Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Back in the Saddle Again

Heading deeper underground. 5:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018. Cold in New York on our first two days back from Sunny Cal where the morning were in a cool 72, 75 midday. Here it was 20 on Monday at best. Yesterday it warmed up to the mid-30s, with snow forecast but not showing up at the time of this writing. But that’s okay. Maybe some tomorrow. Okay, it’s January.

We got back to New York late Sunday night. I felt exhausted with no drama intended in that statement. I don’t travel much and I’m not a game traveler although I’ll  admit that once there I usually love it. I’m one of those men who worries about his dogs at home. I worry about children all the time too, even though I’ve never been a father.  They’re the ones who are the real dependents in our civilization where a lot of cultural rules and codes of behavior have fallen away to oblivion. The dependent ones suffer the hardest.

One of the little doggies on the plane back to NY.
Interestingly this trip was the first time I’ve seen so many little dogs in cabin (we flew JetBlue) and in the hotel also. This is perhaps nothing new because I rarely travel but I loved seeing them. I also noticed a lot of people out walking their dogs in different parts of Los Angeles. I don’t recall seeing that when I lived out there a quarter century ago. I knew people who had dogs but rarely saw the pooches on the streets being walked, or in stores.

Because I was so deeply attached to living there when I did, I was curious to see how it would affect me 25 years later, long ensconced in a good life in New York. I’ve heard from a number of friends who go out there often, even live there some of the time that LA has changed a lot.

The most significant change to the naked eye are the masses of construction going on, both residential and commercial. Also, like New York, along some of the better retail thoroughfares, like Robertson Boulevard, and even Sunset, there are a number of empty stores. On the Sunset Strip, the one- and two-story buildings that have been there since the late '30s through '50s are beginning to be demolished and replaced by hotel towers.

The corner right across from our hotel — the Andaz which is on Sunset and Kings — where the House of Blues sat for many years (the former home decades ago of John Barrymore), there is an enormous construction-dug hole fifty or sixty feet deep. Another hotel, I was told. Life goes on; Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (hat tip to John and Paul).
The deep hole in the ground where the House of Blues sat for many years.
Our hotel was originally built and operated by Gene Autry, the reigning singing cowboy star of the movies from the mid-1930s through the early '50s when the double-featured picture showing policies changed to the single blockbuster programming. Mr. Autry, who was born Orvon Grover Autry in 1907 in Tioga, Texas and grew up on a family ranch, was always known as “Gene” (much to his good fortune obviously). He played the honest, brave and true, straight-shooting hero.

Between 1934 through 1953 Autry made 93 films. He also had a television show from 1950 through 1956. That one opened with him on his horse Champion singing “Back In the Saddle Again.”
Gene Autry's Continental Hotel in 1966. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
When I was a kid every kid in the neighborhood knew all the words and could sing it. He didn’t write it but he wrote three other songs -- Christmas holiday songs which were huge hits: “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Here Comes Santa Claus ... here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane ...” all of which became classic repeat sellers from year to year (guess who knew all the lyrics and sang it around the house at the time).

He made more than 600 recordings and sold millions of “Back in the Saddle Again ... out where a friend meets a friend ...”  as well as more than 100 million records with more than a dozen gold and platinum records including the first record ever certified gold.
Gene Autry with Champion and Little Champ, circa 1949.
From 1940 to 1956 he had a weekly show on CBS Radio “Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch” along with another which was his horse’s – “The Adventures of Champion.” For his many young listeners who idolized him (and wanted to be like him), he wrote what he called the Cowboy Code which today says more than I could articulate about the changes going on, not only in LA but all around us, everywhere —

The Cowboy Code:

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
10. The cowboy is a patriot.

What appears as irony today, those ten “rules” of behavior were taken very seriously back then by his young fans (as well as many of their parents and members of the older generation).

Besides his performing talents and songwriting, he also became a tycoon, investing his earnings sensibly and wise. He owned the 60 acre Melody Ranch in the San Fernando Valley where a lot of Westerns as well as his television shows, and Gunsmoke were filmed. He served in World War II, enlisting in the Army in 1942 where he became a tech sergeant. After the war he returned to films, radio and television, retiring in the early 60s, he focused on investing his earnings. He put his money in real estate, radio and television -- owning KOOL-TV in Phoenix, KTLA in Los Angeles (which he sold for $245 million), KSFO in San Francisco, KMPC in LA, KOGO in San Diego, as well as the The Los Angeles Angels, which was eventually renamed the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He built the hotel where we stayed on Sunset and Kings, originally named The Continental, later the Hyatt, now the Andaz was eventually sold to the Hyatt chain in the 1970s.
Anthony Quinn on the main street of Gene Autry's Melody Ranch.
Gene Autry is the only person with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one in each category which was defined by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce: Recording, Television, Life performance, Radio, and Television.
He married in 1932 to a young woman named Ina May. They had no children. After she died in 1980 he married Jacqueline Ellam who had been his banker, now his widow and known as Jackie Autry. Gene Autry died on October 2, 1998 (coincidentally Mrs. Autry's birthday), three days after his 91st birthday.
Autry with Ina May.
He was exceptionally successful not only in show business but thereafter. Not the only one who accumulated real wealth in Show Business (there are a number of famous American entertainers of that era), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby come to mind — who converted their financial success into brilliant business investments — Autry stands out as his epitaph notes at the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery. It reads: “America’s Favorite Cowboy ... American Hero, Philanthropist, Patriot and Veteran, Movie Star, Singer, Composer, Baseball and Owner, 33rd Degree Mason, Media Entrepreneur, Loving Husband, Gentleman.
He picked a great spot to put a hotel in Los Angeles with its still extant views of the LA Basin. Although his fame, popularity and fortune practically knew no bounds, a couple of friends who were on the trip, ages 44 and 24, never heard of Gene Autry or his huge hit songs.

“Fame is fickle,” Marilyn Monroe was quoted as saying in a highly memorable LIFE magazine cover and layout (the last one), in the early '60s. Shortly thereafter Marilyn died.

Today, more than fifty years later, Marilyn might be one of the few exceptions to her own observation.

Like New York today, the Los Angeles that drew such talent to its feet is still there. But the vibe is different. The “why” is the thing I tend to think about, a method of grasping history.

At this point it seems simple: we are witnessing our own evolution in terms of social behavior, and time seems to be running faster than it did thirty years to a half-century ago.

The dynamic that was Hollywood with its roots in the “studio system” is gone, like the system itself. In many respects, like many business and social activities today, the machines have taken over.
Our view of a sprawling Los Angeles from the Andaz.

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