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Singing Cowboy Gene Autry Dies

Gene Autry, who parlayed a $5 mail order guitar into a career as Hollywood's first singing cowboy, died Friday. He was 91.

Autry, who also built a multimillion-dollar fortune in broadcasting and was the original owner of the California Angels baseball team, died at his home in Studio City after a lengthy illness, said Karla Buhlman, vice president of Gene Autry Entertainment. Funeral services will be private.

His death came less than three months after the death of his great rival, Roy Rogers.

Though a pennant for his Angels eluded him, Autry succeeded at just about everything else he undertook: radio, records, songwriting, movies, TV, real estate and business.

He first sang on radio in 1928, and then went on to make 95 films and star in a TV show from 1950 to 1956. He also cut 635 records, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and his signature Back in the Saddle Again, which was back on the charts in 1993 as part of the soundtrack to the hit movie Sleepless in Seattle.

Autry, who had homes in Studio City and Palm Springs, Calif., hung up his performing spurs in 1956, but continued to own four radio stations, the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs, and several other properties. In 1982, he sold Los Angeles television station KTLA for $245 million.

He ranked for many years on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans, before he fell in 1995 to the magazine's "near miss" category with an estimated net worth of $320 million.

Autry, who once turned down a chance to play in the minor leagues, had been the Angels' owner since the team was formed as an American League expansion franchise in 1961.

In spring 1995, Autry announced that the Walt Disney Co. was buying a part interest in the team, and the following year Disney took operating control.

The 1996 baseball season ended as all seasons have ended for the Angels, with Autry and wife, Jackie, still awaiting the team's first World Series appearance. Disney had an agreement to acquire Autry's remaining share of the team at his death.

Throughout his business dealings, Autry collected Western memorabilia and art. In December 1988, the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, built largely with funds from Autry's foundations, opened in Los Angeles' Griffith Park.

"I felt that I owed something. The West has been very kind to me over the years," Autry said at the time. He called the museum, which covers the West from prehistoric times to Hollywood, a gift to the world rather than a monument to himself.

Among the items in the $54 million museum are an 1870s-era steam fire engine from Nevada, guns owned by Annie Oakley and Wyatt Earp, and costumes of TV's Lone Ranger and Tonto.

He first came to Los Angeles in 1934 to appear with Ken Maynard in a movie called Old Santa Fe.

"I was the first singing cowboy in that picture," Autry once said. "John Wayne had ade an earlier movie in which he played a singing cowboy, but he didn't do his own singing."

It was the heyday of the Western, and Autry was ranked top Western star at the box office from 1937-43, and in 1940-42 he was in the Top 10 of all movie box-office favorites. Smiley Burnett was popular as Autry's comic sidekick, and Autry's horse, Champion, also was an audience favorite.

Roy Rogers replaced Autry as Republic Studios' top cowboy when Autry took time out to serve as a flier in the Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, he went over to Columbia Pictures and obtained a new partner Pat Buttram. Among his postwar pictures were The Last Roundup, (1947) and "Riders in the Sky, (1949).

When Rogers died last July, Autry called it "a terrible loss for me. I had tremendous respect for Roy and considered him a great humanitarian and an outstanding American."

Autry's broadcasting career included appearances on the Melody Ranch CBS radio show, beginning in 1939. From 1950-56, he was host of The Gene Autry Show on CBS-TV, one of the first television series made by a motion picture star.

Autry's records sold more than 40 million copies. His first gold record was That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has sold 10 million copies and is a Christmas perennial. Autry wrote many of the songs he performed.

Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907, in Tioga, Texas, and grew up in the small Oklahoma town of Ravia.

As a boy, Autry occasionally earned spending money singing at local nightspots and with the extra cash, he invested in a mail-order guitar and taught himself to play.

By 18, Autry was working as a telegrapher on a St. Louis-to-San Francisco railroad line. It was here that he met comedian Will Rogers who had heard Autry strumming on his guitar and singing.

"You're good," Rogers is said to have told Autry. "Stick to it, young fellow, and you'll make something of yourself."

Autry began singing on radio shows in 1928 as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy." In the early '30s, he was a success on the popular WLS Barn Dance in Chicago.

Among the honors accorded to Autry over the years was the naming of an Oklahoma town for him. Gene Autry, Okla., population 175, is about 20 miles west of Ravia.

Autry stopped appearing in the movies and on television in the mid-1950s to concentrate on his businesses.

In 1991, a letter written in the '30s came to light that said the performer had no future in Hollywood. The note from producer Al Levoy was found in the Republic Pictures archives.

It said the young Autry needed to improve his acting, that a preliminary acting course was "evidently wasted" and that the actor needed darker makeup to "give him the appearance of virility."

Autry's response: "A lot of that is true. I got better as I went along. I coldn't get any worse."

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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