A woman wearing a California Angels jersey leads you through a red-carpeted labyrinth, past autographed photos of the likes of Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur, to a private box with a spectacular view of Anaheim Stadium. It is sweet to own a baseball team, very sweet.
Thirty-two places have been set for dinner, complete with silverware and cloth napkins, but only one seat has a close circuit TV next to it, only one seat has a private red phone with a name taped to the front in capital letters. GENE AUTRY.
In what seems like another lifetime, Gene Autry was America's favorite singing cowboy. He made 93 films, one just like the next, but popular enough to make him one of the country's top box-office draws, right up there with Clark Gable and Shirley Temple. He recorded over 300 songs, including the original "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and was the first artist to receive a gold record. He had his own radio program, his own TV show and a traveling rodeo that set a Madison Square Garden attendance record. He even inspired the people of a small town in Oklahoma to change its name to Gene Autry in his honor. And his horse Champion was the only animal ever invited to luncheon at the elegant Savoy Hotel in London.
Then, instead of fading away, Gene Autry metamorphosed, changed into one of the richest, most successful businessmen in California with assets estimated at $70 million. Either he or his company, Golden West Broadcasters, own six radio stations, a Los Angeles TV station, a Palm Springs hotel, a 20,000-acre Arizona cattle ranch, the California Angels baseball team and more. Not for nothing did his old sidekick Pat Buttram say, "Autry used to ride off into the sunset; now he owns it."
In only one area has success eluded Gene Autry, and that is baseball. A self-described "frustrated ballplayer, he brought the Angels into the American League in 1961 and not until this season has he ever had so much as a serious shot at a pennant. "My ambition is to win one and a World Series, too," he says as he settles quietly into his seat an [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] of him. "What the heck, I've done everything else I guess."
Gene Autry is a familiar sight at Anaheim Stadium; he watches upwards of 60 games a year there, but to someone who has not seen him outside his motives, the change is disconcerting. His face is large and Alfred Hitchcock jowly, his body stout like a British squire's, and that wonderful clear voice is now thick and unsteady, none of which seems to bother Autry at all.
"I never worry about that, never. I think its kind of a crime to go back and daydream," he says. "You can't make yourself young again."
Despite the wealth and the years in show business, there is something very country about Gene Autry, a feeling that a good part of him has never strayed from Tioga, Tex., where he was born in 1907. He is most comfortable with old friends and has been called as elusive as Howard Hughes, but he is submitting to interviews now to help promote his just-published autobiography, "Back in The Saddle Again," written with Texas newspaperman Mickey Herskowitz.
Autry has not even seen a copy of the book until an aide hands him one at the ballpark, and he does not seem to be overwhelmed. "Well," he explains, "for years they had these books they used to call Little Big Books. I did a lot of those, and comic books, and there were so many stories done about me . . ." The voice trails off, but the point is made.
With this kind of attitude, getting Autry to do the book at all was a bit of a chore. "I had really never thought about a book, you see so many of 'em and I have too many friends I know too much about to write a Jim Bouton-type of book," he says. But Herskowitz persisted and "I had notes running out of my ears for two years." The finished product is not without its charms and is especially noteworthy for Autry's frankness in dealing with his difficulties as a problem drinker.
"Without realizing it, I had grown dependent on liquor to relax," he writes. "Drinking was a way to celebrate the end of horrendous. I was always on the go, fighting another deadline, racing to a studio or a business meeting, skipping meals. The more tired one gets the easier it is to look for energy in a bottle. You just keep refueling. It is a hard habit to resist and, after a while, you don't really want to resist."
"I guess you'd say I was a pretty heavy social drinker," Autry says in person, mulling it over."I was never on any hard dope or anything like that, the strongest thing I took was headache pills, but I did drink, and I thought I might as well put that in the book, to take a stand for the benfit of others. When it begins to get the best of you it's a problem."
There is a sense in which Gene Autry seems a person the world opens its doors for, his career a piece of cake right from the night in 1927 that Will Rodgers head him playing guitar and singing in Chelsea, Okla., telegraph office and suggested he might think about radio."Sometimes you yank on one stitch and an entire sweater will unravel," he writes about his case in successfully moving from one entertainment field to the next. Fellow western actor Smiley Burnette put it another way: "Whenever the wolf came to the door, Autry ended up with a fur coat."
One thing Autry is not is terribly taken with his own dramatic abilities. "I honestly never considered myself an actor, an actor would be someone like Spencer Tracy or Paul Muni," he says. "I considered myself more of a personality. That's a lot different."
What then was to account for his awesome popularity? "Gosh, that's something I can't say," Autry answers."I think the time and place had a lot to do with it. I came along in an era when the western action film with fellas like Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard was dying out. During that time people thought that pictures had too much sex and violence in them - when you'd compare them to today, they'd make you cringe - and I was supposed to be different."
If he feels a bit mystified by his entertainment success, Autry is equally stumped by public's surprise at his business sucess, for that is the area he feels has always been his forte.
"I started out working for the railroad when I was just a kid right out of high school and I learned to be an operator, a railroad agent, where I had to figure tickets, freight rates, all that kind of thing," he explains.
"Then I took a correspondence course in accounting and more or less learned how to keep books. And when I got into show business I didn't have a manager. I went out and checked the box-office receipts myself."
In 1941, Autry had worked himself up to earning upwards of $500,000. By 1942, World War II had broken out and had enlisted in the Air Force where his salary was $135 per month.
"When you lose all that, it's just gone," he says now. "I woke up to the fact that if it hadn't been for royalities coming in for songs, T-shirts, Gene Autry jeans, I could be in one hell of a mess. As long as I could work, as long as I was healthy, I'd be fine, but, I could be in an accident, my voice could go, God only knows what could happen. I decided I ought to start right now and get into business. And since what I knew most about was radio, I bought a station in Phoenix, and kept building from there.
"You know, if the Depression hadn't come along, if the railroad business had been good, I might have kept my job with them. If I do say so myself, I was a pretty good railroad man. I knew it all. A friend of mine who worked on the same line with me later become railroad president. I might have been a president myself."
Gene Autry is a straightforward man, but once strongly senses a canniness in him that he feels it would be impolite to expose. Not only doesn't he reveal a great deal about himself, he seems surprised that you think he might. What his wife, Ina says of him and his involvement with the changing fortunes of the Angels - "He's so quiet, you'd never know if he's dying inside" - is pretty much the way he faces life in general. And when you ask him how, after all the honors and awards and dividend checks, he'd like to be thought of after he's gone, he gives you one last Gene Autry grin and says, "Most of all, I'd kinda like to be remembered as being good guy. A regular guy."