Monday, June 16, 2014

Great American Fortunes - Gene Autry: The mogul with more friends than money

PHOTO: Museum of Western Heritage
Gene Autry, “America's Singing Cowboy,” grew up in Oklahoma, bailing hay, listening to cowboy music, learning to ride on his father's farm and singing in the choir of his grandfather's church.

After graduating from high school, Autry worked as a telegraph operator in a railroad depot. During his breaks he would step outside and play his guitar. A passenger overheard Autry singing and urged him to go to New York and get on the radio. The passenger was Will Rogers.

New York didn't open its doors to the singing cowboy, but Oklahoma did, with a spot on the radio as “Oklahoma’s Yodelin' Cowboy.” By 1931, Autry, 24, had signed up with Columbia Records and was a featured artist with the “National Barn Dance” on WLS in Chicago. He also co-wrote and sang, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine." It sold a million copies, the first gold record, an honor created for Autry by a studio executive.

In 1934 Autry went to Hollywood to play a minor role and to sing a song in a Western film. Republic Studios liked what it saw. Between 1934 and 1942, Autry became a leading Western film star, earning $600,000 a year, but in World War II he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and his income dropped to $125 a month. "I didn't intend to look for some loophole to keep me out," he said. "If you were healthy and able, you either served or learned how to shave in the dark." Barry Goldwater was one of his squadron commanders.

Autry’s popularity was unprecedented. He was the first performer to sell out Madison Square Garden. His film career spanned 93 films. The Gene Autry Show on CBS television had 91 episodes, while Melody Ranch, one of the most popular radio shows, lasted 16 seasons.

Autry also recorded 635 songs, writing a third of them, and amassed a dozen platinum records and two dozen golds. His song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” sold more than 30 million records, the third best-selling single in history.

But Autry's greatest successes arose after he retired from films, television and recording. He acquired hotels (including San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins), oil wells, ranches, music publishing and recording companies, and radio and TV stations. Golden West Broadcasting, his media empire, included KMPC, purchased for $800,000 and KTLA, acquired for $12 million. He sold them later for $18 million and $245 million, respectively.

In 1961, Autry purchased the Los Angeles Angels franchise for $2.5 million. He renamed the team the California Angels, and sold 25% of it to Disney in 1995 for $30 million.

A self-made billionaire, Autry is the only man to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for recording, radio, films, television and the theater. Smiley Burnette, his TV and film sidekick, summed it up best: "He used to ride off into the sunset. Now he owns it."

Autry established the largest repository of Western artifacts in the U.S., the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage. He died in 1998 at age 91.

© 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at dalef@titansoffortune.com.

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