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How Gene Autry spurred a festival

The cowboy's influence on a small Ohio city's hopes is recalled at a celebration that salutes an era of struggle.

June 30, 2009|Steven Rosen

"With pop-culture stuff, the majority of those interested lived through [that] era," he noted. "Then there are a few figures who reach a level where the next generation picks them as someone to follow," he said, adding that Autry, Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) were the Depression-era Hollywood cowboys who had reached that level of ongoing interest.

Kenton isn't the only small American town still honoring Autry.

In September, there is a festival in Gene Autry, Okla., which changed its name from Berwyn after he purchased a ranch there at the height of his fame. He came to that town on Nov. 16, 1941, to celebrate the name change. But just three weeks later, World War II started and he enlisted. Afterward, he sold the ranch but the town kept the name.

Early fame

And also in September, the Walk of Fame Music Festival and Induction in Richmond, Ind., will be dedicated to Autry. Early in his career, he recorded for the city's Gennett Records, a now-defunct but historic record label whose heritage city leaders want to promote.

Born in rural Tioga, Texas, Autry first found fame as a singer and performer on Chicago's WLS "Barn Dance" radio show, branching out in the 1930s to movies while still keeping active in radio, recordings and personal appearances. He later became the owner of baseball's Angels.

"He always put across this man-of-the-people, everyman vibe that people picked up on," says Holly George-Warren, author of the Autry biography "Public Cowboy No. 1" and a past attendee at Kenton's festival, in a phone interview.

"And during the Great Depression, someone with that reassuring presence, who had become successful but still had a plain-spoken and conversant tone, really got to people."


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