"GENE AUTRY SHOW"
TV or not TV was the question facing Gene Autry as the new decade of the 1950s dawned. Time was running out on the B-western although, as we’ve seen, Gene struggled on into 1953. Television had begun to seduce the entire country, replacing our viewing with a small screen right in our living room.
Like everyone else in the business, Gene saw the value and possibilities of television. On the other hand, Hollywood definitely considered TV a threat to their own business. This was particularly true of the theatre exhibitors who ran the local movie houses where films were shown; it was they who would suffer most from the encroachment of the new medium. Gene knew if he did go into small screen production, theatre owners might consider it a definite affront, an evidence of disloyalty.
After much consideration, and not wanting to make his TV debut in old movies he’d made 10 or 15 years ago, Gene formed Flying A Pictures to produce a series of half hour westerns for CBS TV, establishing another milestone by being the first movie cowboy to make a regular series for TV beginning on CBS on Sunday, July 23, 1950, sponsored by Wrigley’s Doublemint Chewing Gun. Wrigley paid 30-50% of the production costs and obtained first transmission rights in return. Subsequent rights were retained by Gene’s Flying A Pictures. In addition to Gene, producer Armand Schaefer and Gene’s business agent, Mitchell Hamilburg, were in on the project. Columbia Pictures had nothing to do with Gene’s Flying A TV episodes. Their deal with Gene was strictly for theatricals.
The Cisco Kid followed Gene by only a few months. Roy came along a year later followed by made-expressly-for-TV “Hopalong Cassidy” episodes in ‘52.
Gene’s newly formed Flying A Productions made 91 30-minute episodes of “The Gene Autry Show”. Under the musical strains of “Back In the Saddle Again”, Champion was billed second at the opening of the show as “World’s Wonder Horse”. Pat Buttram (1913-1994) was Gene’s regular sidekick for all five seasons, except when he was sidelined for eight episodes after a antique cannon exploded on “The Peacemaker” at Pioneertown, ripping open Buttram’s chest and stomach. Alan Hale Jr., Chill Wills and Fuzzy Knight replaced Pat in those late ‘50 episodes.
Gene once recalled the upheaval his series caused with the Theatre Owners of America. They looked at it like Gene was abandoning them. “I caught all kinds of hell from theatre owners, exhibitors and even Columbia Pictures—they were all over me for making that series for CBS.” Possibly to appease troubled theatre owners, a plugline was added at the end of each TV show, “Be sure to see Gene Autry and Champion in their latest full length feature at your local theatre.”
Actor House Peters Jr. told WC, “I remember the time we were to film the first two Gene Autry TV shows (“Head For Texas”, “Star Toter”). I was in both of ‘em. I remember Gene coming into the wardrobe room at Columbia and chit-chatting. He said, ‘I got somethin’ to show everybody.’ He held up a check from CBS for $25,000…$12,500 for each episode. He was kinda proud of it. It shows what it cost in those days for two back to back. We did both shows at one time. When we did scenes, we’d change wardrobe and go back in the saloon or whatever for the second show, playing a different part.”
That Gene was right in making the move early to TV has been proven over the years. The end of the B-western era in theatres was in sight. Smaller budget films of any type simply could not compete with free entertainment in one’s living room.
Most people recall “Gene Autry” being on Sunday…however, after two seasons, CBS moved the series to an 8-8:30pm EST Tuesday time slot for two seasons and finally in ‘55 to Saturday 7-7:30pm.
The last 13 episodes (and two earlier ones) were lensed in color. Unfortunately, although CBS ran these 13 repeatedly in ‘55-‘56, few of us owned color sets at that time.
Gene gathered long time associates around him to helm his series including producer Armand (Mandy) Schaefer (whom he’d first met at Mascot in ‘34) and associate producer Louis Gray. Their lifelong relationships were based solely on handshakes.
Before a single scene was ever filmed, Gene studied well how films made for TV would appear on a smaller screen. Long shots were mostly eliminated in deference to the fact home screens were smaller than theatre screens. In hard riding sequences the riders were photographed at closer range than usual and traveled across the screen rather than toward the camera, giving the TV viewers a constant close-up of the riders. Working with longtime director of photography, William Bradford, they made certain changes in the photographic technique, resulting in pictures where the contrast range was considerably lessened with more whites and lighter shades on the screen than usual. The darker portions of the picture were a blend of grays, easier on the eyes than blacks. In order to assure the utmost in film quality, all of Gene’s TV shows were shot on 35mm film. Whereas other TV series used “canned” music, Gene’s longtime friend and fiddle player from his “Melody Ranch” radio show, Carl Cotner, working with composer Walter Greene, composed all new musical cues for Gene’s TV episodes, considerably enhancing the excitement of the episodes.
Stuntman Bob Woodward can be easily spotted doubling Gene as he tends to duck his head, especially in riding scenes. Sandy Sanders and Boyd Stockman did much stunt work on the series also.
Gene was loyal to his employees and tended to reuse hard working, faithful, competent actors such as Myron Healey, Sheila Ryan (married to Pat Buttram from ‘52 til her death in ‘75), Harry Lauter, Gail Davis, Dick Jones, Gregg Barton, the Cass County Boys, George J. Lewis, Don Harvey, Frankie Marvin, and others.
Veteran directors Frank McDonald (who’d guided many Republic and Columbia Autry features) and George Archainbaud (director of several Columbia titles) helmed the first 24 episodes. McDonald soon left but Archainbaud continued til the end of the series, abetted by Jack English, David Ross Lederman, Wallace Fox, George Blair, William Berke and Ray Nazarro—all men who knew their way around a horse and a sixgun.
Scripts came from a wide variety of writers including many ladies such as Elizabeth Beecher (a writer of many Range Busters, Johnny Mack Brown and Charles Starrett scripts), prolific Betty Burbridge (responsible for plenty of 3 Mesquiteers and Autry Republic titles among others), Polly James and Virginia Cooke. Other regular contributors were Dwight Cummins (“Strawberry Roan”, “Cowboy and the Indians”), Paul Gangelin (“Sons of New Mexico”, “My Pal Trigger”), John K. Butler (numerous Rogers, Livingston, Hale, Autry, Allen movies), Oliver Drake (whose writing and directing date back to the late ‘20s), Maurice Geraghty (creator of Gene’s “Phantom Empire” storyline and other Hopalong Cassidy, Charles Starrett etc. westerns) as well as the prolific Robert Schaefer and Eric Friewald who wrote scores of TV westerns.
Unlike the “Roy Rogers Show”, music was an integral part of Gene’s TV series, making him the only singing cowboy on TV. Longtime friend and fiddle player Carl Cotner from Gene’s “Melody Ranch” radio show was musical director. Gene and Carl recycled winning tunes such as “Sing Me A Song of the Saddle”, Smiley Burnette’s “Ridin’ Down the Canyon”, “Pretty Mary”, “Be Honest With Me”, “Tweedle-O-Twill” and of course, “Back in the Saddle Again”.
Also unlike the Rogers show and other early TV cowboys, which had a single locale week to week, Gene’s shows featured him in a wide variety of places and jobs, just as his movies had done. Each episode found Gene and Pat Buttram as different characters in different locales, even though they retained the names of Gene Autry and Pat Buttram. In one episode they’d be Texas Rangers, in another Gene would be a rancher who did not know Pat at the start. Some episodes were set in the old west, some had a modern day setting.
A permanent filming location was established at Pioneertown (see locations section) where all the first season episodes were lensed. In later episodes, other locations were used as well.
With the familiar opening strains of Gene’s theme music, “Back in the Saddle Again”, two half hour episodes were filmed per week, usually utilizing the same basic casts. Although these episodes were seldom shown back to back, the viewer can match-up the companion episodes by checking the cast.
The first three seasons of “The Gene Autry Show” were filmed concurrently with Gene’s Columbia features, something no other western star ever attempted. For instance, Roy Rogers’ last Republic feature was released in December ‘51 with his TV series beginning later that month. Thus Gene’s TV shows became an extension of his theatricals, essentially becoming miniature B-westerns. Gene’s TV series ended January 7, 1956, a total of 91 episodes.