Share This Page

Autry was one-man success show

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."

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.