Here is an article from Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, excerpted from calendarlive.com.
At last, a starring role for Gene Autry
After 19 years, the Museum of the American West finally puts on an exhibition devoted to its benefactor. First lesson: He's much more than a singing cowboy.
By Kenneth Turan
June 21, 2007
After 19 years, the Museum of the American West finally puts on an exhibition devoted to its benefactor, Gene Autry.If you think of Gene Autry as just that guy on a horse playing guitar and singing, an impressive new exhibition at the Autry National Center's Museum of the American West is determined to change your mind.
Imposingly titled "Gene Autry and the Twentieth-Century West: The Centennial Exhibition, 1907-2007," this show, which opens Friday in Griffith Park and runs through Jan. 13, reveals Autry as someone who accomplished so much in so many areas it practically makes your head spin. It's no wonder that close friend and costar Smiley Burnette said, "Whenever the wolf came to the door, Autry ended up with a fur coat."
Not that that singing cowboy stuff wasn't important. And, as detailed in "Public Cowboy No. 1," Holly George-Warren's authoritative biography, there certainly was a lot of it: In his considerable career, Autry made 93 motion pictures and 91 TV episodes, recorded 640 songs and appeared on about 600 radio shows. In the course of all of this, he inspired the small boys who grew up to be, among others, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, James Taylor and George Jones, who said, "I've owned countless expensive guitars in my life, but none of them ever meant any more to me than that little Gene Autry model."
After the singing cowboy career lost its luster, Autry went on to exceptional business success. He acquired ranches, hotels, radio and TV stations and even the Angels baseball team, all worth more than $300 million by the time he died at age 91 in 1998. "Autry used to ride off into the sunset; now he owns it," his old sidekick, Pat Buttram, once said.
Given the lure of this classic American story, it's worth asking why the museum waited so long to put on a show about its namesake and benefactor or, as the exhibit's curator Michael Duchemin puts it, why the museum "wrote him out of the script" for the first 19 years of its life.
The answer is that, partially because Roy Rogers had muddied the waters by opening what was largely a vanity museum in Victorville, "some people objected to a museum dedicated to Gene on public land. To counter that criticism, the West he loved was emphasized and Gene was downplayed."
Five years in the making, "Gene Autry and the Twentieth-Century West" is intent on making up for lost time. Some 20,000 articles were examined before the 350 objects (plus 150 photos and 144 media clips) that make up the exhibit were chosen. Among the key artifacts on display: Autry's classic Martin D-45 guitar; the sturdy trailer that transported his horse Champion; a silver cardboard robot head from 1935's "The Phantom Empire," often described as "the first and only western sci-fi musical"; and a paradigmatic Western garment, black with white football piping on the front, that the staff refers to reverentially as "the shirt."
Many of the pictures and artifacts seek to put Autry in unexpected contexts. There are scenes of his triumphs in New York City, a shot of a banner in Gaelic offering "A Hundred Thousand Welcomes" for a Dublin, Ireland, appearance, a copy of him on the cover of Rolling Stone and a photo of him at the White House with John F. Kennedy.
Because Autry was a pioneer in licensed merchandise, authorizing about 120 product lines, there is a fine selection of those items as well, including rubber snow boots, a mint example of a Champion-headed bike any boy would kill for, and a Gene Autry cap pistol, one of literally tens of millions made in Kenton, Ohio. Those cap pistols paid Autry royalties through the 1950s and, in fact, saved Kenton from bankruptcy during the Great Depression. Such was the power of Autry.
But to see Autry in a few of his films, for instance 1939's "In Old Monterey" and "South of the Border" (both of which have him helping alert Americans to the growing bad news from Europe), is to initially wonder what his popularity was based on. For although the man had a supremely pleasant and ingratiating singing voice later to be heard on songs as varied as "On Top of Old Smokey" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" he was far from an overpowering actor, something he readily admitted when I had the chance to interview him in 1978 when his "Back in the Saddle Again" autobiography came out.
"I honestly never considered myself an actor. An actor would be someone like Spencer Tracy or Paul Muni," Autry told me in his box in Anaheim Stadium, where his Angels would finally win a World Series four years after his death. "I considered myself more of a personality. That's a lot different."
On the other hand, Autry's pictures were always shrewdly put together. Featuring a variety of acts and a handful of sidekicks, they offered action, comedy, music and romance, a veritable variety show of entertainment for the price of a single movie ticket.
And Autry's soothing persona was the right one for his time. A sincere believer in traditional virtues (his Cowboy Code covers all the bases), Autry acted as a bridge between the old days and more modern ones (his films were invariably set in the present), allowing audiences to believe that the things they trusted in would endure.
"I think the time and place had a lot to do with it," Autry said of his stardom. "I came along in an era when the western action film with fellas like Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard was dying out. During that time people thought that pictures had too much sex and violence in them when you'd compare them to today, they'd make you cringe and I was supposed to be different."
Where Autry truly was different was in the way he employed synergy among his activities before it even was a word. The only performer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for radio, recording, movies, television and live performance he saw to it that his activities reinforced one another, leveraging one success into the next one. His movies, for instance, often had the name of one of his records for their title. His touring rodeos and his close attention to his followers got people to go to the movies and buy the records (he sold an estimated 100 million in his lifetime). And the young women who were a big part of his movie fan base eventually became mothers who bought Autry merchandise for their children and encouraged them to watch the TV shows.
The only thing that surprised Autry was that people were surprised by his great business success. "You know, if the Depression hadn't come along, if the railroad business had been good, I might have kept my job with them. If I do say so myself, I was a pretty good railroad man. I knew it all. A friend of mine who worked on the same line with me later became railroad president. I might have been a president myself."
Though the number of things Autry did continued to surprise he received a 1958 gold record for the Champs' "Tequila" (Autry's company put out the recording) and was the first owner of the Continental Hyatt on the Sunset Strip the erstwhile King of the Cowboys mentioned none of them when I asked him how he'd like to be thought of once he was gone.
"Most of all, I'd kinda like to be remembered as being a good guy," he said, smiling. "A regular guy."