PHOTOGRAPHY

Gene Autry

The Cowboy Crooner on Camera

Tom Zimberoff
7 min readApr 12, 2021

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©1982 Tom Zimberoff

The man about to shoot a hole in his hat is Orvon Grover Autry — Gene Autry, the first certifiably famous “singing cowboy.” His voice carried across the nation from Melody Ranch, his radio show — on the air from 1940 to 1956. And he sat tall in the saddle on the silver screen throughout my childhood. Autry was born in — whoopi-ty-oh-ky-yay — Tioga, Texas in 1907, and became the fourth biggest box office attraction in America just a few decades later, hard on the heels of Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy, in that order. But nairn one o’ them three dudes were a big enough toad in a puddle to sell a hunert million records like Gene Autry did.

Even if you’re not of a generation likely to have carried Autry’s likeness on a lunchpail, you’ve no doubt been reintroduced year after year, since childhood, to one of his greatest hits: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Rudolph’s scarlet snout upstaged Autry’s own Champion the Wonder Horse. And Champion was pretty famous. (Hence the long face.) “Peter Cottontail” amongst other critters also featured in Autry’s menagerie and his repertoire of eponymous hit songs. But it was “Smokey the Bear” that first got me to sing along as a four-year-old.

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear
Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air
He can find a fire before it starts to flame
That’s why they call him Smokey
That was how he got his name.

A lunchpail, that little tin hamper with a handle and a thermos bottle inside that we all carried to class before we hit five feet tall, was the social media of schoolyard culture in the 1950s and 60s. Vividly illustrating this or that TV hero, it told other kids a little bit about ourselves by whom we chose to be our alter ego: Zorro or the Lone Ranger; Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers; Roy Rogers or Hopalong…

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