Gene Autrey: Christmas Cowboy

Western star becomes 'Oklahoma Santa Claus'

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When people think of Christmas, they think of pine trees, snowflakes, stockings and a collection of other yuletide favorites. But perhaps the thing that is most evocative of Christmas is the music.

This is in large part due to Gene Autry, "Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy."

While the younger generation may no longer recognize Autry by name, everyone recognizes the words to his song, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer album cover
Gene Autry and a sleigh pulled by a very prominent reindeer is pictured on this original album cover for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

However, Autry was anything but a one-trick pony. He is the only person to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is recognized for his contributions to motion pictures, radio, recording, television and live theater.

Autry was born in Tioga, Texas, but soon moved with his family to Ravia, OK. At an early age, his family, particularly his grandfather, a Baptist preacher, distilled in him an appreciation for music.

While working as a telegrapher for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, Autry used his talent to perform at local dances and hangouts.

During one slow day on the job, Autry was playing his guitar to help the time pass. A customer walked in and listened to Autry play for a while. When he was done, the customer told Autry that if he kept on practicing he had a chance to make it big. That customer was none other than Oklahoma’s own Will Rogers.

Autry got his first starring role in 1935’s "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." He was soon performing eight movies a year, at $5,000 a movie.

Starting in 1937, and for the following five years, Autry was one of the top-10 box office attractions. In addition to being the only cowboy on the list, he was also the only actor from a B, or budget, movie.

In cowboy films, the good guys always beat the bad guys. During the Great Depression and World War II, the time during which these movies were most watched, people needed the comfort of seeing good triumph over evil. Autry was so popular because he catered to this need.

A gene Autry poster for the movie 'In Old Monterey'
A poster for the movie "In Old Monterey" features Gene Autry as the star of the film.
- Oklahoman Archive Photo by Jim Argo

His success was put on hold with the advent of World War II. Autry enlisted and fought as a pilot in the Air Force; but, he retained his Western roots, wearing cowboy boots throughout his service.

After the war, Autry continued to star in movies, but did not make it onto the top-10 list again.

The changes brought on by World War II, and their effect on rural America, as well as the onset of television, had destroyed the 1930s glory of the B movie.

In 1941, Berwyn, OK, near where Autry housed his ranch, changed its name to Gene Autry, OK. The name-change ceremony brought a crowd of 35,000 to the small town that is 10 miles northeast of Ardmore in Carter County.

Town residents who wanted to preserve the memories of the singing cowboy and B-Westerns converted an old school house into the Gene Autry Museum.

While the museum is primarily devoted to Autry, it has exhibits ranging from Ken Maynard to Hopalong Cassidy, with many cowboys in between. The museum boasts more than 20,000 artifacts, including movie posters, toy guns and even an Autry-themed bedspread.

The Gene Autry Museum of Local Histrory
The old Berwyn School became the home of the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum.
Oklahoman Archive Photo by Jim Argo

Original 78 rpm recprds of some of Gene Autry's most famous western songs.
Original 78 rpm records are displayed in the museum, commemorating some of Gene Autry's most famous western songs.
Oklahoman Archive Photo by Jim Argo

poster for the 2009 Gene Autry Music and Film festival

The free museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and is kept open by donations.

The museum helps preserve fond memories of Western movies for some and introduces others to the genre. It is a place where people can be transported back to a simpler time and enjoy seeing their heroes again.

Ed Henderson, who volunteers at the museum with his sidekick and wife Elizabeth Henderson, said the museum’s purpose is "keepin’ the memories alive."

He encourages museumgoers to "get back in time."

During the Great Depression, the cowboy heyday, most kids could not afford the toys and other things that their cowboy heroes promoted.

This museum gives people a chance to relive those childhood days right alongside their favorite actors, toy guns included.

In addition to the museum, the town continues to celebrate its namesake once a year at the Gene Autry film and music festival. The festival is held on the weekend closest to Autry’s birthday, Sept. 29.

While Autry is remembered as the singing cowboy in over 90 B-western movies, his legacy lives on most strongly through his Christmas songs.

Autry recorded songs such as "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Frosty the Snowman" and, most famously, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Ever since Clement Moore’s 1822 poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas," reindeer have been closely associated with Santa.

But, it was not until 1939 when Robert May created the character of Rudolph for a Montgomery Ward campaign, that the red-nosed reindeer we all know and love was born.

While today we know Rudolph for his red nose, originally May’s boss thought the red nose could be associated with drunkenness and was inappropriate for Christmas. But, his physical differentiation from the other reindeer was a crucial part of the story.

The idea of a misfit reindeer was taken from May’s own childhood experience as a scrawny boy searching for acceptance from his peers.

Robert May

Luckily May’s boss agreed to the story; Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the booklet that year.

Soon after, Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, decided to make the popular story into a song, creating one of the most frequently sung Christmas carols of all time. After trying other artists, such as Bing Crosby, Marks eventually decided Autry would be the best one to sing it.

In 1947, Autry co-wrote and recorded "Here Comes Santa Claus," a smash hit. After that, hundreds of songwriters came to him asking if he would record their Christmas songs. But it was only "Rudolph" that would exceed the popularity of his first Christmas song.

Ironically, Autry did not think "Rudolph," his only song that made it to No. 1 on the charts, suited his style. It was his wife, Ina Autry, who liked the song and convinced him to sing it. She thought the "ugly duckling" theme would have wide appeal.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" quickly became a hit, and Autry was dubbed the Christmas Cowboy.

Autry originally stuck "Rudolph" on the B-side of his record, "If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas." He only did one take of the song in 1949, and it was stuck on the record as an afterthought; but, it was "Rudolph" that people loved.

The song sold 2 million copies that year, hit No. 1 on the charts and became one of the best-selling songs of all time.

Even though many other artists have sung "Rudolph," Autry’s version remains the most popular, and the songwriter’s favorite rendition. It looks like "You’ll go down in history," the last line of the song, applies to both Rudolph and Gene Autry.

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