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COWBOY GENE
Gene Autry the Singing Cowboy

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
In 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.
Palace Theater, Childress, Texas



The Palace Theater in Childress, Texas

Photo courtesy Wes Reeves, 2005
Born 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 Line.

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 from kids.

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."

Popular 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.

Why 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.

The 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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