Gene Autry Lunchbox, 1950s

Marketing a cowboy star

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by Tom Wancho, Exhibit Planner

Legendary singing cowboy Orvon “Gene” Autry’s (1907–1998) career spanned 60 years in the entertainment industry. Known as America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy, he is the only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one each for radio, records, film, television, and live theatrical performance (including rodeo).

Born near the north Texas town of Tioga, Autry launched a successful singing career before he began acting in 1934, when he landed a minor role in the Western movie, In Old Santa Fe. As Autry’s film career skyrocketed, he shifted from his earlier southern hillbilly persona and started wearing elaborate western outfits that were better suited to a romantic Texas cowboy image.

In 1950, Autry became one of the first major movie stars to transition to television. For the next five years, he produced and starred in 91 half-hour episodes of The Gene Autry Show and produced the popular TV series Annie Oakley, The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill Jr., and The Adventures of Champion. Autry also produced rodeos around the country, including the Houston Rodeo during many of its early years.

Autry capitalized on his fame with a merchandise line that included guitars, sheet music, and his own line of Gene Autry Comics. Even though he passed away 17 years ago, Autry lives on in coffee mugs, drinking glasses, T-shirts, and wall clocks — all available online.

This lunchbox features Gene Autry on his horse Champion in a desert ranch landscape, true to his cowboy persona. Metal lunchboxes became a childhood staple in the 1950s when companies realized they could sell more boxes if they decorated them with television and pop culture icons.

Gene Autry was one of the first stars to capitalize on his fame and, thanks to the internet, his image, likeness, name, and fame will live in perpetuity.   

See this and other artifacts on the Interactive Texas Map

Gene Autry Lunchbox, 1950s Artifact from Tioga, Texas
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