Entertainment Legend Is Back in the Saddle Again
Posted July 22, 2011
Thursday's Los Angeles Daily News newspaper ran a front page article on Gene Autry and the Museum's upcoming Day of the Cowboy and Cowgirl event. Read the full article, with quotes from "Ranger Doug" of Riders in the Sky, Autry Museum curator Jeffrey Richardson, President of Gene Autry Entertainment Karla Buhlman, and Mrs. Gene Autry.
July 20, 2011
By Bob Strauss, Daily News Los Angeles
Nearly a half-century after Gene Autry retired from show business, the king of the singing cowboys seems to be everywhere again.
The original owner of the Los Angeles Angels, who was 91 when he passed away in 1998, was inducted Tuesday into the team's Hall of Fame. The 1936 sci-fi Western serial "The Phantom Empire," Autry's first major screen appearance, is bowing on DVD this month. The Turner Classic Movie network is airing six of Autry's more conventional musical oaters throughout July.
"Phantom Empire" will also screen Saturday as part of The Day of the Cowboy and Cowgirl at the Autry National Center, the Griffith Park museum of the American West that Gene and his second wife, Jackie, established in 1988.
Other activities include a Riders in the Sky concert, gunslinging demonstrations and the re-opening of the Colt Gallery, with its impressive collection of classic revolvers.
While the museum may be the most apparent aspect of Autry's cultural legacy today - well, that and "Here Comes Santa Claus," the most enduring of some 300 songs he wrote or co-wrote - his historical significance cannot be overestimated.
"He certainly was monumental in his era," said "Ranger Doug" Green, the Riders in the Sky guitarist and the author of scholarly studies of the singing cowboy phenomenon. "It's hard to imagine somebody who was more successful in more fields of entertainment except, maybe, Bing Crosby."
Though he wasn't the first popular Western singer of the Depression era, Autry was the first to ride that music genre to movie stardom. Copied by many but matched in popularity only by Roy Rogers, Autry was also a major force in live radio with his long-running "Melody Ranch" variety program, a big draw at personal appearances and rodeos, and the first big film star to commit, in 1950, to a TV series.
He remains the only performer with a star in each of the five different fields (film, TV, recordings, radio, live performance) acknowledged on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Pretty good for a guy born into humble Texas circumstances and raised around ranches in Oklahoma. But Autry wasn't just a talented performer; his greatest successes, arguably, came from one of the shrewdest business minds to ever settle in Hollywood.
"When he was on the set, in between takes Gene would be on the telephone, conducting business," said Karla Buhlman, president of Studio City-based Gene Autry Entertainment.
"And he was smart enough to know, back in the day, that you own what you work on," added Buhlman, who oversees rights, royalties and restorations of Autry-controlled intellectual properties.
Autry, who eventually produced or co-produced his movies and shows, ultimately secured the rights to all 90 of the films he starred in. The easygoing, if business-obsessed, cowboy's motivation for that wasn't just an urge to control, though; something more visionary was going on.
"He had the foresight to say, `Y'know, I think people are going to want these to watch in their homes,"' Buhlman said. "We have correspondence that says this. So he was thinking about home video in 1971!"
Long before that realization, Autry understood it was time to get out of the business he so excelled at. "The singing cowboy movie was directly tied to the Depression, and it did not last for long after that," said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry's curator of Western History and Popular Culture.
"When America was at its peak in the 1950s, the singing cowboy phenomenon really did not relate anymore," he added. "What was interesting was how Gene was able to make that shift from being an entertainer to being a businessman."
He noted that Autry invested in television and radio stations, like KTLA and KMPC, as well as in the Angels and various land deals.
Jackie Ellam was a Palm Springs bank officer when she began doing business with Autry in 1963. Some months after Gene's first wife of 48 years, Ina, died in 1980, Jackie offered her condolences at a fundraising event.
He invited her to a New Year's Eve party at his desert hotel. They married the next summer.
Was he the workaholic he appears to have been? Not by the time Jackie signed on.
"I made the observation, in jest, one time that I thought when I retired from Security Bank to marry him, that I was going to retire," Autry, 69, recalled with a laugh.
"He always had a wonderful sense of humor. He said, in that Oklahoma drawl, `Heck no! Why do you think I married you? I expected you to take this all over so I could retire and go to Lakeside Country Club and have breakfast with the boys!"'
Which, being an accomplished businesswoman herself, Jackie dutifully did. She still owns Autry Entertainment, is lifetime director and chairman emeritus of the National Center and is honorary president of the American League (Gene sold the Angels in the last decade of his life).
For her, Gene Autry's greatest legacy was not the business she inherited, but how he taught her to approach it.
"I think that he taught me to be more introspective," she said. "I had a great deal of energy; I still do, but there's a style in which he operated that made me feel very good. I don't know how to explain it to you, except he was just so gentle, and he made me become gentle."
Built in 1949 by the cowboy singer-actor, the forested 3.68-acre property had been donated by Autry's widow, Jacqueline Autry, to the Autry National Center of the American West.