Gene Autry

Ken Burns’ wonderful, new documentary series County Music on PBS is just terrific. I hope you got a chance to see it.

I was especially taken with one particular section of the film, on the country’s “singing cowboys” of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

It got me thinking. That’s not always a good thing, but in this case harmless enough.

Not to date myself or anything, but as a kid, I got in on the very tail end of the singing cowboy era. It was huge. Probably as big as anything in television or film today.

As Mr. Burns’ series so beautifully illustrates, cowboy stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the others made movies, radio programs, black and white television shows and records. They were especially popular following World War II.

On screen they always got the bad guys and the girls. They might have gotten shot, but never ended up dead. The bad guys, not the girls. I don’t recall the cowboys ever getting hurt.

Back at the bunkhouse, they would pick up their guitars and sing cowboy tunes like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water.”

When I was young, without my knowing, my mother saved Cass Clay milk bottle caps. Enough for me to get a Hopalong Cassidy wristwatch one Christmas. It was my first watch. I believe I still have it somewhere.

But for me, the television shows, movies and records all pail in comparison to one particular day, Sunday, October 7, 1951. That was the day Gene Autry made a personal appearance in Fargo. My dad took me to see him. I remember it very clearly. I was three. I don’t know how I remember it, but I swear to you I do.

I believe Pat Buttram, Gene’s comic sidekick, came on first, probably to warm up the large audience at one of two Fargo shows that day. I even remember what I think was his opening joke. It went something like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, before we begin I have an announcement. There is a woman here, her name is Helen Hunt and she has found a set of car keys. She’s in the lobby with them. And, of course, she would like to see that they get them back to their owner. So, if you’ve lost a set of car keys, go to Helen Hunt for ’em.”

I remember a huge laugh followed by a ringing round of applause. Did I mention, I was three?

True confession:  Long ago I stole that joke from Mr. Butrram and have used it for years emceeing shows and dinners. It never fails to get a laugh.

Gene himself made his entrance onto the stage of what was then the North Dakota Agricultural College’s fieldhouse in spectacular fashion, atop his horse Champion. Actually, it was one of three “Touring Champions” Gene rode in personal appearances.

About the only other thing I remember is a fair amount of shooting on stage. Like on screen, there must have been some bad guys in the stage show, too.

Gene Autry also made two appearances at the Mandan Rodeo in the 40’s and 50’s.  We have a picture of Gene with Ginny’s dad, Allan Eastman, on our wall at home. Allan wrote a daily column for the Bismarck Tribune for many years, a job that led to any number of introductions to other celebrities like boxer Jack Dempsey. In the picture, Gene, Allen and two other men from the Tribune look comfortable and relaxed–especially Gene.

I know the exact date of the Fargo shows because of the Autry Museum of the American West’s excellent website Gene was in Winnipeg the day before and in South Dakota the next day. In fact, between October 1 and October 20 of that year, he played twenty cities in exactly twenty days as part of his 1951 fall tour. Usually, he did two shows a day. That spring he’d done an even longer tour of thirty-seven cities, also back to back. Top that, Taylor Swift.

Gene Autry must have worked hard for his money. He ended up with a lot of it. He owned radio and television stations, real estate, a publishing company and eventually a major league baseball team. He died in 1998 one of the four hundred richest people in the country. He was the only entertainer on the list. Not bad at all for a singing cowboy.