On July 6, 1998 Roy Rogers, The King of the Cowboys died peacefully at his Apple Valley, California home at the age of 86. He didn’t start off as a cowboy.
He was born Lenard Slye to a struggling working class family in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1911. The family lived in a tenement building near the river—slums that would much later be razed to make room for Riverfront Stadium, long time home of the Cincinnati Reds.
Father Andrew Slye hoped to find a more wholesome rural life for his family and in 1912 built a house boat from salvaged lumber which he sailed down the river to Portsmouth, Ohio where he purchased land for a subsistence farm. When the flooding Ohio deposited the boat on dry land, the family continued to live in it.
In 1919 the family moved to a larger farm about 12 miles north where Andrew built a six room house. He worked week days at a factory in a nearby town and farmed on the weekends. Young Len learned to ride the farm’s draft horse bareback. In 1928 the farm failed and the family returned to Cincinnati where Andrew got work in a shoe factory. Lenard dropped out of high school to join his father in the factory to support the family.
In 1929, piling everything they could manage onto an old Dodge, the family paid a four month visit to California to visit Len’s oldest sister, Mary. Soon after returning to Ohio, Len decided to return to California in search of better work than the shoe factory. In 1930 the rest of the family followed.
In the depths of the depression they were forced to live the life of migrant workers picking fruits and living in squalid camps. Years later, Rogers said that in many ways The Grapes of Wrath could have been the story of his family. While in the camps Lenard somehow picked up the guitar and spent many nights entertaining his fellow migrants singing the “hillbilly” songs sung on the radio by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Vernon Dalhart, and a new comer, Gene Autry.
When his father found work in another shoe factory, Lenard and his cousin Stanly Slye decided to make for Los Angeles to try to make a living as the singing Slye Brothers. By 1932 they were picking up some work, including local radio broadcasts.
In 1933 he married 19 year old Lucille Ascolese in Los Angeles. But while on tour with an act called the O-bar-O Cowboys he met Grace Arline Wilkins at a Roswell, New Mexico dance. His jealous wife, stuck at home while Len toured, filed for divorce in 1934. He married Grace back in Roswell in 1936.
By that time his career had taken an upswing. In 1934 Len joined with Bob Nolan in the close harmony cowboy vocal group The Sons of the Pioneers who found success on radio and in recordings with the good looking Slye often stepping forward as a soloist. In 1936 Len as part of the group made an unaccredited appearance in Rhythm on the Range with Bing Crosby and Martha Raye for Columbia Pictures.
The success of the group landed them a deal with Liberty Pictures, a poverty row studio specializing in westerns and serials that soon became part of Republic Pictures. In 1936 the group got cast as members of the posse in The Big Show who help Gene Autry capture some big city gangsters and as a gang of singing rustlers and in Autry’s The Old Coral with Lenard as a bad guy who gets in a fist fight with Autry but then joins him hunting for worse villains.
After being billed alternately as Lenard Slye and Dick Weston, he settled on Roy Rogers as a stage name in 1938, oddly picking the name of his Ohio dentists because of its one syllable first name. He would change his name legally in 1941.
When Autry briefly walked out on his Republic contract, the studio made Rogers the front man in his own series of westerns starting with Under Western Skies. He used the Sons of the Pioneers as his back-up in several pictures, but they continued on recording without him under Nolan’s leadership. Rogers would continue to invite them to tour with him, appear on later radio and television shows and even to show up and sing his old parts with them (by then with the original singers all gone) up to the end of his life.
Roger’s pictures, often with Gabby Hayes as his crusty sidekick were a big hit. Worried, Autry returned to the studio where the two western stars battled for supremacy. But Roger’s squinty eyed good looks and easy charm put him at an advantage to the Autry, who tended to pudginess and was a wooden actor.
Once a year or so Republic studios would pull out the stops and to make an A picture to showcase its biggest star, John Wayne. In 1940 it was Dark Command, based very loosely on Quantrill’s Raiders in the Civil War costarring Wayne, Clare Trevor, and Walter Pidgeon as Quantrill. Rogers got fourth billing as Trevor’s head strong brother. It was his only appearance in an A movie until he made Son of Paleface in 1952 with Bob Hope and Jane Russell.
The same year Rogers showed his considerable business acumen. Because the notoriously stingy Republic Studios owned not only all rights to his films, but rights to his personal appearances, he struck a deal by which he retained the right to his likeness, voice and name for merchandising, which the studio regarded as a giveaway. Over the years Rogers would parlay that into a fortune from everything from comic and coloring books, to toy pistols and lunch boxes. By the mid Fifties he alone was just behind the whole Walt Disney empire in revenue from merchandise.
When Autry left the studio for World War II service as a C-47 pilot flying the Burma Hump route, Rogers ruled alone as King of the Cowboys with his golden palomino Trigger, the most famous horse in show business.
In 1946 Grace Rogers died shortly after giving birth to their second natural child, a son, Roy, Jr. who would become known as Dusty. He was comforted by Dale Evans, a former band signer and featured vocalist on the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy radio program who had a role in his film The Cowboy and the Senorita in 1944. She became his female romantic lead in a string of films. Rodgers proposed during a rodeo performance at the Chicago Stadium a few months after Grace’s death and they were married in Davis, Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve 1947.
Roy adopted her son from a previous marriage adding to his own adopted daughter and two children with Grace. They would have a daughter between them in 1950. But Robin Elizabeth had Down ’s syndrome and died at the age of two, memorialized in Dale’s bestselling book Angel Unaware. They later adopted several more children and became spokespersons promoting adoption.
In 1944 The Roy Rogers Show was launched on the Mutual Broadcast Network. The radio show ran for 11 years, from 1951 on NBC. The show featured Evans, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers and in the first years Roy’s movie side kick Gabby Hayes.
Most of Rodger’s post war Republic features were shot in the Truecolor process that set them apart from the standard B westerns shot cheaply in black and white. This gave Rodgers’s movies a big box office boost and encouraged the adoption of brightly colored, elaborate western costumes that had little to do with the historic west or working cowboys. Most of the films were set in the contemporary west with automobiles, air planes, telephones and other conveniences co-existing with horses, posses and bad guys.
In all Rogers would make 104 films. The last of the Republic oaters was Pals of the Golden West in 1951.
Months later The Roy Rogers Show premiered on New Year’s Eve on NBC TV. It would run for 100 episodes over six seasons featuring Roy as the proprietor of the RR- Ranch near Mineral City and Dale as his girl friend and owner of a local café who none the less had plenty of time to mount up her trusty horse Buttermilk to help catch bad guys. Also on hand was a new side kick, Pat Brady with his cantankerous Jeep, Nellie Belle, and Roy’s faithful German shepherd, Bullet.
Dale composed the theme Happy Trails which the couple sang as a duet at the end of every episode. After its initial NBC run ended in 1956, the victim of the trend to more serious adult westerns, the show ran successfully for four more years in re-runs of the CBS network’s Saturday morning line up.
This show, along with the old Republic flicks repackaged for TV, raised Roy Rogers to unheard of heights as a kid’s hero. He reinforced this with almost constant personal appearances, which he and Dale continued for decades after the end of the show. They did over a hundred dates a year at rodeos, fairs, parades, and even things like shopping center openings.
The couple tried a comeback on network TV with a variety show called The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show on ABC in 1960. The show was slotted against the popular Jackie Gleason Show and was cancelled after half a season.
In the early ‘60’s Rogers acquired the former Apple Valley Inn property near Victorville, California. Soon Rodgers, who never threw anything away, opened Roy Rodgers Museum (later re-named the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum) featuring everything from his father’s tools and mother’s scrap books to photos and movie memorabilia, an extensive gun collection, and Roy’s personal pride and joy, his mineral collection. Out front Trigger was stuffed in a rearing position.
The museum continued to attract visitors, but after Dale’s death in 2001 at the age of 88 it was moved to Branson, Missouri in 2003. It closed permanently in 2009 and the collection sold at auction in 2011.
Rodgers was honored with three stars on Hollywood’s walk of fame for film, radio, and TV. Roy and Dale were inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1976 and Roy was inducted again as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1995. Roy was also twice elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, first as a member of The Sons of the Pioneers in 1980 and as a soloist in 1988.
In 2010 he was honored with fellow icons William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Gene Autry in a Cowboys of the Silver Screen block of first class postage stamps.
But his true memorial remains in the aging hearts of every boy and girl who once thrilled to the beat of Trigger’s hooves.