Roy Rogers was born Leonard Slye in 1911 in Cincinnati in a building that stood near where second base of Riverfront Stadium is now located. His father worked in the insole department of the United States Shoe Co., and also grew vegetables. Young Leonard dreamed of becoming a dentist. The family was hit hard by the depression and headed west. Rogers said that The Grapes of Wrath could have been his family's biography. Once in California, he sang in cowboy music groups to supplement his meager income, and founded the seminal group "The Sons of the Pioneers." For a while he was known as "Cactus Mac."
He was working in a haberdasher's shop one day when a customer demanded a cowboy hat for a tryout in the movies. Rogers trailed the man to Republic Studios, sneaked on to the set, and got hired. One of his first roles was the villain in a Republic movie starring Gene Autry. The two became pals. In 1938 Autry staged a one-man strike against Republic and Rogers became his temporary replacement. When Autry left Hollywood to fly fighter planes in 1943, Rogers again stepped into his shoes. He became the "King of the Cowboys," and made nearly 100 B-movie westerns, what the crossword puzzles call "oaters." He married his frequent costar Dale Evans. The couple reproduced, and also adopted eight children. In the 50s Rogers moved to TV. Roy and Dale became well known for their Christian (and also anticommunist) beliefs and spoke at Billy Graham revivals. Dale wrote inspirational books. Rogers was worth somewhere north of $50 million at his death. His last words were "Well Lord, it's been a rough ride."
Roy Rogers' first commercial success was with the Sons of the Pioneers, but he was an even bigger pioneer in marketing, a champion merchandise wrangler. At the height of his success, in the mid-50s, his photo appeared on 2.5 billion boxes of Post cereals. Roy Rogers comics sold 25 million copies a year. More than 20 pages of the annual Sears catalog were dedicated to his merchandise. Products included lunch boxes, sheets, wallpaper, socks, ties, hats, watches, cut-out dolls, cap pistols, and similar bric-a-brac. Roy Rogers booked some $50 million a year in sales. By the late 50s Rogers had more than 2,000 fan clubs and more than 400 licensed products on the market.
In 1955, Disney introduced the Davy Crockett Coonskin Cap, which heralded a $300 million Davy Crockett merchandise boom. Like Microsoft, Disney is evil, late, and more successful than the competition. This was one showdown Rogers didn't win.
In the 60s Marriott licensed his name for Roy Rogers Family Restaurants, of which there were more than 800 at one time, though there are considerably fewer today. The chain was later sold to downscale Hardees. Its specialty is a lousy roast beef sandwich, though there are some who cherish its fried chicken.
Beef is the king of foods in America, a fact that has valorized the cattle economy. But from the cow's perspective the singing cowboy only served to trivialize America's bovine holocaust. Somebody ought to remind the cows that their combined biomass and their population are vastly greater than they would have been without the cattle industry. Cows live lives of idleness, eating whenever they are hungry and facing no natural predators. Rogers helped make this possible. On the ideological level he made raising cows for slaughter glamorous On the instrumental level he sold his name to purveyors of fried beef. The ingrate cows should thank him for his tireless efforts on their behalf.
Rogers called Trigger "the best thing that ever happened" to him. Trigger was Roy's faithful golden palomino, a horse who could untie knots and even shoot a gun. Trigger was billed as "the smartest horse in the movies." The horse usually got second billing, ahead of Dale Evans. When his faithful mount died, Rogers had him stuffed and mounted, much to Evans' distress. Later she relented, and her horse Buttermilk was mounted too. Today one can see Trigger Trigger II, Buttermilk, and Roger's dog, Bullet the Wonderdog, at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, CA.
Because of fan pressure to "leave out the mushy stuff," Rogers never kissed Evans on screen. But he did occasionally kiss Trigger. Among Rogers' 91 movies, his favorite was "My Pal
Trigger" (1946). "When my time comes just skin me and put me right up there on Trigger as if nothing had ever changed," he said. They didn't.
Much was made in Rogers' TV show of his Indian heritage, from his mother's side of the family. In 1967 he was named "Outstanding Indian Citizen of the Year" by a group of western tribes. Rogers accepted the honor. But made it clear that he was only one-thirty-second Choctaw, the rest of his genetic matter being Dutch and English.
The IRS posse is hot on the trail of Roy Rogers. It doesn't matter that he's dead. It seems that sinister Roy undervalued certain assets that he passed on to his children. No doubt they will pull him out of a rehearsal of the heavenly choir. (Cue sad cowboy refrain, setting sun.)
Zion, maven of old New York, says that "The guys in my neighborhood refused to recognize Roy Rogers as King of the Cowboys. Gene Autry owned that title, and no wartime substitute was going to hijack it, no matter what the Hollywood big shots said or did, which was plenty."
Zion adds, "Roy Rogers, with his goody-good wife and his goody-good life, couldn't shine Gene's boots. I like to think booze made the difference. Gene, long after his heyday, could drink Sinatra under the table."
Zion recounts an interesting anecdote: Autry, who owns the San Diego Padres, said, "I should have realized on Opening Day in 1974 that this country was bleeped up with Tricky Dick in charge. He came to brunch in my owner's box and then went downstairs to my field box. When he got there he sees my wife and says, 'Hello, Dale. How's Trigger?'"
The singing cowboy was a distinct subgenre of movie cowboys, a portmanteau philsopher-jester-gunfighter-herdsman. In 1974 Rogers released an autobiographical song called Hoppy, Gene and Me, about himself, Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy, who was the third of America's great singing cowboys.
Rogers had a sweet voice, and the best record he ever made was "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," which he did with the Sons of the Pioneers in 1934. He introduced Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In." But his oeuvre can't approach Autry's, which includes "Back in the Saddle Again," "Sioux City Sue," "You Are My Sunshine," "South of the Border," and many other great tunes.
Even though Rogers scabbed in place of Autry during a strike, the two remained friends, and together sued Republic for the right to sell their movies to television. By the time Republic won, Rogers had launched his television show and signed licensing deals. The Republic films, cut to 54 minutes for TV distribution, couldn't compete.
Rogers always fought fair, never hit anybody smaller than himself, and usually shot the gun out the hand of the villain instead of blasting the bastard. His theme song, "Happy Trails," which ran under the closing credits of his TV show, was written by Evans. Rogers said that a typical movie featured "a little song, a little riding, a little shooting and a girl to be saved from hazard."
For 12 straight years he was the number one western star at the box office. In a single month in 1945 he received 75,000 fan letters, eclipsing a record held by Clara Bow. In 1960 he estimated that it cost him $30,000 a year to respond to his fan mail. A survey by Life magazine found that children named him alongside FDR and Lincoln as the Americans they most wanted to emulate.
Upon Rogers' death, Clayton Moore, the actor who played the Lone Ranger, said, "He certainly was a role model for people all over the world. Just a good, straightforward man. He always treated people with kindness."
Gene Autry said, "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."
September 14, 1995 was proclaimed Roy Rogers and Dale Evans day in New York City. The mayor press-released, "With the death of Roy Rogers, New York City has lost a good friend and the nation has lost an entertainment icon and a great humanitarian. What many Americans did not know was how active the couple was on behalf of children, particularly children in need, raising funds and making personal appearances all over the country."
The premiere singing cowboy sang dopey songs, never killed the bad guys, never kissed his woman, was a killer salesman, promoted the sale of masses of cruddy beef in a safe, "Christian" environment. What does this mean? It means that Americans lazily sought freedom without making hard, compromising choices. It means that Americans sought the emblems of achievement without doing the work. It means that Americans would rather munch on pallid, soggy, fatty sandwiches endorsed by a mediocrity than take a chance on something tasty. Good for them.