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1907-1998

Cowboy Tycoon Gene Autry Dies

Entertainment: Known as the good guy in a white hat in both his public and private roles, he left lasting legacy in films, TV, business and sports.

October 03, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gene Autry, the singing cowboy superstar of the silver screen, media entrepreneur and original owner of the Anaheim Angels, died Friday. He was 91.

Autry, who also founded the 10-year-old Autry Museum of Western Heritage, died at his home in Studio City after a long illness, according to Karla Buhlman, vice president of Gene Autry Entertainment. His death came three days after his 91st birthday and three months after that of his celluloid rival and friend Roy Rogers.

Viewed as the kindly gentleman in the white hat, Autry was the only entertainer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame--one each for films (more than 90 of them), recordings (635), television (91 episodes of "The Gene Autry Show") and radio (16 seasons of "Melody Ranch"), and one for live performance.

He was enormously successful at almost anything he tried--radio, records, songwriting, television, real estate and business, as well as movies and museums. He ranked on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans for several years and in 1990 was the elite group's only entertainer. By 1995 he had slipped into the "near miss" category with an estimated net worth of $320 million.

To moviegoers in the 1930s and '40s, Autry was a red-blooded American hero whose films featured a dashing horse, Champion, a flood of happy endings and simple Western songs.

In the world of baseball, he was "the Cowboy," one of the most popular owners in sports, who purchased the rights to the expansion Angels, spending his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion. He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died.

To historians, preservationists, artists and lovers of Western lore, Autry was the man who could package the Old West for future generations. Always a collector, he contributed his own memorabilia and art as well as the money and vision for his Griffith Park museum. Along with the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, where he was formerly chairman of the board, the Autry Museum has become a classic Western showcase.

Despite a lack of formal education, Autry became a business tycoon when he retired from show business in the mid-1950s, holding a majority interest in Golden West Broadcasters radio and television stations, a national radio time sales firm and major hotels, as well as the Angels.

But it was feature films and a movie serial titled "The Phantom Empire" in 1935 that catapulted Autry from an obscure telegraph operator in Oklahoma to one of Hollywood's most successful and best-loved entertainers.

Humble Beginnings in Rural Texas

Autry's movies all had the same basic plots--save the good guys from the bad guys, never kiss the leading lady or shoot first, sing a song and ride off into the sunset. Autry often joked that his films were so simple "we could do them in a week." But they exhibited a certain charm and have endured nearly 50 years. Many are still shown on late-night TV.

Orvon Gene Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907, in Tioga, Texas, population fewer than 500. "When I grew up on the [railroad] line between Texas and Oklahoma, X was not a rating for dirty movies," Autry once said. "It was the legal signature of about a third of the population."

An associate once said of Autry's education: "It was high school, newspapers and experience." Autry often read two or three papers a day, all the way through the classified ads.

He began singing in the church choir at age 5 and was taught to play guitar by his mother when he was 12.

In his autobiography, "Back in the Saddle Again," Autry described his musical beginnings.

"I was 12 when I ordered my first guitar out of the worn and discolored pages of a Sears, Roebuck catalog. The story that I bought it on the installment plan is untrue, the invention of a Hollywood press agent. Local color. I paid cash, $8, money I had saved as a hired hand on my uncle Calvin's farm, baling and stacking hay. Prairie hay, used as feed for the cattle in winter. It was mean work for a wiry boy, but ambition made me strong."

In 1927, Will Rogers stopped by the telegraph office in Chelsea, Okla., and heard Autry playing his guitar. Autry sang a few songs for Rogers, and the humorist advised him to go to New York and get a job on radio.

After one unsuccessful audition there, Autry took a job at a Tulsa, Okla., radio station and became known as Oklahoma's Yodelin' Cowboy. And Oklahoma always remembered Autry, even naming a town for him recently.

He was signed to a record contract in 1929. Two years later, Autry made his first salable record, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," a tune he co-wrote with Jimmy Long. It sold more than 1 million copies, and a record executive devised a special award that became an industry standard: the gold record. Later, the platinum record had to be invented for Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which sold more than 25 million copies and remains the third-biggest-selling single in history.

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