From the Archives: Roy Rogers, ‘King of the Cowboys,’ Dies
Roy Rogers, the “King of the Cowboys” who sang, smiled and occasionally shot his way into the hearts of multitudes of Little Buckaroos, died Monday. He was 86.
Rogers died of congestive heart failure in his Apple Valley home near Victorville, with his wife and co-star Dale Evans and other family members at his side. He had undergone heart surgery in 1977 and 1990 and had been somewhat frail in recent years.
From 1943 to 1954, when he was at the peak of his popularity, particularly among young fans known as Little Buckaroos, Rogers was ranked by theater operators as the No. 1 Western box office star.
He last performed in public with his wife at a charity benefit May 17, 1997--a few months before their 50th wedding anniversary. They sang their signature theme song, “Happy Trails,” which Evans wrote decades ago.
Squint-eyed, slightly bowlegged, never more than a few seconds away from an affable smile, Rogers seemed always to personify the myth that he and others had created on the screen--the legend of a West that never was.
In 87 musical Westerns for Republic Pictures and 101 television segments, he always played the good guy, the man in the white hat--the ever-honest one whose virtue always seemed to triumph over all odds in the end.
“He really believed in all those things--truth, kindness, decency--and he lived that way, as near as a man could,” his longtime sidekick Pat Brady once said.
President Clinton, commenting at a White House Rose Garden appearance Monday, said: “I really appreciate what he stood for, the movies he made and the kind of values they embodied. Today there will be a lot of sad and grateful Americans--especially of my generation--because of his career.”
Rogers appeared in a dozen or so other motion pictures, including “Hollywood Canteen” in 1944, in which he introduced Cole Porter’s hit song “Don’t Fence Me In”; Walt Disney’s “Melody Time” in 1948; and “Son of Paleface” in 1952 with Bob Hope and Jane Russell.
He earned stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for radio, records, motion pictures and television. He received two Golden Boot Awards and was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. He is the only performer elected twice to the Country Music Hall of Fame--with his Sons of the Pioneers in 1980 and as an individual in 1988.
The “singing” part of Rogers’ nickname, the Singing Cowboy, was based on solid musical achievement. From “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” in 1934, to Steve Nelson’s “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” in 1948, to “Money Can’t Buy Love” in 1970 and “Hoppy, Gene and Me” in 1974, Rogers sold records. In 1991, he recorded a successful CD titled “Tribute,” featuring several younger performers in duets with him, and a companion music video with Clint Black that led to appearances for Rogers on the Grammy Awards and Country Music Awards telecasts.
Cincinnati Boy Moves Out West
Deeply religious and father of a close but tragedy-touched family, Rogers must have winced when early studio biographies stretched the truth he held so dear.
He was portrayed as a true son of the West, a native of Cody, Wyo., who had worked on cattle ranches there until he went to Hollywood.
Actually, he was born Leonard Franklin Slye in a red brick tenement in Cincinnati on Nov. 5, 1911. His father, Andrew Slye, worked three blocks away in a shoe factory. Leonard’s early years were spent on a houseboat in Portsmouth, Ohio.
He knew from the time he was 6 that he wanted to be a doctor. But as the years went by, that dream became ever more remote. His grades at the one-room schoolhouse in the Ohio town of Duck Run, near Cincinnati, reflected no special academic aptitude.
So he gave up thoughts of medicine in favor of becoming a big-league baseball star.
And finally--when he was 17 and the family fortunes were at a particularly low ebb--he gave up school altogether to join his father in the Cincinnati shoe factory.
“I tried night school for a while, but it was no-go,” Rogers said. “One thing, though, I had learned while I was in school: I learned to read music.
“I could play the clarinet. And I could play the guitar.”
After he had spent a year in the shoe factory, the Slyes, like so many families in the early Depression year of 1930, headed west. The family packed their belongings into a 1923 sedan and aimed it toward California.
Along the way, something important happened:
“It was one night when we were--as usual--camping beside the road. No money for hotels or anything like that. Just for something to do, my dad and my cousin Stanley, who was with us, brought out their mandolins and started playing. I strummed along on a guitar.
“Well, by the time we were done with the first song, we had a crowd!
“They were people like us, camping out and mostly pretty hungry. You could tell most of them hadn’t smiled in a long, long time. But now they smiled, listening to the music. It made them happy; kept the dark away for a little bit. That’s what I learned that night: I learned what music is for.”
Arriving in Los Angeles, the Slyes had hoped for a new life.
“Something better--different--from what we’d had. But after two months with nothing wonderful happening, Dad came home one night with a kind of sad resignation in his eyes. I knew what he was going to say before he said it.
“ ‘A shoe factory here in town,” he said. ‘It’s hiring.’ ”
Andy, Stanley and Leonard applied for jobs.
Andy was hired. The boys were not.
“And that was lucky,” Rogers said. “Because it gave me a chance to talk Stanley into a wonderful idea I had: I had this vision of a Western singing act taking the music business by storm. ‘The Slye Brothers’ I called it, and Stanley agreed to give it a try.”
They would have starved to death if not for Andy Slye’s shoe factory job, and, after a few months, Stanley opted out in favor of a regular factory job and paycheck. But Leonard still wanted to play music.
He joined something called Uncle Tom Murray’s Hollywood Hillbillies (good experience, no pay). After a while he left to join a group called the Rocky Mountaineers (more good experience, still no pay), and finally a group called the O-Bar-O Cowboys.
By that time, Leonard Slye was beginning to find experience hard to live on. Rogers remembered it as a lean time brightened only by some members of the O-Bar-O group.
“They were a Santa Monica lifeguard named Bob Nolan, who sang baritone for us, and a yodeler named Tim Spencer. Both real talents and nice guys.
“The other was a girl named Arlene Wilkins, who baked us a lemon pie to keep the group from starving to death in Roswell, N.M. I wrote to her a lot after the O-Bar-O Cowboys broke up and I went back to Los Angeles.”
Leonard, still not entirely discouraged, found a job (again, no pay) with a group singing on Los Angeles radio station KFWB and, in a final burst of hopefulness, put together a Western specialty act called the Pioneer Trio.
The members were Leonard Slye, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer.
A few good notices from Los Angeles newspaper columnists in 1935 brought the three a number of dates playing at dances (for pay!) and finally to a regular job at the station for $35 a week.
“That was the big break,” Rogers recalled with a grin. “It doesn’t sound like much now, I know, but $35 a week was all the money in the world then, and it enabled us to hire a couple more guys. Which, of course, forced us to rename the group since it wasn’t a trio anymore.
“We decided to call it the Sons of the Pioneers.”
The group quickly picked up a radio sponsor, did occasional guest spots on other shows and was hired for a number of motion picture background jobs.
It was also booked for dances almost every night, and the next year, Texas Gov. James Allred invited the Sons of the Pioneers to entertain at the state’s centennial celebration in Dallas, which gave Leonard the time--and money--to make a little side trip to Roswell, N.M.
He and Arlene were married there June 14, 1936.
It was his bride who urged him to audition at Republic Studios, where screen tests were being held for singing cowboys.
“I had been around the studios a little bit with the Pioneers; I knew those things never lead anywhere. I’d even had a part or two--one in a Gene Autry picture called ‘The Old Corral'--and my impact hadn’t been exactly astounding. I wasn’t even going to try.”
Leonard Slye signed a seven-year contract with the studio Oct. 13, 1937, and promptly discovered he was out of work again.
“They paid me, but gave me nothing to do. One guy would say my eyes were too squinty; try putting some big-eye drops in them. Another would say my shoulders were too narrow--pad the shirts.
“But that was all. Pat Brady had replaced me in the Pioneers when I signed the contract. I just sat around, getting more and more restless. I did another bit part in an Autry movie and a song in a Three Mesquiteers film. Took up a couple of days. But nothing more. And then one day in 1938, Autry didn’t show up for the start of a film.”
Autry, then the emperor of musical Westerns, was having a dispute with studio boss Herbert Yates over block bookings. Yates suspended him--and cast Leonard Slye in the movie Autry was to have made.
Actually he cast Roy Rogers.
A New Name and a Big Break
Leonard Slye, early in the Sons of the Pioneers’ days of success, had started calling himself Dick Weston. Yates didn’t like that name either, and Sol Siegel invented Roy Rogers during a conference in the studio boss’ office. (Rogers had his name changed legally in 1942).
The picture, originally intended as a Western version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” was titled “Under Western Stars,” and Rogers recalled the filming with nostalgia and humor.
“I did just about everything wrong,” he said. “Forgot my lines, messed up my makeup, and as for acting . . . if the script called for me to draw my gun and say ‘Reach!’ like as not I’d say the line, and then pull out the six-shooter.”
Despite all that, the film was a major moneymaker for the studio that year and when Rogers returned to California from a personal appearance tour, he found the mail room at the studio practically overflowing with letters for him.
Republic made four more Roy Rogers Westerns that year--all winners--and followed with eight more in 1939. Grosses rose into the millions. But the star was still making only $250 a week.
Rogers did his best to flesh out the sum with personal appearances between shooting schedules. But the studio wouldn’t even give him a secretary to help with the fan mail (Rogers insisted on answering every letter), and it wouldn’t pay the postage either.
By the end of 1939, with 13 successful pictures under his belt, Rogers was still counting pennies; Republic wouldn’t even help finance the purchase of a palomino named Golden Cloud--promptly renamed Trigger--from the stable that had been renting the animal to the studio.
But Rogers persevered (he was still paying off Trigger’s $2,500 purchase price two years later) and had his financial nose above water when agent Art Rush entered the picture.
Rush got Rogers a syndicated radio show (“Manhattan Cowboy”) and better pay for public appearances. Finally, late in 1939, there was money enough for something Rogers had always wanted to do: He bought a house.
But not for himself and Arlene.
The little chicken ranch with its white bungalow in the San Fernando Valley was presented to Andy and Mattie Slye.
He forbade the studio publicity department to mention the gift.
By 1941, Roy and Arlene’s finances finally enabled them to adopt a child, Cheryl Arlene, from Hope Cottage in Dallas.
Two years later the family grew again; Arlene, who had been told she might never be able to have children, produced a sister for Cheryl, named Linda Lou.
“We were so happy it was almost sinful,” Rogers said. “My career was going fine. I’d finally found a way to make some money. The kids were healthy and happy. . . . It was wonderful.
“And then the world ended. . . .”
He was approaching the height of his career--more than 50 pictures, every one a box office success; his old friends the Sons of the Pioneers teamed up with him in films and on a series of hit records; he had more personal appearance offers than any man could fill and a legion of young fans nicknamed Buckaroos--when, early in 1946, Arlene Rogers discovered she was pregnant again.
On Oct. 28, 1946, Roy Rogers Jr. (soon to be known as Dusty) was born.
Six days later, Arlene Rogers died of complications. For months, Rogers was inconsolable.
Rush continued to book him on nationwide tours--as much to keep him busy as to further his career--and on one such trip, Rogers stopped off to see his former co-star in films, Dale Evans, who was appearing at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J.
Evans first appeared with Rogers in “The Cowboy and the Senorita” in 1944 and eventually made 26 pictures and the television series as his leading lady. But she had begged off Western roles after the first 18 films.
Over dinner after the show, Rogers suggested that she return to Westerns. Dale thought it over, agreed, and within months was again sharing billing with Rogers, Trigger, Gabby Hayes and the Sons of the Pioneers.
Roy and Dale were married on the last day of 1947 at the Flying L Ranch near Davis, Okla., and their two careers continued, in tandem.
Rush became manager for them both; he had engineered a contract that gave them full rights to their own names, voices and likenesses for commercial tie-ins--a provision which led to the profitable appearances of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans charm bracelets, neckerchiefs, toy pistols, clothing, games, comic books, novels, songbooks and even a dude ranch near Las Vegas.
At the peak of Rogers’ popularity, the Sears catalog carried more than 400 Roy Rogers-licensed products, many of which are still in demand today.
Rogers’ picture appeared on 2.5 million boxes of Post cereals, and Roy Rogers comic books sold as many as 25 million copies each year. His newspaper comic strips at one time reached more than 65 million readers each week.
The Singing Cowboy’s radio show on the Mutual Network was broadcast over more than 500 stations and heard by more than 20 million people each week.
Rogers and Evans merged families (Dale had a son, Tom Fox, by her first marriage) and lived many years in the San Fernando Valley. Their recordings--including several songs written by Evans--were selling well.
Shortly after their second anniversary, Dale was informed that she had (despite doctors’ earlier determinations that it was impossible) become pregnant. And there were complications.
Her blood was Rh negative, his positive.
And in her second month, she contracted German measles.
On Aug. 26, 1950, Robin Elizabeth Rogers was born; a few days later, doctors told Rogers that his daughter suffered from mental retardation and a serious heart condition.
She lived for just two years.
“And then she was gone,” Rogers said. “Again, it was like the world had ended all for us. But life goes on--it does, whether you want it to or not, God sees to that--and we went on, too.”
Family and Legacy Grow
Television, long the abused and unwanted offspring of motion pictures, was finally coming into its own, and Art Rush had planned a weekly show for Roy and Dale. But Republic Pictures simultaneously announced plans to sell a series of Rogers’ early pictures to television, a move that could have spelled disaster for the Rogers’ own venture.
Rush sued to prevent Republic’s move--basing his case on Rogers’ right to his own likeness--and won. The victory came with a penalty: Rogers’ contract with Republic was dropped after 14 years.
Roy and Dale adopted four more children: Sandy, Dodie, Debbie and Marion--and survived the deaths of Debbie in a church bus accident and Sandy while serving in the military in Germany.
In 1965, they moved to Apple Valley and created their Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, a nonprofit educational and charitable institution. Considered an essential, if kitschy, stop along the highway for Southern Californians driving to Las Vegas, the museum contains mementos of their lives in show business, Dale Evans’ books about their religious family life, the car that brought the Slyes to Los Angeles and even the couple’s taxidermist-preserved favorite animals, the beloved horses Trigger and Buttermilk, and Rogers’ dog, Bullet.
“I did all of those pictures and then 101 of those half-hour TV shows and old Trigger did ‘em all,” Rogers said in 1986. “He was an iron horse. And smart! He just would do anything, and he had a rein on him as good as any cow pony you’ve ever seen. He would stop on a dime and give you 9 cents change.”
“I just can’t say enough for him. I can’t hardly go into the museum without tears in my eyes.”
Despite purported retirement, the couple continued to make personal appearances at fairs and rodeos, and guest spots on shows ranging from “Hee Haw” to Christmas specials to “The Muppet Show.” They never turned down an opportunity to help children.
Rogers was active in the Marriott Corp.-owned Roy Rogers Family Restaurants throughout the United States and Canada until the chain was sold to Hardee’s in 1990.
In 1977, he and Dale were co-marshals of the Tournament of Roses Parade, and the next year he underwent his first heart surgery--a coronary bypass. But within months, he was back at his hectic “retirement” schedule.
“You’ll hear people say I had it tough sometimes. Well, sure. But everyone does, sometimes. Fact is, I had it better than most, most of the time. And there’s nothing I regret. Not really.
“You know . . . just a few months ago, I heard someone on the radio call someone else a ‘real Roy Rogers kind of guy.’ You know . . . that tickled me.
“I don’t know, maybe the fellow who said it didn’t mean it for a compliment.
“But it was one . . . to me.”
In addition to Evans, Rogers is survived by his children, Roy “Dusty” Rogers Jr., Cheryl Barnett, Linda Lou Johnson, Dodie Sailors, Marion Swift and Tom Fox; 15 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.
Rogers’ publicist, Jane Hansen, said plans are being made for a memorial service at the Church of the Valley in Apple Valley.
The family has requested that memorial donations be sent to the nonprofit Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, 15650 Seneca Road, Victorville, CA 92392.
Times staff writer Myrna Oliver contributed to this article.
Hundreds flock to Victorville museum to pay their respects to the ‘last of the good guys.’ A3
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Career Highlights ROY ROGERS
Tumbling Tumbleweeds, 1935
The Big Show, 1936
Rhythm on the Range, 1936
Under Western Stars, 1938
Billy the Kid Returns, 1938
The Arizona Kid, 1939
Days of Jesse James, 1939
Dark Command, 1940
The Border Legion, 1940
Robin Hood of the Pecos, 1941
Red River Valley, 1941
Sons of the Pioneers, 1942
Romance on the Range, 1942
King of the Cowboys, 1943
Song of Texas, 1943
The Cowboy and the Senorita, 1944
The Yellow Rose of Texas, 1944
Lake Placid Serenade, 1944
Don’t Fence Me In, 1945
My Pal Trigger, 1946
Song of Arizona, 1946
Apache Rose, 1947
Springtime in the Sierras, 1947
Eyes of Texas, 1948
Melody Time, 1948
Grand Canyon Trail, 1949
North of the Great Divide, 1950
Heart of the Rockies, 1951
Son of Paleface, 1952
Alias Jesse James (cameo), 1959
Mackintosh and T.J., 1975
The Roy Rogers Show, 1951-57
The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show (pictured below), 1962-63
Tumbling Tumbleweeds, 1934 (with Sons of the Pioneers)
Cool Water, 1936 (with Sons of the Pioneers)
A Little White Cross on the Hill, 1947
My Chickashay Gal, 1947
(There’ll Never Be Another) Pecos Bill, 1948
Blue Shadows on the Trail, 1948
Money Can’t Buy Love, 1970
Happy Anniversary, 1971
These Are the Good Old Days, 1972
Hoppy, Gene and Me, 1974
Ride, Concrete Cowboy, Ride, 1980 (with Sons of the Pioneers)
Hold on Partner, 1991 (with Clint Black)
Sons of the Pioneers were elected to Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980; Rogers was also elected as an individual in 1988.
Roy Rogers restaurants, developed with the Marriott Corp. Sold to Hardee’s in 1990
Television production company
“This is a terrible loss for me. I had tremendous respect for Roy and considered him a great humanitarian and an outstanding American. He was, and will always be, a true Western hero.”
“Roy will always be remembered as one of the giants of the movie industry. But more than that, he was a giant of a man in his character, his love for his family and for others, and his faith.”
--Rev. Billy Graham
“In real life, he stood taller than an icon and reached farther than the stars.... To me he will stand as the example of the best things to come out of Hollywood.”
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