Smiley Burnette: From the Panhandle to Petticoat Junction

Country musician and western sidekick Smiley Burnette (Lester Alvin Burnett, 1911-1967) was born this day.

Burnette was born in rural Summum, Illinois, not far from the Illinois River, and raised in Ravenwood, Missouri. He was only a teenager when he began entertaining people with his music in vaudeville and on WDZ radio. He is said to have gotten his nickname from Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which he read aloud on a local children’s program.

Burnette could play several different musical instruments. In 1933 he got a job backing Gene Autry on a WLS (Chicago) show called the National Barn Dance. The following year, they were hired to perform in the Ken Maynard western In Old Santa Fe, which led to film careers for both of them. Smiley was sidekick to Autry in 62 westerns, to Charles Starrett in 56, and to Roy Rogers in 10. Others he was paired with included Jock Mohoney, Bob Livingston, Eddie Dew, and Sunset Carson. He also wrote and recorded some 400 songs, many of which he performed in his films. His last western film was Last of the Pony Riders, with Autry in 1953.

When B movie westerns passed from the scene, Burnett turned for a time to performing music on radio and local television. In 1963 he was cast in the role of Charlie Pratt in Petticoat Junction, a role which he also played from time to time on Green Acres. He was on Petticoat Junction for five seasons, 110 episodes, until he passed away in 1967.

To find out more about vaudeville and its veterans, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous