Tag Archives: Jack Arthur

Gene Autry – Back In The Saddle, Eventually!

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.

Gene Autry at the CNE

Gene Autry in 1956 behind the scenes at the Canadian National Exhibition. (Midge Arthur is on the right. I don’t know who the woman is on the left.)

 

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.)

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CNE Grandstand Show Introduction

I was music director of the CNE Grandstand Show from 1953 to 1968. Since this is my first blog post of the Canadian National Exhibition series, I thought I’d give you an introduction, and explain the events that lead to my being chosen for this wonderful job.

Prior to my arrival, the Grandstand Show was practically an all-American production. The stars, producers, choreographers, lighting designers, etc., were all Americans. The only Canadians in the show were pit musicians and backup singers.

Toronto’s new mayor, Alan Lamport, who always had a strong opinion on how things should be, was not at all happy with that arrangement. In 1952, he set out to change the spectacle into an all-Canadian production, with the only American being the star headliner. “Lampy” consulted his experts and was directed to Jack Arthur (vice-president of Famous Players Canada) as the man who could bring a show like that together. Though Jack was eager to get back into producing, he planned to keep his position at Famous Players for the first few years “just in case”. (So it wouldn’t appear that he had two jobs, I heard that his salary for the first year at the CNE was one dollar.)

The first “Canadiana” show that Jack put together featured Alan and Blanche Lund, Max Ferguson (Canada’s lovable radio character, Rawhide), Evelyn Gould, Celia Franca with the National Ballet, the Malvern Collegiate Precision Squad, The Canadettes, and the RCMP Musical Ride. The American star for 1952 was Tony Martin.

With the move to the new format, they were also looking for a new music director for the 1953 season. It so happened that the assistant producer under Jack Arthur was Jackie Rae, who happened to be a good friend of mine. He was also the producer of three of my CBC radio shows, so he knew my work very well. It was because of the recommendation of Jackie Rae that I came to be music director of the CNE Grandstand Show. (If the surname sounds familiar, it is because Jackie was the uncle of former Liberal Party leader, Bob Rae.)

I am forever grateful to Jackie for recommending me. He was a great human being and I miss him.

In my next post I’ll write about what I think is one of the most important parts of the whole Grandstand spectacle — the orchestra!
You can find that post (here)

Jackie Rae 1959

Jackie Rae – 1959

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