Gene Autry rides again, thanks to a new exhibit spotlighting his legendary life
July 19, 2007
Here is an article from Ventura County Star, excerpted from venturacountystar.com.
By Jeff Favre
Grandparents know him as the singing cowboy. Parents recognize him as the founding owner of the Los Angeles Angels. And today's children probably don't know him at all, save for his classic recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
The late Gene Autry was many things to many people, which is what earned him five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame one each for radio, motion pictures, television, live performance and records. He's the only person to hold that honor.
He also has a museum named in his honor: the Autry National Center in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. Over the years, the center has been cautious not to overglorify its famed benefactor, but it's making an exception to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Autry's birth. The center's new show, Gene Autry and the Twentieth-Century West: The Centennial Exhibition, 1907-2007, opened last month and will run through Jan. 13.
The center, naturally, has an extensive amount of Autry memorabilia at its disposal, so it fell to Michael Duchemin, the center's senior curator, to narrow the show's focus. Duchemin entered the five-year creation process halfway through.
"I probably knew as much about Gene Autry as the average person," Duchemin said while standing next to replicas of Autry's five Walk of Fame stars. "I knew he was a singing cowboy, but I wasn't aware how integral he was to the entire entertainment and broadcasting industry of the 20th century."
Duchemin chose 1939 and Autry's famed film "South of the Border" as a starting point. The Western about an American cowboy working with the natives in Mexico to battle foreign enemies may seem hokey to some. But the curator points out that the film was part of an ongoing relationship between the U.S. government and Hollywood to forge alliances against the enemies that America faced in World War II. Autry was a willing participant in the propaganda machine.
Autry's patriotic reputation no doubt spurred on his increasingly multifaceted career. The exhibit segues to sections detailing his popular radio show, his long movie career, his television programs and his extensive touring with the rodeo show he owned.
"He used the rodeo to promote his other interests," Duchemin said. "He had a real head for business and did many things that were groundbreaking."
The only time that Autry's image wasn't pervasive in the public eye was during his years serving in the war. But even then, as some images in the exhibition show, Autry continued his radio show using troops as his audience.
Although Duchemin refrained from including much about Autry's personal life, there is a brief mention of Autry's battle with alcohol, which he later publicly admitted was an embarrassment to him.
The legendary cowboy had to deal with other troubles as well, in particular a massive brush fire that destroyed his Melody Ranch in Newhall. At the time, it seemed as if his dream of one day having a museum had gone up in smoke with thousands of his treasured artifacts.
But Autry was nothing if not a survivor.
Despite those losses and an end to his acting career, Autry continued to thrive in the business world by investing in radio and TV stations.
He also became the founding owner of the Angels baseball team (it's now known, of course, as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
Many Angels' items, including jerseys, programs and footage of the team's first home game, are showcased in the exhibit.
He used the money he made in the business world to help fund the center, which opened in 1988 as the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
His goal, he said, was to "build a museum which would exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced America and the world."
The Autry National Center was established in 2003 when the Autry Museum merged with the Southwest Museum and the Women of the West Museum.
Autry had two other dreams: to win an Academy Award and to see his baseball team win the World Series.
He never took home an Oscar, although he was nominated for his song "Ridin' on a Rainbow."
And, sadly, he died in 1998, four years before the Angels captured the title.
But when the Angels did win the World Series in 2002, one of Autry's cowboy hats was held aloft to the cheering crowd.
The final section of the Autry exhibition looks at these later years in depth.
It may surprise some to realize that Autry was one of America's wealthiest people, as evidenced by the Fortune magazine cover that's on display.
Autry is pictured standing next to Microsoft mogul Bill Gates.
By any estimation, this is one singing cowboy who did real well for himself.
"We felt it was right at this time, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, to honor Gene Autry," Duchemin said. "He was a remarkable man."