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Autry was one-man success show

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

A vivid boyhood experience was attending the Gene Autry Rodeo at Pittsburgh's old Duquesne Gardens sometime in the 1940s.

The clowns and fierce, bucking bulls, the rope-tossing and bronco-riding were just appetizers. Then the lights went down. Drums rolled and a spotlight shone into a far corner of the arena. Onto the sawdust floor rode a cowboy, a bit on the plump side, on horseback at wide-open gallop. He brought up just short of the far bleachers. The stallion, harness glittered, reared and kicked out, but Gene Autry didn't fall off, oh no. He waved his ten-gallon hat, grinning in the spotlight as Pittsburgh blew the roof off cheering. Probably no boy or girl who was there ever forgot it.

The heroism may have been celluloid, but what a businessman Gene Autry (1907-1998). He sang and rode but he invested, he diversified. One opportunity led to another and where money was to be made he answered the call.

He began as a hillbilly singer at dances, on records and early radio broadcasts -- and eventually bought radio stations. TV, too. He got into the movies at $100 salary per film (he'd make six a year) and found that stardom at the "picture shows" enabled him to headline at rodeosm -- and eventually his own. Then came royalty rights for Western shirts, hats, boots and guitars. His first purchased guitar was a $10 model from the Sears catalog.

For seven years as an up-and-comer in show biz he kept his "day job" -- telegrapher for a railroad along the Texas-Oklahoma borderland of his boyhood. His mother died young, father never amounted to much, so hard-working Gene raised two sisters and a brother.

It's an appealing, bittersweet success story that ex-New York Times writer Holly George-Warren tells in "Public Cowboy No. 1" (Oxford, 302 pages, pictures and footnotes).

By the time the star got too pudgy for filmed heroics, he and a large staff were dealing with 45 licensees, ranches leased to makers of Westerns, real estate developments and ownership of the California Angels baseball team. Growing older, Autry fortified with a drink (or two) before appearances. Sometimes embarrassingly he fell off Champion the Wonder Horse. (Six different animals filled that bill over the years). But he never let kids see him drinking or swearing. And everywhere he toured he visited hospitals. His record of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" became the second-best selling single of all time (behind his friend Bing Crosby's "White Christmas").

Late in life, Autry liked to joke that he planned to "take all my money with me." His wife tucked a check for $320 million in a pocket of his burial suit. She said, "That's what Forbes magazine thought he was worth on the date of his death."

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