You probably know Gene Autry best because of Christmas. Every year around the holidays, his classic renditions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and his original “Here Comes Santa Claus” are audio staples of the holiday machine ” the soundtrack to frenetic shopping, tree assembly and eggnog-fueled bacchanalia.
Of course, to reduce Autry to a few tunes at Christmas leaves out a whole range of his contributions to Western American culture. He was ” and is ” the original “Singing Cowboy,” the star of film, television and radio.
He is also the namesake of an Oklahoma town, population 99.
Born in Texas, Autry was raised north of the Red River near Ravia after his parents moved there in the 1920s. Autry’s Flying A Ranch, where the famous cowboy kept his rodeo stock, was located adjacent to the town that was, at the time, known as Berwyn. In honor of the presence of cowboy royalty in its midst, the town was renamed Gene Autry in 1941.
To mark the occasion, Autry broadcast his “Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch” radio show from the Flying A, and more than 35,000 people turned out for the festivities, which included Autry parading through the town atop a flatbed car. At the time, the population of the newly re-christened town was around 300 people, according to Mary Schutz, director of programs and publicity at the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum there.
“Back in 1988, the school in the town closed,” Schutz said, “and a few of the locals went to the city council and talked them into opening a museum there.”
One of those locals was Elvin Sweeten, who still serves as director of the museum. He and his wife, Flora, had both attended and then taught at the school. The building quickly became a shrine, honoring the memory of old Western movies that Autry, along with other Western crooners like Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, helped to popularize. The school’s old trophy cases now hold the stars’ memorabilia and collectibles, including toys, comic books and records, and the walls have become a gallery of antique movie posters.
Since 1991, the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum has hosted an annual Film & Music Festival. Every year, the museum brings Western authors, singers and entertainers, including some stars of the old Westerns, to the tiny town northeast of Ardmore just south of State Highway 53, on Gene Autry Road.
“The idea is that we’re sharing not only the legacy of the singing cowboys, but also of the cowboy heritage shared through the arts,” Schutz said.
Two years ago, the festival celebrated not only the Oklahoma Centennial, but also what would have been Autry’s 100th birthday. More than 3,500 people descended on the town to catch musical acts including Riders in the Sky, and a retrospective of some of Autry’s most popular work.
This year’s festival kicks off on Sept. 23, with a visit to local schools by some of the invited entertainers, followed by an open-mic night for Western singers, storytellers and poets ” both professional and amateur ” to take the stage. The event starts in earnest on Sept. 24 with showings of old Westerns, including some Autry favorites, but also some classics featuring The Lone Ranger and Zorro. The event also features a number of panels and invited speakers. This year’s festival will showcase a talk by Cheryl Rogers Barnett, the adopted daughter of Roy Rogers, who will do an onstage interview and introduce several of her father’s films.
Also speaking will be Donna Douglas, best known for her role as Elly May Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” as well as Don Reynolds, who played the role of Little Beaver in the last four “Red Ryder” films. All the speakers will be available for autographs and photos.
“One of the aspects that everyone enjoys the most is the cowboy look-alikes,” Schutz said. “There are a lot of people who look like those old stars, and people can have their photos made with them.”
A regular at the festival, according to Schutz, is a John Wayne doppelgänger named Bob Seiber, who has learned to imitate the Duke and is a crowd favorite. Other imitated stars include The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Lash La Rue.
The festival, which this year is themed “The Music, The Movies, The Memories,” continues through Sept. 27. For more information on the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum, as well as the festival, call (580) 294-3047. “Nathan Gunter
Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of the series “The Great Oklahoma Road Trip,” a look at the lesser-known ” but worth a trip ” spots across the state. Check back at the start of next month for the next installment.