In my last post I wrote about Roy Rogers’ Grandstand performance and how wholesome his show seemed. Now we’ll contrast that with Gene Autry two years later. I’m not saying Gene wasn’t a great guy, because he was, but let’s just say that our experience with him was a little less wholesome.
Young fans were elated that their cowboy hero was coming to Toronto. By this point in his career, the man (born, Orvon Gene Autry) had appeared in at least 93 western films and 91 episodes of The Gene Autry Show television series. He was considered one of the most important figures in the history of country music, and was the first person ever to earn a gold record. (The hit was, That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.)
Our CNE version of The Gene Autry Show in 1956 featured some popular performers of the day — Annie Oakley, Barbara Bardo, The Cass County Boys, The Promenaders, and Carl Cotner & His Melody Ranch Orchestra. As the show’s star, Gene always made a grand entrance – riding his horse, Champion, while singing his way to the stage.
The first few performances went without a hitch, but our producer, Jack Arthur, noticed a bit of peculiar behavior and suspected that for whatever reason, Gene had taken a liking to alcohol. Jack, who ran a very tight ship, didn’t tolerate any compromises to the show.
On one particular afternoon, with the audience eagerly waiting their first glimpse, Gene and Champion began their entrance. Riding toward the stage with microphone in hand, Gene was singing his signature, “Back In The Saddle Again.” But remember this is 1956 (long before wireless mics were in use), so there was a very long microphone cord dragging behind the horse. Suddenly, to the surprise of the entire audience, Gene fell off his horse. There he was, sitting in the dirt, looking quite dazed, while Champion walked on, dragging the microphone along with him.
What followed was a mad scramble by stage management — to get the horse, the microphone, and Gene (more fortunate than Humpty-Dumpty, luckily) re‑assembled. Eventually after much ado, Gene was ‘back in the saddle again’ and the performance continued. Fortunately Gene wasn’t hurt. Onstage he was playful, and when he brought Annie Oakley out, he removed his hat (as a gentleman did in those days) and kissed her on the cheek.
Later that day, I heard that management had received numerous complaints from mothers who were upset that their children had seen an intoxicated man. But the worse was yet to come. Backstage a very feisty Jack Arthur tore up one side of Gene and down the other, for what he called ‘disgraceful behavior,’ and gave him a stern warning to ‘clean up his act.’ Jack then assigned a junior assistant stage manager to shadow Gene to ensure he would always be in an acceptable* state to perform. (*polite way of saying ‘sober’) The rest of the run was free of incident.
This story actually has a happy ending. A few years later, Jack called me into his office saying that he received a letter from Gene Autry thanking him for being the motivating force that turned Gene’s life around. Apparently that episode in 1956 did cause Gene to make some changes. A few years later, he retired from acting and became a multi-millionaire from his shrewd investments in hotels, real estate, radio & TV stations, and the California Angels professional baseball team. What do you know – Jack’s tirade had been very effective!
* (Disclaimer: Just to be clear, the author passes no judgment on drinking, nor drinking and riding, but definitely does not recommend falling.)