Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum

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Gene Autry's GraveGene Autry

In Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles this bronze plaque summarizes the life of a remarkable man.  "America's Favorite Cowboy" may puzzle people who knew him as a baseball owner, if at all.  There was a time, however, when that description would have been an understatement.  In 1939, 1940, 1941, and the first half of 1942, no entertainer in the world was more popular than Gene Autry.  Movie star, radio star, recording star, Academy Award-nominated song writer, he set attendance records at rodeos and other personal appearances in four countries.   He also owned West'rn Music Publishing and part of the Flying A Rodeo company.  That's what brought him back to his home territory and got a town named after him.

The Early Days

Orvon Gene Autry was born September 29, 1907, on a small farm near Tioga, Texas. His ancestry was French, Scottish and Irish. He father, Delbert Autry, was a tenant at the time of Gene's birth.

When Gene was an infant, the family moved to Achille, Oklahoma, and later moved to Ravia, Oklahoma which is located about 20 miles east of the present town of Gene Autry. At age 16, he went to work as a baggage hauler at the depot. In return for his services, he received instruction in telegraphy form the station master, Mr.. Arthur Mayberry. Then as a vacation relief telegrapher on the Frisco Railroad, Gene filled in for regular operators from St. Louis to Southern Oklahoma.

Late one night in Chelsea, Oklahoma, with few messages to handle, he was singing and strumming a guitar, when Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher, came in to wire his daily syndicated newspaper column. The humorist was impressed by the singing and encouraged the young telegrapher to go into show business.

With his railroad pass Autry went to New York with the idea of making phonograph records. There he was advised to go back home and get some radio experience. A short time later, he got a spot on KVOO, Tulsa, as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy".

Radio & Records

A year later the Yodeling Cowboy returned to New York and signed a contract with American Record Corporation. He made many records over the next two years, mostly as a Jimmie Rodgers-style blue yodeler. In 1932 Gene Autry and Jimmy Long (a friend from railroad days) recorded "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," the first gold record. By then Autry was a star on WLS radio in Chicago with "The Conqueror Record Hour" sponsored by Sears and "The National Barn Dance," broadcast across the country on NBC.

With radio, records (sold by the thousands from Sears catalogs), and personal appearances going for him, Gene Autry was a singing cowboy star.

Hollywood Hero

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, cowboy movies had fallen on hard times, like the rest of the country, When sound came to motion pictures in the late 1920s, Westerns had a hard time with the new technology. Some of the silent film stars made the transition to talkies, and a few, namely action stars Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, and John Wayne had tried singing in films with little response.

In 1934 Producer Nat Levine, with some prodding from others, decided to try something different—a singing cowboy who could actually sing, so he put Gene Autry in the Ken Maynard picture, In Old Santa Fe.  By 1940 Gene Autry was one of the four most popular movie stars in America, a major network radio star, and a top-sellling recording artist. His movie career lasted until 1953. With nearly a hundred movies, 16 years on CBS Radio, more than 600 records that sold millions (seven gold and two platinum), nearly a hundred television shows, and more than thirty years of personal appearances across the country and overseas, Gene Autry was one of America's most popular and enduring entertainers.

Artist, Entertainer, Role Model

The outstanding writer, researcher and teacher, Jon Guyot Smith, called Autry a great artist. He had the ability to make people feel good about him and his music, and he set standards for what became known as Country Music. Gene Autry is an American success story, coming from a humble beginning to entertain and inspire people throughout the world. Gene set an example for youngsters growing up in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Gene Autry touched, and improved, the lives of millions, and the spirit of the Singing CowBoy role model lives on in the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum.

Gene Autry died October 2, 1998, three days after his 91st birthday.

Setting the Record Straight

Gene Autry    Despite the claims of a syndicated Baltimore Sun article, Gene Autry did return to the town which carries his name.  He owned the Flying A ranch near the town from 1938 to 1944, and was there as frequently as his schedule of making eight movies a year, making numerous recordings, his weekly radio program, and his military service in World War II would allow.  He was on hand, with some 50,000 others on November 16, 1941, when the town changed its signs during a broadcast of "Gene Autry's Melody Ranch" radio program on CBS.  He visited Gene Autry, Oklahoma, in 1956 when he performed at the nearby Ardmore Rodeo, and he was in the town in 1991 during a trip when he was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.  Just a week before his death in 1998, The Singing Cowboy wrote to Elvin Sweeten and the citizens of Gene Autry on the occasion of the Gene Autry Oklahoma Film and Music Festival.  Gene said he hoped they had a good festival and that his health prevented his attending.


How the Town Got Its Name

Gene Autry was also involved in rodeo. He performed at major events, and his Flying A Rodeo company produced a number of prominent rodeos. Needing a place to keep rodeo livestock, Autry bought 1,200 acres on the west side of Berwyn, Oklahoma, in 1938.

Cecil Crosby, an area resident and Deputy Sheriff of Carter County, is credited with the idea of changing Berwyn's name to Gene Autry. The citizens agreed, and on Sunday, November 16, 1941, the change took place. Governor Leon Phillips, Gene Autry, and more than 35,000 other people came to Berywn to see the singing cowboy's "Melody Ranch" radio broadcast and take part in the name change.



          Gene Autry Oklahoma Historical Museum
          P. O. Box 67
          Gene Autry, OK 73436
 
          Phone 580.294.3047

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