What is a sidekick? You know, it’s the comic partner of the true western hero. The one who gets second billing and less money. The buffoon, the mixed-up crazy who often times get the hero into trouble. Not someone the youngsters would want to emulate. But wait! Let’s take a little closer look. Some of those sidekicks really had a lot of talent (and some didn’t).
Do you know which sidekick wrote a song that is currently in The United States Congressional Hall of Fame as being one of the top 10 most beautiful ballads and to this day holds that distinction?
This same sidekick was honored at the the 10th Annual Western Music Festival (Western Music Association) on November 5, 1998 by being inducted into the WMA Hall of Fame.
And the same sidekick was honored on May 22, 1986 (nineteen years after his death) at a special ceremony placing his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
And the same sidekick was voted in 1942 as one of the top-ten moneymaking stars in the Motion Picture Herald Fame Poll and from then on remained number three for many years after.
And what sidekick never drank, smoked, or gambled and stayed married to the same woman for over 30 years?
Who would have guessed that a sidekick could have accomplished so much as an actor, songwriter, and moneymaker? Do you know who he is yet?
He was born Lester Alvin Burnette on March 18, 1911 in Summum, Illinois. Both of his parents were ministers in the Christian church. Smiley loved music and could play any instrument he could find or borrow.
Fortunately, Smiley’s family lived next to Bill and Maude Baird who were musicians and had access to any number of musical instruments. They encouraged Smiley’s musical interests and would loan him their instruments. He would borrow an instrument and learn to play it, and then come back for another. He could play 10 instruments by the age of nine and he had mastered 50 instruments by the age of 22. Rumor has it that during his lifetime, he would play more than 105 instruments (come on now, who can name that many?) Wow, what an accomplishment! For years the only musical instrument I could play was the radio and it took me seven years to learn that!
He learned to play by ear and never found a need to actually read music. His first paid performance was when he was nine. He played a rendition of “Glow Worms” at a YMCA banquet in Carthage, Illinois; he played a musical saw. You remember the old musical saws, don’t you? We all had one in our basement or garage, right?
In the movies “Melody Trial”, “Waterfront Lady”, and “The Old Corral” Smiley demonstrated his ability by playing seven instruments at one time. He invented and built some of the instruments in his workshop at his home. One of these instruments was called the Jasass-a-phone and looked something like an organ with pipes, levers, and pull mechanisms. This instrument was featured in some of his movies with Gene Autry.
During Smiley’s ninth grade year, he had to drop out of school to help support his family. He was kind of a jack-of-all-trades and tried his hand in several occupations including waiter, truck driver, taxi driver, carnival roustabout, drug store delivery-boy, blacksmith, electrician, and photographer. Finally, he found his calling when he got a job at a small local radio station WDZ (100 watts) Tuscola, Illinois in 1929. He opened WDZ at 6 a.m. and ran all aspects of the radio station until 6 p.m., seven days a week. The station was originally set up to announce grain prices.
Smiley’s responsibilities at the station included disc jockey, announcer, musical director, janitor, and all around entertainer. Everyday he would read the comics from the newspaper, adding multiple multiple character voices, and sound effects – cars, horns, crashes and such – to entertain his listeners.
His reputation as an announcer led to his further fame and fortune. In December of 1933, Gene Autry was working in Chicago on WLS (World’s Largest Radio Station), and sole sponsorship at that time was Sears & Roebuck. Gene had become very popular on this radio station; it was like the original “Grand Old Opry”. He found himself in dire need of an accordion player and asked if anyone knew of a replacement. Someone suggested he contact Smiley who played on the WDZ airways. So, Gene called Smiley. There are at least a couple versions of what followed next but the conversation Gene had with Smiley went something like this:
“Hi Smiley, this is Gene Autry”
“Sure,” Smiley chuckled, “and I’m General Grant!’
Upon convincing Smiley of his identity, Gene 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 truthfully.
“I can pay you $35 and all your expenses” Gene said. “You think it over and let me know.”
“I’ve thunk it over,” Smiley hastily replied, “You’ve done hired yourself an accordion player”
Gene and Smiley worked together for WLS for about four years. Their program brought them to the attention of Nat Levine, head of Mascot Pictures, who had been exploring the possibility of musical westerns. Nat had Gene and Smiley come out to California and appear in two Ken Maynard films, doing musical interludes. After that, they headed back to Chicago to resume their duties there.
While on tour in Wisconsin Gene and Smiley were surprised when they each received contract offers from Mascot. The contracts were for 10-years; their first picture was the 12 chapter Mascot Master Serial, “The Phantom Empire”. The contracts seemed pretty lucrative with $5000 per day going to Gene and $1000 per day for Smiley (hmm! I could live with that even in today’s economy). However, Smiley noted that it would be a cut in Gene’s pay but Gene saw the potential for greater things for them and they decided to go for it.
So, Gene, Ina Mae and Smiley packed up and headed for California. It was on this trip that Smiley wrote the beautiful “Riding Down the Canyon” which is the song currently in The United States Congressional Hall of Fame as being one of the top 10 most beautiful ballads. The story goes somewhat like this while driving across Arizona:
Smiley asks Gene “ Ya want to buy a song?”
Gene says, “Well, let’s hear it!”
Smiley answers, “I ain’t wrote it yet!”
Gene replies, “Well, what I’m I doing here buying a Pig in a Poke?’
Smiley retorts, “No, it will be a good one!”
Smiley proceeds to write the song on the back of a magazine. In the next town they come to, the boys have someone put it to music. They had to do this, due to the fact that neither Gene nor Smiley could read or write a note of music and never did learn how. Rumor has it that Gene paid Smiley $5 for the song; or maybe it was $7. Since it took Smiley only 7 miles to write the song, that would equate to $1 per mile.
So began the long careers for both Smiley and Gene. They started out together and made a total of 64 films over their long film careers, the last of their 6 movies being released in 1953.
Smiley and Gene were with Republic for nine years; Smiley went by the moniker of Frog Millhouse. Then in 1942, Gene left Republic to join the Army Air Corps. After that, Smiley starred in films with Roy Rogers, Bob Livingston, Eddie Dew and Sunset Carson. In 1940, Smiley made the list of the top ten cowboys which was unheard of for a sidekick.
In 1944, Smiley left Republic and for a year made personal appearances for live audiences and for radio shows. Republic had rights to Smiley’s name Frog Millhouse so he couldn’t take the name with him. In late 1945, Columbia studios hired him to play in the Durango Kid series with Charles Starrett. Over the next 7 years, Smiley played in 56 films with different co-stars but he essentially recreated the same character he played in the Gene Autry movies. In 1946, Gene Autry had a salary dispute with Republic and left to work with Columbia. Pat Buttram was his sidekick in these movies but Pat got seriously hurt in a filming accident. Smiley came in as a substitute and starred with Gene in his final 6 films in 1953. So, Gene and Smiley started their careers and finished the careers together.
With the B-Westerns coming to an end, Smiley spent the next 10 years making personal appearances across the USA as a member of many country music shows, appearing at rodeos, refreshment stands, drive-in theaters and shopping centers. He did many comedy routines and sang his own songs while playing his guitar or accordion. Smiley had a huge backlog of materials to use as a songwriter. Over the years, Smiley wrote some 350 songs. His better know compositions were Ridin Down the Canyon, Mama Don’t Allow No Music Playin’ in Here and It’s My Lazy Days. It seldom took him more than 30 minutes to compose a song and sometimes he could write one in 10 minutes. Then he would sell it to the studio by reciting it or singing it over the phone.
Then in the early 1960s, Smiley emerged on a nationally syndicated radio show produced by RadiOzark in Springfield, Missouri. In 1963, he entered television on a full time basis until 1967. He played the part of Charles Pratt, one of the train engineers on CBS’s Petticoat Junction.
On the personal front, Smiley married Dallas MacDonnell in October of 1936. Dallas was a newspaper columnist and writer and met Smiley while on assignment for Screen Magazine to interview Smiley on location. They hit it off very quickly and eloped on October 26th, 1936. They were to be married in December but two weeks after their initial meeting, they eloped to Santa Ana accompanied by a couple of close friends. Their marriage lasted some 30 years, until Smiley passed away. They adopted and raised 4 children, all from Tennessee.
Smiley took ill from leukemia while filming Petticoat Junction. After finishing his scenes for the last show of the season, Smiley allowed himself to be taken to the hospital. One week later on February 16, 1967 at 9:05 p.m., Smiley passed away.
Smiley truly was one of the nice guys and always said, “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice.” He measured his wealth by his friends and felt he was the wealthiest man alive. Smiley always felt this way because he reasoned “that you can spend a friend a million times but only spend a dollar once”. He especially revered his personal friendship with Gene Autry since they had become friends at their onset and continued throughout their lives.
Smiley Burnette died at 55 but what a life time of accomplishments he had. He once said, “He had lived 5 lives compared to most and was very satisfied with his accomplishments.”
So, now you know a little more about Smiley ‘Frog Millhouse’ Burnette. Roy Rogers earned the title of “King of the Cowboys” and in my book, Smiley Burnette earned the title “King of the Sidekicks”.
Note: material from this article came from several sources, including an article by Leo Pando from the Old Cowboy Picture Show publication (Vol. 6, No. 1) and from the official Smiley Burnette website run by Smiley’s son and granddaughter (http://www.smileyburnette.org/). Some of the stories had more than one version with small differences in the details. I think that the website run by the family would have the most accurate information and would suggest that you visit it. If you want to know more about Smiley Burnette, you would certainly enjoy this website.
The Wannabe Cowboy