GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE
by Dusty Rogers with Karen Ann Wojahn
It was an exciting time to grow up. World War II was finally over, the taste of victory fresh. Right had been vindicated, wrong had been routed, and America lived in an age of hero worship. The villain always failed, and the hero—on the side of law and order, of righteousness and integrity—always triumphed in the end.
It was the Hollywood heyday of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, and though they were the ones who dominated the marquee and carried away the Oscars, the Saturday afternoon matinee usually featured the shoot-em-up, ride-em-out, rough-and-tumble Western. The stuff of such dreams made Gene Autry, Hop-A-Long Cassidy and Roy Rogers the idolized, romanticized and fantasized heroes of America's theater-going children.
When television invaded the American home, these cowboys became the friends of every boy and girl in the nation, and for 10 consecutive years, my dad was named Cowboy of the Year. By the mid-fifties, Roy Rogers, the "King of the Cowboys" and Dale Evans, the "Queen of the West" were among the most beloved of all children's entertainers, playing to standing-room-only-crowds wherever they made personal appearances.
After more than half a century in show business—and nearly three decades since their television program went off the air—my parents continue to be recognized, honored, and loved wherever they go, and they continue to receive fan mail week after week.
So familiar is my dad's voice that people come out of shops along city streets to greet him. They approach him in restaurants and department stores, and they run up to him when they chance to meet him at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, California.
One afternoon Dad was walking with some friends through the display area of the museum and a tourist spotted him. "Roy Rogers!" he shouted. Before Dad knew what was happening, the six-foot-plus mountain of a man had lifted him off the ground and twirled him around!
Suddenly realizing what he had done, the man stopped, put my dad down, and blushed. "I'm so sorry, Roy," he stammered. "I was so glad to see you in person after all these years, for a minute there, I forgot I wasn't a kid any-morer."
My folks always seem to bring out the hidden children in people. Mom continues to travel all over the country in response to hundreds of requests annually for her to speak. People light up like candles when they see her. She's everybody's sister, everybody's mom. In a sense, that's because if she's anything, she's a mother. She marks time by what happens to her children and grandchildren.
Wherever I go people ask me what it was like, growing up the way I did. What does it mean to be Roy Rogers, Jr. ? It's a question I've mulled over for more than 30 years, and the answer is full of paradoxes.
No matter what their life-styles are, most children think of their lives as "normal" and "ordinary." It's only in retrospect that we begin to see what was unique or special or different about our particular families, how we did things, and how childhood events affect our adulthood. I was certainly no different in that respect.
To me, Dad was just Daddy. He played with us and took us on vacations, and he spanked us when we needed it. He went to work like other dads, but his work was in the field of entertainment. I never thought of my mother as anything but Mom, and although working mothers were unusual in those days, I can't remember thinking of my mom's work as being anything special.
Other people did think of my parents as special, though; consequently they thought of me as unusual, too. There is a certain mystique about people in show business, and that mystique raises many questions. Even today, my own three children are often confronted with questions like, "Do you ever get to go over to your grandparents' house?" Of course they do, but people tend to expect us to depart from the ordinary. Naturally there are some differences between how we lived and how others did, but for us, those variations were insignificant. Perhaps because my parents never forgot the poverty of their own backgrounds, they determined to give their children values and standards that would see us through the tough times. Perhaps because our family came from different heritages and varied backgrounds, we could see things from a wider perspective. Perhaps it's because there were so many of us; children can be a great equalizer. Whatever the reasons, we didn't feel different.
Our family has known terrible grief in the face of unspeakable tragedy, but we have also known what it is to be happy and loved, nurtured and secure. What we thought about the day-to-day events of our lives is probably much the same as what other children thought. Like them, we had television heroes like Superman and the Cisco Kid and the Lone Ranger and Sky King, and we imagined ourselves in wonderful make-believe settings. We felt lonely and afraid sometimes, like other children, and we looked forward to Christmas and birthdays and vacations from school. When we were happy we laughed, and when we were hurt, we cried. Our feelings were no different from those any other human being would have, and our memories are not unlike those of most people who grew up during the post-war baby boom era.
Yet my parents are ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives. Because of this, my life, too, has been a blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary. But it isn't just my life I want to share with you. It's the life I shared with my eight brothers and sisters, and in a sense, the life I shared with thousands of other children who grew up with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Latch-key kids. Hired baby-sitters. Working mothers. Divorce. Remarriage. Stepchildren. Death. Hollywood. Fame.
Any one of these elements can—and often does— provide ample climate for child abuse, juvenile delinquency, rebellion or misery. Any combination of two or more of these factors invites disaster, but when all are present, the total spells doom. By any stretch of the imagination, our family should have been a textbook case of how not to succeed with children.
Mom had been divorced before she married Dad, who was a young widower with three small children. Most days, both of them were already on the set before sunup, and it was dark when they returned home at night. Personal appearance tours took them away from home for weeks at a time. The odds were against them. The odds were against us all, against our making it as a family. I can still feel myself bump-bump-bumping down the stairs of our home in the southern California community of Hollywood Hills. Too little to walk down the stairway, I bumped down on my bottom. Our house had been built by the late Noah Beery, and it sat up on a hill about a mile or so north of Hollywood and Vine. It was a large, rambling Spanish-style house, a nice house, and I liked it there.
Among the things I liked best were the animals. Dad loves animals, too, and we always had lots of them everywhere we lived. When he married Mom, she got more than a husband. It was definitely a "package deal," and the package included three children, 30 hunting dogs, innumerable horses, and more than 200 homing pigeons! Dad kept the pigeons in a large coop at the end of the carport. When he worked on location, he often took his homing pigeons to the set and released them. One of the hired men clocked them as they came in. Behind the pigeon coop was a fenced area where Dad and my grampy had built a pond for goldfish. Grampy Slye was only about 5' 8" tall, and he looked a lot like Dad—or, to be precise, it was the other way around. My grandmother (we called her Mammy) used to say that when her husband and her son smiled, no one could see their eyes. Because finely chiseled Choctaw features gave both men a permanent squint, they always had the appearance of someone looking into the sun.
Dad's folks had moved out to California from Ohio in the early 1930s, just before Dad decided to try his hand at show business. Grampy always had something to do, like selling eggs or working with chickens or the pigeons. He had a little garden, and he raised grapes.
My grandmother, Mattie Slye, had always had difficulty walking, ever since childhood. After their move to California, Dad took her to some specialists who said she had apparently had polio as a child. When Dad started making money, he was able to buy her a leg brace, which gave her more mobility. Mammy was tiny, barely five feet tall, but she was tough. She had a doll collection that Dad started for her. He sent dolls from all over the world. Any time we children would get near the dolls, she'd say, "You get near my dolls, child, and I'll snatch you baldheaded!" She reminded me of a bulldog—you could pet it and like it, but never turn your back on it. I loved her, and I really liked her, but I was a bit afraid of her, too.
Mammy and Grampy were unpretentious people, and even when Dad invited them down to the movie set, they would always say, "No. No, Leonard, we don't want to get in anybody's way." To them, Dad was always Leonard. They never thought of him as Roy Rogers. It wasn't until after he married my natural mother that Dad legally changed his name from Leonard Slye to Roy Rogers.
I don't know very much about my natural mother. Her name was Grace Arlene Wilkins, but Dad always called her Arlene. He met her in 1933 while he was doing a radio show in Roswell, New Mexico. Money was tight during those days of the depression, and for weeks Dad and the other fellows in his group had been hunting rabbits and shooting hawks off of telephone wires in order to eat. There's not much meat on those wild black birds, and Dad still says the gravy was so tough it could bend a fork!
One day the boys were so hungry they didn't think they could make it. Dad told the radio audience that he'd really like a lemon pie, and the next day Arlene appeared at the stage door with two of them. Although Dad was delighted with the pastry, his eyes feasted on the lovely ash blonde who brought them. Tall—about 5' 9"—soft-spoken and gentle, this girl captured his heart right away. Even today, he and those who knew her describe my mother as a great lady.
For the next three years they wrote letters back and forth while he and the newly-formed Sons of the Pioneers were on the road. He stopped in Roswell whenever he could. They married in June of 1936—about a year before my dad signed his contract with Republic Pictures and found himself plunged into stardom.
My natural mother could sing and play the piano, but she was never really interested in Hollywood or in the "cowboy" scene. I've only seen one photograph of her in western attire. Although she did go along with Dad on his personal appearances, she really wanted only two things: to make a home for Dad, and to have children.
By 1940, when no babies came, she and Dad began to consider adoption. Dad had always played orphanages and hospitals, and he often told her about the babies he'd seen. One little girl in a Kentucky orphanage had just about broken Dad's heart when he went there for a visit. She had grabbed him and refused to let go, begging him to take her with him. He never forgot that.
During one particular trip back to California, he stopped in Dallas to talk with Bob O'Donald and Bill Underwood, who owned theaters there. In the course of their conversation, Dad mentioned his thoughts about adopting a baby, and one of them said, "You're talking to the right people, Roy. We're on the Board of Directors of Hope Cottage."
Hope Cottage was less than a mile away, and Dad could hardly wait to walk into the nursery. There were 42 babies, but when one little blonde head popped up, Dad melted. It was Cheryl Darlene. When Cheryl was four months old, Dad brought her home.
As happens sometimes, once Cheryl was settled in, my mother became pregnant with Linda Lou, and then, four years later, with me. Although my dad was uneasy about it, the doctor decided my mother should have a Caesarean section, and so I was born on October 28, 1946 at Madison Hospital in Los Angeles. Radio stations and newspapers all over the country announced, "The King of the Cowboys Has a Prince!"
Dad had been on a personal appearance tour in Chicago, and he arrived at the hospital not long after I was born. He wanted to call me Dustin Roy, but he changed his mind. Instead, he named me Roy Rogers, Jr., but he always called me "Dusty." He'd had his own name legally changed in 1945, just a year before I was born, or I'd probably have ended up being named Leonard Slye, Jr.
My mother was recovering nicely from the birth, but in those days the doctors didn't realize how important it is to have the patient up and walking after surgery. Early the following Sunday morning, November 3, a blood clot loosed itself in her blood stream and went to her brain. The hospital called my dad, and he and Grandma Wilkins, her mother, broke all the speed limits to get to the hospital. My mother died just as they arrived. I was only six days old.
Dad was overwhelmed. Long hours of daily work on a picture followed by extensive personal appearance tours made it impossible for him to be both mother and father to three small children. A string of housekeepers and nurses didn't seem like a good answer, either.
Dad's stand-in, Whitey Christiansen, told him that his mother had just lost her husband. She could move in and help with the girls and take care of me. In addition to Mrs. Christiansen, Dad also hired a nurse, Virginia Peck. I bonded to Virginia right away because she was very much a "mommy." During the next nine years, she permanently endeared herself to me.
For two years Dad had been making movies and personal appearances with Dale Evans, and during the 13 months following my mother's death, their professional relationship blossomed into friendship. I suppose nobody was really surprised when the team who had worked together so successfully at the box office decided to commit their lives to each other.
The decision to marry Dad was not an easy one for Dale. She had a 20-year-old son, Tom Fox. Her marriage at the age of 14 to Tom's father ended in divorce, and Dale's mother had assumed much of the responsibility for Tom's upbringing.
Dale felt terribly guilty about Tom, but she knew she couldn't give him the kind of care he needed. In those days the studios did not like their stars to be married or to have children. Dale's background, if publicized, could have hindered her career. For some time, she kept Tom a secret, although she had remarried. By the time she signed her contract with Republic Pictures, the demands of a Hollywood life-style had taken its toll on that marriage, too.
With the failure of her marriages behind her, the likelihood of succeeding in a marriage with three stepchildren seemed impossible. When Dad asked her to marry him, she promised God there would never be a divorce. She could not face the responsibility of putting Cheryl and Linda and me through the trauma of adjusting to yet another stepmother.
Mom always told us her life was a mess until she was 35 years old, when God used my stepbrother Tom to turn her life around. About to be married himself, Tom told her, "Mom, you are bound to fail again and again until you turn your life over to Christ. No marriage can really succeed without a personal relationship with Jesus."
The night Mom and Dad were married, she asked God to give her the strength and courage to establish a Christian home for us. "Lord," she said, "I don't want them to go through what Tom went through." Throughout the years she has reminded us again and again that God's grace is what has seen us through. The odds were against us, but God was with us.
Mom and Dad were married on New Year's Eve, 1947. Cheryl was seven, Linda Lou five, and I was 14 months old. Soon afterwards, we moved into the house in the Hollywood Hills. What I remember about those early days comes only in snatches—events that impressed me, perhaps, because they were out-of-the-ordinary and even adventuresome for a toddler.
One of my most vivid memories is of an autumn day when a Western musical group was rehearsing at the house. My sisters were at school that day, and I rode my tricycle on the covered patio just outside the kitchen. It was a warm, balmy day, and the air had a rich, woodsy fragrance. The sky was clear in the morning, but it began to darken, and a reddish glow surrounded us. Suddenly I heard someone shout, "Fire!" I ran out to the yard. The members of the group were grabbing hoses. A canyon fire had made its way past our property line. It was impossible for the fire trucks to get to the back side of the property, so they came through the electric gates at the front, and up the long driveway to the large parking area that doubled as a tennis court. While we waited for the fire department, the boys climbed up on the block wall that separated our yard from the underbrush. They were hosing the fire, and I wanted to help. I ran into our little kitchen, grabbed a loaf of bread and tore back out to the yard. I rushed up to where two of the boys were, and I began to throw pieces of bread on the fire. I can see the headline now: Roy Jr. Invents Toast. Someone jerked me back, and before long, the fire was out and things were back to normal.
But around the Rogers's house, "normal" was only a brief interlude between calamities. Not long after the fire, a near-tragedy happened to my older sister, Cheryl, who must have been about nine at the time. Mom and Dad were away, and Virginia was taking care of us, as usual. Our front door was a big, glass-paneled dutch door, and the top half always stuck. One day Cheryl ran down to the gate to get the newspaper, and on the way back up she began to roughhouse with Joaquin, one of our dogs. Joaquin was a weimaraner—a wonderful large gray sporting dog with short hair, a cropped tail and ears that hung like pendulums. Joaquin was Cheryl's special pal. He listened to all of her sad tales sympathetically, but he also loved to play. Just as Cheryl ran up to the deck of the porch and put her hand on the glass pane, Joaquin jumped in the middle of her back, pushing her hand right through the door. The shattered glass opened her arm to the bone. Virginia and Linda and I were in the kitchen when we heard Cheryl's screams. We ran through the double doors to the dining room and rounded the corner to the entry-way. Blood spurted everywhere as Cheryl held her arm, screaming. Virginia whipped her apron off and pressed it against the wound.
"You're going to be all right, Honey," she kept telling Cheryl. "Linda Lou, run upstairs and get me a couple of clean towels from the dresser in the bathroom. There, there, Cheryl. Shhh. It's all right."
Virginia wrapped Cheryl's arm in the towels Linda brought her, then set her on the steps while she phoned the doctor. Cheryl was still crying as we all piled into Virginia's car and took Cheryl to the doctor. It took 45 stitches to close the wound, and Cheryl still carries the scar.
By spring Cheryl's accident and the fire were fading memories. I was about three, and the most important thing in my life was playing outside. Easter Sunday was no different, and I didn't even hear Mommy tell me to stay on the patio after she dressed me for Sunday School. I stood on the patio for a few minutes, looking out into our huge backyard. I wondered if the Easter bunny had put any eggs out near the goldfish pond. I wandered out past the pigeon coop toward the pond, and then I spotted Lana, Joaquin's mate.
"Come on, Lana!" I shouted. I clapped my hands like I'd seen Dad do. "Come on, girl!"
A big gray sporting dog, Lana was an excellent pet, but she was as playful as a puppy that morning. Panting wildly, she tore up to me and sniffed at my face, then nosed me along backwards a few steps until I lost my balance. Before I knew it, Lana was barking at me and I was sitting in the pond.
By that time, Mom and Dad noticed I was missing, and they came running out past the carport and the pigeon coop.
"Dusty!" Mommy screamed. "Oh, Papa, he's in the pond! He'll drown! Get him out!"
As soon as they realized I was all right—just covered with mud and muck—Mommy scolded me.
"Don't go near the pond anymore, Dusty! Look at you! What a mess. Now you'll have to wear your old clothes to Sunday School. You scared me!" But Mommy didn't sound scared to me. She sounded mad. She rattled off her lecture in rat-a-tat style as she marched me onto the patio and into the little kitchen next to Daddy's study.
In the kitchen she peeled off my little Western suit and sopping boots and socks so I wouldn't drip, then dried me off with a kitchen towel. Swooping me up in her arms, she rushed through the double doors to the dining room, rounded the corner to the entryway and tore past the little wet bar to the stairs. My bedroom was at the top of the stairs, and she plopped me on one of the beds in my room.
"Linda! Cheryl!" she called. "Dusty's made a mess of himself again. Are you ready for Sunday School? I'll be just a minute!"
"I can't get my new bonnet tied, Mommy," Linda called. "Cheryl helped me buckle my Sunday School shoes, though."
"Thank you, Cheryl!" Mommy pulled out a fresh set of underwear from the dresser drawer and grabbed my old Sunday clothes from the closet.
"Come on, you little stinker," she said. "This will make you happy—now you get to have your face washed and your hair combed all over again!" She maneuvered me into the bathroom and pulled a wash cloth from the built-in dresser. By this time I was cold, so I eased over to the wall heater while Mom turned the porcelain spigot on the old-fashioned sink. Tiled halfway up the wall with wood wains-coating above that, the bathroom was cozy, and it felt good to be warm again.
"Dusty," Mommy said, "I'm sorry I yelled at you. You scared me. I thought you might be hurt, and I was afraid. Do you understand?"
I nodded as I toed the braided oval rug on the floor.
"Good." She kissed me on the cheek and took my hand. "This is an important day, Dusty. It's Easter. We're going to church because Jesus is alive!"
The following weeks and months all run together in my memory, but by the time I was four, I was beginning to feel the frustrations of a little boy with older sisters. Although I had no little brother to play with, I did have plenty of toys. Dad made me a hobby horse that I rode by the hour, and because my dad was the "King of the Cowboys," I had unusual Western toys, hobby horses, and wagons that said Roy Rogers on the side. My favorites were the army men—I had a ton of them—but one kind of toy set my teeth on edge. I hated dolls.
Cheryl and Linda, about eight and 10 years old, were forever playing with dolls. Daddy and Grampy had even built them a playhouse out by the pond, where they primped and fussed over their "babies" and gave them all their attention. I felt left out. The girls even hit me with their dolls, and one day I decided to get even. While the girls were at school, I went out to their playhouse, took all their dolls and "strung 'em up" by their necks. When the girls came home, they screamed and cried, "Daddy! Daddy! Dusty's gone and hung all of our dolls!" Daddy went out to investigate, and it seemed like a good idea for me to hide. Dad must have taken the stairs two at a time, because I never made it under the bed, which was my favorite hiding place. Dad caught me and blistered my bottom.
"Dusty, you can't go around hanging your sisters' dolls like that," he said afterwards as he cuddled me on his lap.
"Daddy," I cried, "we don't have any boys around here. We got nothin' but girls and dolls around here."
"Well, Dusty," he said, "maybe we'll have a boy some day. Maybe we will."
Not too long after that, Mommy and Daddy told us some exciting news—news that I couldn't really understand, but I was happy about it, just the same. We were going to have a baby.
TO BE CONTINUED