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By Lisa Smith
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Hollywood’s singing cowboy was born Orvon Gene Autry on September 29, 1907 toGene Autry Paper Premium Picture Delbert and Elnora Ozmont Autry.  His love for music was inherited from his grandfather, who taught Autry to sing when he was five years old. His singing was encouraged by his mother who sang hymns and folk songs to him and bought him his first guitar at the age of 12. At 15 he had already played his music in school plays and at a local café in his small home town of Tioga, Texas. 

In 1929 the young Autry took job in Chelsea, Oklahoma, as a telegraph operator. One evening while playing his guitar to pass time, Autry was overheard by Will Rogers, who had come in to send a telegraph.  After asking him to play another song, Rogers told Autry he should move to New York and pursue a singing career. A year later he was in New York city auditioning for RCA-Victor.  He was told he needed to find his own style of music.  Six months later a more experienced Autry was back at RCA recording his first record “My Dreaming of You/My Alabama Home”.  His music lead him to the radio when his break-through record "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" sales broke one million.

Gene fell in love and married Ina Spivey on April 1, 1932. Although they had an April fools wedding, their marriage proved not to be joke.  Ina Autry was a constant source of encouragement to Gene. It was Ina who persuaded Gene to give Hollywood a try when had doubts. 

By 1934 the western movie industry was declining because audiences were enjoying the sound of radio and wanted dialog in their movies as well.  Mascot Pictures joined forces with RCA in the hopes of using a professional singer as a cowboy in their western movies.

Autry was called for a screen test in Hollywood and was immediately offered a small role in the western In Old Sante Fe. Although his small role consisted of one scene, his scene became the most popular one in the movie.  He was then cast in a small1937 Gene Autry Dixie Premium Photo supporting role in the Mystery Mountain series.

His first staring role was in a 12 chapter serial, The Phantom Empire. He played himself, Gene Autry, a lovable cowboy and radio host.  His music fan base followed him to the movies. By 1935 he was making 8-10 films a year at $5000 a picture. He was a blockbuster movie star, voted fourth behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.  He remained on top in the movie and music industries until he joined the US Army Air Corps, at the request of the Pentagon, during his live Melody Ranch radio broadcast on July 26, 1942.  During World War II he became Sergeant Gene Autry. He ferried ammunition, arms and fuel in the China-India-Burma theater of war and flew over the Himalayas in a hazardous air route.  When the war ended he was assigned to special services where he toured with the USO Troupe in the South Pacific.  It was rumored that Gene was the only US serviceman allowed to wear cowboy boots on duty. 

In 1946 Autry was back in the saddle again as he returned to both his passions. Although the movie industry had weakened due to the war, his music career was thriving.  His 1947 recording of "Here Comes Santa Claus" went platinum and his 1949 recording of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" remains the second all-time best selling Christmas single, selling more than 30 million copies.

In 1950 Autry became the first major movie star to use the television medium. From 1950-1955 he produced and starred in 91 episodes of The Gene Autry Show for CBS.  He began producing such popular TV series as The Range Rider, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Jr., and The Adventures of Champion. 

By the 1950's Autry’s music career began to diminish as Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll became the new music fad among young listeners. Gene Autry left his movie and music career behind as he turned his passion to the corporate world. His proudest 1945 Gene Autry Screen Arts Cowboys 5x7 Pictureendeavor was his one million dollar purchase of the California Angels, a Major League baseball expansion team.

Gene’s wife, Ina, past away in early 1980. In December of the same year Jackie Ellam, an acquaintance of Genes, approached him to pay her condolences over the loss of his wife. Jackie’s interest in sports and her adventurous nature interested Gene. They immediately began a courtship and were married on July 19th, 1981. In 1988 they opened the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, now acclaimed as one of the finest museums in the west. Gene and Jackie shared seventeen happy years together until his death on October 2, 1998.

Gene Autry is the only entertainer to have 5 stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one each for, movies, radio, records, television and live performances. He was the first person to sell out Madison Square Garden and he blessed his fans with 9 gold records, 1 platinum record and 95 movies. Gene Autry is a beloved American legend and his legacy will forever live on at his museum and in the hearts of all his fans.
Lisa Smith is a freelance writer from the state of Indiana.