From his arrival in Southern California in the mid-1930s until the end of his life, Orvon Grover “Gene” Autry set down stakes in the Toluca Lake/Studio City area. Reminiscent of his upbringing in small-town Texas and Oklahoma, the neighborhood’s semi-rural feel and laid-back charm made him feel right at home. The welcoming, friendly and easygoing atmosphere gave him strength and comfort as he soared to the top of the charts as America’s favorite cowboy, and he gave back to the community in return by actively participating in local civic life.
Born September 29, 1907, Autry hustled from a young age to help support his struggling family. Performing chores and sweeping up in a barbershop, he even pasted posters and sang between reel changes at the movie theater to gain free admission. As a friend later noted, “My mother and aunt and grandmother always knew he was going to be a star because of his determination and the way he kept himself.” Inspired by early movie cowboys like Harry Carey and Tom Mix, Autry dreamed big.
Ambitious and driven, the confident Autry rose quickly through the musical ranks, playing fairs and medicine shows, performing on the local radio station, and landing a recording contract as the stock market crashed in 1929. Just five years later, the “Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy” turned hit records, touring shows and his successful WLS radio program into movie gold, landing a contract with Mascot Pictures. Speeding westward, the shrewd Autry envisioned success as America’s first singing cowboy star, saving the day as he serenaded señoritas.
Americans, especially in rural areas and small towns, loved Westerns with their stories of clean-cut buckaroos righting wrongs and defeating villains through daredevil stunts, sharp gunplay and honest derring-do. Upright, charismatic Autry perfectly carried over these tropes into his singing Westerns. Finding his contract bought out by Republic Pictures, based at the old Mack Sennett Studios on Ventura Boulevard in what is now Studio City, the savvy Autry shot quickly to the top of the box office charts. He began fashioning his screen persona — playing himself — and establishing a media empire by setting up his own publishing company for his musical copyrights.
In 1937, the boyish Autry and his adoring wife, Ina Mae, cashed in on his exploding success to construct the home of their dreams. Located at 10985 Bluffside Drive just south of the Los Angeles River in a sparsely populated area near Ventura Boulevard and Vineland Avenue, the rambling two-story, 14-room house faced a manicured lawn decorated with flower beds. Ina designed an elegant, English country-style interior with chintz upholstery, flowery wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpeting, and filled it with her antique glass and china collections. Gene favored the den with its large stone fireplace, Western-style furniture and hardwood floors with hooked rugs. He soon added a barn, stables, a rumpus room, an office and a swimming pool on the 2-acre estate, all reached by brick walkways surrounded by timber fencing.
Over the next few years, the happy couple entertained family and friends in their cozy home, just a mile from Republic Studios. Barbecue and pool parties accentuated by music brought happy times. Sitting high, the house survived the great March 1938 flood, which washed out the nearby streetcar bridge as it overwhelmed Los Angeles and led to the concreting of the Los Angeles River.
During a cleaning of draperies and rugs in 1941, a massive fire exploded in the home due to combustible fluids. The Autrys’ maid, Marie Bowman, and three workers from a Hollywood business escaped unharmed, but the home was completely gutted while Autry toured to promote his films. The couple grieved, but Autry continued to build his name and brand.
The year before, North Hollywood had named him its first honorary mayor, and Autry enjoyed the opportunity to promote the local community. Inquisitive and personable, he loved meeting and greeting people, the bread and butter of building his career. Autry also visited radio stations, ingratiating himself with station managers who played his records and fans who bought them.
Shrewd in business, Autry promoted his name and image through appearances, merchandising and even by purchasing radio stations, practicing an early form of synergy. Constantly on the road, the popular crooner cross-promoted his films through music tie-ins, merchandise, rodeos and the radio. His fans respected Autry even more when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, selling war bonds, entertaining the troops and finally ferrying airplanes.
In 1946, Autry formed Gene Autry Productions, Inc., signing a two-year contract with Columbia Studios to produce and star in four high-end features a year. Taking an active role in shaping his films, the crooning cowboy recorded popular theme songs that sold the pictures. His films tackled more serious issues, like 1949’s The Cowboy and the Indians, in which his character assisted Native Americans in “protecting their birthright” from greedy developers.
Autry shifted his musical focus from cowboy tunes to jazzy and pop numbers, expanding his audience. After appearing in the 1946 Santa Claus Lane Parade in Hollywood and hearing kids shout, “Here comes Santa Claus,” Autry inspired his composers to pen a bouncy number using the phrase that soon became a perennial Christmas hit.
In the late 1940s, the Autrys decided to build a more secluded mansion on 4 acres in Fryman Canyon, just off Laurel Canyon Boulevard at 3171 Brookdale. They hired Roland Coate, architect of elegant, refined homes for celebrities like David O. Selznick, George Cukor and Barbara Stanwyck, to design a two-story, 11-room Early California–style house of more than 7,200 square feet. Once again, Ina, with the help of decorator Everett Sebring, organized interiors in a “Country English” style, with comfy, traditional furniture and warm colors throughout. Filled with some of Gene’s Western treasures like Frederic Remington bronzes, it merged the styles of the married couple.
Clotheshorse Gene required a 1,500-square-foot closet for storing his overflowing Western wardrobe of shirts, hats and boots off the master bedroom. An island in the middle and cupboards lining the walls facilitated storage of the many items, and the closet also included a steam cabinet and dressing area.
Balconies lined both sides of the house, with porches beneath, offering views of the gardens, terraces and barbecue. Restrained Western touches decorated the home inside and out. Newspaper stories called it “‘Western’ come of age.”
Turning out shorter versions of his features for television made Autry a major TV star. Seeing his business empire explode, Autry purchased a former Safeway supermarket on Sunset Boulevard and remodeled it into an office and personal soundstages. There he produced state-of-the-art TV shows featuring other players as well as supervising his own. Eventually, TV began cannibalizing Western features, and Autry’s screen career came to a close as oaters rode off into the sunset. Recognizing the future of entertainment, he bought TV and radio stations, constructed hotels and purchased the California Angels baseball team.
After a robbery of his Hollywood complex in 1955, Autry looked to the Toluca Lake area for a safer and more down-home business office. He purchased the 10000 Riverside Drive building from developer Harry Hutchens in 1959, drawn by its comfortable, rustic look and bright barn-red color. He operated his business empire here for several years before moving it to Colfax Avenue, closer to his home. In this era, he also served a stint as Toluca Lake’s honorary mayor before handing off the role to fellow singing cowboy star Tex Ritter. Autry continued to reside in his Brookdale Road home for the rest of his life — with Ina until her death in 1980 and then with his second wife, Jacqueline “Jackie” Ellam, until his passing in 1998.
The Toluca Lake/Studio City area nurtured Gene Autry for more than 60 years, inspiring and encouraging him on his journey to superstardom. In those communities, he found the warm embrace of home.