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Western Profiles: Gene Autry

The famous and popular Gene Autry was born on a ranch on September 29, 1907 in Tioga, Texas. While working as a railroad telegrapher in 1928, Will Rogers heard Gene sing and advised him to try the entertainment business. It was very good advice. He purchased a mail order guitar for $5.00 and became Hollywood’s very first singing cowboy. He first sang on radio in 1928, and then went on to begin his career in films in 1934. He was a top Hollywood box office Western star and appeared in 95 films between 1934 and 1953. He is the only Western star on the list of top 10 box office moneymakers.

After two bit parts in Ken Maynard‘s movies, Gene made his first film in 1934, which was a serial entitled “Phantom Empire“. It had 12 chapters. Next came “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” which set up the format for the next 50 films. Gene said himself that he didn’t act well, didn’t ride well and didn’t sing well, but people liked what he did and he was going to keep on doing it. This determination and his horse Champion and sidekick Smiley Burnette, carried him through and made him a winner.

Gene went into the war in 1942 and served until 1946. He then returned to Republic Pictures to resume his career. When he returned, he was a different man with a different agenda. He wanted a piece of the action. Herbert J. Yates, head of Republic, would have none of that, so Gene began negotiations with Columbia Pictures. In mid 1947, he signed with Columbia, getting what he wanted. He had done 5 pictures with Republic after the war…. heavy with song and light on action. He did 32 very fine films for Columbia which were light on song and heavy with drama.

In 1939 he started the “Melody Ranch” radio show on CBS. On the show he sang songs, presented a dramatization of an action story, and ended the program with more songs. This show was broadcast for 16 years. In 1950, he began “The Gene Autry Show” on television. It was the first series made by a motion picture star to be aired on CBS, and it ran until 1955.

While pursuing these endeavors, he maintained a very active recording career. He recorded more than 635 records between 1929 and 1964. Many were co-written by Gene. He did a lot of records for children that are still favorites today: “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer“, “Peter Cottontail” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” (which he co-wrote).

Marketing was a bonanza for the Gene Autry property. There were all kinds of products, one of which was comic books. His comic was first published by Fawcett in 1941, and Dell picked it up at number 11 and ran 121 issues. Number one is the most highly valued Western comic, selling at $7,000.00 + in near mint condition if one could find one for sale.

Besides his entertainment career, he was quite the businessman. He owned several properties, radio stations and in 1960, he became majority owner of the Angels baseball team. He was Chairman of the Board from 1960 until he died in 1998. Sadly, the team never won any pennants during his lifetime, but in October 2002, they won the World Series.

As his final legacy, in 1988, he opened the Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now called the Autry National Center) which houses many artifacts that represent the old west as it really was. Additionally, there are items from the B-Western stars who offered the public fantasized versions of the old west. It’s a 54 million dollar museum that stands as a thing of beauty in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, on the north side of the city. In AC Comic’s book Best of the West” #36, there is a tour of the Museum with photos. Gene Autry Entertainment has given AC Comics onetime publishing rights to use Gene‘s photo on the cover of this issue. In addition there is a Gene Autry comic book story from the 1950’s published along with other stories of Western characters. Look for it in the Online Store.

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