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"Face in the Mirror"
In the thirties and forties, kiddies sat bug-eyed through Saturday afternoon Westerns, laughing themselves blue at a rotund, jolly cowboy character called Frog Millhouse.
Today, the man who made Frog synonymous with bliss to almost everyone in the now-over-30 set, is still the children's delight.
After 179 Westerns, jolly hillbilly character called Charlie Pratt on CBS-TV's Petticoat junction. "Kids adore the show," says Smiley. "A lot of women discipline their kids by tellin' 'em they can't watch us if they're bad. An' it works."
Kids are responsible for Smiley's beguiling name. He was born Lester Alvin Burnett, in Summum, IL. "I was in radio in Tuscola, Illinois," he says. "I did about ten shows a day, usin' a different name on each one so folks'd think they were listenin' to different people. My name was "Mr. Smiley" on the children's show." This was in 1929.
Last year, he changed the Lester Alvin to Smiley legally. The name "Smiley Burnette" suggests a jovial American folk character and conscientious studio publicity men make much of the fact that a man who wrote "Mama Don't Like Music", and "Catfish Take A Look At That Worm," can't be a sophisticate. But Smiley Burnette is actually a complex mixture of small-town Americana and big-time worldliness.
On one side is the very un-small-townish fact that he's a multimillionaire. He was one of the top ten money-making stars of Westerns. He's written over 360 songs, and owns two publishing companies. RanchORecords® & Rancho Music®.
He's also, literally, a musical genius - he can play over one hundred five instruments. He started at the age of four when he sat down at a neighbor's piano and played without ever having taken a lesson. By the age of ten, he had taught himself to play 25 different instruments. At age seventeen, he was up to one hundred.
And he can sound sophisticated on marriage as the most hip show biz personality. "My wife Dallas an' I treat our marriage as a three-way deal," he says. "There's the part I like and she doesn't; the part she likes an' I don't; an' the part we both like. We don't have to do everythin' with each other." Evidently, the "three-way deal" works; the Burnette's have been happily married since 1936, which works out to 29 years! "Dallas is a former newspaperwomen," says Smiley. "We met through friends, an' accordin' to her, the first she saw me, I was really on. I don't remember it well, but it seemed to've appealed to her very nicely."
The Burnette's have four adopted children and has six grandchildren. Only one of their kids is in show business. Stephen S. Burnette works in films and is married to a girl who is Jeannine Riley's stand-in on Petticoat Junction. Smiley himself has been in show business since his early teens.
He started in Vaudeville, making use of his uncanny musical ability. "I began with a set of musical goblets an' a musical saw," he remembers. Later, he branched out, became an accordion player on Gene Autry's radio show and, in 1934, graduated to Frog Millhouse in a Gene Autry picture, In Old Santa Fe.
He played Autry' faithful sidekick in 81 movies. "Autry's worth a hundred million dollars today," says Smiley, who's worth a couple himself. The wonder in his voice brings you back to that part of him which never left Summum, IL. "We went to his house for dinner once," Smiley goes on. "But we didn't get much chance to talk. He had four phones goin', all at the same time." (Sounds terrific!)
Smiley and his wife live simply in a San Fernando trailer-park. The son of ministers (both Smiley's mother and father were in the service of the church), Smiley neither smokes nor drinks. His favorite pastime is cooking (he and his wife co-authored The Smiley Burnette's Cook Book) and his idea of a vacation is to make 70 to 80 personal appearances in about as many days- coast to coast. "I'm the poor man's Bob Hope," he kids about his records 7,000 one-night stands. But no matter what he does, his heart still belongs to "Ole Frog." Says Smiley: "I created that character an' I lived it. I never wanted to be an actor an' to this day I don't consider myself one. I jest played this one role, I never knew how to play anything else. There isn't much difference between Frog an' Charlie Pratt of Petticoat Junction. I guess they're both jest me.