Autry was a man of many gifts

Published 12:09 am Saturday, June 27, 2009

My husband popped in a VCR, and as the black and white film flashed into view, I leaned back in my recliner and closed my eyes for a second. I could almost smell the popcorn and hear and see kids cutting up on the front rows of the theatre while they waited for the movie to start.

The music began and the title of the film rolled out on the screen: The Phantom Empire. It was a Gene Autry movie from 1935, a favorite of ours. We remembered bits and pieces of it from our childhood movie viewing.

You might say it was an early science fiction movie. Some of the “bad guys” in this early western lived 20,000 feet beneath Gene Autry’s ranch in the super-scientific, highly-advanced kingdom of Murania, ruled by a cruel, ruthless queen named Tika. She had a viewing machine that she flipped on to see above ground and send out orders to her riders.

When I was growing up, Gene Autry was my favorite cowboy. I guess the reason I enjoyed his movies so much was because he also played his guitar and sang. I never thought he was as handsome as that other popular singing cowboy of the era, Roy Rogers, but his voice was wonderful. He composed and co-composed some songs that still enjoy popularity today.

His first job was as a railroad telegrapher. He began his singing career on radio after Vaudevillian comedian and actor Will Rogers gave him a boost. In 1928, his radio appearances won him the title of the Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy.

Some years later, he and a fellow railroad co-worker recorded “That Silver-haired Daddy of Mine.” It was his first hit song and sold millions of records, earning him a gold record.

He enjoyed an entertainment career that included personal appearances, recordings, movies and television. He was the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was an astute businessman, owned a baseball team, and enjoyed a long life. He died in 1998 at 91.

I think of Gene Autry every Christmas season when I hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” He wrote those last two. I recently learned that he also wrote “Up on the Housetop.”

In his 1949 movie, The Cowboy and the Indians, he sings “Here Comes Santa Claus” as he rides his horse Champion alongside Santa. The jolly fellow has trouble with the wind blowing his long beard. In trying to keep it straight, Santa accidentally pulls his mustache down and Gene motions him to set it right.

If you’ve never seen Gene Autry movies or television shows or heard him sing, you can still enjoy these classics on CD. Besides his Christmas songs, my favorites are “Peter Cottontail,” “Back in the Saddle Again,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky, “I Wish I Had Never Met Sunshine,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Mexicali Rose,” and “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle.”