Monday evening at the Maury County Historical Society's Editorial Board Meeting, new MCHS president James Lund and I explored the back storage room. He being braver than me squeezed into a cubby hole and withdrew a box of vintage photos from Columbia's past.
We found this jewel...
The note on the back read, "Gene Autry. 1938. Cowboy. Movie. Etc."
MCHS Recording Secretary Colleen Farrell, researched the visit to Columbia from Gene Autry in 1938 and shared the information here.
Gene Autry the "Singing Cowboy" visited Maury County in 1938
The year was 1938, and in the United States the name of Gene Autry was well-known in most households. Born September 29, 1907 in Tioga, Texas, Orvon Gene Autry was a cowboy guitarist, singer, television actor and film actor. Nicknamed the “Singing Cowboy”, he is credited with creating the musical Western. He starred in multiple movies, including “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, which was the first Western with a plot revolving around the lead cowpoke’s ability to sing. And in the early years of television, The Gene Autry Show ran for five seasons.
After his mother’s death when he was just four years old, Autry was moved to Oklahoma. At some point he began singing in church. This was followed by learning to play guitar. At age 16, Gene Autry worked at a local railway station, and then began manning the telegraph line at multiple stops along the railroad line. One night Gene Autry played guitar for a customer, who told him he had enough talent to get a job on the radio. That customer, it turned out, was actor Will Rogers, and Gene Autry soon quit his railway/telegraph job to find work in the music business.
At age 20, Autry was hired for his first radio job by a Tulsa radio station, performing as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”. The following year he wrote and recorded a hit song titled “That Silver-Haird Daddy of Mine”, and got a regular spot on the National Barn Dance show recorded in Chicago, Illinois.
In the mid-1930s Gene Autry married Ina Mae Spivey, and they headed west to Hollywood to further his career. In 1935 he signed with Republic Pictures and made his film debut in The Phantom Empire. That same year he also starred in Tumbling Tumbleweeds, followed by The Singing Cowboy in 1937 and Rhythm of the Saddle in 1938 and Sioux City Sue in 1942.
Three years into his movie career, Gene Autry was scheduled to appear in Maury County, Tennessee, one of many stops on a personal appearance tour. Just a few hours before The Singing Cowboy was to go on stage at the Princess Theatre in Columbia, his press agent, George Goodale, discovered that the theatre’s sound system was out-of-order, and not a single person at the theater knew how to repair it.
A search was made in Columbia, and the only person identified who could repair the system was William A. Orman, who worked for the Western Union office located in the adjoining Bethel House Hotel. When Mr. Orman was asked if he could get the sound system back in working order, he replied “More’n likely, but I can’t leave the office. Nobody to run my wire.” George Goodale thought quickly, and asked Orman “If I can get you a relief operator, will you go right over to the theater and get that thing working?” “Yup, I’ll do it,” said Orman, “but where you goin’ to get another operator? I’m the only one in town.”
It had been 10 years since Gene Autry last operated a telegraph, but his press agent, George Goodale, was determined that the show must go on as planned, even if his star had to man the telegraph lines for awhile to allow the theatre’s sound system to be repaired. Goodale hustled Gene Autry to the telegraph office, surprising William Orman, who looked up and said, “That’s Gene Autry”, and thought some kind of a joke was being played on him. However, once the Singing Cowboy convinced Orman that he did, indeed, know how to run the wire, William Orman went to the Princess Theatre and was able to repair the sound system in time for the show.
Many little boys were in the audience that day to see Gene Autry, and remembered for decades how their cowboy hero performed right in front of them on the stage of the Princess Theatre.
In 1978 Gene Autry’s autobiography, Back in the Saddle Again, was published. Included in the book were Autry’s memories from his 1938 stop in Maury County. “I remember Columbia, Tennessee --- which proudly billed itself as The Mule Capital of the World --- as the city that taught me the meaning of the phrase “the show must go on.”
Recalling the time that he manned the Western Union office so that the theatre’s sound system could be repaired, Autry wrote “I knew that, at some point, all that honest work I once did would pay off. Off hand, I can’t think of any other entertainers who were able to keep a booking because they knew the Morse Code.”
Shorty Marvin and Rocky Stone from Hollywood appeared with Gene Autry at the Princess Theatre. Pictured with them is John Batts of Columbia (center), a messenger for the local Postal Telegraph Company. Picture taken January 13, 1938.
January 1938, Gene Autry in Columbia, Tennessee at Park Journey and Whitaker Mule Barn. Left to right: Mr. Lacy Whitaker, Norman A. Parks, Autry and Bruce Buford.
The Singing Cowboy died at the age of 91, on October 2, 1998, in Studio City, California. Because of his versatility in performing media, he is unique in the entertainment field in that five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame bear his name. Gene Autry’s memorial stone describes him as follows: AMERICA’S FAVORITE COWBOY, AMERICAN HERO, PHILANTHROPIST, PATRIOT AND VETERAN MOVIE STAR, SINGER, COMPOSER BASEBALL FAN AND OWNER 33RD DEGREE MASON, MEDIA ENTREPRENEUR, LOVING HUSBAND, GENTLEMAN A BELIEVER IN OUR WESTERN HERITAGE
The above story was revived in the early 1980s when Murray Miles spoke to the local Kiwanis Club about the little know incident back in 1938. Although Mr. Miles said that he could not vouch for the truthfulness of the story that had been passed on to him, it turned out that the story was subsequently verified by two things. Pat Greene of Columbia found a picture of Autry at the telegraph, and Gene Autry confirmed it forty years after the incident in his autobiography.1
Gene Autry also became a savvy businessman, developing and promoting his own lines of western-themed merchandise. During World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, where he served as a pilot from 1942-1945. After the war, he returned to the music charts in 1949 with the holiday classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He subsequently starred for five seasons on The Gene Autry Show in the 1950s during the early years of television, and a series of comic books were made of the tales of Gene Autry.
GENE AUTRY in Columbia, Tennessee During his 1938 personal appearance tour stop in Maury County, Gene Autry was photographed sending telegraphs at the Western Union office located in the Bethel House Hotel. Another stop included the campus of Columbia Military Academy. The picture above shows cadets surrounding the country’s #1 musical cowboy, Gene Autry. Picture from the Lucille Courtney collection
1 Garrett, Jill, “Autry’s Book of Interest to Columbia”, Hither and Yon The Best of the Writings of Jill K. Garrett, Maury County Historical Society, 2nd edition, 1999, pg. 102-103