While today Roy Rogers is perhaps better remembered than Gene Autry, it’s important to note that without Autry there probably wouldn’t have been a Roy Rogers.
Orvon Grover Autry was the first singing cowboy — well, at least the first successful one. He paved the way.
Born in Texas his family moved to Olahoma when he was an infant. Throughout his career, Autry regarded the state as home (or at least one of them). In the late Twenties, he landed a spot as a vocalist on a radio station.
World spread about this local favorite and by 1934 Autry was making movies billed as “The World’s Greatest Cowboy Singer.” His first in that capacity was with another vocalizing cowpoke, Ken Maynard, in 1934’s Old Sante Fe.
Interestingly, Autry and Roy Rogers were close contemporaries — Gene born in 1907 and Roy four years later. Also, Rogers’ movie career began a year after Autry’s. And like Gene, Roy made his debut as a singer — a member of the Sons of the Pioneers vocal group. And, finally, both Autry and Roger died in the same year, 1998; Gene was 91, Roy was 86.
Autry’s early movie making bounced from no-name Mascot Pictures to Republic Pictures, and then as the singing cowboy phenomenon peaked in popularity, to major studio Columbia. Autry’s acting skills were hardly Shakespearean but he projected a righteous but genial, screen personality that made him a likable good guy.
After wartime service in the Forties, Autry emerged bigger than ever. (His movie career covers some 100 credits.) But as the singing cowboy phenomenon flagged in movies by the Fifties, he focussed his attention more on television.
The Gene Autry Show debuted in 1947, continued through 1954, and was produced by Austry’s own production outfit, Flying A Productions. Accompanying Gene were faithful horse Champion and amiable sidekick Pat Buttram. The series had tremendous appeal for children. A syndicated tv version of Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch followed a decade or so later.
Gene hung up his movie and tv spurs in the Sixties, and proceeded to became known as one of the richest businessmen ever to come out of show business.
He amassed extensive holdings in real estate, radio and tv stations and ownership of the (now) Los Angeles Angels baseball team. He became became a tv station tycoon as majority and chairman-president of Golden West Broadcasters, a West Coast group whose flagship station was KTLA-TV in Los Angeles.
But his simpler days as “the singing cowboy” are commemorated at the Gene Autrey Oklahoma Museum in the tiny town of — what else? — Gene Autry, Oklahoma. There’s also an Autry Center of the American West in Los Angeles.
The Oklahoma location in its website asks if today’s film fans don’t pine for movies like the old “B” westerns with their singing cowboys. We suspect that thanks to Gene Autry, there are many more positive answers to that question than you might expect.