Frank Charney

Frank Charney's Sunday Postcard

Another Capitol Theater landmark moment

The Capitol Theater has been a frequent topic on the Nanty Glo web site, most recently cited as having been the first theater in the eastern states to have a sound system, in 1929. Moviegoers came from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and New York to witness this historical event.

Gene Autry and Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnette
Gene Autry and Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnette

I would like to reveal another Capitol Theater event that I witnessed as a youngster in the early 1940's and wonder if any townspeople can also recall this occurrence. A performer named Lester Alvin Burnette appeared live on stage at the Capitol Theater, and I was awe-struck at the time. It was perhaps the first time in my life that I saw a cinema actor of some renown appearing live. The performer's name might be more familiar to most moviegoers as "Smiley" Burnette, the western cowboy sidekick of Gene Autry. At the time, I expected Gene Autry to possibly step on stage from behind a side curtain. In his comic role as Autry's sidekick, he always had the name Frog Milhouse.

"Smiley" Burnette proved to be a versatile and skillful performer who kept the audience entertained with his brand of humor and slapstick comedy. He was also skillful on a number of musical instruments. His foghorn voice, familiar in his Western movies, educed laughter from the crowd, and he proved to be a first-class performer and vaudevillian who displayed a remarkable range of talents. In fact, the cowboy sidekicks like "Smiley" Burnette and others like George Gabby Hayes and Andy Clyde probably had more acting ability than the cowboy did stars they supported.

Smiley Burnette was born in Illinois in 1911 and died from leukemia in 1967, at the still young age of 56. See Saddle Pals & Sidekicks. From 1940 to 1952 he was on the list of the top ten moneymaking Western stars, the first supporting actor to achieve this distinction. He appeared with screen partners such as Allan "Rocky" Lane, Sunset Carson, and Charles Starret, but there wasn't the chemistry here that there was between him and Gene Autry. He wrote more than 300 Western songs, many of which were used in his films. He retired from the movies in 1953 but appeared in TV from 1963 to 1967 as the railroad engineer in "Petticoat Junction."

The Capitol Theater has been the scene of high school graduations, beauty pageants, and audience participation contests. Like "Smiley" Burnette's stage appearance, what other notable events occurred there?

— Frank Charney

 

 

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