The antiques “mini mall” was filled wall to wall with stalls of varying sizes, each stall containing the wares of different vendors. I was on a book hunt, on the prowl for volumes about mythology or folklore written for young people, books which were a staple of nearly every child’s or teen’s library from the 1930′s through the 1960′s. Bon Jovi and U2 were blaring from the store’s music system (that’s a real wake-up call regarding your own age and mortality when an antiques store sets their mood by playing Top 40 hits released when you were well into your twenties).
A particular volume caught my eye. It was a medium-sized hardback book with a colorful cover, a volume of a type very popular from the 1940′s into the 1970′s; they were published as “Golden Books” back when I was a kid. This one was a bit older, though, going back to the mid-1950′s.
I flipped open the front cover of Gene Autry and the Ghost Riders to check the price which was penciled on the first page. Beside the price, written in blue ink in a childlike cursive script was the simple inscription, “To Charlie. From Sandy.”
When I was in elementary school, classmates often gave each other gifts, for birthdays, Christmas, and sometimes just for the heck of it. “Golden Books” and other similar inexpensive hardbacks were popular gift items; I gave (and received!) them all the time. You’d inscribe the book’s inside front cover or first page, so the recipient would always remember who gave them the gift.
“To Charlie. From Sandy.”
My imagination took off. I pictured a ten year old Charlie whooping with joy and rushing to show the other kids the great gift he’d received from Sandy. The book in my hands was obviously loved and treasured; it obviously been read, but never mistreated or abused – in fact, it was just five years older than I am and in far better shape. Charlie had loved this book and he took very good care of it.
You see, to many children from the 1930′s through the 1950′s Gene Autry wasn’t just a hero, he was an idol. For two generations of American youngsters, Gene Autry was the closest thing they knew to having God on earth. Gene Autry was a one man mass market media empire, at one time bigger than Elvis and the Beatles put together. And best of all, his fame was entirely earned and deserved, based on his prodigious talent and a gift for instantly turning strangers into friends. It’s hard to imagine today, in a far more jaded time when fame is often bestowed simply on the basis of cold cash or bad behavior (and often both, such as an amateur porn tape made by an heiress or the daughter of a faded half-forgotten celebrity), but Autry was a mass media smash hit simply because he was a regular guy with a ton of talent.
I won’t try to enumerate all of his successes here (the info is readily available with a simple web search), but Autry was, at his core, the quintessential “singing cowboy”. He didn’t invent the characterization (it actually has a historical basis, as range cowboys often sang to cattle to calm them), but Autry certainly perfected it. He appeared in over 600 movies, often as himself, a country singer who dressed in hat, chaps, and kerchief, and who won audiences over with his complete lack of pretention. Autry was also a recording artist who enjoyed numerous hits, including “Frosty the Snowman”, “Here Comes Santa Claus” (which he wrote), and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (which was a monster hit; his recording is still the one which you hear in stores and on the radio every holiday season). Autry also had dozens of non-holiday related country hits, including the cowboy classic “Back in the Saddle Again”.
Autry was an inspiration for a generation of country musicians. Both Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash were unabashed worshippers of Gene Autry. I have a DVD which includes footage of a meeting between the three singers; Cash was very nervous about meeting him and his obvious discomfort in the presence of the Great Man is very apparent throughout the interview. Even the normally irrepressible Willie dials it back a notch or four when he’s in the room with Gene Autry.
In today’s “microwave society”, fame is a fleeting ephemeral commodity; “here today, gone tomorrow” seems to be the order of the day. Autry’s fame only increased as the years passed. By the 1950′s Autry was not only still hard at work making movies and selling records, but he also had his own TV series, was featured in his own comic book (which ran for a solid decade), was the hero in scores of children’s novels (such as Gene Autry and the Ghost Riders, pictured above), and was the undisputed king of merchandizing. Autry’s image and name appeared on a dazzling array of children’s toys (such as cap pistols, tin badges, cowboy hats, even child-sized boots), buttons, drinking cups, lunchboxes, stickers, and on and on and on; a local antique shop has an entire case filled with nothing but Gene Autry memorabilia for sale. Autry ultimately became a multi-millionaire (and ended up owning Major League Baseball’s California Angels) and, furthermore, was smart about his fortune – he didn’t waste his money, didn’t fritter away his cash, and late in his life was one of the richest men in America.
Best of all, Autry was the real thing. He wasn’t some closet pervert or thug playing a part – Autry was a class act, a real role model for kids, and it was a responsibility which he took seriously. There was never a historical “Cowboy Code of the West” during frontier days; Autry freaking invented it, preached it, and lived it every single danged day of his life:
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
It might sound like a hokey put-on today, but it sure didn’t come off that way at the time. The Code was completely genuine, and so was Gene Autry. Call me old-fashioned, but these days I think we could use a lot less of the jaded “cooler than thou” attitude and a whole lot more of what Gene Autry was all about.
My favorite Gene Autry appearance is from very early in his career, when Gene starred in a 1935 movie serial called The Phantom Empire. In it, Gene plays himself (as usual): the star of a radio music program called “Radio Ranch” (which is also the name of his ranch from which he makes the daily broadcast). Falsely accused of murdering his partner, Gene takes off on the run and, aided by two teenagers (one of whom was real-life rodeo champion Betsy King Ross) and the great Smiley Burnette, attempts to gather evidence to clear his good name. Along the way he stumbles across an underground civilization (the “phantom empire” of the title), the remnants of ancient Lemuria, whose evil queen also has it in for Autry, ordering Gene to be captured and executed to protect the empire’s secret existence. Further complicating the plot is the fact that Radio Ranch sits on a radium lode, and that Gene must make a daily 2 PM broadcast or the bad guy scientists/bankers will confiscate the ranch (and thus the radium, which is why they murdered Gene’s best friend and pinned the rap on him in the first place).
Like many movie serials, The Phantom Empire is desperately dumb, but full of rip-roaring, rootin’-tootin’ action. Half the fun is the plot device of “Gosh, if Gene doesn’t get back by two o’clock, we’ll lose Radio Ranch!” Autry is knocked out and imprisoned a mile underground, or trapped in a box canyon miles from the ranch, but he always seems to find a way to get back by 2:00 and make his broadcast. Each episode contains a song by Autry and the band, the kids are personable and clever, and Smiley Burnette is always a joy to watch. No matter how ridiculous the plot twists become, the viewer can’t help but get caught up in the sheer infectious earnestness of the thing, that “gee-whiz, can-do, there’s always a way for the good guys to win” attitude of the whole production. The best part is that Gene Autry totally sells it, just by being himself. If you’re a kid, you’ll wish Autry was your dad. If you’re a grownup, you’ll wish Autry was your best pal. He’s true blue, sincere, honest, and loyal to a fault. If Gene says something is so, then it’s the by-God truth, and you can take it to the bank.
Gene Autry deservedly became a multi-millionare by virtue of his many talents, by selling the simple concepts of honesty and sincerity, and he wasn’t even acting. That was him. He’s the ultimate American success story. Autry’s the reason why the singing cowboy became (and is still) a meme, a cultural icon. He’s the reason why Golden Age comic books are filled with cowboy yarns, why the Hideouts & Hoodlums roleplaying game has a “Cowboy” character class complete with special abilities like singing or “turning vamps into good girls”. Gene Autry was simultaneously down to earth and larger than life — and anyone who followed Gene’s philosophy of giving other folks a square deal and an even break became a better person because of it.
That’s why Charlie treasured Gene Autry and the Ghost Riders and why the book still sits on the antique store shelf today, more than a half-century later. It’s a little worn, but Charlie’s book was read, cared-for, and loved. It may easily have been the best gift little Sandy ever gave to anyone.
I would love to present a complete story from Gene Autry Comics here in the Big Blog o’Fun, but the tales are essentially mini-epics. Unlike most comics of the day (which typically contained six to eight short tales), an issue of Gene Autry Comics contained just two stories of about twenty-six pages each. So we’ll have to make due with the first four pages of the lead story from issue #3, published in late 1946. By the way, the reason why the first page is in red instead of full color is because it was printed on the inside of the comic’s front cover.
If you want to read the rest of the story, you can view it online at Comic Book Plus.
EDIT: (7/10/13) Corrected two Phantom Empire plot points after I went back and watched Episode 1 again.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.