King of the Cowboys

Roy Rogers once ruled television, movies, and the airwaves with charisma and a clear, melodic voice.

American Cowboy Picture

Roy with Trigger. //photo by Bettmann/CORBIS

The year 1943 was a milestone for 31-year-old Western star Roy Rogers. The Motion Picture Herald named him the year’s Number One Money-Making Western Star, a ranking he would keep for 12 consecutive years. He had been numbers two and three for several years prior (behind Gene Autry and William Boyd, a.k.a. Hopalong Cassidy), but this was Rogers’ time to shine. Republic Studios had released King of the Cowboys in April, and three months later Life magazine ran a cover story of Rogers astride Trigger, his magnificent palomino stallion. Republic spent more than $100,000 for 192 billboard ads to promote the movie and ran radio and newspaper campaigns across the nation. Rogers, the King of the Cowboys, had reached the top.

By this point in his career, Rogers received as many as 20,000 fan letters per week, and every correspondent was sent an autographed photo at Rogers’ personal expense. Thanks to his media saturation—a network radio show, the Roy Rogers Show television show, constant movie roles, and appearances at state fairs and rodeos—legions of youngsters ended up worshipping Roy Rogers.

“People looked forward to Roy Rogers’ movies, and the crowds always were large,” recalls Ouida Walker, who managed small-town Texas theaters from the 1930s through the 1980s. “Roy was down-to-earth, and so our audiences identified with him.”
In fact, Roy Rogers launched an organization for his young fans during the 1940s called the Roy Rogers Riders Club. Any child who sent in his or her name and address would receive a “Rogersgram” by “Trigger Express.” The membership card to the club listed the following goals:

Be neat and clean.
Be courteous and polite.
Always obey your parents.
Protect the weak and help them.
Be brave but never take chances.
Study hard and learn all you can.
Be kind to animals and care for them.
Eat all your food and never waste any.
Love God, and go to Sunday School regularly.
Always respect our flag and our country.

As King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers played a major role in creating an idealized, golden West that captured the imagination of vast numbers of children. B Western movies were aimed at young audiences and were solid business. They cost $8,000–$12,000 per film and usually earned at least $50,000. Like other Western movie stars, Roy Rogers filmed morality plays in which good triumphed over evil. A steady diet of such movies arguably influenced the character development of a generation of fans. By expanding on the traditions of Old West night herders, who sang to keep the cattle calm, and after founding the Sons of the Pioneers (perhaps the greatest of all Western singing groups), Rogers eventually became Hollywood’s leading singing cowboy. He died at 86 in 1998, and his status was affirmed with major awards, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Cowboy Hall of Fame. One hundred years since his birth, Rogers is an enduring icon for having popularized the American West.

The man who would be king was born Leonard Franklin Slye to parents Andy and Mattie Slye in Cincinnati on November 5, 1911. He was the third of four children and was known as “Len.” The only son, he was a dead ringer for his father, Andy, who worked for low wages in a shoe factory. The Slyes led a hardscrabble existence, and for several years the family even had to live on a houseboat that Andy cobbled together with his blind brother. Later, Andy moved his family to a small farm near the rural community of Duck Run, Ohio, where Len plowed fields, built fences, and tended livestock. Using a slingshot and a .22 single-shot rifle, the boy hunted squirrels and rabbits for the supper pot.

Len reveled in his outdoor existence. He had a dog and other pets, and he rode bareback on a mare named Babe. On Happy Trails Theater and in interviews, he liked to remark: “I was as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.”

The Duck Run farm had no running water or electricity, so there was no radio. Like many other rural families, the Slyes filled the entertainment gap by making music. Andy and Mattie played the guitar and mandolin by ear and taught their children to play. The family sang and harmonized, and Len learned to yodel. He had a clear, melodic singing style and was drawn to the square-dance callers at local Saturday night dances. By age 10, Len was calling square dances himself (a skill he later displayed in movies). The boy had a shy streak, but he was bold enough to dream of performing professionally someday.

Len dropped out of high school to join his father in the shoe factory. And in 1930, he and his father combined their meager savings and moved the family to California where Len’s older sister Mary had moved with her husband. Not unlike the Joads from the Grapes of Wrath, the Slye family rattled to California in their 1923 Dodge sedan, camping each night on the roadside. The Great Depression presented few job opportunities in California, and Len drove dump trucks, picked fruit, and fought as a boxer for 50 cents per round. Meanwhile, as many as 300 Western movies were filmed annually in Hollywood, and Western music was popular on California’s radio stations. Len decided to try his luck as a singer, often passing the hat for spare change at dances. During this lean period, he entered into an ill-advised marriage, and the young couple soon divorced.

But Len Slye persisted and joined various singing groups and formed several of his own. A tour with the O-Bar-O Cowboys stalled out in Roswell, N.M., where the group agreed to make unsponsored nightly appearances for two weeks on a local radio station. Len met a local girl, Arlene Wilkins, a blonde with a sweet and gentle nature, and in 1936 they were married in her Roswell home. During this period, Len occasionally worked with two talented performers, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, and teamed with them to form the Pioneer Trio. Len was intensely ambitious and insisted on a rigorous practice schedule. His drive helped develop the group’s precise harmonies, which blended to an unprecedented degree. To distinguish themselves from other groups, the Pioneer Trio also performed three-part harmony yodeling and added Hugh Farr, a gifted fiddler, in 1934, and his brother, guitarist Karl Farr, in 1935. The new group, called the Sons of the Pioneers, quickly earned recognition as a top Western singing group and performed on the radio and made personal appearances, recording their first session in 1934. In 1935 alone they performed in seven motion pictures. Seven more movies followed in 1936, including back-to-back appearances in Gene Autry films. Len landed a few speaking parts in these movies, including as a bad guy who lost to Autry in a fistfight.

“I wanted to be the hero,” Roy Rogers wrote in his book, Happy Trails: Our Life Story (which was co-written by Dale Evans, along with Jane and Michael Stern, and published by Simon and Schuster in 1994). “I wanted to be the one whose name was on the movie marquee outside.”

Thanks to the exposure from Sons of the Pioneers, Len eventually found breakthrough success. The Sons of the Pioneers continue performing to this day, having released 71 albums (plus some early 78 RPM records), with 41 different performers.

In 1937 Len signed a standard, seven-year contract with Republic studios for $75 per week and was assigned the stage name Dick Weston. Gene Autry was also under contract at Republic, and when the hugely popular singing cowboy went on strike, the studio decided to use Dick Weston for a scheduled Gene Autry movie role. But “Dick Weston” sounded too bland for a cowboy hero, and a hurried conference produced Roy Rogers—reminiscent of the beloved Will Rogers. “Roy” formed a pleasing alliteration and presaged his kingly status, as roi is French for king.

Reviews for Under Western Skies were favorable, and respected New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who usually disdained B Westerns, was enthusiastic about the appealing new star: “Republic had discovered… a new Playboy of the Western world in the sombrero’d person of Roy Rogers who has a drawl like Gary Cooper, a smile like Shirley Temple and a voice like [tenor] Tito Guizar.”

Most of Rogers’ early movies were set in the Old West of the 1800s, and themes tended to emphasize action over music. (Of this period of filmmaking history, Rogers loved to remark: “The reason they called it a Colt .45 is because we could shoot it 45 times without reloading.”) Roy played historical characters such as Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James (twice). And for the era’s requisite comic sidekick, he was assigned the incomparable Gabby Hayes. Early on, his mount was a 5-year-old palomino stallion named Golden Cloud. Rogers eventually bought the horse from Clyde Hudkins (who agreed to keep the stallion at his stable until Roy could pay the $2,500) and changed his name to Trigger. The two became inseparable in the public’s mind. During a long promotional tour for Under Western Skies, for instance, young fans were repeatedly disappointed at the absence of Trigger. Trigger co-starred in every one of Rogers’ 89 motion pictures and 101 television shows from 1938–1957. Trigger went on to learn more than 60 tricks and was billed as the “Smartest Horse in the Movies.” And in posse scenes, the proud stallion would surge to the front, clearly enjoying to race the other horses.

“I’ve made 40 posse rides with Roy and Trigger,” recalls Bob Nolan in William Witney’s book, Trigger Remembered (Earl Blair Enterprises, 1989). (Witney directed 27 Roy Rogers movies.) “And to this day all I have ever seen was that long, white tail floating in my face.”

As his star ascended, Rogers also persuaded Republic to sign the Sons of the Pioneers for his films. He ended up making 42 movies with the singing group. In 1943, Rogers was paired with a new leading lady in Cowboy and the Senorita—the beautiful and talented Dale Evans. She was a 31-year-old singer-actress from Texas, and her Western debut revealed a warm but feisty personality. She spoke with a faint Texas twang, and Evans was an exceptional singer. Her All-American loveliness matched nicely with Roy’s wholesome good looks.

When Herbert J. Yates, head of Republic Studios, saw a Broadway performance of the spectacular musical Oklahoma!, he decided to incorporate the large-scale colorful, singing-dancing numbers into Roy Rogers films. So Rogers’ costumes became more flashy, and his movies—now filmed in Trucolor—featured even more music and lavish production numbers.

At the height of his popularity in 1946, Rogers lost his wife of 10 years. Arlene died one week after giving birth to their third child, Roy Rogers, Jr. (“Dusty”). She had an embolism while still in her bed at a Los Angeles hospital. Dale Evans was going through a divorce from her third husband at the time (she had first married at 14 and had one son), and Roy and Dale gravitated to each other. They began to date and married on the last day of 1947. Roy and Dale were together for more than 50 years, and to this day, they remain one of America’s most admired couples.

Beginning early in his career, Rogers frequently performed at children’s hospitals and orphanages. He and Arlene had adopted a daughter, and later Roy and Dale would adopt three more children, along with a ward from England. Their only birth child was a daughter, Robin, who died at age 2. (A total of three Rogers children, out of nine, would die tragically.) In sorrow, Dale returned to the religious roots of her childhood, writing a score of inspirational books, composing spiritual music, and appearing at Christian events. Rogers customarily ended his radio shows and other appearances by saying, “May the Good Lord take a likin’ to you.” And, of course, Dale also wrote his haunting theme song, “Happy Trails.”

According to John Riggs, a cowboy and preacher who pastors the 1,200-member Bar None Cowboy Church near Tatum, Texas, “The explosion of cowboy churches in recent years has roots in the open Christianity of the King of the Cowboys.”

Rogers often told his son Dusty, “You have to share me with 25 million other kids.” But he let his children stay on set whenever school schedules permitted. Dusty fondly remembers birthday parties on movie locations, and the entire family, including six or seven children, would accompany Roy and Dale to rodeo and state fair appearances. And every August, Rogers took Dusty and adopted son Sandy on hunting-fishing-camping trips.

“Parents don’t have to spend all their time with their children,” says Dusty. “But it should be quality time.”

The Rogers children were also the first to play with the products licensed by to the King of the Cowboys. The famous Double-R-Bar Brand appeared on cap guns, hats, pajamas, boots, holster sets, lunch boxes, pocketknives, and so many other items (400 products total) that at one point the Sears Catalogue devoted 12 pages to Roy Rogers products.

“We field-tested everything at home,” chuckles Dusty. The Rogers children also participated in commercial shoots at their Apple Valley ranch home on weekends. Products sales have totaled $1 billion over the years, and certain items from the 1940s and 1950s have become valuable collectibles.

Recognizing the immense potential of television, Roy and Dale launched a weekly TV series, the Roy Rogers Show, in 1951. In the show, Roy ran his Double-R-Bar Ranch, while Dale ran the Eureka Cafe in Mineral City, Paradise Valley. Trigger took part in the action, of course, and was joined by Bullet “the Wonder Dog.” Pat Brady provided comedic relief with his cantankerous jeep, Nellybelle. Before entering syndication, the half-hour show ran from 1951–’57 on NBC at 6:30 on Saturday evenings.

In later years, Rogers continued to remind legions of now grownup fans of the magical, mythical West. He recorded the crossover hit, “Hoppy, Gene and Me” in 1974. And in 1975, a fit Roy Rogers starred in a nostalgic movie, MacIntosh and T.J. During the 1980s Roy and Dale hosted a weekly 90-minute television show called Happy Trails Theater. The couple would screen old movies and chat with old co-stars and directors from the glory days at Republic. Roy and Dale also founded the Roy Rogers Museum in Apple Valley, before moving it to nearby Victorville, where Trigger (who died in 1965) was mounted and put on permanent display. Dale frequently laughed that, when the time came, she intended to stuff Roy and mount him on his famed horse.

For more than half a century in the public spotlight, Roy Rogers represented decency, morality, and Christian values. Could he have done this so effectively without embodying the world’s most popular folk hero, the American cowboy?

“Roy was a great athlete and could ride, fight, dive, and jump with the best of the stunt men,” writes longtime director William Witney in Trigger Remembered. As a result, Rogers was a believable hero—sort of a clean-cut older brother, who could also sing like a choirboy.

Like Buffalo Bill Cody and Tom Mix before him, Roy Rogers wore flamboyant Western clothing and popularized America’s last frontier. The King of the Cowboys was a towering cultural influence and captivated generations of youngsters and drew them to the mythical West. He made cowboys of us all. Happy trails, Roy.

American Cowboy Picture

Dale and roy, circa 1953.

Dale and Roy with their family in the 1950s. // photos by CSU Archives/Everett Collection/age fotostock

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