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Ruggedness That's Fit for a Cowboy

Neighbors of the late Gene Autry push to name a Studio City ridge after the western legend.

August 14, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

What's a singing cowboy without a ridge to call his own?

That question is pending before the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a government agency that will almost certainly deem a hitherto nameless, chaparral-studded chunk of Los Angeles topography "Gene Autry Ridge."

Why yes, pard, lots of things already bear the name of the late, great western legend: A freeway interchange, a big museum in Griffith Park, a small museum in Oklahoma, streets in Palm Springs and Anaheim, and an entire south-central Oklahoma town, population 99 when the census last took stock.

But the ridge looming over Autry's old neighborhood in Studio City will apparently be the first natural feature named for the perennial cowboy hero, the only celebrity to have earned a star in all five qualifying categories for Hollywood's Walk of Fame: radio, recording, live theater, TV and motion pictures.

"It's just wonderful that the neighbors wanted to do this, to make it official," said Autry's widow, Jackie. "He was so integral to Hollywood and to this community."

In the next month or so, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will introduce a resolution endorsing the action, aide Ginny Kruger said. Then the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names will consider it and pass it on to the federal board for action at its next meeting, in February 2007.

So far, officials say they have heard nary a discouraging word.

The board on geographic names, a division of the U.S. Geological Survey, is the arbiter for monikers of mountain and marsh, glacier and gulch.

Among the dozens of items on the board's docket are proposals for a Missouri valley to be called Wild Boar Hollow and a Georgia creek to be called Rehoboth Baptism Branch.

In Oregon, residents want to change Squaw Creek to Sru Creek, swapping a Native American term now seen as disparaging for an Athabascan word that means "grandmother."

In New Jersey, there's a proposal for a Cowboy Creek, a stream that would be so named because it flows near a theme park called Wild West City.

In Studio City, the idea for Gene Autry Ridge surfaced in the neighborhood known as Briarcliff, a leafy tract of homes that range from comfortable to baronial. In 1946, Autry started building a spread on four acres there, though zoning problems hampered his plan to use part of the land as a home for his famous horse Champion.

When he died in 1998 at the age of 91, the neighbors wanted to mount a tribute, said Jackie Autry, who lives in Palm Springs but uses the old house on her frequent trips to Los Angeles. "There was a groundswell of support to name the street Gene Autry something or other," she said.

Once a year, he would serve as the host of the Briarcliff Improvement Assn.'s annual picnic. And on Halloween, he would open up his place to local children "for apple-dunking contests and all sorts of treats," said Jackie Autry, who married the cowboy star in 1981.

When the street idea went nowhere -- it turned out to be too inconvenient -- neighbors focused on the rugged lip of land that, according to local lore, had been called Autry Ridge for decades.

Whether Gene Autry would trek up that particular ridge when he wasn't cutting his 635 records, starring in his 95 movies, starting the Angels baseball team or pulling off savvy real estate deals is unknown.

"He might have and probably did," said Jackie, pointing out that her husband started jogging in 1946 to shed the weight he had gained while serving in the Army Air Forces.

An undeveloped swath of sage and scrub oak, the ridge is looped by a fire road and tops out at 1,064 feet. It is part of an urban wilderness managed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, despite the movie-star estates and more modest subdivisions that have bloomed like locoweed not far away.

Hardier hikers can reach the ridge via a network of trails that begins at nearby Wilacre Park, said Lynette Robe, a Studio City attorney who has done most of the heavy lifting on the proposal. But the path to the ridge with no name is, appropriately, unmarked.

"It's not a great geological formation, but it is a ridge, and it is near his house," said Robe, a former president of the Briarcliff Improvement Assn.

Next year, she said she hopes to install a sign bearing the ridge's government-certified designation -- evidence of the neighborhood's devotion to its most famous cowpoke.

"His house may be sold one day," Robe said, "but Autry Ridge will always be there."

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