Hand color tinted photo of Gene Autry & Peggy Stewart, from the 1947 movie, Trail to San Antone
Orvon Gene Autry (September 29, 1907 – October 2, 1998), better known as Gene Autry, was an American performer who gained fame as The Singing Cowboy on the radio, in movies and on television for more than three decades beginning in the 1930s. Autry was also owner of the Los Angeles Angels Major League Baseball team from 1961 until his death, as well as a television station and several radio stations in southern California.
Although his signature song was “Back in the Saddle Again,” Autry is best known today for his Christmas holiday songs, “Here Comes Santa Claus” (which he wrote), “Frosty the Snowman,” and his biggest hit, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
He is a member of both the Country Music and Nashville Songwriters halls of fame, and is the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Autry, the grandson of a Methodist preacher, was born near Tioga, Texas. His parents, Delbert Autry and Elnora Ozment, moved to Ravia, Oklahoma in the 1920s. After leaving high school in 1925, Autry worked as a telegraphist for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway.
Talent with the guitar and his voice led to performing at local dances. After an encouraging chance encounter with Will Rogers, he began performing on local radio in 1928 as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy.”
Autry signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1929. He worked in Chicago, Illinois, on the WLS-AM radio show National Barn Dance for four years, and with his own show, where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. In his early recording career, Autry covered various genres, including a labor song, “The Death of Mother Jones” in 1931.
Autry also recorded many “hillbilly”-style records in 1930 and 1931 in New York City, which were certainly different in style and content from his later recordings. These were much closer in style to the Prairie Ramblers or Dick Justice, and included the “Do Right Daddy Blues” and “Black Bottom Blues,” both similar to “Deep Elem Blues.” These late-Prohibition era songs deal with bootlegging, corrupt police, and women whose occupation was certainly vice. These recordings are generally not heard today, but are available on European import labels, such as JSP Records.
His first hit was in 1932 with “That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine,” a duet with fellow railroad man, Jimmy Long. Autry also sang the classic Ray Whitley hit “Back In The Saddle Again,” as well as many Christmas holiday songs including “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” his own composition “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and his biggest hit, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Autry also owned the Challenge Records label. The label’s biggest hit was “Tequila” by The Champs in 1958, which started the rock-and-roll instrumental craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Autry made 640 recordings, including more than 300 songs written or co-written by him. His records sold more than 100 million copies and he has more than a dozen gold and platinum records, including the first record ever certified gold.
Films and military career
Discovered by film producer Nat Levine in 1934, Autry and Burnette made their film debut for Mascot Pictures Corp. in In Old Santa Fe as part of a singing cowboy quartet; he was then given the starring role by Levine in 1935 in the 12-part serial The Phantom Empire. Shortly thereafter, Mascot was absorbed by the newly-formed Republic Pictures Corp., and Autry went along to make a further 44 films up to 1940, all B westerns in which he played under his own name, rode his horse Champion, had Burnette as his regular sidekick, and had many opportunities to sing in each film. He became the top Western star at the box office by 1937, reaching his national peak of popularity from 1940 to 1942. His Gene Autry Flying “A” Ranch Rodeo show debuted in 1940.
He was the first of the singing cowboys, succeeded as the top star by Roy Rogers when Autry served as a C-47 Skytrain pilot in the United States Army Air Forces, with the rank of Flight Officer in the Air Transport Command during World War II flying dangerous missions over the Himalayas, nicknamed the Hump, between Burma and China.
Autry briefly returned to Republic after the war to finish out his contract, which had been suspended for the duration of his military service and which he had tried to have declared void after his discharge. He appeared in 1951 in the film Texans Never Cry, with a role for newcomer Mary Castle. Thereafter, he formed his own production company to make Westerns under his own control, which were distributed by Columbia Pictures, beginning in 1947.
Radio and TV
From 1940 to 1956, Autry had a huge hit with a weekly show on CBS Radio, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. His horse, Champion, also had a CBS-TV and Mutual radio series, The Adventures of Champion. He created the Cowboy Code, or Cowboy Commandments, in response to his young radio listeners aspiring to emulate him. Under his code, the Cowboy must:
1.never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2.never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3.always tell the truth.
4.be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
5.not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6.help people in distress.
7.be a good worker.
8.keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
9.respect women, parents and his nation’s laws.
10.be a patriot.
Beginning in 1950, he produced and starred in his own television show on CBS, and made several appearances on ABC-TV’s Jubilee USA in the late 1950s.
Autry retired from show business in 1964, having made almost 100 films up to 1955, and over 600 records. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969, and to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. After retiring, he invested widely and wisely in real estate, radio, and television, including the purchase from dying Republic Pictures the rights for films he had made for the company.
In 1952, Autry bought the old Monogram Ranch in Placerita Canyon (Newhall-Santa Clarita, California) and renamed it Melody Ranch. Numerous “B” Westerns and TV shows were shot there during Autry’s ownership, including the initial years of Gunsmoke with James Arness. Melody Ranch burned down in 1962, dashing Autry’s plans to turn it into a museum. According to a published story by Autry, the fire caused him to turn his attention to Griffith Park, where he would build his Museum of Western Heritage (now known as the Autry National Center). Melody Ranch came back to life after 1991, when it was purchased by the Veluzat family and rebuilt. It survives as a movie location today as well as the home of the City of Santa Clarita’s annual Cowboy Festival, where Autry’s legacy always takes center stage.
In the 1950s, Autry had been a minority owner of the minor-league Hollywood Stars. In 1960, when Major League Baseball announced plans to add an expansion team in Los Angeles, Autry – who had once declined an opportunity to play in the minor leagues, – expressed an interest in acquiring the radio broadcast rights to the team’s games. Baseball executives were so impressed by his approach that he was persuaded to become the owner of the franchise rather than simply its broadcast partner. The team, initially called the Los Angeles Angels upon its 1961 debut, moved to suburban Anaheim in 1966, and was re-named the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels from 1997 until 2005, when it became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Autry served as vice president of the American League from 1983 until his death. In 1995 he sold a quarter share of the team to The Walt Disney Company, and a controlling interest the following year, with the remaining share to be transferred after his death. Earlier, in 1982, he sold Los Angeles television station KTLA for $245 million. He also sold several radio stations he owned, including KSFO in San Francisco, KMPC in Los Angeles, KOGO in San Diego, and other stations in the Golden West radio network.
The number 26 was retired by the Angels in Autry’s honor. The chosen number reflected that baseball’s rosters are 25-man strong and Autry’s unflagging support for his team made him the 26th member.
Included for many years on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans, he slipped to their “near miss” category in 1995 with an estimated net worth of $320 million. Gene Autry died of lymphoma at age 91 at his home in Studio City, California and is interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. His death on October 2, 1998 came less than three months after the death of another celebrated cowboy of the silver screen, radio, and TV, Roy Rogers.
In 1932 he married Ina May Spivey (who died in 1980), who was the niece of Jimmy Long. He married Jacqueline Ellam in 1981. She had been his banker. He had no children by either marriage.
In 1972, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Autry was a life member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Burbank Lodge No. 1497. His 1976 autobiography, co-written by Mickey Herskowitz, was titled Back in the Saddle Again after his 1939 hit and signature tune. He is also featured year after year, on radio and “shopping mall music” at the holiday season, by his recording of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “Rudolph” became the first #1 hit of the 1950s. CMT in 2003 ranked him #38 in CMT’s 40 Greatest Men of Country Music.
When the Anaheim Angels won their first World Series in 2002, much of the championship was dedicated to him. The interchange of Interstate 5 and State Route 134, located near the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, is signed as the “Gene Autry Memorial Interchange.” In 2007, he became a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.
Johnny Cash recorded a song in 1978 about Autry called “Who is Gene Autry.” Cash also got Autry to sign his famous black Martin D-35 guitar, and the signature can be seen very clearly in the video for “Hurt.” NWA member Eazy-E mentioned Autry in his song “We Want Eazy” from his 1988 album Eazy Duz It.
Autry was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2004, the Starz Entertainment Corporation joined forces with the Autry estate to restore all of his films, which have been shown on Starz’s Encore Western Channel on cable television on a regular basis to date since.
Hollywood Walk of Fame
Autry is the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one in each of the five categories maintained by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. They are:
Category ~ Address
Motion pictures ~ 6644 Hollywood Blvd.
Radio ~ 6520 Hollywood Blvd.
Recording ~ 6384 Hollywood Blvd.
Television ~ 6667 Hollywood Blvd.
Live theater ~ 7000 Hollywood Blvd.
The Museum of the American West
The Museum of the American West in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park was founded in 1988 as the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, featuring much of his collection of Western art and memorabilia. Its mission is to preserve everything related to the “mythic aspects” of the American “old West” from true historical lifestyles to the 70-year saga of the Hollywood Western movie genre.
Born Margaret O’Rourke in Florida in 1923, Peggy Stewart and family moved to California in the 1930s, and she was lucky enough to play the teenage daughter of Joel McCrea in WELLS FARGO (1936). By the 1940s, she was the resident heroine at Republic to cowboy stars Wild Bill Elliott, Sunset Carson, Allan Lane and others. In the early 1940s, she was married to Republic western hero Don “Red” Barry.
Peggy was under a term players contract at Republic from April, 1944 through March, 1947 — this simply meant that for security and a regular paycheck, Republic could utilize her as much as they wanted. From 1944-1951, she appeared in about 35 films at Republic, most of which were serials and westerns.
When I was growing up in Georgia during the early 1950s, I recall that westerns were among the first films released to TV. Republic Pictures had their Hollywood Television Service releasing arm, and among the movies on the little screen were the Bill Elliott/Red Ryder adventures … and Peggy Stewart was in a lot of those.
When I saw her, I was amazed that she generally portrayed a savvy, smart and tough heroine who often was hot-tempered … she was definitely NOT the passive heroine that was typical of the female roles in many other westerns.
Peggy’s sister, Olympic swimmer Patricia O’Rourke, was married to World War II Navy flier/hero Wayne Morris, who did many films for Warners as well as a series of westerns in the 1950s at Monogram/Allied Artists.
Western and serial fan Mark Tourin spotted Peggy in a Seinfeld episode. According to IMDB she appeared as ‘Aunt May’ in an episode titled ‘The Implant’, which was first aired in 1990. Mark remembers her doing a great job ‘playing it straight’ as the aunt of the temporary girl friend of George Costanza at a wake, of all things.