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News Archive: 2007

Outings: Cowboy's Homage
June 28, 2007

Here is an article from Jim Farber of the DailyBreeze.com.

Centennial exhibit puts Western icon back in the saddle.

By Jim Farber

There he sits enshrined in bronze, a guitar on his knee, a 10-gallon hat on his head, a six-gun at his hip, and his loyal "wonder horse," Champion, at his side.

The statue, which dominates the courtyard of the museum that bears Gene Autry's name, is silent. But you can almost hear the crooning cowboy's anthem, "Back in the Saddle Again," whistling on the wind.

Had he lived, Orvon (Gene) Autry — star of radio, film, television and recording; business tycoon; media visionary; owner of the Angels baseball team; friend to presidents; and the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — would have turned 100 Sept. 29.

In recognition, the Autry National Center in Los Angeles is presenting what some would say is a long overdue homage to the man who's money and collection of Western art, objects and personal memorabilia provided the foundation for the establishment of the museum in 1988.

Featuring 300 objects — from Autry's signature Martin guitars to his gaudy hand-made cowboy boots and floral Western shirts, to the "Flying A" horse trailer that transported Champion III — "Gene Autry and the Twentieth Century West: The Centennial Exhibition, 1907-2007" offers a multidimensional, multimedia portrait of the man, his life and his impact.

"So many people think of Gene Autry in a wonderful, sentimental way as The Singing Cowboy or as the owner of the Angels," said John L. Gray, executive director of the Autry National Center at the June 20 unveiling of the exhibition. "But very few people see him positioned in the 20th century and the impact he had in business, entertainment and political life."

While the adoration for Autry is genuine, there is a paradox at work here, Gray admitted, that played a significant role in why the museum's administrators waited so long to give their founder his own exhibition.

"When the building opened there was a discussion of how the museum was formed and funded," Gray explained. "There was a need to have Gene recognized, so it was called the Gene Autry Museum. But there also

was a fear that the larger idea of the West would get lost because people would anticipate it was a vanity museum all about Gene Autry.

"His celebrity was so great, and his fans so great, that it became known as Gene's museum," Gray said. "People came here constantly wanting more about Gene Autry. But Mrs. [Jackie] Autry only allowed two small cases in a huge gallery about Gene. So, we think we are rectifying the situation. But we'd like this exhibition to be seen as part of a larger understanding of the American West and what an important player Gene Autry was."

Ironically, the same name identification that attracted thousands of Autry's fans to the museum, caused "serious" museum administrators and art aficionados to ignore the institution, assuming it was little more than a repository of Western trinkets and B-movie kitsch.

Becoming recognized as a vital part of the Los Angeles museum mosaic has been an uphill struggle. But through its unique approach to Western history, celebration of the Western movie genre, and intelligently curated exhibits such as "On Gold Mountain, the Chinese American Experience," "A Fist Full of Leone" and "Yosemite: Art of an American Icon," the perception of the Autry is changing rapidly.

Michael Duchemin, who's been a curator at the Autry since 1993, has spent the last three years compiling the objects, establishing the context, and working on the five-gallery multimedia installation design for "Gene Autry and the Twentieth Century West."

"The exhibition begins between 1939 and 1942, when Gene Autry was at the height of his popularity as a movie star," explained Duchemin, standing in front of an ornate ticket booth from the period. "He was selling 40 million tickets per week at a time when there were only 132 million people in the United States. He was also selling out live appearances at venues like Madison Square Garden, where he headlined a month of shows in 1940 — five days a week, twice a day on weekends."

This gallery presents Autry as an international star, a modern-day cowboy and political ally to Franklin Roosevelt, emphasizing his role in promoting domestic programs such as the Work Projects Administration, and "good neighbor" foreign policy (aimed at Mexico) in films such as "Old Monterey" and "South of the Border."

There's also a minitheater where two introductory newsreels about Autry are shown, complete with 1940s theater seats.

Of that time, Autry wrote in his 1978 autobiography, Back in the Saddle Again, "While my solutions were a little less complex than those offered by FDR, and my methods a bit more direct, I played a kind of New Deal Cowboy who never hesitated to tackle many of the same problems: the dust bowl, unemployment, or the harnessing of power. That may have contributed to my popularity with 1930s audiences."

"The Singing Cowboy" highlights Autry's career as a recording, radio and film star. Between 1929 and 1964 the yodelin' successor to Jimmy Rogers, who was as congenial as Will Rogers and dressed like Tom Mix, made 640 recordings, performed on more than 600 radio shows, made 93 movies and appeared in 91 television shows.

"The Corporate Cowboy" traces the expansion of Autry's holdings after World War II, including the creation of Gene Autry Productions and Flying A Pictures, along with the acquisition of radio stations, newspapers, oil wells, a Western clothing store and more.

Of his new empire he wrote, "It has always amused me when people seem surprised by my success in business. Actually, working with numbers was what I did best. What I did less well was sing, act and play the guitar."

The final gallery, "Win One for the Cowboy," celebrates Autry's entrance into the realm of big league baseball as the owner of the Angels. When Gene Autry died Oct. 2, 1998, at age 91, his Angels were just four years away from winning their first World Series.

In a 1985 interview with The Los Angeles Times, the Singing Cowboy's second wife, Jackie, said, "My husband has always wanted three things in life. He has wanted a World Series ring; he has wanted an Academy Award; and he's wanted a museum."

Gene Autry never got his ring or his Academy Award. But he did get a museum of which he would be proud.

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