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Obituary: Gene Autry

1 SEPTEMBER 1939 is imprinted forever as "the day war broke out", thanks to the immortal broadcasts by the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the radio comedian Robb Wilton. Three days later Louis Ellman, manager of the Theatre Royal Dublin, cabled a somewhat different news bulletin to the President of Republic Pictures:

Gene Autry's personal appearance broke all existing box-office records since we opened. Autry played to 80,000 paid admissions. Police records estimate Autry's parade drew on the streets 75,000 people, the largest crowd ever assembled in all Dublin history.

Clearly the Irish knew what was important in the world of that dark September.

Gene Autry, billed by his studio as "Public Cowboy Number One", had arrived in London in August 1939, his first ever trip outside his native America. With him, of course, came his horse Champion, a golden Palomino who would in time receive his own television series and signature tune, "Champion the Wonder Horse", sung by the pop star Frankie Laine. But back in 1939 Champion hit his first British headlines when Autry rode him up the steps and into the Savoy Hotel. "Shooting irons must be parked with hats" ran the footnote on the press invitations. Autry was the first cowboy film star to hit London since the silent film star Tom Mix galloped down the Strand in the Twenties. He would return in 1953, still riding the faithful Champion, for a month's season at the Empress Hall.

Gene Autry, perhaps wrongly hailed as the first of the screen's singing cowboys (Ken Maynard warbled a bit around 1930), was undoubtedly the most popular, starring in just under 100 feature films, then moving into television when the B-western market dried up.

He was born in 1907, in Tioga Springs, Texas. His father combined livestock dealing with Baptist preaching, while the boy preferred to spend his spare time singing, when he wasn't working with his father's horses. At the age of 12 young Gene bought his first guitar; it cost him eight dollars and came mail order from Sears Roebuck's catalogue. Three years later he was acting small parts in school plays, and with his cousin Louise at the piano sang in local cafes for 50 cents a night. This was after a family move to Achille, Oklahoma, where he made his first contact with the film industry. He worked as an assistant projectionist at the Dark Feather Theater, enjoying the cowboy films of William S. Hart through the peephole.

Leaving school Autry went to work for the St Louis-San Francisco Railway as a relief operator in the telegraph office. He wiled away the time between Morse code messages by strumming his guitar. "One day the door opened and a rugged type of face was poked into the room. His old ten-gallon hat was stuck on the back of his head in a way that seemed familiar to me. It was Will Rogers." The famous comedian handed Autry the copy for his regular newspaper column, together with a little advice. "You sound mighty gay, young fella," he said, shoving a stick of gum into Autry's hand and advising him not to waste his time sitting around an office when he could sing so well. Inspired, Autry packed his guitar and headed for the big city.

He found a job singing with the Fields Brothers' Marvellous Medicine Show, singing ballads in blackface make-up for 15 dollars a week to plug Professor Fields's Patent Pain Annihilator. In 1927 he arrived in New York, aged 19, and called on the Victor Recording Company in the hope of an audition. While waiting he sang to the receptionist his cowboy version of "Jeannie I Dream of Lilac Time". The composer Nathaniel Shilkret heard him and was impressed enough to get the manager in charge of New Artistes to lend an ear. Next morning Autry was cutting his first test records, an odd combination of "The Prisoner's Song" and the Al Jolson hit of the day, "Sonny Boy". Autry failed to win a contract but received some good advice: "Go home, get on the radio, and come back next year." Frankie Marvin heard him and added, "Learn to sing some yodel songs, that's more your style."

Autry promptly won his own series over station KVO in Tulsa, billed as the "Oklahoma Yodelling Cowboy", supported by Jimmy Wilson and his Catfish String Band. To celebrate he wrote his first song, a list which would eventually number of 250. It was a tribute to his father and was entitled "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine".

Autry's first phonograph record was issued by Victor on 9 October 1929. Called "My Alabama Home", it was followed two weeks later by the Columbia Velvatone Record of "Left My Gal in the Mountains". This was a cover job of Carson Robison's hit, but more significant was the title on the reverse side, Jimmy Rodgers's "Blue Yodel Number Five". Rodgers was the top singer of country music, then known as Hilly-Billy. Billed as "The Singing Brakeman", Rodgers was already ill with tuberculosis when he rose to fame. He died tragically young in 1933, whereupon Autry seized the sentiment of the moment and recorded "The Death of Jimmy Rodgers" as a tribute. In all Autry recorded 20 of Rodgers's songs.

The Thirties found Autry at home with a regular radio show on the National Broadcasting Company. This was The National Barn Dance, and his sponsor was none other than Sears Roebuck. Now they marketed the Gene Autry name for the first time, putting his signature and picture on their exclusive run of Gene Autry guitars. A new recording of "Silver-Haired Daddy" was his first best-seller, retailing 30,000 copies in a single month, then winning him no fewer than two Gold Records for selling 1,500,000 copies in all.

Hollywood called and in 1934 Autry and his radio band guest-starred in a Ken Maynard movie, In Old Santa Fe. They filled a six-minute musical interlude with added interruptions by the chubby comedian Lester "Smiley" Burnette. The two cowboys got along so well that they became a semi-permanent team.

Autry was such a success on the screen that he was rushed into two of the episodes of the Ken Maynard serial Mystery Mountain and then starred himself in the 13-episode serial Phantom Empire (1934). One of the earliest science-fiction film serials, this had the hero Autry galloping back to his wired-up ranch once in every episode so that he wouldn't miss his weekly radio broadcast.

Autry's slightly sub-super-heroic role was summed up by a contemporary critic, who said the star had "a soft voice, a shy style and peaceful looks". Curiously, this would remain the Autry persona throughout his 20-year screen career, save that he grew a little chubbier as each film rolled by. Finally the film historian William K. Everson would write an honest if baffled put-down, branding the Singing Cowboy as "a weak and colourless actor and only a passable action performer", pointing out that it was "only with the help of Republic Studio's stuntmen doubling for him that Autry won an enormous following overnight".

Autry's film career proper began with Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935). This established his on-screen image by casting him as always wearing gloves. Ninety-three western movies followed, only two of which were actually set in the Old West. One critic watched them all and came up with a total of five basic plots shot on only two locations, the mountains or the desert. But Autry's films were not made for critics; they were made for cinema- goers who enjoyed westerns - which really meant they were made for children.

In an outsize press-book issued by Republic describing his 1939 overseas tour, Autry inscribed a poster of himself thus: "I pledge never to make a picture that you won't be proud to take your son, daughter, mother or father to see. I'll keep them clean." And he surely did, confining his one and only film kiss to the climax of Comin' Round the Mountain (1936).

Autry enlisted into the US Army Air Force in 1942. Given the rank of Technical Sergeant he was promptly assigned to Special Services as an entertainer and given back his own radio show. Uneasy, Autry insisted on being taught to fly and was eventually transferred to Air Transport Command as Flight Officer.

After the Second World War he returned to Hollywood a new man and instantly sued Republic Pictures claiming his pre-war contract had expired. They settled out of court for a run of five new films under better terms for Autry. Sioux City Sue (1946) was the first, but by now his old oppo Smiley Burnett was at the rival studio of Columbia, acting as the supporting sidekick to the Durango Kid. Autry found a fairly suitable substitute in Sterling Holloway, a skinny simpleton.

Autry now founded his own production company with Columbia handling the distribution. The Last Roundup came first (1947) followed by Strawberry Roan (1948), his first film in colour, a new low-budget two-colour system called Cinecolor. Pat Buttram was now his permanent sidekick. In 1950 Autry founded Flying-A Productions to make half-hour series for television. Four very successful shows were made, Annie Oakley (starring Gail Davis), Range Rider (with Jock Mahoney), Buffalo Bill Junior (with Dick Jones) and Champion (the Wonder Horse himself).

Autry's last personal film had the apt title Last of the Pony Riders (1952). It was his 93rd starring movie. Always a careful investor, he now became a businessman, first buying a radio station, then a television channel and then a baseball team, the California Angels. A train of Gene Autry Hotels was built, record companies and music publishers were launched, and today his fortune is calculated at some $350m.

Despite all this, one modest statement of Autry's would seem to agree with William Everson's criticism: "I'm no great actor, I'm no great rider, I'm no great singer. But whatever it is I've got, they seem to like it."

Orvon Gene Autry, actor: born Tioga Springs, Texas 29 September 1907; married 1932 Ina Mae Spivey (died 1980), 1981 Jacqueline Ellam; died North Hollywood, California 2 October 1998.