The ‘Singing Cowboy’ in Ireland

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Volume 29

Gene Autry’s 1939 tour

By Ronan Doheny

“The films were vehicles for his songs and immensely popular escapism for children, who adored the handsome, well-dressed Autry and his prized horse, ‘Champion’.”

In August 1939, amidst fear of war and calls for air warden volunteers, the ‘Singing Cowboy’, Gene Autry, visited Europe for the first time on a promotional tour of cinemas in Ireland and England. During the 1930s, with classic hits such as Back in the Saddle Again and South of the Border, the country music legend amassed a level of celebrity only to be surpassed by Elvis Presley and the Beatles in later decades. Autry received at least 40,000 fan letters a year, earned at least £60,000 annually and was voted by fans as their ‘favourite cowboy’ for several years in the 1930s. His later No. 1 hits of Christmas songs such as Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are remembered as the definitive recordings. Autry starred in 93 films, mainly ‘horse operas’, in which he played himself as a heroic guitar-playing cowboy. The films were vehicles for his songs and immensely popular escapism for children, who adored the handsome, well-dressed Autry and his prized horse, ‘Champion’.

Newspaper promotions

Newspapers sought to capitalise on the excitement about Autry’s visit by running competitions aimed at younger readers. The Irish Press ran a colouring competition in their daily children’s column, ‘Captain Mac’. In addition to £10 in prize money, the newspaper aimed to increase numbers in the Captain Mac children’s club by presenting an autographed photograph of Autry to every member who got six new members to join. Not to be outdone, the Evening Herald began their competition by asking, ‘Who are the cowboy stars since Broncho Billy Anderson, who first started this popular type of Picture?’ The lavish prizes to be won in the Evening Herald were eight autographed Autry songbooks, ten silver bullets inscribed by Autry and the grand first prize of a ‘real Ten-Gallon Cowboy Hat from Hollywood’. There would be daily calls for new entrants in the newspapers.

Autry’s ship docked in Cobh on 1 August. Predicting large crowds, Dublin’s Theatre Royal, then the second-largest theatre in Europe with a capacity of 4,000, advised patrons that their ‘Gene Autry Badges’ would be available from 29 July. As children eagerly awaited the arrival of their hero, the looming war never strayed far from the headlines. Ominously, on the same page as show times for Autry movies the Irish Press printed an article entitled ‘When the world crashed’, recounting the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

Autry’s entourage made preparations for the Dublin shows, suitably dressed in cowboy hats. Roy Priddy, in charge of equipment, arrived in Dublin on 1 August with Autry’s famous red 50ft trailer, which bore Autry’s name in large lettering, weighed over seven tons, housed two horses, and contained electrically heated sleeping and cooking accommodation for several people. Autry toured with two of his horses, Palomina and the famed Champion.

US Catholic Legion of Decency credited for his fame

On 5 August Autry arrived in Dublin, to be greeted by large crowds at the North Strand and a Boy Scout guard of honour. He was gifted a piece of turf bound in green ribbon ‘sent by an admirer’ and presented with a shillelagh by Jack McGrath of the Theatre Royal. Later that night Ireland secured the first European broadcast of Autry, when he was interviewed by McGrath at 8.50pm on Radio Éireann. After the interview and recital at the broadcasting studio on Henry Street, a large crowd necessitated Autry’s escape via the back door. He was accompanied throughout his visit by Herbert J. Yates, the founder and president of Republic Pictures, who produced Autry’s films. Autry credited the powerful film censorship lobby, the Catholic Legion of Decency, for his sudden rise to fame. He explained that the Legion was formed in Hollywood ‘to remove suggestiveness and other such things from the movies as far as possible, with the result that Western films came back into popularity’.

The lord mayor of Dublin, Kathleen Clarke, toasted Autry at a welcome lunch in the Metropole restaurant, arguing that public education could be improved by the production of ‘clean pictures’ like Autry’s. Autry hoped that his goodwill tour would popularise the ‘action singing’ picture and declared that ‘this would be a very poor world if it were not for the Irish. They had been connected with most of the works of importance in America.’ Autry and Yates were given silver shamrock clasps as souvenirs.

On 7 August newspapers reported to excited children that Autry, ‘with his two famous horses and trailer, will parade O’Connell Street at noon to-day’. Pictures of the Garda Síochána-marshalled parade show Autry surrounded by tens of thousands of fans in a procession led by a marching band and ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ banners. Traffic was suspended for an hour on O’Connell Street, with the O’Connell statue and the base of Nelson’s pillar prized for vantage points.

Theatre Royal shows

Later that night, Autry performed his first concert at the Theatre Royal to a packed audience, with queues having begun forming from 10am. The show was a resounding success and included Champion performing tricks such as dancing to music. A natural entertainer, Autry sang his songs ‘with artistry’, accompanied by the Hill-Billy Band, his ‘quiet spoken, modest’ personality gaining praise. The audience joined in when Autry played his standard South of the Border. After his encores he had sung all his hits. The rest of the show—the popular singer Elsie Carlisle, Argentinian accordionist Harry Marconi, and the dancing troupe the Twelve Royal Violettes—received warm reviews but were outshone by the main star. The Republic Pictures film shown after Autry’s performance did not star Autry but Richard Dix in Man of Conquest. Not all who attended the rowdy performance were pleased, however. ‘Deafened’ complained in the Evening Herald about the ‘extraordinarily, annoying behaviour’ of three fellow patrons who talked throughout the performance and sang along so loudly that ‘we could not hear the real singer, but had to suffer discordant vocal sounds’.

Above: Promotional poster for the ‘Singing Cowboy’, Gene Autry. (Alamy)

Autry made many promotional stops, including a visit to the Irish Industries Hall at the Dublin Horse Show, where he was pictured outside a number of stalls, including Blackwells, praising their malted milk. He also visited the Orthopaedic Children’s Hospital, where he talked to the children and sang three songs in each ward. He then performed a short recital for patients in the open-air ward before having a reception. He was presented with a box of Irish linen handkerchiefs, and the children sang For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow as he left. Captain Mac in the Irish Press arranged for twenty children from the Dublin Board of Assistance to attend the shows in the Theatre Royal. Autry ensured positive press coverage by performing previews for the Institute of Journalists at midnight in the Carlton cinema.

During his stay, Autry visited Limerick, Cork and Carlow, stating that ‘Ireland is the most beautiful country I have ever seen and that’s no blarney, though [I did] kiss the stone’. Impressed by the horse-breeding, he hinted that he might buy a residence in Ireland to raise a ‘few Irish horses here myself, for film purposes’, although this never came to pass. Autry praised the Irish influence in America, noticing similarities between Ireland and the American Mid-West. He reflected, ‘I think the “hill-billies” I sing have a great touch of your Irish ballads’. The ‘international situation’ was never far from adults’ minds, with Autry commenting: ‘I hate war because it is utterly wrong and creates hatreds between peoples who are more akin than they could ever guess. I think the film industry should be used to make humanity think with one another and see their kinship in one another.’

Weekly audience record broken

Autry found it impossible to break free of fans, with thousands waiting each night below the balcony of his room until he serenaded them. As he neared the completion of his shows, reports circulated that he had broken the record weekly audience at the Theatre Royal previously held by the music-hall star Gracie Fields. On 13 August, before a day trip to Belfast, Autry gave his last performance in the Theatre Royal to a packed audience of fans and dignitaries, including Lord Mayor Kathleen Clarke. After Autry paid special tribute to the charismatic legendary former lord mayor Alfie Byrne, Byrne quipped that Autry would always receive a warm-hearted ‘welcome south of the border’. Later Autry received telegrams confirming that he had broken Fields’s record. After Autry’s performance, the Theatre Royal held the Irish première of the classic western Stagecoach. While some criticised the praise lavished on Autry compared to home-grown talent, ‘Nuff Said’ from Crumlin passionately defended Autry in the Evening Herald: ‘While his singing may not appeal to some of our highbrow friends, it satisfies that little ache in the hearts of Mr. and Mrs. John Workman’.

Above: Gene Autry’s famous red 50ft trailer, which weighed over seven tons, housed two horses, and contained electrically heated sleeping and cooking accommodation for several people.

Autry was treated like ‘royalty’ by fans on his arrival in Belfast. As he struggled to reach the entrance of the Grand Central Hotel for a welcome lunch, he exclaimed, ‘Give me time to get my breath! Boy, I was never in a mob like that before!’ He was dressed ‘in his grand cowboy outfit—bright blue trousers, white shirt with his initials embroidered in blue on the cuffs, fancy leather boots and grey ten-gallon cowboy hat’. At the lunch, Autry received toasts in his honour and the gift of hand-embroidered linen. He expressed his enjoyment at the Irish visit and stated that he ‘could not find much difference between the people of the North and the South’. He visited the Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, where he sang and met the children and was again serenaded with For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow as he left. After visiting several cinemas, Autry departed on the night ferry to Liverpool, with crowds watching his departure.

Tour of England curtailed

Autry began his appearances in England but was forced to cut short his tour owing to concerns about the imminent war. Desperate to milk the publicity, the Irish Press repeatedly postponed its competition ‘owing to special requests’, presumably from the editor, hoping to gain more members to the children’s club; it finally ended on 16 September. Meanwhile, the Evening Herald, having postponed its results owing to the number of respondents, announced the lucky winner of the grand prize of the ten-gallon hat signed by Autry to be ‘Jim Dalton, Ordnance Survey Phoenix Park, Dublin.’

Ronan Doheny is an archivist and historian.

FURTHER READING

P.B. Ryan, The lost theatres of Dublin (Bowness-on-Windermere, 1998).

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