America’s favorite singing cowboy – Gene Autry

Toy collectors have a different view on the world of the silver screen than do other movie aficionados.

If you bring up the great singing cowboys, for instance, toy collectors and movie fans alike think of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Regular movie aficionados might be more likely to rank to the two equivalently, for their movie work, or even to grant Autry more importance because of his longer screen history. Toy collectors, on the other hand, are more likely to rank Rogers higher.

Why? The number of children’s items produced through the years makes it seem Rogers clearly outranked Autry, in terms of impact on our American culture. Autry never had the avalanche of success in Toyland some other Western figures did – whether they were personality stars such as Rogers, or quasi-historical ones such as Davy Crockett.

Several things account for this. Autry’s radio shows, early and late, appealed to the general family. With that orientation, the sorts of promotional giveaways that marked more children-oriented shows never made their appearance.

Even though Autry was early among the cowboy movie stars, and a regularly featured actor on the silver screen, his radio appearances in American households were weekly events, on weekends, greatly affecting his overall image. The programs heavily emphasized music and song; and while Autry might present a story in the midst of the musical numbers, the story was just as apt to be a quiet, sentimental, or thoughtful one as anything more adventuresome. In other words, Autry radio-stories sometimes had more appeal for adult listeners than for the young ones.

While these factors – lack of radio premiums, and the catering to adults in the radio programs – were important, the matter of timing also figured in.

A few years older than Roy Rogers, Autry became a silver-screen hero earlier, beginning with his 1934 appearance in a Mascot Pictures feature that made him, according to some movie historians, the first of the screen’s singing cowboys. His career progressed so rapidly that by 1937 he was voted the top money-making Western cinema star.

Autry stayed at the top until early in the war years. His departure from top ranking after 1942 was for good reason — for in that year he began active service in the Air Force.

Had he been top money maker after World War II, instead of before, things might have looked different. After the war, the Baby Boom began and the toy industry was thrown into an unprecedented frenzy of activity. Had Autry still been in the top slot, there might have been many dozens of Gene Autry toys each year – as turned out to be the case with Roy Rogers.

In 1943, in the absence of Autry, Rogers became the top money-maker in Western movies, a position he held onto through the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s. As collectors know, it shows in the toys.

The Tops-in-Movies Years

Since “Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch” on the radio never went the route of premium give-aways, any presence Autry had in Toyland was due less to his radio work than to his film roles – especially in the period when he was voted the top money-making Western star, in the years 1937-’42.

A little historical research suggests, in fact, that Autry’s impact on the childhood world of toys before World War II was roughly equivalent to that of Rogers’ impact afterwards.

The first Autry toy of significance was a typical one for a Western hero. Kenton Hardware Co., a large toy-making concern in Kenton, Ohio, put a Gene Autry repeating cap pistol on the market by 1938. The gun featured Autry’s name in cursive letters just above the trigger, with the gun’s design “patterned after the original six shooter of Public Cowboy No. 1,” according to Kenton advertisements.

The movie industry clearly expected more from the singing cowboy, for a company named Gruskin & Birnes was given the exclusive job of administering rights to the Autry name to manufacturers. Located at 406 W. 57th St., New York City, the firm also represented another then-famous Western star, Tim McCoy.

McCoy, however, had a presence in Toyland either extremely minor or nonexistent – which may have indicated a need for a change. In any case, within a year, Autry licensing was handed over to another company at 347 Fifth Ave.: Mitchell J. Hamilburg Co.

Although Hamilburg’s biggest account was not another Western star but rather Deanna Durbin, this agency apparently had the proper approach: for a new Durbin doll was being made by toy-industry leader Ideal Novelty & Toy Co. of New York City, by 1939. More impressively, in the same year the Gene Autry name started figuring into the profits of diverse companies across the country.

Ralph A. Freundlich of Clinton, Mass., introduced a doll of the Western star, one that likely enjoyed widespread distribution, since Freundlich catered to chains and department stores.

At the same time, Mode Novelty Co. of Newark, N.J., a specialist in juvenile hats and caps, was making Autry cowboy hats. Across the country in San Francisco, Keyston Brothers, a specialist in juvenile playsuits, started making Autry cowboy outfits. In the middle of the country, Whitman Publishing Co. of Racine, Wis., signed on to publish Autry story books. Meanwhile Kenton expanded its Autry offerings to also include a Gene Autry game.

By 1940 a few more companies jumped on the wagon. Pioneer Rubber Co. of Willard, Ohio, issued Gene Autry balloons, while Merrill Publishing Co., a Chicago children’s-book firm, began offering Autry cut-out and coloring books.

By the next year another game appeared, this time from a Los Angeles company whose main offering seems to have been “Gene Autry’s Traffic Safety” game. The firm called itself Traffic Safety Game Co. at first. The next year it changed its name to Best Games, but with the Autry game still its top product.

Another company also entered the territory being worked by Kenton and Keyston.

Feinberg-Henry Manufacturing Co., located at 1107 Broadway, New York City, started issuing a full range of Gene Autry Western gear and apparel, including gun and holster sets, play suits, dungarees, play shirts, cowboy hats, and Western belts.

Feinberg-Henry had four big-seller names in its line, in 1941, with Gene Autry the name advertised in biggest letters – the others being the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy and Roy Rogers.

Even as wartime changes settled over the country, a few more Autry toys started appearing – including, in 1942, rings, tie slides, and fobs made by President Novelty and Jewelry Co., on 1220 Broadway, New York City.

The number and variety of prewar Autry toys was actually impressive.

In other words, anyone thinking low numbers of toys are signs of a low impact on American culture, in the case of Gene Autry, is simply not looking at the right time period.

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