Here is an interview with Holly George-Warren from the Memphis Commercial Appeal that includes discussion on the book Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry and Gene Autry Centennial events.
Gene Autry, a Multimedia Pioneer, Made Surprisingly Relevant Films in Depression
By John Beifuss
June 3, 2007
Gene Autry won't just save your ranch, he'll save your soul – or at least your peace of mind.
That's the lesson longtime Rolling Stone music writer Holly George-Warren learned while researching "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry" (Oxford University Press, $28).
The 406-page hardcover – touted as the first comprehensive biography of the self-made multimillionaire cowboy star, country music pioneer, California Angels owner and original "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" singer – was released this spring as a key component in this year's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Autry's Sept. 29 birth.
"Watching Gene Autry movies on video was the one thing I could do to keep my mind off all the bad things,"
said George-Warren, who moved to the Catskills from New York City after the disaster of 9/11.
"From the roof of my building I saw the first (tower) collapse, and I saw the second one hit and collapse, and I can't explain how horrific an experience it was," said George-Warren, who was in the midst of her Autry project at the time.
To recover, "We came up to the Catskills where we had a cabin, and I did nothing but start watching these Gene Autry singing cowboy movies, and it was so wonderful...
"People don't know what they're missing. It's great music, and there's such a diversity. How else could I listen to all 650 of his recordings, watch all 93 movies he was in, and watch so many of the TV shows and listen to the radio programs?"
George-Warren will be in town Thursday through Saturday to sign books, participate in panels and talk about Autry at the 35th Memphis Film Festival at the Whispering Woods Hotel and Conference Center in Olive Branch, Miss.
The annual festival – a nostalgia-oriented appreciation of classic movies and vintage television – began as a celebration of cowboy movies, so it's appropriate that this year's event is focusing on the centennials of Autry and John Wayne, who was born May 26, 1907.
Celebrity guests at the fest will include cinema cowpokes, henchmen, stuntmen, former ingenues, now-senior child stars and others who acted in movies with Autry and Wayne. The round-up of Autry co-stars includes Carol Adams, from "Ridin' on a Rainbow" (1941); Jean Van, the pigtailed cowgirl of "Saddle Pals" (1947); Bill Hale of "Silver Canyon" (1951); Don Kay Reynolds, who played a little Indian boy in "The Last Round-up" (1947); 1950s glamour girl Lisa Montell, who guested on TV's "The Gene Autry Show"; and 90-year-old Jean Rouverol, from "Western Jamboree" (1938).
Also appearing will be Boyd Magers, author of the definitive reference book, "Gene Autry Westerns," a detailed look at each Autry film and television program, set for release this summer by Empire Publishing.
"It's kind of hard to say what the mystique of Gene Autry was, but people loved him," said Magers, editor of Western Clippings, a bimonthly magazine devoted to cowboy movies. "He just kind of encompassed everything. He's the only person with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame." (One star each for his film, radio, TV, recording and stage careers.)
The Memphis Film Festival also will feature a live recreation of one of Autry's "Melody Ranch" radio programs, with country music great Johnny Western performing the Gene Autry role. (Western, who toured with Autry, is perhaps best known for singing "The Ballad of Paladin" each week on TV's "Have Gun, Will Travel.")
If Wayne is better-remembered today and perhaps taken more seriously because of such critically validated adult Westerns as "The Searchers," Autry is arguably the more influential figure due to his status as one of the first multimedia superstars of the 20th Century.
Autry's singing cowboy persona may seem quaint, but he was an entertainment entrepreneur who pioneered the "synergy" that today's Internet-exploiting media strive to emulate, selling his "brand" through cross-promotional movies, recordings, toys, signature guitars, radio shows, comic books, Western clothing, sheet music, personal appearances, rodeos (Autry's horse, Champion, also was a star) and, later, TV programs. The beat goes on today via autry.com and the respected Autry National Center in Los Angeles, home to the Museum of the American West and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian.
Although the Autry 'B' Westerns of the 1930s, '40s and '50s are rarely televised today, they remain surprisingly relevant, George-Warren said, in part because most of the stories are set in the modern era and are filled with what she called "populist ideas."
"When you see these films from the '30s, some of the cyclical reverberations are almost frightening," George-Warren said. "The people from the small towns are the ones being completely screwed over by corporate urban America."
In "Rovin' Tumbleweeds" (1939), for example, Autry hosts a series of Farm Aid-style concerts to help the farmers and ranchers who lost their land in a flood; then he goes to Washington to fight the corrupt politicians who don't want to spend money to improve the dikes. Said George-Warren: "It's scarily, eerily like Katrina."
Fans of "Star Wars" and other modern special-effects blockbusters may prefer the 12-chapter "The Phantom Empire" (1935), a whacked-out and now campy sci-fi serial in which Autry &ndah; in his first major screen role – finds that his Radio Ranch is located atop the ancient raygun-wielding civilization of Murania.
But one Autry movie has gotten its props: 1940's Piranadelloesque "Melody Ranch," which in 2002 was named a "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant film by the Library of Congress, and added to the National Film Registry.
George-Warren met Autry 10 years ago, to interview the aged star for the New York Times. (Autry died the next year, at 91; he left an estate valued at $320 million.)
"It was a rare interview for Gene at the time, and we really hit it off," George-Warren said.
After Autry's death, the author was contacted by the star's estate to write the text for "How the West Was Worn," a coffee-table book for an exhibition of Western wear at the Autry National Center. The project was a success, and George-Warren won the estate's support to write the first authorized Autry biography.
"We made an agreement that they would provide me with all of his personal papers and documents and contracts, things which had never before been made available, but I wouldn't have to grant them editorial control," said George-Warren, a co-editor of "The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll." "I wanted to make sure it would be a legitimate biography. I wanted to dig and investigate."
The result is likely to remain the definitive portrait of the former Orvon Grover Autry, a poor Tioga, Texas, boy who learned to pick on a Sears Roebuck guitar and had his first huge hit in 1931 with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine."
Said George-Warren: "He made a huge impact on the future of country music, because when he started as a recording artist in 1929, the audience for country music, called 'hillbilly' back then, was pretty tiny and rural. Gene dressed his people up in Western motifs and developed this singing cowboy image and made it more cool. As his fans grew, so did the audience for country music.
"I think that's why a lot of people like Ringo Starr and Keith Richards and early rock 'n' roll guys – not to mention rockabilly guys – were huge fans of Gene Autry. He's a dude in a super-sharp black shirt on a horse, with a guitar, doing his thing. You can see the influence today. Look at Jack White from the White Stripes – the guy is totally into the Western shirt thing."
George-Warren will be at several major Autry events this year, including Hollywood Bowl tribute concerts and the opening of the "Gene Autry and the Twentieth-Century West" centennial exhibition (June 22 - Jan. 13) at the Autry National Center. But she said she especially enjoys fan-organized gatherings like the Memphis Film Festival. "Believe me, if you're trying to escape the whole horrific American Idolization of our entertainment these days, go to one of these festivals. It's so not mainstream, it's almost punk."