Lester Alvin Burnette as:
SMILEY BURNETTE & HORSE 'RINGEYE'
In the thirties and forties, cowboy kids sat bug-eyed through many Saturday afternoon Westerns, laughing themselves blue at Gene Autry's rotund, jolly cowboy sidekick.
One can only wonder what the Singing Cowboy Western would have been like without "Frog's" floppy black Stetson, checkered shirt, black baggy pants, and a white horse with a black-ringed eye. Smiley Burnette was "Frog Millhouse", and in 1942 he was voted one of the top-ten moneymaking stars in the "Motion Picture Herald Fame Poll", and remained so for many years.
Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnette was born in Summum, Illinois, on March 18, 1911 to George and Almira Burnett, both of whom were ordained ministers. While Lester was still very young, the Burnett’s moved to Monticello, near Urbana, were it was his good fortune to live next to neighbors who were musicians and had access to many instruments. By the age of nine, he could play 10 instruments and by the age of 22, about 50. In his lifetime, Smiley Burnette would play more than 105 instruments. He learned to play by ear and never found the need to actually read music. He was, literally, a musical genius. Smiley Burnette was also a prolific music author, with over 360 songs titles to his credit.
Due to financial needs Lester dropped out of school at age 14 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, blacksmith, electrician, and photographer. He finally seemed to find his calling at a small local radio station Tuscola, Illinois in 1929. Lester opened the station at 6 a.m. and ran all aspects of it until 6 p.m., seven days a week. He wore all the hats from disc jockey, announcer, musical director and janitor. He would report the newspaper comic strips in multiple character voices, and sound effects - cars, horns, crashes and such - to entertain his audience. While seeking a name for a character in a new children's program he was creating for the station, Lester decided he liked the name “Smiley”. His character became 'Mr. Smiley'. The Mr. was soon dropped and Lester emerged with his new name - Smiley Burnette.
In December of 1933, Gene Autry was working in Chicago on WLS Radio Station. He found himself without an accordion player and asked if anyone knew of a replacement. He was told of a young man down in Tuscola by the name of Smiley Burnette who played the accordion and many other instruments. Gene phoned Smiley and after convincing Smiley of his identity asked, “How much are you getting a week at that radio station?” “I’m getting’ $12.50 and I’m getting’ it regular” Smiley replied.
“I can pay you $35 and all your expenses” Gene said. “You think it over and let me know.”
“I’ve thunk it over,” said Smiley, “How far away are you?”
Smiley Burnette joined Gene Autry on the National Barn Dance radio program where they soon became great friends. This bond would continue throughout both of their lives.
In 1934, Gene was asked to make an appearance in the Ken Maynard western “In Old Santa Fe”. Gene and his wife, Ina, invited Smiley to make the drive from Chicago to California with them, just to find out what moving pictures might have to offer two cowboy musicians/songwriters/singers. That trip became history as it eventually led to long and illustrious movie careers for both men.
Upon completion of their film debut, Gene and Smiley headed back east to complete personnel appearances and return to radio broadcasting for Sears & Roebuck who was Gene's primary sponsor at that time. Much to Gene and Smiley’s surprise they soon recieved ten-year contract offers from Republic Pictures for both of them to star in pictures.
Smiley Burnette was under a Term Players Contract at Republic Pictures from July 1, 1936 through June 30, 1944. Smiley appeared in 54 westerns with Gene Autry as his comic sidekick before Gene left to serve in the Army during World War II.
Sadly, Smiley then had to leave his colorful character “Frog Millhouse” behind as it was the property of Republic. He then became the sidekick to Charles 'Durango Kid' Starrett at Columbia, a pairing that resulted in fifty plus films. In a bit of irony, he and Gene Autry wound up closing out their cinema careers together. Autry's sidekick at the time was Pat Buttram, but he had been injured during the filming of one of the Autry TV shows, and Burnette came in as a substitute. A year or so later, after the Starrett series ended, Smiley teamed with Autry for his final six films, all of which were 1953 Columbia releases.
The end of the B-Westerns was not the end for Smiley Burnette. He did personal appearances traveling all over the United States. He would do personal appearances at drive-ins, fairs, rodeos, trailer parks, and furniture marts. Smiley truly loved making personal appearances. He and Tex Ritter would debate about who had done the most. Church Socials (dinners) were a part of the life Smiley grew up with, and he continued to participate in them throughout his traveling career. Smiley Burnette would never turn down an invitation to a home cooked meal from new acquaintances. He knew he was eating “the best food in town”. Smiley was plain folk! He made people feel at ease with his good-natured, down to earth presence and jovial yet modest character. Stating “I'm people too, you know!”
Then in 1963, Smiley Burnette once again came before the camera but this time in the rural, folksy TV series PETTICOAT JUNCTION. He now became known to a whole new generation of kids, young adults, and grown-ups as the Cannonball Engineer, “Charley Pratt".
Smiley Burnette left us on February 16, 1967 at 9:05 p.m. It should be noted that in Smiley’s lifetime, he never drank, smoked, or gambled. He would always add “and I’ve been married to the same woman for over 30 years”.
Trivia and Quotes:
Smiley's original "Frog Millhouse" hat and shirt were placed in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1962.
Smiley was also honored at the 10th Annual Western Music Festival on November 5, 1998. Smiley's granddaughter, Elizabeth Burnette received the Hall of Fame Induction for her Grandfather Smiley, as her father, Stephen, proudly looked on.
On May 22, 1986, nineteen years after his passing, Smiley was honored at a special ceremony placing his star on the Walk of Fame. Smiley always said, “It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice.”
He considered his wealth by his friends and felt he was the wealthiest man alive. He felt this way because he reasoned “that you can spend a friend a million times but only spend a dollar once”.
Smiley felt and stated, “He had lived 5 lives compared to most and was very satisfied with his accomplishments.”
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