By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
In the not too distant past, a man and his golden palomino rode across motion picture and television screens, and into the hearts of millions of people around the world. That man was Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, and the fifth of November 2011 would have been his 100th birthday. To commemorate the Centennial of his birth, I wanted to honor Roy Rogers and his legacy.
I was not born when Roy Rogers had his motion picture box office success or popular television show, but my mother played his records and together we watched his old movies on television. As a little girl, the first thing I remember thinking about Roy Rogers was that he looked like my grandpa [pictured below]. He even talked like him.
I suppose the resemblance was what first captured my attention as a child, but I soon became a fan of this singing cowboy because he was so nice. It’s hard to not like someone who is kind, honest, and who stands up for truth and justice. In fact, when you think about it, Roy Rogers really exemplified the word hero. But who exactly was this man?
More often than not, it is our life experiences that both challenge and define our character, and by looking back at the family history and adversity Roy Rogers faced growing up, we get a glimpse into the foundation of his character. Just as important are the values instilled within him as a child -- faith, love, devotion to family, and the certain knowledge of what is right and wrong. I hope to illustrate in this post that Roy Rogers was not just playing a character on the silver screen. The goodness, kindness, compassion, integrity, and honesty that endeared him to so many millions was not the skill of an actor, but a deep-rooted reflection of his true self.
Born Leonard Franklin Slye on 05 November 1911 in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was just eight months old when his parents, Andrew and Mattie Womack Slye, steered a 12x50 foot houseboat (built by Mr. Slye from salvage lumber), along the Ohio River to Portsmouth. The family had purchased land where they hoped to build a real home, but a flood in 1913 forced them to anchor the houseboat on their land. [Pictured below: 1913 photo of Portsmouth's flood.]
In 1919, the family was able to purchase a small farm in Duck Run, approximately 12 miles from Portsmouth. Unfortunately, the farm didn’t provide enough income for the family’s support, so Andrew Slye secured a job at a shoe factory in Portsmouth. Mr. Slye lived in Portsmouth during the week and returned home on weekends to be with his family. He often brought gifts, one of which was a horse that first triggered (pun intended) the future cowboy star’s interest and skill in horseback riding.
[Pictured left: Leonard Slye with his sisters.]
For economic reasons, the Slye family returned to Cincinnati after Leonard completed eighth grade. Wanting to help support his family, Leonard quit school and started working at the same shoe factory as his father. He tried to attend night school, but quit after "being ridiculed for falling asleep in class". In 1929, after Leonard's older sister, Mary Slye, had married and moved to California, the family traveled west to visit her. Not long after returning home to Ohio, Leonard realized he wanted to live in California and moved there. In 1930, the rest of the Slye family also relocated.
The Great Depression hit the country hard; jobs were few and there was no guarantee finding one meant security. A company that had hired Leonard and his father as truck drivers went bankrupt, and soon the only jobs the family could find were as migrant workers -- a way of life many Americans were forced by circumstance to endure during the Depression. Like a page out of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, they traveled to various farms for field work, living in makeshift tents. In the midst of despair, as families struggled to stay together and survive, a young man named Leonard Slye would take out his guitar and sing for the other nomadic workers as they sat around the campfires at night.
When Andrew Slye heard a shoe factory in Los Angeles was hiring, he asked his son to go with him and apply for work. But Leonard had felt a strong connection with his music and singing. And he'd seen the happiness it brought other people. He told his father he wanted to try pursuing a singing career, and did so with his father's blessing.
Leonard moved with his cousin, Stanley Slye, to Los Angeles, and they tried to find work singing as The Slye Brothers. The duo didn’t fare well. Next, Leonard briefly joined a group called, Uncle Tom Murray’s Hollywood Hillbillies. Apparently, Uncle Tom Murray didn't believe in paying members of the group.
Still not willing to give up on his dream, Leonard appeared on a midnight amateur talent show hosted by KMCS, a radio station in Inglewood, California. The next day he was asked to join an instrumental group called The Rocky Mountaineers.Scheduled to perform on another radio station in Long Beach, California, the group needed a singer. Leonard accepted the job, but also suggested another person be added who could sing harmonies with him. Bob Nolan, a singer who played the guitar and fiddle, auditioned and got the job. [Pictured below: The Rocky Mountaineers]
Since the group was just starting out, they appeared on the radio in exchange for publicity and exposure. Nolan would eventually leave the group to accept a paying job as a caddy at the Bel Air Country Club.
Singer and yodeler Tim Spencer would take Nolan's place. Like Leonard and Bob Nolan, Spencer was also an aspiring songwriter. At this time, the group’s name was changed to the O-Bar-O Cowboys.
In 1933, the O-Bar-O Cowboys [pictured below] decided to promote themselves by touring the Southwest. Note: Leonard Slye is seen second from left, holding a guitar.
Nothing seemed to go their way. Their car kept breaking down. They had trouble getting paying jobs or finding an audience. And worse of all, they had little (if any) money for food. In fact, Leonard once borrowed a rifle and was able to feed the group with a jackrabbit one night, and a hawk for supper the next night.
They eventually arrived in Roswell, New Mexico, and at first it seemed their run of bad luck would continue. Each member of the group only had 50 cents to their name, and the only theatre in town was booked. Needing to find work, they went to the local radio station. In exchange for pay the group was allowed to have all the air time they wanted. They sang, they yodeled, and they told jokes -- often about how hungry they were. One listener in Roswell was a local girl named Grace 'Arlene' Wilkins. A few days earlier, Arlene had turned her radio dial and paused to listen to someone singing "The Swiss Yodel". That someone was Leonard Slye.
Arlene Wilkins tuned in every day hoping to hear the song again. When four days passed, she decided the next time the group joked about how hungry they were, she was going to be prepared. The day arrived when between numbers, Leonard Slye said, "I'd just about give my left arm for a piece of lemon pie like Mom makes back home." Hearing this, Arlene turned to her mother and said, "Those boys sound real hungry, mom." As Arlene expected, her mother agreed and suggested since they had plenty they could feed them. But Arlene wanted to exchange food for her favorite song. She told the group that if they would sing, "Swiss Yodel" on the air the following day, she would bring them a lemon pie.
Leonard stayed up all night practicing and the next day opened their radio show with Arlene's requested song. "Boy, did I yodel my lungs out!" he would later recall. But after he finished the song, the pie was not there. And when the show ended, the pie still had not been delivered. The disappointed group returned to their motel only to find two people waiting for them -- Mrs. Wilkins and her smiling 18-year old daughter holding freshly baked lemon pies. What the group did not know was that Arlene had called the radio station to find out where the band was staying, and it just happened to be across the street from where she lived. Hungry as he was, Leonard was also smitten with Arlene. She would later recall, "He seemed kind of flustered, kept stammering 'thank you'. Kind of bashful, too. But not so bashful he didn't ask where we lived, so he could return the tins the next day."
The next day, Leonard returned the pie tins. As he stood in the Wilkins kitchen talking politely with her mother, Leonard became quickly tongue-tied when Arlene arrived. He later recalled, "She was even prettier than I had first thought." Arlene told him she was attending a business school but wanted to complete her studies in Los Angeles the next year. For her part, Mrs. Wilkins immediately saw what was happening between the two young people. Of course, as a mom she had some concerns. After all, the group had been telling the whole town on the radio that they were starving. But, Leonard Slye impressed her. He was polite, charming, and very shy. What harm could it do to invite Leonard and his friends to a fried chicken dinner that night?
Clearly, the highlight of the fledgling group's road tour was -- at least for Leonard -- meeting Arlene Wilkins in Roswell. But career-wise and financially, the three months of touring proved disastrous. By the time the group returned to Los Angeles in September 1933, the O-Bar-O Cowboys broke up. Tim Spencer took a job working in a Safeway warehouse, no longer thinking he could earn a living by singing. But Leonard was determined to stay in music. And he was also penning love letters to a pretty girl in Roswell, New Mexico.
Despite the fact that Leonard was now working with a group called, Jack and His Texas Outlaws, he told Spencer he thought they could make it on their own if they could convince Bob Nolan to join them. Both Leonard and Tim Spencer then went to the golf course. Although reluctant to give up a steady paycheck, Bob Nolan agreed. They became roommates and practiced for eight hours a day, determined to be the best and treating their rehearsing just like any other job.[Pictured below L-R: Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan, and Leonard Slye.]
The three friends called themselves, The Pioneer Trio.
Known for their beautiful harmony, yodeling, and excellent instrumentals, they became very popular on the radio. Still unpaid, they sang in exchange for advertising. It was not until a local newspaper columnist named Bernie Milligan kept mentioning them in his column that The Pioneer Trio started getting actual paying jobs. One of their first jobs earned each member $35.00 a week. In 1934, Harry Hall, a radio station announcer called the group, The Sons of the Pioneers instead of The Pioneer Trio. Hall said they were too young to be pioneers. The name stuck.
THE SONS OF THE PIONEERS
Successful radio and singing engagements soon followed. In August, 1934 they made their first recording of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, (written by Bob Nolan) and “Moonlight on the Prairie” (written by M.K. Jerome, Joan Jasmyn, Tim Spencer, and Bob Nolan). They earned a whole penny for each record sold, and those pennies added up quickly. Other singers and musicians would eventually join founding members Leonard Slye, Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer in The Sons of The Pioneers.
In 1936, The Sons of the Pioneers were scheduled to appear at the Texas Centennial Celebration in Dallas. As they traveled from California, Roy made time to stop in Roswell, New Mexico. On 14 June 1936, he married Arlene Wilkins in the living room of her family home.
In 1937, The Sons of the Pioneers signed an agreement to perform in films for Columbia Pictures. But when Leonard Slye was offered his own film contract as an actor with Republic Pictures, he had to leave the group.
In 1938, after officially changing his name to Roy Rogers, the man who would one day be known as King of the Cowboys began his film career as a leading man. His first film, "Under Western Skies" was a huge success. His films offered action, comedy, romance, music, and a moral lessons for impressionable youngsters. What some people may not know is that Roy Rogers was very athletic and performed the majority of his stunts. In addition to being considered one of the most talented horsemen in motion pictures, he was an exceptional marksman...and not just with a six-shooter. Roy's proficiency extended to rifles, shotguns, bows and arrows, and even a slingshot!
As for The Sons of the Pioneers, when their contract with Columbia Pictures ended, they quickly signed with Republic Pictures to be with their pal, Roy. Not only did they appear with Roy as supporting players in his films, the group performed with him on the radio, at public appearances, and made popular records together.
Needless to say, the greatest horseback rider on the silver screen had to have the greatest horse in motion pictures -- a certain Palomino named Trigger. Heck, he was so popular he even had his own comic book! An interesting bit of trivia about Trigger is that before he starred with Roy Rogers in all of his films, the Palomino was featured in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Yep, that's Trigger that Maid Marion is riding through Sherwood Forest.
The attachment that Roy Rogers had for the golden palomino was pretty much love at first sight. Roy had personally selected the palomino (then named Golden Cloud) for his first film. And it was Roy Rogers who changed its name to Trigger. Roy not only loved that horse, he purchased Trigger. And wherever he traveled for a public appearance, Roy would make sure that Trigger was front and center outside the arena so that all the children could see him -- whether they had a ticket or not.
After years of hard work and perseverance, Roy Rogers had found his audience. He quickly became known as the King of the Cowboys, based on his huge popularity and the consistent box office success of his films. On the homefront, he and Arlene were very happy, and had begun to raise a family of their own. Pictured below: Roy Rogers and wife, Arlene, with their first child, Cheryl.]
[Pictured left: Roy Rogers with some of his fan mail - 1943]
In 1944, Roy Rogers was slated to begin his next film, "The Cowboy and the Senorita", when a new contract player at Republic Pictures was cast as his leading lady. Her name was Dale Evans. Ironically, the woman who would one day be called Queen of the West never wanted to be in westerns. In fact, despite being a native Texan, she'd never learned how to ride a horse. Roy Rogers and some of the wranglers on the set taught her.
Dale Evans was born Frances Octavia Smith on 31 October 1912 in Uvalde, Texas. When she was seven years old, her family moved to Arkansas. As a small child, she showed great musical ability and performed solos in her church. Bright as she was musically gifted, little Frances excelled in school and skipped several grades -- which could explain why she was more mature for her age. In fact, she eloped at the age of fourteen, gave birth to a son at fifteen, and was divorced at sixteen. To support herself and her son, she attended business school and obtained a job with an insurance company. Fate intervened when her boss heard her singing at work, and encouraged her to sing on the radio.
In 1931, she was hired to sing on a radio station in Louisville, Kentucky. Only nineteen years old, she used the professional name, Marion Lee. However, while on the air one day a station executive changed her name to Dale Evans. She would next move to Dallas, Texas, where she was hired as the featured vocalist on a popular morning radio show. She married R. Dale Butts, a pianist and arranger she'd met in Louisville. When her husband was hired by NBC as a composer-arranger in Chicago, the couple relocated. At this time, Dale started singing with the Jay Millis Orchestra, and then was hired to sing (and tour) with the Anson Weeks Orchestra. While touring with the orchestra, she was asked to make a screen test with 20th Century Fox. Despite being awarded a one-year contract at $400 per week, she was only given small, non-speaking parts in two films.
After leaving 20th Century Fox, she became the featured vocalist for the "Chase and Sanborn Hour", a radio show starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. In 1942, she was awarded a new movie contract with Republic Pictures, and was soon featured in the 1943 John Wayne film, Old Oklahoma. Unfortunately, the demands of her contract with Republic and trying to make her long-distance marriage to Butts work proved too stressful for the couple; they divorced in 1945.
Although Dale never complained and worked hard in the westerns that Republic repeatedly cast her in, her patience was wearing thin. Much as she liked the people she worked with, and had befriended both Roy Rogers and his wife, Arlene, she didn't want to be in just westerns. So, when her contract came up for renewal with Republic Pictures, Dale left the studio.
In November, 1946, tragedy struck the life of Roy Rogers. Just one week after the joyous birth of their son, Roy Rogers, Jr., Roy's beloved wife, Arlene -- having suffered complications from a Caesarean section -- died suddenly of an embolism.
In addition to their son, nicknamed Dusty, the happily married couple also had two young daughters, Cheryl and Linda.
Emotionally devastated and a single father to three small children, Roy continued to work hard making several films a year, in addition to numerous public appearances across the country. As fate would have it, her ran into Dale Evans in Atlantic City, where she had a singing engagement. Roy suggested she return to Republic Pictures and make more movies with him. She gently refused, but eventually returned to Republic Pictures where she made two "non-western" movies. Both films were unsuccessful. Perhaps westerns weren't so bad after all?
Reunited on screen to the delight of their audiences, the respect and friendship Roy Rogers and Dale Evans always had blossomed into love. In the fall of 1947, while mounted on his trusty Palomino and waiting to ride into a rodeo arena in Chicago, Roy Rogers proposed to Dale Evans. They were married on New Year's Eve of 1947. Not long after the couple married, Dale Evans became a born again Christian, and found great peace with a deeper devotion to her faith. After seeing the happiness and joy her faith brought his wife, Roy Rogers also made a renewed commitment to Christianity. In 1952, while in rehearsal to appear at Madison Square Garden in New York City, promoters balked when they learned Roy Rogers planned to sing the hymn, "How Great Thou Art". After telling him he could not preach to the audience, they suggested he change the lyrics and take out any mention of God. Roy refused, and said either he sang the words and lyrics as written or he, Dale, and Trigger would cancel their engagement. Remember, a hero always stands up for what he believes. Over the next 26 days, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans had 43 performances, all of them breaking box office records...and "How Great Thou Art" was sung at every show. In the 1950s, Roy added "Peace in the Valley", to his concert, with Trigger kneeling beside him.
When Roy's contract with Republic Pictures came up for renewal in 1951, he wanted the right to do television. The studio declined, and he suspected the reason. They wanted to take his movies and shorten them for television. There was just one hitch to their plan. Several years earlier when Roy had wanted a raise, the studio offered him a new clause in his contract instead of more money. The clause, which Roy accepted, gave him all legal rights to his name and likeness. With that in hand, he decided to make his own television show. The Roy Rogers Show debuted on 30 December 1951. The show featured Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Trigger and Buttermilk (Dale's mare), and Bullet The Wonder Dog (who happened to be the family's real pet). Airing on NBC every Sunday night, the show ran until 1957 and always ended with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing "Happy Trails" (written by Dale Evans).
The popularity of Roy Rogers exploded because of television. In 1950, there were over 2,000 fan clubs worldwide. Product endorsements flourished. His picture was a constant on 2.5 billion boxes of cereal. However, Roy stipulated that he would not endorse any product that could hurt someone, or break easily. In fact, samples of the products were given to Roy and Dale for testing by their own kids. In addition to his three children by his previous marriage, and Dale's son from her first marriage, the couple had four adopted children and Dale gave birth to one daughter named Robin. Robin would tragically die two days before her second birthday in 1952, from complications of Down's syndrome.
Throughout his life, Roy Rogers was honored with many awards. In 1949, Roy and Trigger had their boot marks and hoof marks, respectively, preserved in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. In 1953, he was awarded the Golden Apple for the "Most Cooperative Actor".
In 1980, The Sons of the Pioneers (with its founding member, Roy Rogers) were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and have also been named National Treasures by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In 1988, Roy Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as an individual. He also has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for Motion Pictures, Television, and Radio.
“Together, all of us can make a difference for our beloved nation’s greatest treasure: its children.” ~ Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
Lifelong philanthropists, one of the charitable organizations that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans supported was the Victor Valley Child Abuse Task Force. Founded in 1982 in San Bernadino County, California, and dedicated to helping children in crisis, its name was changed to The Happy Trails Children's Foundation in 1992 in honor of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, for their support and dedication.
Roy Rogers was 88 years old when he passed away on 6 July 1998. But somehow I think it's more appropriate to just say he rode off into the sunset on a golden palomino. And yet, it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to consider the continuing impact he has had on the lives (and imaginations) of people.
Who amongst us wasn't reminded of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger when the endearing Pixar animated characters of Woody the Sheriff, Jessica the Yodeling Cowgirl, and Bullsye came to life in the Toy Story films? Not only was Sheriff Woody the quintessential cowboy hero, he had his own television show and vast array of collectible merchandise (which played a key plot role in Toy Story 2). Even the "Woody's Roundup" theme song from the character's fictitious television show is reminiscent of the vocals we remember from Roy and The Sons of the Pioneers.
Still, precious animated characters aside, there remains only one true King of the Cowboys in the hearts of millions to this day. In fact, here is a video tribute to Mr. Roy Rogers, featuring a song written and performed by his son, Roy "Dusty" Rogers, Jr. I can think of no better way to close my post.
Thank you for taking the time to stop by the Sweethearts of the West blog.
Happy Trails! ~ AKB