the spring of 1938, a cowboy on the dodge rode into the Panhandle
railroad town of Childress.
A little short of cash, he approached Rufus Layton, manager of the
Palace Theater, about doing some work for him. Layton jumped
at the opportunity, offering him a healthy amount of money for Depression
times - $100.
For that kind of money, this cowboy wouldn't be taking tickets or
sweeping up stale popcorn. He'd be singing, playing a guitar and smiling
big. Layton must have been smiling big, too, because the cowboy's
name was Gene Autry. THE Gene Autry.
to a farming family in 1907 in the East Texas town of Tioga,
Autry learned to walk and ride a horse at about the same time. His
grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and the youngster became a mainstay
in the church choir. When he was a little older, he also got to be
a good hand with a $5 mail order guitar. His family moved to Ravia,
Oklahoma when he was 15. After graduating from high school there
in 1925, he started working as a railroad telegrapher for the Frisco
When the wire wasn't singing, Autry was. That's what he was doing
when Will Rogers heard him and urged him to give up key-clicking
for yodeling and strumming. Within a few years Autry started singing
on radio station KVOO in Tulsa. From there, he went to WLS in Chicago,
where he performed on a show called "National Barn Dance."
By 1932 he had written his first hit, "That Silver Haired Daddy
of Mine." Two years later, he appeared in his first movie. Three
years after that, in 1937, he had become the nation's top cowboy movie
star. The cowboy crooner received 80,000 fan letters a month, mostly
Why Autry happened to come to in Childress
in 1938 did not get much attention, though plenty of people bought
tickets for the Palace's showing of "Battle of Broadway" to see Autry
"on stage in person."
though he was, as the Childress Index noted, the singing cowboy had
been having contract negotiation difficulties with his studio. To
underscore his position, Autry disappeared from Hollywood, eventually
showing up in Childress.
Maybe he was just passing through on his way to visit family and friends
in Oklahoma. But back then, Childress
was a hopping place. It was no Fort
Worth or Amarillo,
but since the early 1900s it had been a division point on the Fort
Worth and Denver Railroad, with a large yard employing a lot of people.
Could be Autry had a friend in Childress
from his days as a telegrapher.
Whether Autry came to town on the train or drove was not reported,
but he stayed for a couple of weeks, likely rooming at Hotel Childress,
which now stands empty in downtown. Also unreported was whether he
came to Childress
with Champion, "The World's Wonder Horse."
But Autry earned his $100, putting on performances that doubtless
featured one of his more recent hits, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."
Maybe he tried out a new song he was working on, "Back in the Saddle
Again." Which was what Autry was once his legal problems with
Hollywood were resolved.
Palace Theater, opened in 1921, remained in business until 1993, which
was 40 years after Autry made his last movie.
The singer had turned to the newer medium of television in the early
1950s, eventually retiring to run his many business interests. For
a guy once forced to play a small town for $100, Autry went on to
do pretty good for himself. In 1995, three years before his death,
his assets were reported as $320 million. Not bad for a tumbling tumbleweed
from East Texas.
© Mike Cox
January 9, 2004 column
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