in an entertainment business.

Bogart rode bucking horses and bulls during the 1930s for Autry's traveling rodeo shows, which went to places like Denver, Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah.

"Gene was the first guy to have entertainment in rodeos," Bogart said in a 1995 interview when Autry sold part of the team to Disney. "He had the cowboys, but he also put in shows with longhorn steers, wagon trains and square dancing in the rings."

Autry used his marketing ability in 1961 when he bought an old Holiday Inn in Palm Springs and renovated it. He renamed the property Melody Ranch, playing off his hit television show. Later, the property became known as The Autry.

"Just look at the Angels and you know that he knows how to market things," said Rose Narba,who managed The Autry hotel in Palm Springs until the Autrys sold it at the end of 1995. "He's lived by a cowboy code that's most unique. He's a legend, but he still believes in shaking hands. To him, that makes a deal."

Long-time Palm Springs residents said Autry bought the former Holiday Inn because he saw a niche that needed to be filled when the Desert Inn was knocked down.

Autry also owned the Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs, the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco and the Continental Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Narba said.

"He's an absolute gentle man, a gentleman," Narba said. "He's unbelievably kind, thoughtful and very generous. He's the antithesis of what you expect a tycoon or a mogul to be.

"And how many cowboys do you know who made it to the Forbes 400?"

*

Times staff writer Greg Johnson contributed to this report.

* JERRY HICKS: Screen-savvy Autry had no illusions about being a cowboy hero. A35

* KNOWN AND LOVED: Even strangers knew Autry as a down-home friend in all his guises. A35

* BILL PLASCHKE: You can forget the Angels' record. Gene Autry was a real winner. C1

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