Minden’s Gene Austin, Part two

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In last week’s Echo we looked at the rise of Gene Austin, from the lumber mills of North Louisiana to worldwide stardom. This week’s  conclusion of the story will tell the tale of a once famed performer, struggling to survive in the world of show business.

After his musical career began to wane, Gene first turned to Hollywood and attempted to make it as a movie star.  First starring in“one-reeler” comedies and later moving on to small parts in larger pictures.  For a brief period, he attempted to become a singing cowboy, ala Gene Autry, with whom he has sometimes been confused.  Eventually he settled into playing bit parts as musician in low-budget films.  Perhaps the most famous of these parts was an appearance as a saloon piano player in My Little Chickadee with Mae West and W. C. Fields.  This is the film in which West uttered her famous line, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” Austin’s part was cut to such a degree that only the back of his head appears in the final version.  Nevertheless, he was paid $15,000 for his one-day’s work.  So, although his movie career was technically a failure, it is obvious that he earned enough to finance a lifestyle far beyond what he could earn pursuing any other career.  During those years he also teamed withKen Murray to start a musical show, “Blackouts” that ran for seven years in a Hollywood theater.

Gene used his name and skills to embark on a career as a nightclub owner.  He would find a club losing money, buy it at a low price and usually change the name to “My Blue Heaven.” He would appear as the feature performer, using his great skills as a showman, and singing all the favorites always closing with his greatest hit.  This act would be new in the area and would draw a crowd for a few months.  Austin would stay long enough to turn a profit and then sell the club and move on.  On one occasion he bought such a club for $13,000 and sold it six months later for $36,000.  Again, not matching his income of the glory years, but good enough to stay solvent, even with his extravagances.

Another apparent enterprise of that era has only recently come to my attention. An aircraft historian in Utah came across a patent for an airplane registered in 1935 to Gene Austin of Minden, Louisiana. He contacted Marcus Wren and they had several conversations, eventually I also talked with the historian. It seems likely with his connections in the automobile industry; Gene probably came across someone with plans for a plane, and somehow managed to get his name on the patent. That story is still largely a mystery, but again seems to demonstrate Gene’s “anything for a buck” activities after his fall from fame.

Another unique source of income for Austin in these years was the private performance.  He often contracted with wealthy individuals to appear at their homes for private parties for high fees.  He had begun this practice in the 1920s when still at his peak.   He would sing at private parties in the mansions of the wealthy on Long Island for thousands of dollars.  On one occasion during the 1930s he was called to the home of a car manufacturer in Akron, Ohio.  Austin agreed to appear at the party for $1000.  When he arrived, the owner escorted Gene through the crowd of party guests to the library where there was a piano.  The host closed and locked the door and said, “O.K., start off with ‘Melancholy Baby’”.  Gene protested that the party was in the other room.  “The hell with the party,” said the host.  “I want you to sing just for me.”

Perhaps the most significant work that Austin did during the 1930s was his traveling tent shows.  After his movie career failed to grow, Austin left Hollywood and brought his shows directly to the people of Middle America — the audience that had purchased all those copies of his songs.  While this style of entertainment was not acknowledged by the New York media, and didn’t gain Austin exposure in major markets.  His stops in smaller towns and cities made him well known to the people of the heartland of America.  Gene’s background in rural and small-town Louisiana combined with his showman’s skills to appeal to these audiences.    These tent shows brought him into contact with a different sort of audience that appreciated the music of his early years.  During these years of touring Gene made an impact on several artists and music industry figures that would later help shape the emergence of country music and rock and roll.

In 1939, Gene brought his touring show, the “Star-O-Rama Canvas Theater” to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Here he heard a country band called the “Fidgety Four” playing in shows for the country comedian, Archie Campbell.  Austin was impressed by the four young band members and hired them for his own show.  The guitar player for that group was a man named Roy Lanham, who later became a member of the Sons of the Pioneers and a well-known performer in Branson, Missouri until his death in 1991.  Lanham’s memories give us some insight to the impact of Austin on Lanham’s career and others in the fledgling country music industry.  When Austin hired the Fidgety Four away from Campbell, he immediately changed the name of the group to the “Whippoorwills” again capitalizing on the first line of “My Blue Heaven.” The show conducted a three-month tour through Virginia and North Carolina, playing shows in a different town each night.  Preceding the groups was an advance man who drummed up attention, made arrangements for the show and hotel reservations for the band.  Serving as Austin’s advance man was Tom Parker, later to become known as the “Colonel” Tom Parker that managed the career of Elvis Presley.

Roy Lanham’s stories of touring with Austin in those years give us a better picture of the once famous singer’s financial status in the early 1940s.  He tells how the tour broke up when a hot check was used to pay the tour’s bills in a small Virginia town.  When the group reached the next stop in Portsmouth, Virginia, marshals appeared and attached the receipts from the show and all equipment of the tour, including the instruments of the musicians.  Austin and the older members of the tour managed to elude the authorities and skipped town, leaving Lanham and his young friends stranded without their instruments.  However, the young musicians pointed out to the marshals that Austin had left his bus in the town and managed to use the bus as collateral to obtain the release of their personal instruments.  The boys were forced to raise bus fare home to Tennessee by playing on the street corners. However, they still regarded Austin a fair boss and a good man and thus were willing to rejoin the Austin tour in 1941.   The new contract they signed included two important clauses that stipulated a guaranteed salary of $55 per week and dues-paid union membership to protect their status in case of another default by the boss.  This tour was of nightclubs through the Midwest concluding with a stop in Miami, Florida.  

The stop in Cincinnati on this tour was significant for two different reasons.  The first gives an example of the generosity of Gene Austin.  While playing at the Old Vienna Room of Cincinnati’s Nederland Plaza Hotel Austin bought all the band new instruments.  Lanham recalled the $324 Gibson guitar Austin gave him as his first professional quality instrument. It was also at this Cincinnati engagement that a teenager later to be known as country music legend Merle Travis heard Austin play.  His memories of Austin’s show reflect the different approach Austin used in appealing to the more “down-home” audience on these tours.  He remembered Austin introducing Lanham in this way: “We gonna pee on th’ fire and turn th’ dogs loose, and we gonna turn Roy Lanham and his Diddlin’ Duo loose on this ol’ gut bucket, hooked-joint blues that I wrote back when I needed money.” This was certainly a very different setting from performances at luxurious mansions in the Hamptons of Long Island.

At the conclusion of this tour in Miami in October 1941, the band broke up and the outbreak of World War II in December put a halt to Austin’s tours.  He also faced a shortage of good young musicians willing to work for low pay.  All of these men were in the military.  Austin’s finances bottomed out and in March 1942, he declared bankruptcy in Jacksonville, Florida.  The filing listed

Austin’s assets as totaling $820 and outlined obligations of more than $36,000. This downturn ended Austin’s days of touring and forced him to appear again as performer on shows operated by others.  He began to appear on the Grand Ole Opry during these years and gradually faded from public appearances in the years shortly after World War II.  His old records still sold occasionally and the royalties from these and the songs he had written allowed Austin to survive.  He spent his time in the late forties and early fifties living in a fifty-foot travel trailer named the “Blue Heaven,” parked most of the time in Las Vegas.  Austin occasionally made cross-country trips, stopping at various horse racing tracks and fishing spots.  He worked just enough to stay solvent making a few appearances on radio programs.  He became a major investor in a uranium mine at Twenty-Nine Palms, California.

Editor’s Note: Due to space limitations, this week’s Echo will be continued in tomorrow’s Minden Press-Herald.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.

In 1956, Austin began a comeback in earnest.  The success of the movie based on the life of Al Jolson, sparked an interest in the stories of other great entertainers of the 1920s.  On June 4, 1956, the following article appeared in the New York Times:

“The life of Gene Austin, Texas-born blacksmith and cowboy who helped to establish the singing vogue called crooning in the early Twenties will be portrayed in a motion picture. ‘The Lonesome Road’ is the tentative title for the film, based on a story by Larry Marcus.  It will be made by a new company known as Case Productions. Mr. Austin . . . started his singing career in New Orleans and became popular with his recording of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” His most famous recording, however, was of “My Blue Heaven.” The partners plan to make the film after the fashion of The Jolson Story with Mr. Austin himself singing while an actor portrays Austin on screen.

Within the year, plans regarding this script had changed.  An article in the entertainment newspaper, Variety, on December 26, 1956, reflected those changes.  Austin had been performing in Kansas City at the Hotel Muehlebach and had told the press of plans for a TV dramatic show, a film, and a book of his life.  The music was almost completed for an episode of the Alcoa Hour on NBC scheduled for February 15, 1957.  This episode would feature one segment of the planned feature film focusing on the peak period of Austin’s career.  It would also introduce two new songs written by Austin.  In addition, Gene reported that the story outline for the feature film had been completed and he had been working with cartoonist Walt Kelly of Pogo fame on a planned biography. Still more changes were made to the plan before the program finally aired on NBC’s Goodyear Playhouse, on April 21, 1957.  Austin recorded new versions of 19 different songs for the soundtrack of that program.  Actor George Grizzard portrayed the crooner and mouthed the words to the songs during the teleplay.  At the conclusion of the broadcast, Austin appeared as himself and introduced one of his new songs, entitled “Too Late.”

A large number of promotional interviews were held in preparation for the program. These included the feature article in the Saturday Evening Post and another article in Newsweek.  In both of these articles, Austin downplayed his past financial troubles and simply said he preferred the easy life to working.  However, he emphasized that he was ready to get back to work.  He described rock and roll as nothing new: “it’s old hat — first there was Dixieland Jazz — then the saxophone was added — then along came swing — this stuff today has a little more definite beat to it.”  The television program, while not a great success, did give some impetus to Austin’s comeback.  After Decca Records released a successful album of his old recordings, RCA-Victor responded by signing Austin to a new contract.  He released a few records and made some public appearances during this comeback attempt.  He was now working with a young producer named Billy Sherrill.  Sherrill would later manage the careers of some of the most successful acts in country music, including Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Tanya Tucker.  Austin helped

Bossier City native, David Houston, son of his old business partner, gain Sherrill as a manager, since reference books list Austin as influencing Houston’s career.

Austin hoped the television program would be aired in England and increase demand for the future film.  However, success did not come as easily for Gene Austin in the 1950s.  As the comeback began to sputter, a strange event occurred.  Austin had retained his fondness for boats.  He had purchased another yacht and was on a sailing excursion when the boat was reported missing.  After several days, friends and fans conducted a memorial service for the entertainer, presumed dead.  Several days later, Austin emerged alive and well.  It is not clear whether this was a planned publicity stunt or an actual crisis.  Whatever the case, Austin was reported as shaken by the event and again retired from public life.

The next appearance of Gene Austin in the public eye came in an entirely different area, politics.  In 1962, Austin entered the Democratic primary election for Governor of Nevada, running against incumbent Gov. Grant Sawyer.  The campaign never really got off the ground and Austin suffered a great defeat.  Shortly after this loss, Austin left Las Vegas and relocated to Miami. 

During this period he was continuing to write songs but not performing publicly.  In 1966, on his birthday, Florida Governor Haydon Burns proclaimed Gene Austin Day in the state of Florida.  However, Austin was still not satisfied with life in the Sunshine State and moved back to Louisiana, settling in New Orleans.

While living in New Orleans Austin began a final attempt at a comeback, writing more and more songs in hopes of regaining his lost fame.  His final public appearance came in a February 1971 episode of the late night Merv Griffin Show on CBS.  Austin appeared on a show with other great composers of the 1920s.  By this time Austin had become ill with lung cancer.  For health reasons he relocated from New Orleans to Palm Springs, California.  He was residing in Palm Springs when death came at Desert Hospital on January 24, 1972.  Austin who had been married five times was survived by his widow, two daughters, and three grandchildren.   His obituary in the New York Times observed that although he had been largely forgotten, “his sweet tenor voice was a familiar sound on the hand-cranked phonographs and crackling radios of America in the 20s.”

Thus ended the saga of Gene Austin, the self-proclaimed “Voice of the Southland” who in his prime was more successful in selling his albums than any other singer — including Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, or Frank Sinatra.  Even today, his signature song, “My Blue Heaven,” is still recognized by many Americans and is considered a landmark in American music.    Among his hit records were: “Sleepy Time Gal,” “Ramona,” “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “I Cried For You,” “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” “Star Dust,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Good Night, Sweetheart,” “Love Letters in the Sand,” “My Melancholy Baby,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Who’s Sorry Now?,” “Mood Indigo,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.”  However, few recognize that this giant of the music industry was a native son of Northwest Louisiana, who always considered Minden home.  The wire service obituary carried in the Shreveport Times included a photograph and was displayed prominently at the top of the page — but contained no mention of Austin’s Louisiana roots.  Most listings of Louisiana musicians in reference books ignore the Austin, while seeming to mention the Louisiana ties of many musicians who spent brief periods of time in New Orleans.  Austin seems to have developed a large following in Europe even today.   When researching this article, I learned the man considered the leading Austin authority in the world is Swedish.  As public awareness of the musical legacy of Northwest Louisiana increases and plans are made for capitalizing on the tourism value of this heritage — we should not forget one of the significant Louisiana musicians – Minden’s Gene Austin. 

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