Old Corral photo
|Birth name||Lester Alvin Burnett|
|Also known as||Smiley Burnette|
|Born||March 18, 1911|
|Origin||Summum, Illinois, USA|
|Died||February 16, 1967
|Occupation(s)||singer-songwriter, musician, film actor, inventor|
|Instruments||accordion, guitar, banjo, many others|
Lester Alvin Burnett (March 18, 1911 – February 16, 1967), better known as Smiley Burnette, was a popular American country music performer and a comedic actor in Western films and on radio and TV, playing sidekick to Gene Autry and other B-movie cowboys. He was also a prolific singer-songwriter who could play as many as 100 musical instruments, some simultaneously. His career, beginning in 1934, spanned four decades, including a regular role on CBS-TV's Petticoat Junction in the 1960s.
Lester A. Burnett (he added the final "e" later in life) was born in Summum, Illinois, on March 18, 1911, and grew up in Ravenwood, Missouri. He began singing as a child and learned to play a wide variety of instruments by ear, yet never learned to read or write music. In his teens he worked in vaudeville and, starting in 1929, at the state's first commercial radio station, WDZ-AM in Tuscola, Illinois.
Burnette came by his nickname while creating a character for a WDZ children's program. He was reading Mark Twain’s "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" at the time, which included a character named Jim Smiley. He named the radio character Mr. Smiley and soon adopted the moniker as his own, dropping the title.
His break came in December 1933, when he was hired by Gene Autry to play accordion on National Barn Dance on Chicago's WLS-AM, on which Autry was the major star. As sound films became popular, Hollywood sought musical talent for Western films; and in 1934, producer Nat Levine cast the duo in their film debut (unbilled) as part of a bluegrass band in Mascot Pictures' In Old Santa Fe starring Ken Maynard. Burnette sang and played accordion, and the film included two of his compositions.
He had other small parts until a secondary but more prominent role in the 1935 serial The Adventures of Rex and Rinty. That same year, Levine gave Autry his first starring role in the 12-part serial The Phantom Empire, with Burnette playing "Oscar," a comic relief role. Mascot was soon absorbed by Republic Pictures Corp., and Burnette teamed up with Autry for the studio as his lovable comedic sidekick, Frog Millhouse, with his trademark floppy black hat. Their association produced 62 feature-length musical westerns. Frog was known for sometimes singing in a deep, froglike, croaking voice.
By 1940, he ranked second only to Autry in a Boxoffice magazine popularity poll of Western stars, the lone sidekick among the top ten (though rumored that off screen he earned a reputation as being moody and temperamental), and when Autry left for World War II service, Burnette provided a sidekick to Eddie Dew, Sunset Carson, and Bob Livingston and appeared in nine other films with Roy Rogers. He had a fan club and was especially popular among juvenile fans. Burnette's movie horse, white with a black-ringed left eye, also became famous, first as Black-eyed Nellie, then as Ring-eyed Nellie, and finally as just Ring Eye.
After leaving Republic in June 1944, he became the sidekick to Charles Starrett at Columbia Pictures in the long-running Durango Kid series. Starrett starred in the series from 1945 until 1952, and the pairing resulted in 56 films. When the series ended, Burnette rejoined Autry for Autry's final six films, all released by Columbia Pictures in 1953.
Burnette wrote more than 400 songs and sang a significant number of them on screen. His Western classic, "Ridin’ Down the Canyon (To Watch the Sun Go Down)," was later recorded by Willie Nelson, Riders in the Sky, and Johnnie Lee Wills. Other compositions included "On the Strings of My Lonesome Guitar" (Jimmy Wakely's theme song in the 1940s), "Fetch Me Down My Trusty .45," "Ridin' All Day," and "It's Indian Summer" as well as "The Wind Sings a Cowboy Song," "The Old Covered Wagon," and "Western Lullaby." He also composed musical scores for such films as The Painted Stallion and Waterfront Lady. His songs were recorded by a wide range of singers, including Bing Crosby, Ferlin Husky, and Leon Russell. His performance of "Steamboat Bill" appeared on The Billboard's country chart in 1939.
Burnette devised and built some of his unusual musical instruments in his home workshop. His "Jassackaphone," for example, which he played in the film The Singing Cowboy, resembled an organ with pipes, levers, and pull mechanisms.
In the 1940s, he invented and patented an early home audiovisual system called "Cinevision Talkies." Each package contained a 78 rpm record with four of his songs and fifteen 35mm slides. The slides were to be projected in order and advanced each time a short tone played on the record during the songs. An inside cover of the record album was white so that those with no projector and screen could simply shine a flashlight through the slides and view them on the cover. He also devised more than a dozen clever uses for a common wire clothes hanger and demonstrated several of them during a TV show guest appearance.
Radio and television
When the cowboy movie genre waned, Burnette retired but made guest appearances on many country music radio and TV shows, including Louisiana Hayride, the Grand Ole Opry, and Ranch Party. He spent time in Springfield, Missouri, from the late 1940s into the 1950s producing a nationally syndicated 15-minute radio program, The Smiley Burnette Show, through RadiOzark Enterprises.
He also made regular appearances on ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee from Springfield. In early 1957, when quiz shows were popular, he filmed a pilot for a proposed ABC-TV series to originate from Springfield called Pig 'N Poke, a quiz show with a country theme, although ABC did not buy the show.
As the 1960s began, Burnette continued to make personal appearances at drive-ins, fairs, hospitals, town squares, and rodeos. Among other venues, he once appeared with Dewey Brown and the Oklahoma Playboys at a Friday night dance at Jump's Roller Rink in Fairfax, Oklahoma.
Burnette enjoyed cooking and opened a restaurant chain in the 1950s called The Checkered Shirt, the first A-frame drive-ins. The first location was in Orlando, Florida, and two locations still exist in Redding and Escondido, California, but are no longer owned by the Burnette family.
Just after completing the fourth season of Petticoat Junction, Burnette became ill. On February 16, 1967, a month before his 56th birthday, he died in Encino, California, from leukemia and was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California.
Burnette donated his original hat and shirt to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1962. In 1971, he was inducted posthumously into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Burnette has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6125 Hollywood Boulevard, dedicated in 1986. In 1998, he was inducted into the Western Music Association. On May 5, 2012 he was inducted into the Cowtown Society of Western Music Hall of Fame as a Hero.
- Billings, Jim "Comes Long Way From Dwarf Role," (January 20, 1957), Springfield News & Leader
- Burnette, Elizabeth. "Smiley Burnette – Cowboy Comic". Smiley Burnette Interprises. Retrieved 2009-03-14.
- Sikes, 0. J. "Smiley Burnette". Western Music Association. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
- "Smiley Burnette". All Movie.com. Retrieved 2009-03-18.
- Smiley Burnette's official Web site
- Smiley Burnett in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
- Smiley Burnett in the Western Music Association
- Smiley Burnette tribute Web site
- Smiley Burnette biography
- Smiley Burnette at the Internet Movie Database
- Smiley Burnette at AllMovie
- Obituary at Obituaries Today
- Smiley Burnette at Find a Grave