Lester Alvin "Smiley" Burnette was born March 18, 1911, in the tiny community of Summum, Illinois, the son of George W. and Almira Burnette, both ministers of very limited means. Kindly orchestra leaders Bill and Maude Baird let young Lester borrow and learn to play dozens of musical instruments, though the piano became his specialty. He began entertaining as a child, and was quite young when hestarted performing on Mr. and Mrs. James Bush's radio station, WDZ, in Tuscola, Illinois.
Mrs. Bush took a liking to Lester, hiring him as announcer, entertainer, and general handyman at WDZ. Doing a variety of shows and using various character voices, he became "Mister Smiley" on an early morning show for children. In time, the "Mister" was dropped and he became Smiley Burnette. Legendary promoter J. L. Frank heard him and recommended him to Gene Autry - with whom Smiley teamed, officially, on Christmas Eve, 1933. Gene, then a very popular country singer on Chicago station WLS, recognized Smiley's talents as vocalist, instrumentalist, composer and comedian. They became fast friends. Six months after they teamed, Gene had an opportunity to appear in a Hollywood movie. He took Smiley along, and he was also given a role. They never looked back.
Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette became wildly popular. Within two years, their Republic series of musical westerns was in the number one spot at the box office. From 1934 through 1954, Smiley appeared in over 150 feature films, many of them westerns with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Charles Starrett and others. During that time, he composed several hundred songs, many of them genuinely beautiful. His hit recordings included "It's My Lazy Day," "Hominy Grits," "Catfish, Take a Look at That Worm," "Ridin' Down the Canyon," and many others, all of which he composed.
In 1943, Smiley became the first "comic sidekick" in westerns to be given top billing over the "hero." Rated extremely high in the annual exhibitors' polls of top box office attractions, he made literally thousands of personal appearances, all across the country.He also journeyed to various sitesto entertain servicemen.
Smiley married Dallas MacDonnell, columnist for the Hollywood Citizen-News, in 1936. They adopted four fine children and helped raise a number of others. He also built a California home for his parents. Grateful to Mrs. Bush for her early help and guidance, he treated her to a trip to Hawaii in her later years.
When series westerns ended, Smiley continued to record and to make personal appearances around the country. He spent much time in Springfield, Missouri - where he did a 1950-53 series of transcribed radio shows for RadiOzark. In the late 1950s, he was a semi-regular on ABC-TV's "Ozark Jubilee" (later "Jubilee USA") with Red Foley. In 1963, Paul Henning's sister suggested that he be considered for a role in the upcoming CBS-TV series, "Petticoat Junction."
Smiley tested for all the male characters, and Bea Benaderet liked what he did with the "Uncle Joe" test - but he was eventually cast as railroad engineer Charley Pratt. Looking at the early episodes of "Petticoat Junction," it is obvious that Smiley had tremendous charm. As the white-haired, musical, jovialrailroader who was "like a father" to the youngest Bradley daughter, Betty Jo, Smiley's "Charley Pratt" was a major part of the early episodes. In time, Paul Henning became too busy to write the show himself, and subsequent writers did less and less with the "Charley Pratt" character. It was a disappointment to Smiley and his fans, but he made countless personal appearances to promote "Petticoat Junction," and enjoyed working with long-time friends Curt Massey, Rufe Davis, Barbara Pepper, and others, on dozens of "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" episodes.
Smiley, a man of deep and abiding faith, signed a contract to make an album of hymns he had composed. This was during a Texas personal appearance tour in the winter of 1966-67. Tragically, this gentle and kindly performer did not live to do the album. Critically ill, he required oxygen on the set while filming his last "Petticoat Junction" programs. He knew how seriously ill he was while filming an episode called "That Was the Night That Was," but refused to quit, not wishing to throw others out of work or delay production. In considerable pain, he nevertheless remained as funny and delightful on-camera as he had always been. A few days later, he was gone..before his 56th birthday.
Smiley Burnette, who portrayed both "Frog Millhouse" and "Charley Pratt" before the cameras, lived by these mottoes he liked so well: "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice;" "When you climb to the top, send the ladder down for the next person;" and "If you have the right to criticize, then you have the obligation to praise." He was a marvelous American character actor, and his performances will be around to charm audiences for generations to come.