Remembering Gene Autry in Kenton, Ohio



Reporting from Kenton, OH.

During last weekend’s Gene Autry Days festival here, a prominently displayed photograph showed the singing-cowboy movie star standing outside a local factory, surrounded by the proud employees.
It was taken on Aug. 8, 1938 – famously remembered by locals as the day Autry came to pay his respects to this small city in northwestern Ohio, about 75 miles south of Toledo. Kenton Hardware Co., a key employer that made cast-iron toys but was struggling to survive the Depression, had that year introduced the new Gene Autry Repeating Cap Pistol.
An immediate bestseller to young cowpokes worldwide at 50 cents per gun, a million had already been manufactured by the time Autry arrived to visit. For licensing his name and allowing a mold to be made of his own gun, Autry became the hero who saved the town’s main employer — and yes, he also got a cut of revenue.
That same day, Autry with his horse Champion did five performances at downtown’s Kenton Theatre. Some 4,500 people attended, according to contemporary accounts.
Kenton Hardware is long-gone, its factory shutting down in 1952 as America lost interest in cast-iron toys. But Autry’s impact on the city of 8,300 lives on via the festival. It just concluded its 16th year at the Hardin County Fairgrounds – not far from the still-standing but vacant factory. It’s a salute not only to The Cowboy but to a slice of American history that seems both similar to our own age (tough economic times) and very different (making toys in a Midwest factory).
Among those the event attracted this year was 70-year-old Richard Dzwonkiewicz, from Grayslake, Ill, a retired military careerist dressed as a white-hatted cowboy Autry for the festival’s look-alike contest.
“As you participate in this, that long-ago event becomes more meaningful,” he explains, as visitors come over to take his picture. “It’s still being remembered today, and all of us are part of that memory.”
The festival, run by the Hardin County Chamber & Business Alliance, started as a way to help pay for a new Community Building at the fairgrounds. Autry, still alive in 1994, approved it. (He died in 1998, at age 91.)
As a remembrance of him, Kenton’s event certainly isn’t as high profile as Los Angeles’ Autry National Center of the American West. It is a relatively small, mostly indoor affair where visitors can buy Autry and other Western-related collectibles and hear singers such as Paul Belanger (The Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy) perform songs associated with Autry, like “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” and “Back in the Saddle Again.”
The festival also offers an opportunity to teach and celebrate the way Kenton’s manufacturing past once intersected with pop culture. The history museum, for instance, had a booth with photos and other information about Autry’s 1938 visit. One of the vendors and festival organizers, 77-year-old Bob Bailey, can recall meeting Autry in 1938.
For the many older attendees, Autry represents a vanished aspect of pop culture.
“His movies were wholesome and had moral values – the bad guys didn’t win,” says 72-year-old Richard Gearhart, of nearby Bucyrus. He had come to the festival and then went downtown to snap photos of the five-year-old civic mural showing a waving Autry, on his rearing horse Champion, in front of a vibrantly red-brick Kenton Hardware Co.
Vendors at the festival were eager to show off and discuss the changes and additions that Kenton Hardware made over the years to its line of Autry repeating cap guns. For instance, Autry’s signature initially was only on the frame, but it soon was added to the red- or pearl-covered grip. In 1951, after it lost the Autry contract, the company briefly made a non-endorsed cap gun known as the Lawmaker.
Today, some models can bring hundreds of dollars, although vendors say sales have slowed in this economy. Also of value – and offered for sale at the festival – were the cardboard boxes the guns came in. They had Autry’s picture on them and noted that the gun was patterned after “the original six shooter of Public Cowboy No. 1.”
“The price is going up on mint guns in the box,” says vendor Joe Krock, 77, also a member of the Gene Autry Days Committee. “They’re hard to find in a box. These were meant for kids to play with, not put away.”
Kenton isn’t the only small American town still honoring Autry.
In September, there is a festival in Gene Autry, Oklahoma, which changed its name from Berwyn after he purchased a ranch there at the height of his fame. He came to that town on Nov. 16, 1941 to celebrate the name change. But just three weeks later, World War II started and he enlisted. Afterward, he sold the ranch but the town kept the name.
And also in September, this year’s Walk of Fame Music Festival and Induction in Richmond, Ind., will be dedicated to Autry. Very early in his career, he recorded for the city’s Gennett Records, a now-defunct but historic record label whose heritage city leaders want to promote.
Born in rural Tioga, Texas, Autry first found fame as a singer and performer on Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance radio show, branching out in the 1930s to movies while still keeping active in radio, recordings and personal appearances. He later became the owner of the California Angels based in Orange County.
“He always put across this man-of-the-people, everyman vibe that people picked up on,” says Holly George-Warren, author of the Autry biography “Public Cowboy No. 1” and a past attendee at Kenton’s festival, in a phone interview.
“And during the Great Depression, someone with that reassuring presence, who had become successful but still had a plainspoken and conversant tone, really got to people.”


When Slavoj Žižek visited University of Cincinnati for a radical confab



I came across the Slovenian theorist/writer Slavoj Žižek in the recent movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he passionately used scenes from Hollywood movies to spotlight his observations about the humanist struggle against repression and totalitarianism in oppressive capitalist systems.

His actual ideas were so densely intellectual, and delivered in such a rapid-fire manner, that I truthfully understood very little. But god (if I may use that word in reference to Žižek, an atheist), was he ever a fascinating cultural critic and film buff! In Pervert, he claims that one of John Carpenter’s more obscure horror movies — 1988’s They Live, in which aliens use subliminal advertising to control humans — is one of Hollywood’s most radically leftist movies ever.

Wanting to learn more about Žižek (pronounced Zhi-zheck), I discovered University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning was hosting the second-ever International Žižek Studies Conference and Exhibition. And it was going to focus on “parallax future(s) in art and design, ideology and philosophy.” Not only was it going to have a strong visual-art component, but Žižek himself was going to give a keynote lecture. So I attended last weekend.

It attracted around 100 or so Žižek scholars, students, artists and others from around the world — someone came from China. With panel discussions and workshops bearing titles like “Visualizing Metalepsis in Sites of Exception,” it wasn’t easygoing.  

Struggling to understand the concept of “parallax futures,” an important one in Žižekstudies, I asked the DAAP coordinator of the conference, assistant professor Kristopher Holland, what that meant. 

“We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. He also explained, as an example, that F. Scott Fitzgerald had first written and published Tender Is the Night one way, with flashbacks, in 1934, to poor reception. He then authorized a reconstructed version that was published posthumously in 1948. “So when we talk about Tender Is the Night, what are we talking about? Both exist. There are two ways of looking at things,” he said. 

The art for the most part was quite interesting. At the conference site, the mazelike DAAP building, several artists either had installations or did performances. Sue Wrbican from George Mason University encased a 1960s-era sail inside a 20-foot-high open bamboo construction to suggest the difficulty of navigating “between reality/fiction and male/female.” 

Nearby, Mira Gerard of East Tennessee State University intermittently reclined on a homey fainting couch and quietly read aloud from journals about her ongoing Lacanian psychoanalysis. 

In conjunction with the conference, DAAP’s Noel Anderson worked with Hebrew Union College’s interim museum director Abby Schwartz to curate a small but choice art exhibit called Parallax Futured: Transtemporal Subjectivities at HUC’s Skirball Museum. (It’s up through May 14.) 

The pieces tend toward minimalism and conceptualism with a twist. For instance, Tyler Hamilton’s “Untitled” features a concrete cube on which three metal legs have been attached, making it a kind of faux camera and tripod. And a beautiful small oil painting called “Mattress” by Zoran Starcevic is a close-up of gray-white mattresses seams, the repetition interrupted by a black diagonal slash. Is it, too, painted…or real? You want to touch it to find out. 

But the art — and everything else — took a backseat to Žižek’s own appearance Saturday afternoon. The DAAP auditorium attracted a couple hundred people who were enthralled by a rambling but fiery lecture (with Q&A) that went past two hours. 

Talking excitedly while compulsively tugging at his sweater or his face, the 65-year-old Žižek touched on so many topics so fast, good luck keeping track — Jacques Lacan to Ayn Rand, Marx to Edward Snowden, post-Colonial Africa to the Holocaust, the pending failure of global capitalism and so on.

But it wasn’t a dry dissertation by any means — the talk was peppered with non-academic words like “bullshit,” “stupid” and “blahblahblah.” And also with more of his fascinating, contrarian film references — he prefers Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Spielberg’s Lincoln because it shows the violence of the fight against slavery. 

He believes Bela Lugosi’s 1932 horror classic White Zombie is vividly about class struggle. And he highly recommended the DVD of thriller The Butterfly Effect — “with the great American artist Ashton Kutcher,” he said sarcastically — for the atheist aesthetics of its “much more radical” non-theatrical-release ending.

As the applause finally ended, like at a Rock concert, I thought whatever else, he needs his own TV show. Maybe At the Movies With Slavoj Žižek? 



An Overlooked Accomplishment by Aaron Sorkin




Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network is probably going to get an Oscar on Sunday, and deservedly so. But a previous accomplishment by this writer, who knows how to tackle topical ideas about the role of media in society and offer complex, compelling characters, has been unjustly overlooked. Hopefully, Social Network will encourage people to take a second look at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — a great television series.

As they did with Lisa Kudrow’s superb but ill-fated The Comeback, TV critics mistakenly attacked the daring Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin’s knowing, brainy and fantastically acted follow-up to the The West Wing. They labeled it “pretentious” and “not funny enough.” As a result, the show never got the buzz it needed to be a success, and NBC canceled it after its first season. It was on for 22 episodes, from 2006-07.

It’s a great loss. This drama — it’s not a comedy — ostensibly is about the struggle of two head writers/producers (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, both excellent, with Perry a revelation) to put on a weekly Saturday Night Live-like comedy show.

But that’s just the window into Studio 60‘s real subject — the ethics, policies and politics of network television. And, next to the White House, what better institution for Sorkin’s lacerating, fast-paced and quick-witted writing style? The best of these 22 episodes include sizzling, literate, argumentative back-and-forth among Perry, Whitford, Steven Weber as the network chairman and Amanda Peet as the network president. Grade: A

(Adapted from an earlier Cincinnati CityBeat review)

Noah Purifoy Exhibit Showcases a Great Artist



THE current 30 Americans show at the Cincinnati Art Museum offers a good chance to see work by key African-American contemporary artists.

All well and good, but you should also definitely get to the Wexner Center for the Arts in nearby Columbus by April 10 to see the retrospective show of another contemporary black artist, the late Noah Purifoy.

It’s called Junk Dada, and I believe you’ll leave it impressed — not just by the quality of his work and vision, but also by his importance to the art and American social and political thought of our times.

The Wexner is the only museum to present this exhibition besides the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which organized it. That speaks to how little-known the Alabama-born Purifoy is outside of Los Angeles, where he lived and worked for much of his career. (He lived and worked as a social worker in Cleveland before moving to L.A. in 1950; he died at age 87 in 2004.)

But it doesn’t speak to how powerful and influential an artist he was, creating assemblage, collage, sculpture and environmental installations in a way that acknowledged outsider art but was also the intentional conceptual work of a trained artist.

Further, his art was community-based while also being forcefully individualistic. He eventually moved to the remote California town of Joshua Tree, where he used his vision and knack for salvaging material to create a new arts-based community in the desert. His Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum now outlives him, as part of the nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation.

I’d compare him favorably with Robert Rauschenberg, David Smith, Thornton Dial and Donald Judd, and also to today’s artists who reclaim throwaway objects, like Mark Bradford (who is in 30 Americans) and the Ghana-born El Anatsui.

His journey as an artist cries out for a motion picture. After moving to L.A., he received a B.F.A. at the Chouinard Art Institute, which is now the California Institute of the Arts. He was almost 40 when he graduated. With his background in both art and social work, he came out of school with a keen interest in non-traditional, socially relevant object making.

Junk Dada brings together some 70 of his pieces, showing off his gift in such works as the 1958 surrealist woodwork “Untitled (Bed Headboard)”; 1989’s wearily splendorous assemblage “Rags and Old Iron I (After Nina Simone)”; and 1967’s wonderfully colorful, mixed-media “Untitled,” which uses the frame of an umbrella as a starting point.

The show has much information and photographs about the Outdoor Museum as well as one of his greatest projects — organizing the 1966 traveling exhibit 66 Signs of Neon.

At the time, he was director of L.A.’s Watts Towers Arts Center, drawing inspiration from that monumental creation of the visionary Simon Rodia while also working to connect this idiosyncratic work of outsider art to the black community surrounding it.

After the Watts rebellion/riots of 1965, Purifoy and other artists created 66 sculptures from the debris. The exhibit features a photograph of two women walking past a mountain of post-riots wreckage to show the challenge. Anyone who has ever dismissed the importance of “junk” as art-making material should sense the meaning that Purifoy instilled into it here. The project is a landmark, combining foreboding about the fire next time with hope for a better future.

I stumbled onto Purifoy’s 10-acre Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum accidentally when visiting the nearby national park in the early-2000s. He had moved there in 1989, starting a new chapter in his life in a vastly different environment from urban L.A.

He had a tract of relatively barren land that was filled with salvaged, reassembled material that served as a portal into an alternate version of the “real” landscape. He transformed it all into a village where the pieces of wood and metal, the salvaged toilets and bowling balls and who knows what else all fit together. There were other people there, walking and talking, treating the site like both a museum and an amusement park.

It took awhile to learn about his background and understand the intellectual underpinnings and decades of experience behind his work.

After Junk Dada, I believe he’s so important he should have his own museum. Fortunately, in Joshua Tree he does. Everyone should go. More information: