“King of the Cowboys”
Roy Rogers was a living legend by being a multi-media star whose fame and fortune far surpassed that of his famous cowboy contemporaries, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry. One of the great thrills of my childhood was going to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden, in New York City, and waiting for the finale to see Roy; his horse, Trigger; his partner, Dale Evans; and his sidekick, Gabby Hayes, driving the jeep “Nellie Bell.” And then everyone would sing Happy trails to you until we meet again…”
For interested postcard collectors there are dozens of Roy Rogers cards, many of which are more interesting than the standard studio publicity photos. Among some of the best available are these that illustrate this article.
Leonard Slye (yes, that was Roy’s real name) was born on November 5, 1911, in Ohio. He spent most of his childhood on the family farm and was a fan of the cowboy film stars Hoot Gibson and Tom Mix. He learned to play guitar and mandolin and was calling square dances by the time he was ten. He dropped out of high school to work in a shoe factory, and in 1930 he moved with his family to California. He and his father became migrant workers for a season, and then he teamed up with his cousin, Stanley Slye to perform at parties and square dances as the Slye Brothers.
This led to his participation in a succession of singing and instrumental groups including the Rocky Mountaineers, the International Cowboys, Cactus Mac and his O-Bar-O Cowboys, Jake LeFevre and his Texas Outlaws, and the Pioneer Trio. He achieved his first real fame in a group called “Sons of the Pioneers,” which recorded for Decca Records. [Surely you remember the songs Cool Water and Tumbling Tumbleweeds.]
I suspect there are postcards of the Sons groups because quite a few country and western cowboy groups of the 1930s had publicity postcards.
Roy was first seen in motion pictures in 1935 appearing as “Dick Weston.” In 1936 Len Slye married Arlene Wilkins, a fan who presented him with a homemade lemon pie back in his O-Bar-O Cowboy days. Slye signed with Republic Pictures in 1937, and got his big break when Gene Autry, in a financial dispute with the studio, failed to show up for the shooting of a film. The name of the film was changed and so was that of the new leading man. Len Slye, a.k.a. Dick Weston, was now Roy Rogers.
It was for this film that Rogers chose to use the 5-year-old palomino, Golden Cloud that he renamed “Trigger.” Thus began one of the most famous partnerships in Hollywood history.
For years Trigger received second billing, ahead of sidekick Gabby Hayes and Dale Evans, who became his leading lady in 1944. Even though Trigger died in 1965 and his remains were mounted and enshrined at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, Rogers still signed autographs as “Roy Rogers and Trigger.”
As Roy Rogers, Roy made 87 western themed movies. [First in 1938 there was Under Western Stars for Republic Pictures. And last in 1975 came Mackintosh and T.J., which was written especially for him. Mackintosh and T.J. were loners, so said the storyline. Mackintosh was a tough old bronco buster in a beat-up truck; T.J. was a kid going nowhere … fast!]
In 1944 he made his first movie with Dale Evans, a country and western singer. By 1945 he was at the peak of his popularity. Rogers’ hand- and footprints, along with Trigger’s hoofprints, were included in the impressions made by celebrities in the cement courtyard of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Theatre.
In 1946 the first of several personal tragedies occurred. His wife, Arlene, died of an embolism. About a year later he married his on-screen sweetheart (though, believe it or not the couple never kissed in any of the 35 films they made for Republic!).
In 1948 Roy and Dale began to appear on a weekly radio show. There are at least two different cards from this show that were sent to contest entrants; one was a colorfully printed government postal card.
Rogers also had a successful television show from 1951 to 1957, and he and Dale hosted many TV specials. In the meantime, Roy Rogers products proliferated. From t-shirts and lunch-boxes, to briefcases and cookie jars and to sweaters, umbrellas and more, Roy’s and Dale’s persona could be found everywhere.
At one time there were over 2,000 Roy Rogers fan clubs.
Roy and Dale’s profound religious faith helped them through the tragedy of the death of their only natural child in 1953 and the death of two of their adopted children in the 1960s. There are postcards announcing a 1950s biography of the couple by Elise Miller Davis that recounts the Rogers’ heartaches.
In recent years we are more familiar with the name Roy Rogers because of the chain of Roy Rogers Family Restaurants. (The restaurants were owned by the Marriot Corporation, in which Rogers was a stockholder, but now – 2023 – the name Roy Rogers and Marriot are Plamondon Companies of Frederick, Maryland.) Also worth mentioning are his many other business ventures: real estate, music publishing, and his museum.
Roy Rogers’ work remains, 25 years after his death as an admirable, though somewhat outdated example of wholesome entertainment. Rogers died of heart failure in Apple Valley, California on July 6, 1998, at age 86. He is buried at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley. His wife of 54 years was laid-to-rest by his side in February 2001. Rogers, himself once said, “Today there are some movies I wouldn’t take Trigger to see.”
Unlike his friend and fellow B-movie actor, Ronald Reagan, he steered clear of politics, despite efforts to get him to run. “I don’t want to get involved in things I don’t know much about.” (Perhaps his friend Ron didn’t see things that way!) He also added, “I don’t even like to endorse candidates. I’ve got so many … fans that I wouldn’t want to lose any of them.”
Thanks, Roy. I’d much rather remember you as the singing, smiling, cowboy hero that always triumphed over evil. Happy trails …!