|Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnette|
1911 - 1967
|The Burnette family has an informative and fun website on their famous relative. The official Smiley Burnette website is at: http://www.smileyburnette.org/|
(From Old Corral collection)
(From Old Corral collection)
Above - Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette during their days at Republic Pictures.
"Smiley dropped out of school due to financial needs and never finished the 9th grade. To help support his family, he tried his hand at a number of occupations including waiter, truck driver, taxi driver, carnival roustabout, drug store delivery-boy (making delivery on a side car motorcycle), blacksmith, electrician, and photographer. Smiley finally seemed to find his calling at a small local radio station WDZ (100 watts) Tuscola, Illinois in 1929. Smiley opened WDZ at 6 a.m. and ran all aspects of the radio station until 6 p.m., seven days a week. WDZ's airtime was Dawn to Dusk and was originally set up to announce the grain prices."
The story goes that Gene Autry was in the Champaign, Illinois area doing a performance circa 1933. Short a musician, Gene offered Smiley a bigger paycheck than he was receiving at the radio station. Burnette jumped at the chance and joined Autry. He became a member of the National Barn Dance radio show, and went with Gene to Hollywood, and the twosome made over 50 films together ... remember him as "Frog Millhouse"? When Autry left for World War II service, Smiley did sidekick duties at Republic Pictures with Eddie Dew, Sunset Carson and Bob Livingston, and he even appeared in about a half dozen films with Roy Rogers. It was during these later years at Republic that Burnette also became the star of his own series --- these were the initial oaters featuring newcomer Sunset Carson, but Smiley got top billing.
Burnette was under a Term Players Contract(s) at Republic Pictures from July 1, 1936 through June 30, 1944, and his credits at Republic number about 75 films and most are B westerns. After leaving Republic, Smiley became the sidekick to Charles 'Durango Kid' Starrett at Columbia, and that pairing resulted in 50+ films.
In a bit of irony, he and Gene Autry wound up closing out their cinema careers together at Columbia. Autry's sidekick at the time was Pat Buttram, but he had been injured during the filming of one of the Autry TV shows. Burnette came in as a substitute in WHIRLWIND (Columbia, 1951). A year or so later, after the Starrett series was over, Smiley teamed with Autry for his final six films, all of which were 1953 Columbia releases.
Smiley had his own transcribed radio program which he created under his RadiOzark Enterprises.
Burnette was a prolific music author, with some guesstimates as high as 300-400 songs. In later years, he was one of the railroaders on PETTICOAT JUNCTION, and was working on that TV show when he passed away from leukemia on February 16, 1967.
You may want to go to the In Search Of ... page on the Old Corral, and check the California Death Records database. You should find a record for: Lester A. Burnette, born 3/18/1911 in Illinois, passed away on 2/16/1967, and his Mother's maiden name was Heslip.
Received an e-mail from Californian Paul Patton in July, 2000, and he writes: "Smiley had an A-frame drive-in called 'Checkered Shirt'. It was back in the 1960s in Escondido, California, north of San Diego. It may have been before Burger King and I did stop there a time or two. There was a large neon sign laying in tall grass after it closed. I wish now that I had scooped it up for a souvenir."
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect --- Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc.
How important was Burnette to Republic, Columbia, Gene Autry, Charles Starrett, the western film ... and ticket sales? The following poll results may help answer that question. George 'Gabby' Hayes and Burnette were the two B western sidekicks that consistently placed in these polls, though Hayes' rankings were generally a tad higher than Smiley. Smiley first appeared in the polls in 1939 and was ranked in one or both for fourteen consecutive years, 1939-1952. Hayes' rankings consisted of thirteen years --- from 1941-1952 and 1954.
|Popularity Rankings of Smiley Burnette|
Burnette's highest rating shown in this color
|Year||Motion Picture Herald
|1943||3rd||no poll conducted|
(Courtesy of Jacque Lauderbaugh)
Comic sidekick Smiley Burnette atop his trusty mount which was called Nellie, Ringeye or Ringeye Nellie (or is it spelled "Nelly"?).
(Courtesy of Minard Coons and Tracy Terhune)
Above - Chicago radio station WLS had the National Barn Dance, and their star performers were doing shows on the road. On the far left, with the light colored suit and cowboy hat is Gene Autry. Seated in the bottom row are Max Terhune, wearing suspenders and fanning a deck of cards. To his left and wearing the cowboy hat is Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnette. The two ladies wearing the vests and cowboy hats are Millie Good (Mildred Fern Good; 1913-1993) and Dolly Good (Dorothy Laverne Good; 1915-1967), and they billed themselves as "The Girls of the Golden West". Terhune was called "The Hoosier Mimic" because of his Indiana background along with the barnyard calls and bird whistles.
Tracy Terhune, Max Terhune's grandson, noted that "The WLS Barn Dance photo was taken in 1934. On my grandfathers own copy, he hand wrote on the back that it was taken the day Gene got his telegram to come to Hollywood and listed the year, 1934." Autry and Burnette would head to California to begin work with Poverty Row producer Nat Levine at Mascot Pictures. Gene and Smiley would appear in a pair of Ken Maynard starrers, the IN OLD SANTA FE (Mascot, 1934) feature and MYSTERY MOUNTAIN (Mascot, 1934) cliffhanger. Soon after, Autry would be given the lead in Mascot's THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935) cliffhanger.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above are Smiley Burnette and Eddie Dew in a crop from a lobby card from BEYOND THE LAST FRONTIER (Republic, 1943), Dew's first starrer for Republic Pictures.
(From Old Corral collection)
Above is the title lobby card for BORDERTOWN TRAIL (Republic, 1944). Sunset Carson didn't begin as the star of his own pictures. Top billing went to Smiley Burnette (pictured on the left). As the only comic sidekick to be elevated to top billing in a western series - even if it was only four films - Smiley's roles were built up more than usual but it was Sunset who carried the action. In each film, Smiley's character was named 'Frog Millhouse'. The last of Smiley's starring foursome with Sunset Carson was FIREBRANDS OF ARIZONA (1944) in which he had a dual role as Frog and the notorious outlaw "Beefsteak Discoe".