The Official Website of Gene Autry, America's Favorite Singing Cowboy

News Archive: 2013

The Autry Museum's 25th Anniversary
Posted March 1, 2013

In celebration of the Autry Museum’s 25th Anniversary we thought you might enjoy an article written by our very own Maxine Hansen, long-time Executive Assistant to Mr. and Mrs. Gene Autry. She was also the first secretary of the Autry Museum when the idea was just a dream.

To learn more about the Autry Museum's year-long
celebration please visit the website listed here.

Two Redheads and a Museum

By Maxine Hansen
Originally published in the Autry Museum's 2012 Gala Journal

When Gene Autry asked Jackie Ellam to step into his office, she thought he wanted to conduct some banking business. Instead the Cowboy asked the Vice President and General Manager of Security Bank Cathedral City whether she believed in small or large weddings.

Jackie first met the Cowboy in 1963 when he acquired the Holiday Inn in Palm Springs (later named the Gene Autry Hotel). As she rose through the ranks at the bank, first in Palm Springs and then Cathedral City, she would handle banking for Gene and his wife, Ina, as well as the hotel. Their paths would also cross at various functions held in the desert.

Joanne Hale, Jackie Autry, and Monte Hale sorting through collections in warehouse, August 1985. Autry Library, IA.PH.0040

In December 1980, at the annual fundraiser for the Eisenhower Medical Center, Jackie approached Gene to pay her condolences on the loss of his wife earlier that year. About two weeks later, he invited her to join him and a group of friends at the hotel's New Year's Eve party. Jackie accepted. It would be her first introduction to Joanne Hale.

Over the months their courtship blossomed, with Gene taking the lead. He invited her on his private jet to the Super Bowl. He said he wanted his partners to meet the future Chairman of the Board of Golden West Broadcasters. At the start of the 1981 baseball season, Jackie drove him to the doctor's office and waited while he had his annual physical. The doctor thought she'd better know that Gene requested a blood test for a marriage license.

On July 17, Jackie officially retired from the bank, and they were married on July 19. Johnny Grant and Pat Buttram attended, with Reverend Larry Stamper performing the ceremony. Pat noted that she was wearing a blue dress. He let her borrow his handkerchief and presented her with something new—a "diamond pin." It was a dime attached to a pin. As for something old, Pat told her—in his ever dry wit—that she was marrying Gene.

Museum construction, October 1986. Autry Library, IA.PH.0031

Joanne Haverback met Monte Hale in the 1970s. He was talking with one of the golf pros when a vivacious widow walked in for her first golf lesson. The widow of a doctor, with four children, Joanne found it unnerving trying to hit golf balls while being watched by a tall, handsome stranger parked on a bench. He invited her over to talk. She went because she thought if she exchanged a few pleasantries he would go away.

Monte mentioned a film festival he was attending in Memphis and asked if she'd like to go with him. She told him she didn't do things like that and had four children. His response was "That's alright, we'll take separate airplanes." She started to laugh and found his sense of humor refreshing. When she put her hand on his shoulder to change her golf shoes, it was pure magic for Monte. "That was the hand I wanted on my shoulder from now on." They were married in November 1977.

Museum construction, May 1987.
Autry Library, IA.PH.0033

Bird's-eye view of the newly built Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, circa 1988. Autry Library, IA.PH.0016

Both Gene and Monte were romantics. On special occasions, like Valentine's Day, Gene would come in the office looking for a poem for Jackie. A bulletin board in Joanne's home is papered with love notes from Monte. The men's common bond centered on their love of music and their success in films at Republic Pictures. That bond would result in the birth of a museum.

Gene had a long-standing dream to build a museum at his Melody Ranch in Placerita Canyon, the property he purchased in 1952 from the widow of owner and set designer/artist Ernie Hickson. In many ways it was the perfect location. Placerita Canyon had a long association with the Western genre and such actors as Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Harry Carey, and John Wayne. Hickson's ranch served as the home studio of Monogram. He built complete structures with interiors and erected a town, featuring nine permanent residences, corrals, and more. Gene filmed Tumbling Tumbleweeds, his first feature film, there. Under Gene's ownership the ranch became a thriving television studio, filming shows such as Gunsmoke, Hopalong Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, Death Valley Days, Annie Oakley, and the Gene Autry Show. Along with existing props and treasures, Gene added locomotives, cars, and housed his memorabilia there.

Joanne Hale and Jackie Autry at Opening Day, November 21, 1988.
Autry Library, IA.PH.0005. Photo by Edi Metcalf.

However, on August 28, 1962, a massive firestorm roared through Newhall's Placerita Canyon. Fifty-four structures were burned on the 110-acre ranch, along with wardrobe and costumes, files that turned to dust, memorabilia, and an archive of 17,000 recordings. Over the next three decades, Gene sold off all but twelve acres, eventually selling those when the last Champion died. The dream of a museum had been laid to rest—that is, until Monte Hale brought it up again.

One night in the early 1980s, over dinner at the Gene Autry Hotel, Monte told Gene he should pursue his idea of a museum. After thinking it over, Jackie called the Hales and said they would pursue it—but only if Joanne and Monte pulled up stakes, moved from Montecito to Los Angeles, and helped.

They agreed—and the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum was born.

To start, Jackie and Joanne combed through Melody Ranch and Gene's personally held artifacts for treasures to include in the museum's collection. They loaded up a two-ton truck and drove to a rented warehouse, where the items were cleaned and placed on shelves they had constructed themselves. Monte carefully cleaned and polished the saddles and other articles that were brought in. It was a lot of work, but it wasn't all hard labor. In fact, Joanne remembers the four of them singing as they worked. The museum's extensive collection was built upon from this initial beginning.

First Board of Directors, 1988.
Left to right: John Bianchi, Clyde Tritt, Director Joanne Hale, Jackie and Gene Autry, Stanley Schneider, Monte Hale. Autry Library, IA.PH.0003

From the outset, Jackie wanted the place to be fun. "So many of the museums I've been through have fantastic artifacts, but because of the way they're displayed, it becomes boring," she complained. She enlisted Joanne, who was a successful and recently retired businesswoman, to be the museum's first executive director. Joanne stressed that the new Autry Museum had to be both entertaining and educational. They hired Walt Disney Imagineering to liven up the exhibition plans and to put the project on a fast track.

Jackie Autry, Sandra Ausman, and Joanne Hale during a "pre-Gala" meeting, November 1989. Autry Library, IA.PH.0011. Photo © 1989 by Barry Slobin.

Although it was Gene's longtime vision to build a museum, he admittedly had something smaller in mind. But the two redheads knew they had the financial backing to do something on a grander scale, so they carried his vision forward. Autry was nervous when he saw the hole in the ground get bigger and bigger and the steel girders higher and higher. But to his credit he let the pair proceed—and no one was more proud of the result or the two women than the Cowboy!

Maxine Joy Hansen has been riding the Gene Autry trail for over thirty years. She started in Gene Autry's personal office in 1981, eventually becoming Jackie and Gene Autry's personal assistant. Maxine served as the first secretary of the Autry when the museum was in its planning stages. She has written several articles, including two features on Gene Autry and Monte Hale for Cowboys & Indians magazine.

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