Gene Autry in the Saddle for a Century
August 10, 2007
The following is an article excerpted from Daily News.com's news archive.
By Dennis McCarthy
How's this for real star power?
Kenton, Ohio – population 9,000 – was barely hanging on in 1937 when the singing cowboy rode into town.
The Great Depression had closed down many of the town's small shops, and the main employer, The Kenton Hardware Co., was about to go under.
But out of nowhere, Gene Autry rode into town to save the day.
"If we hadn't gotten the contract to make millions of Gene Autry cap pistols and holster sets, Kenton would have never survived the Depression," said Donn Minter, one of six Kenton residents in Los Angeles this week to celebrate the cowboy star's centennial.
Autry – who died in 1998, at age 91, in his Studio City home – was so popular that sales of his toy six-shooter kept alive an entire town that, 70 years later, still celebrates annual Gene Autry Days. (The whole county, Hardin County, joins in.)
Hard to imagine Hollywood saying thank you to Britney Spears or Paris Hilton on her centennial.
More than 180 Autry fans from all over the world – including South Africa, England, New Zealand and Canada – made the trek for six days of special centennial events.
They've been going 12 hours a day visiting Autry's old Melody Ranch and the Los Angeles-area home of his widow, Jackie, in Studio City, watching his movies, listening to his old radio programs and songs, and touring a special centennial exhibition that will run until Jan. 13 at the Gene Autry National Center in Griffith Park.
Are the singing cowboy's fans – most of them grandparents now – tired? Nah, they could keep going another week if their money held out, says Ray Mulley from Canada.
He was standing with a group outside the movie theater at the Autry Cowboy Museum after seeing "The Strawberry Roan," voted by these fans as their favorite Autry movie.
It was Autry's first color movie.
Like most in the group, Mulley grew up listening to Autry singing on the radio, from Melody Ranch, and watching him ride across the silver screen on his horse Champion.
"My mother told me that, when I was 3, every time I heard him on the radio I'd run over and sit there mesmerized until the show was over," Mulley said.
"Gene Autry was a large part of all our lives growing up. That's why we're here – out of respect for him, and to be a kid again."
Older generations remember him as the movie and TV cowboy star, and younger generations may remember Autry as the man who owned the California Angels.
But Johnny Western remembers him as country-western music's first superstar.
Western spent more than 20 years backing up Johnny Cash on guitar, but he never saw audiences like those Autry drew when he played guitar with him on stage in 1956 and 1957.
"On one tour in Canada, he drew 12,000 people a show, and we did three shows a day.
"He drew more than a million on a 14-day tour in Toronto," Western said.
"It was like Woodstock, three times a day."
Autry would have appreciated all these fans coming to his cowboy museum this week for his 100th birthday celebration, but he also would have been a little embarrassed.
"He never wanted the focus here to be on him," said Karla Buhlman, vice president of Gene Autry Entertainment.
"He wanted to share his love of the Old West with the children of Los Angeles and would never let us have a special exhibit on him when he was alive.
"But the truth is, a big part of the American West was shaped by Gene Autry."
Just ask the people of Kenton, Ohio.