PHOTO CREDIT: Microsoft Images/Illustrations
TEXT: © 1981, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: As was the case with the blog post I published last Saturday, about Errol Flynn, this commentary originally appeared in the Monahans News. It is similar to that post in another respect: it is a salute to one of my childhood heroes.
The impetus for the essay was an announcement that former Andrews, Texas, mayor Louis Miller had arranged for a weekend exhibit of memorabilia pertaining to Gene Autry. I did not discover until a few years later that Gene did not appreciate such events; he considered them slightly tacky. He much preferred museums, like the one he established in Los Angeles initially called the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum and now known as Autry National Center of the American West. Gene reportedly said that he instituted that museum as his way of showing appreciation for the culture of the Southwestern United States, which he viewed as having been the inspiration for his career. The museum is a multi-purpose facility designed as a combination library, art gallery, theater, and research facility. But hey, that’s okay. Mayor Miller’s intention was well-meaning; like myself, he was an old Gene Autry fan in his childhood.
For those of my regular readers who are concerned that these posts about movie stars might become too much, you can relax. This is the last one, at least as far as I know. I do not plan any others; but I prefer not to promise anything.
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Mayor Louis Miller of Andrews has “beat us to the punch”. He and the Andrews Chamber of Commerce are staging “The Mayor’s Tribute to Gene Autry — an American Hero” this weekend at that city’s Civic Center. Over the two days they plan to show nine of Autry’s movies and memorabilia brought there by collectors.
More than once during the last year or so I have attempted to write a tribute to Gene, but several considerations inhibited me. For one, too much of the impetus for such an essay must be based on nostalgia, I thought, and I consider nostalgia a waste of emotional energy. I have since rationalized this problem away, however, by reflecting that I and thousands of other children of the 1930s and 1940s were partly molded by the force of Autry’s personality as we perceived it on the screen. To no little extent that pattern is still operative within us in our daily relations with other persons.
A second problem I faced was that it was unlikely that people raised on television would be able to comprehend the generation of the Saturday matinee. For many of us born before the midpoint of the century the Saturday matinee was the main social event of the week. It was such a big event, in fact, that when we returned home from the theater we acted out the whole story again. It little mattered to us that there wasn’t much substance or variety in the plots: That was a positive factor. Cartoonist Hank Ketchum recently revealed his own belonging to our generation when he had Dennis the Menace say to Joey as they left the movie house, “Same clothes, same horse, same story — just what I like!”
The television generation can’t relate to that, I thought. The closest they have come to it has been their response to “Star Wars”. But the news of the Andrews film festival and other Autry appreciation days throughout the country has made me realize that my generation is the one that is doing things now. Our time to lead and influence has arrived. It is therefore right that we take time to remind ourselves of the sources of our making.
Finally, and most inhibiting of all was my fear that I would not do as perfect a job as I desired. Some enterprises seem too precious to attempt. I would have to reach too far into the past, and there would be the danger of meandering or becoming mawkish. How does one describe “charisma”? Gene was not a top-grade actor. He knew that better than anyone, having in one interview referred to himself as a ten-cent baby-sitter. (Nine cents was the price of a child’s ticket at our neighborhood movie house then.)
However, it wasn’t through acting that Gene impressed me. After all, he spent more time singing than he did saying anything. It was while he was singing that he most strongly affected me, not by his songs (although I enjoyed them) but by the way he had of tilting his head to one side and looking directly at one in a unique, indescribable way, smiling. Deep down inside at least one small boy’s soul an inarticulate realization developed: “This man is absolutely open and clear,” I thought to myself, not in those express words but as a child thinks.
Gene Autry was my first and most impacting role model. The world was at war then, and many other absurd and evil things were happening in the realm of the adults I couldn’t understand. Largely because of Autry’s influence on me, my own small world had its coherence and comprehensible value system. Above and beyond his ten-point “Cowboy Code” (avoid bad habits, be a good worker, be gentle with children and the elderly, etc.) real virtue emanated from him in a natural aura. It could have been that I saw what I wanted to see rather than what actually was. No matter. The end result, I believe, was good.
I met Gene Autry once when I was yet small enough to ride stick horses. My parents had taken me to the Music Hall at the State Fair in Dallas to attend one of Autry’s live performances. After it was over we went around to the stage door. It was a chilly fall night. Either for that reason or because all the sensible people had sought his autograph inside, we were the only ones there. My mother and father waited out by the driveway but told me to stand by the door. Eventually performers and stage hands came out in small groups.
Then the door was unopened for what seemed like an interminable period.
Finally, Gene and a woman came out. “Hi,” I said timidly, the shadows of the trees not obliterating me enough. “Hello there,” he said with a smile and kept on going. My mother spoke to him by the driveway. “Mister Autry, won’t you talk a bit with my son? He idolizes you.”
That stopped him. He squatted down to my level and shook my hand. I extended the wrong hand. He chatted with me for a little while — or tried to at least. I was tongue-tied with awe. To this day I don’t remember what he said. Then he and the woman got into the back seat of a black limousine and were driven away.
There is too much truth in Thomas Wolfe’s warning: “You can’t go home again.” Nevertheless, I am going to try “going home” one more time this weekend. I’m heading for Andrews. See you there.
—The Monahans News, April 5, 1981
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