Copyright ©1999-2094 ~ Smiley Burnette Interprises ~ All Rights Reserved
Smiley Burnette was a native of Illinois. In fact, he had never been west of the Illinois borders until he and Gene Autry came out to California to find out what Movies might have to offer two musicians/songwriters/singers.
Smiley's talents were extremely diverse. He was a “Handyman, did most everything”! Yet with all his talents, Smiley’s best creation was the character known as “FROG MILLHOUSE”. Smiley endeared “Frog Millhouse” or just “Frog” to fans across the United States and Europe. “Old Frog” donned a checkered shirt, a tattered black Stetson cowboy hat with turned up brim, and a white horse with a black ringed eye. Outfitting himself with the checkered shirt and baggy pants gave him a whimsical, outrageous, yet lovable character look Smiley wanted. He knew from working in radio and stage that the checkered shirt and baggy pants was a look of the comic. The black hat with turned up brim, first came about through necessity. While filming chase scenes, his black Stetson would blow off. Smiley began pushing the brim up, and found that the wind did not catch the brim. So, he tacked the brim up in the front. To his amazement and pleasure, he found the look fit perfectly into the “Frog” persona. Smiley’s horse also became famous first as “Black Eyed Nellie”, then “Ring Eyed Nellie”, and finally shortened to just “Ring Eye” (Note the ring was on the left eye). It should be noted, in real life, Smiley Burnette never owned a horse.
But let’s start at the beginning, or as Smiley would put it, “I just dare you to talk about me”....
On March 18, 1911 in Summum, Illinois Lester Alvin Burnett was born. His parents were George W. and Almira Burnett. Both of Smiley’s parents were ordained ministers of the Christian church. Smiley’s father had been a farmer and would accept a pastorate only under the condition that he could view a cornfield from the porch of the parsonage. While Smiley was very young, the Burnett’s moved to Monticello, near Urbana. That happens to be the home of the University of Illinois where Smiley later in his life sold hot dogs at the football games.
Payment to Reverends came from the parishioners in the form of what Smiley termed “Preacher’s Sunday” or “Barrel Sunday”. The offerings included such delicacies as ham, bacon, chickens, fruit, vegetables and home canned foods.
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 would never turn down an invitation to a home cooked meal from new acquaintances (he never acknowledged meeting a stranger). He would refer to a chicken as “the gospel bird”. Smiley would arrive at the home, and if dinner was not quite ready, he would proceed to entertain the family by playing the piano or getting out his guitar or accordion and singing. 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!”
It was Smiley’s good fortune to live next to Bill and Maude Baird who were musicians and had access to any number of musical instruments. Smiley would borrow an instrument go off and learn to play it, then come back for another. By the age of nine, he could play 10 instruments and by the age of 22, he had mastered about 50.In his lifetime, he would play more than 105 instruments. He learned to play by ear and never found the need to actually read music. The first instrument that Smiley learned to play was the piano. The first performance in which Smiley received payment; he played a musical saw (he was 9 years old).
In the movies “Melody Trial”, “Waterfront Lady”, and “The Old Corral” Smiley had the opportunity to display his manual dexterity by playing and manipulating seven instruments at one time. He created and built some of the instruments in his workshop at his home. One of these instruments looked something like an organ with pipes, levers, and pull mechanisms. It was called a “Jassass-a-phone” and was featured in several movies the first being “The Singing Cowboy”. His very favorite instruments to play were the Piano Accordion and the Spanish Guitar.
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.
Smiley’s employers at WDZ were Mr. and Mrs. James L. Bush and Mrs. Bush was known lovingly to Smiley as “Mommie Bush”. Mrs. Bush was very fond of Smiley, having no children of her own, and became like a second mother to Smiley. She had heard Smiley play for the first time when he came to WDZ doing an advertising spot for the furniture store where he worked. The advertising consisted of Smiley playing a mystery tune on the piano. If the listener guessed the tune’s name, they would win a piece of furniture. Smiley made the remark in an interview “that with him playing, the furniture store just about went broke”.
Smiley wore all the hats from disc jockey, announcer, musical director, janitor, and all around entertainer. Everyday he would read the comics from the newspaper announcing: “Now, ‘Smiley’ will report the comics of the day”. He would report the newspaper comic strips in multiple character voices, and sound effects - cars, horns, crashes and such - to entertain his young audience.
Smiley was reading Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in which Simon Wheeler tells of his boyhood friend Reverend Lionidas W. Smiley (alias Jim Smiley) and his pet frog. Seeking a name for a character in a new children's program Smiley was creating for WDZ, he decided he liked the name “Smiley”. His character became 'Mr. Smiley'. The Mr. was soon dropped and Smiley emerged with his new name. The irony of this is Smiley also became known as “Frog”. “Who would’ve thunk!”
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 was under exclusive contract to Sears & Roebuck. 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 who played on the WDZ airwaves by the name of Smiley. Gene phoned Smiley and the conversation went like this:
Receiving ‘Mommie Bush’s’ blessing, Smiley joined Gene on the National Barn Dance radio show (WLS) in late December 1933.The following year, Smiley and Gene headed west to appear in two Ken Maynard films from Mascot at the request of Ken Maynard. “In Old Santa Fe” was a feature length film produced by Nat Levine. Gene and Smiley provided the musical interlude singing three songs back to back. Two of the songs were Smiley’s compositions, “Somewhere in Wyoming” and “Mama Don’t Allow No Music Played in Here”. The other film was a 15 chapter serial, “Mystery Mountain”. In the serial Gene and Smiley had only bit parts. Smiley was a wagon driver with one line, and Gene a ranch hand with a couple of lines.
Upon completion of their film debut, Gene and Smiley headed back east to complete personnel appearances and return to radio broadcasting for Sears & Roebuck (WLS).
Much to Gene and Smiley’s surprise while on tour in Wisconsin two contract offers arrived for the boys. The 10-year contracts were for them to star in pictures the first of which was the 12 chapter Mascot Master Serial, “The Phantom Empire”. Gene and Smiley were sitting in a restaurant with the two 10 year contracts in front of them. They first looked over their own contract and then exchanged each other’s contract. Gene was to receive $5000 a day and Smiley was to receive $1000 a day.
Smiley looks at Gene and says, “Well, I guess we ain’t going!”
Gene looks at Smiley and asks, “What do you mean Smiley?”
Smiley says to Gene, “You make more than that now!”
Gene replies, “Well, yes, but we are going to do it!
Smiley then asks, “Why?”
Gene replies with, “Because they are going to give us something they can’t take away from us”
Gene, Ina, and Smiley at this point packed up and took the history making drive out west to California. It was on this drive that Smiley wrote the classic western ballad “Ridin’ Down the Canyon (When the Desert Sun Goes Down)”.
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. That song 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.
Of course the above events led to long careers for both Smiley and Gene. They started out together and made a total of 64 films over their long film careers. In 1953 the last of their 6 movies were released.
1936 was a very eventful year for Smiley. He appeared in eight feature length films with Gene Autry, but also performed in two serials and three non-singing cowboy films.
Though that kept him very busy, the very biggest event of 1936 was his meeting up with Miss Dallas MacDonnell. Dallas MacDonnell was a newspaper columnist and writer. She wrote the column “Roamin’ ‘Round in Hollywood”, published by the Herald Examiner/Citizen News Section. Dallas also wrote for Screen Magazine. Dallas met Smiley while on assignment for Screen Magazine to interview Smiley on location. They found that they liked each others company so well they eloped on October 26th, 1936.Smiley and Dallas 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. Smiley always said “The first time Dallas saw me was on the screen. She opened the window and I crawled in!” Their marriage lasted for the rest of Smiley’s life, just over 30 years.
Smiley and Dallas purchased a rambling ranch home in the San Fernando Valley on 12527 Hortense Street. It was close enough to the studio but still in the country. Smiley kept expanding the home, also building a recording studio on a side lot next to the house. Smiley and Dallas adopted four children all from Tennessee. The four children were from oldest to youngest, Linda, Stephen, Carolyn, and Brian.
Smiley truly loved making personal appearances. He and Tex Ritter would debate about who had done the most. He would joke about the small-fry fans never gettin' his name right. Smiley was called everything from Smoky Burnette, Frog Sawmill, Smiley Birdsnest, to even Smelly.
This always tickled Smiley and his reply would be “They can call me anything they like as long as they also call me friend, and don't call me late for dinner!”
As Smiley toured the country, he was always delighted when young'ens and adults recognized him as “Old Frog” or “Frog”.
Harmonica Bill Russell, who was known as the “World’s Most Famous Harmonica and Trick Harmonica Player”, often accompanied Smiley on tours in the 1940’s and 1950’s.Harmonica Bill also appeared in several of the Durango Kid films with Smiley. Smiley and Harmonica Bill would perform different feats of harmonica playing, such as playing their harmonicas through tubes. In the film “Stranger from Ponca City”, Harmonica Bill played his harmonica and smoked a cigarette while flipping food cooking on a potbelly stove. Of course, not to be out done, Smiley then played his seven-piece instrument set up. Harmonica Bill liked to perform the following trick while in a restaurant. He would place his 1-inch harmonica in his mouth then proceed to eat. Then all of a sudden he would start playing the harmonica. The reaction from the other patrons was always a pleasure to behold.
Another singer/musician that Smiley worked with was Doye O’Dell. Smiley always felt that Doye had a wonderful singing voice and enjoyed doing personal appearances with Doye and also appeared on Doye’s television show when time permitted. Doye and a couple of his buddies from high school formed a Cowboy Band, which became known as “Doye O’Dell’s Radio Rangers”. They were the first cowboy band to appear over the N.B.C. Network (TV), six days a week. Doye also appeared in a number of westerns for Columbia and Republic. Smiley and Doye, along with the Radio Rangers, got the chance to work together in the film for Columbia, “Whirlwind Raiders”, a Durango Kid film done in 1948.A very entertaining number called “Fiddling Fool”, is performed in the film by Smiley, Doye and the Radio Rangers.
After the children had grown, Smiley and Dallas sold their home in San Fernando Valley and became completely mobile. They owned a number of mobile homes and travel trailers. Smiley and Dallas would actually drive their own rig and keep in touch through what would now be considered cell phones or two way wireless. Stephen, Smiley's oldest son would also travel with Smiley doing set ups and coordination for his Dad's shows. Traveling with four trailers allowed Smiley and Stephen to make quick trips to personal appearances while allowing Dallas and at times Stephen's family to remain in a more desirable location.
While coming into a new town, Smiley liked pulling the following joke:
In 1942 Smiley was voted one of the top-ten moneymaking stars in the “Motion Picture Herald Fame Poll”. From that point he remained number three for many years thereafter. In 1953 the Western was on the decline because of television coming into prominence, but the end of the B-Westerns was not the end for Smiley. He did personal appearances traveling all over the United States. He would do personal appearances at drive-ins, fairs, rodeos, trailer sales, furniture marts, and even on a salt block in a cow pasture. Smiley also did shows in the Town Square for the Chamber of Commerce of many towns, and in shopping centers which we now know as shopping malls.
Then in 1963, Smiley once again came before the camera but this time in the rural, folksy TV series PETTICOAT JUNCTION. He now became know to a new generation of kids, young adults, and grown-ups as the Cannonball Engineer, “Charley Pratt”. (Official Petticoat Junction Web Site)
Smiley left us all just as suddenly as he had come to us. 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 was taken from us. 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”.
Smiley passed from us before he had the chance to release his last recorded record, “Steam, Cinder, and Smoke” and “Clickity Clack”. This was the only record Smiley recorded on his new transistor type equipment having replaced the old tube type technology in his studio. He was in the process of going on tour with Ruff Davis and releasing the record from Smiley's Recording Company, RanchORecords®
RanchORecords® is still active and now owned by Stephen Smiley Burnette and his daughter Elizabeth Burnette. Smiley just for laughs copyrighted ©Rancho Seldom Home, which is used by Stephen still today.
Dallas Burnette passed away on February 19, 1976, at 5:00 AM.
Smiley's original Hat and Shirt were placed in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1962.The Hat and Shirt were donated by Smiley himself. He stated that this Hat was his favorite over all the rest. Smiley had 5 different black hats but the hat in the Hall of Fame is the one he originally used.
Smiley was also honored at the 10th Annual Western Music Festival (Western Music Association) 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. Smiley always 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.” He especially revered his personal friendship with Gene Autry. They had become friends at their onset and continued throughout their lives. Even after Smiley's passing, their friendship could be felt by the friends and family of the two men.
Copyright ©1999-2094 ~ Smiley Burnette Interprises ~ All Rights Reserved