KCET's "Life & Times"
Program Features Gene Autry
Posted August 28, 2007
The award winning KCET program "Life & Times" featured a segment on Gene Autry on August 14, 2007 at 7:00PM.
The segment was filmed at the Autry National Center during the Gene Autry's Friends Fan Club convention with a special interview of Gene Autry's biographer, Holly George-Warren on her book Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry. Following is the transcript of this segment of the show.
Val Zavala: Here's a question for you Hollywood history buffs. Which entertainer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for every category of radio, recording, motion picture, television and theater? Well, I'll give you a hint. If he were alive today, he'd be a hundred years old. Vicki Curry talked with Holly George-Warren, author of the new biography, "Public Cowboy #1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry".
Vicki Curry: Gene Autry is known mostly as The Singing Cowboy, but he also had a lot of business ventures that many people don't even know about. What was it that drove him to do so much?
Holly George-Warren: Gene Autry came from a very impoverished background. He grew up in Texas and Oklahoma and, back in the day even before the Depression hit the rest of the country, that part of the country was already having to live under drought conditions. His father didn't spend much time at home, so Gene pretty much had to help support the family as a young boy.
His first job was for the railroad and he had ambition to have a comfortable life, to live a better life. Also, apparently he was not afraid to take chances. So whenever opportunities came his way, he wouldn't be afraid to just go off to New York City and try to make it in this huge city as this little farm boy from Oklahoma and Texas. He would try and that's how he got his first recording deals going. He just went kind of from there.
Vicki Curry: So what was his first big break?
Holly George-Warren: Luckily for Gene, in addition to being very industrious, very creative and artistic, he was a real gregarious, charismatic kind of guy that, you know, never met a stranger, as they say down south. He made friends very easily and, even beginning at the railroad, he would get these mentors who kind of took the place of the father he really didn't have as a stable figure.
There was a fellow named Jimmy Long who he met on the railroad. They started performing together and I think it gave him the confidence to think, "Well, maybe I could try to do something." Of course, with the changes going on at that time in the recording industry for the first time, country music and blues music were being sought out by New York record executives and there became a market for that type of sound and he capitalized on that.
Vicki Curry: Throughout his career, he often seemed to be at the right place at the right time. How much did that contribute to his success?
Holly George-Warren: Gene Autry definitely came along at the right time. You know, by 1929, which ironically he made his first recordings in October of 1929 when we had the stock market crash, but that proved to be very fruitful for Gene because he started recording for these companies that put out the really cheap discount records.
His records were available from mail order catalogs like Sears and Montgomery Ward, so they were able to reach people out in the rural areas. He also kind of offered a comforting presence to people who were really worried about where they were going to get their next meal because of the Depression. He went to Chicago and, beginning in 1932, had all these radio shows. People could hear him for free on the radio. Again, his popularity expanded.
Same thing when he came out to California. At that point in time, he came out in 1934, in July of 1934, for a little tryout really for Mascot Pictures. The studios were seeing that they needed a new gimmick. Well, Gene Autry walked right into that because the gimmick was singing cowboys in musical westerns. So he really created a brand new genre that just exploded in popularity beginning with "Tumbling Tumbleweeds".
Holly George-Warren: They would use some of the songs that he had already sold lots of records and had sheet music and those would become the titles of his movies. So it was just this brilliant way of, you know, merchandising and tying in and one product kind of promoting the other. It was brilliant.
Vicki Curry: Was he always a savvy businessman?
Holly George-Warren: Gene Autry was a very smart man and he learned early on when he first started recording that it was very smart to own the copyrights to songs and to publish those songs. Early on, he started making money from owning the copyrights to songs that became hit records. That was something a lot of musicians didn't bother to do or didn't realize how lucrative that could be.
Holly George-Warren: He saw everything as a kind of jigsaw puzzle and putting together all the pieces. He was actually one of the first movie stars to go out and really tour and promote the movies, but it helped him in other ways. It was promoting his records, his sheet music, and he would like just use one product to promote the other. Then later on, when he became one of the first movie stars to get into television, the same thing.
And he was doing a weekly radio show and recording records, plus overseeing some business concerns. He had already started buying radio stations beginning in World War II. So at this point, he had several radio stations, he had real estate, he had some other properties. The guy just never (laughter) -- I don't think he ever took a vacation really until the mid-1950s.
Vicki Curry: Why did he have so many different kinds of business interests going on?
Holly George-Warren: He realized that he needed to start saving for a rainy day. By doing that, he started investing in businesses. He did believe in investing in what he knew, so he started out by buying a juke box company and then that expanded.
He ended up buying radio stations in Arizona and he started making money doing that and realizing, by diversifying, he could provide income for the future when he wouldn't be able to sing anymore and be a movie star anymore. So it was very smart of him to do that.
Vicki Curry: When he retired from performing, he went on to many other business ventures. What did he do after that?
Holly George-Warren: Well, Gene pretty much retired from performing and entertaining pretty much in the early 1960s. That's when he began to focus entirely on his businesses and mainly on his baseball team, the California Angels. He loved baseball his whole entire life. I mean, going back to childhood, I got great stories about how much he loved baseball, so it was only natural that that's where he would invest his money.
But his main income was coming from some very wise choices he made in radio stations and also television stations, KTLA and KMPC in Los Angeles. He bought stations in San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle and he still had some in Arizona. These all turned out to be very lucrative for him. He sold these later at a great, great profit.
Vicki Curry: Your book is very glowing of Gene Autry, but he also had a darker side as well.
Holly George-Warren: I found it very kind of sad to find out what had happened to him, especially after World War II, with his propensity for alcohol. Gene became more and more dependent on the bottle and the drinking started to really affect his performances.
Also, even though he was married for forty-eight years, he pretty much lived like a rock star. He did have these little flings and then eventually he and one of his co-stars had an on-again, off-again approximately eight year relationship. He was no saint and it kind of, you know, made me like him even more really to find out that he was human.
Vicki Curry: After all your research about Gene Autry, what do you want people to take away from your biography?
Holly George-Warren: Gene Autry was not just some flash-in-the-pan singing cowboy or movie star who had his moment in the sun. His artistry and also many of his contributions to our culture are with us to this day. The whole country grew to love country music, thanks to Gene Autry, and it was really Gene Autry that helped to popularize the cowboy around the world. I hope people can see how he really changed our culture and helped to make us where we are now.
Val Zavala: The centennial exhibit of Gene Autry is up through mid-January. For details, you can go to their website at theautry.org. And that's our program. I'm Val Zavala. Thanks for watching. We'll see you next time.
Life and Times was made possible through the generous support of the L.K. Whittier Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life by supporting innovative endeavors in the fields of medicine, health, science and education.