Thursday, April 1, 2010

Gene, Champion and Smiley

Sometimes when things become too much part of your daily life, you cease to notice them.  Case in point, I have some theater lobby advertisements for movies of the 40's and 50’s in my bathroom. They're small, standard color posters for Surrender, Hell! (Susan Abbott looks as if two torpedoes are straining for release from her blouse), Moonlight Sonata (music by Paderemski), The Singing Nun (Debby Reynolds as France’s Sœur Sourire), and a Gene Autry oater, Pack Train. The Pack Train poster is particularly fascinating, as Gene’s horse, Champion, gets a bigger billing than Gene’s sidekick, Smiley Burnette.
I don’t know much about either Champion or Smiley. A little bit of research revealed that Champion was a sort of conglomerate horse, or horses. Seven horses, to be exact, all billed at The Wonder Horse, all trained to rear on their hind legs as Gene waved his white hat. Smiley, now, there was only one of him. He was a talented musician, songwriter and comedian (see who played an instrument called the jassassaphone and signed on as Gene’s accordion player for $35 a week back in 1933. As Gene’s fame spread, so did Smiley’s. But then again, so did Champion’s.

I often wonder how Smiley must have felt the first time he saw and ad for Pack Train, in third billing, with much smaller type and no photo. He was, according to reports, a kind=-hearted man grateful for the opportunity to work in a field he loved. He died in 1963 after shooting an episode of Petticoat Junction in which he played Charley Pratt, the Cannonball engineer. Smiley never drank, smoked or gambled, and was proud of saying he’d been married to the same woman for over 30 years. He has a star on the Walk of Fame (Champion doesn’t).

Most of us get neither stars nor top billing. This is something we learn when we go from the totally self-centered universe of a child to the somewhat less egotistical one of adolescents and adults. We make do with a World’s Best Dad coffee mug on Father’s Day and consider ourselves lucky to get any billing at all. Perhaps in the most hidden streams of our imaginations, we dream of being something or someone other than ourselves, but these are private fantasies seldom disclosed even to the ones we love.  Smiley, at times, must have yearned for Gene status and Gene, no doubt, would have wanted to be Roy.

Personally, I’m pretty sure that at one time or another, I was billed far below the family gerbil, though 30 years ago I scratched my own initials in wet cement on a sidewalk in Adams Morgan and they’re still there, my own Walk of Fame.

The Internet, of course, has wreaked havoc with the concept of fame and billing. Anyone can have pages of Google entries; almost anyone can be a star for an hour or a week. We flourish and evanesce a lot more quickly these days than ever before and yes, Andy Warhol was right on fame and wrong on time. We don’t get fifteen minute. We get five, if we’re very lucky and work the media hard.

So back to Gene, Champion and Smiley. I’m not sure what it all means but it bears pondering.   I suppose imaginary billings are as good as any. Next week, I’ll write about Ed McMahon.


No comments:

Post a Comment