THE RISE OF A KING…..Leonard becomes Roy Rogers
He's the man who made the maidens mourn when they discovered he had been a husband for four secret years. Louella Parsons was the first to share the news about his marital status and Republic studios was deluged with written lamentations of disapproving females. He's the right kind of guy who is first in the hearts of his country women.
Photoplay Magazine, November 194,1
Leonard peered through the black bars on the giant gate leading onto the Republic Pictures lot. He watched actors, stagehands, wardrobe people, and technicians zigzag from one studio to the next. It was organized chaos, and the young entertainer from Ohio wanted to be a part of it. The year was 1937.
He glanced down at his watch—past lunchtime. He'd been standing at the entrance of the studio since early that morning. He didn't have a scheduled appointment, and no amount of persuasion could entice the door guard to let him pass. Leonard stared down at his cowboy boots, desperately trying to think of a way to get past the strict sentry. At that very moment, he knew, acting hopefuls were competing to be Republic's newest singing cowboy.
Leonard had heard about the search the day before while he was at a hat shop in Glendale. A frantic man had burst into the store in search of a John Wayne-style Stetson. When Leonard asked him what he was so excited about, the anxious thespian had filled him in on Republic's quest. Gene Autry was the studio's current singing cowboy star, but it was common knowledge there were contract issues that called into question future pictures with the actor. Republic executives weren't about to let themselves be held hostage to Autry's demands. They were now looking for a possible replacement.
These days Leonard Slye was calling himself Dick Weston. He thought the name sounded a bit more rugged than the one his parents had given him. And he needed a rugged handle if he was to be taken seriously as a western entertainer. He was no stranger to the motion-picture business, having performed musically in a number of films with The Sons of the Pioneers. In addition to singing he had played minor roles in a couple of movies, acting alongside Bing Crosby and Joan Davis. Universal even granted Dick Weston a screen test at one time, but he didn't get the job with the studio. Executives felt he photographed too young.
Leonard/Dick hoped the executives at Republic Pictures would see him differently.
The guard shot the desperate actor a stern look. Leonard smiled a pleading smile then, realizing it was having no effect, turned away. In the middle distance he spotted a group of studio employees returning from lunch. As they neared the gate, he decided to join them on their way in. Pulling his collar up and his hat down low, he slipped past the guard. The dedicated attendant spotted Leonard ten yards from the guardhouse and called out for him to stop. Leonard did as he was told. Just as he had resigned himself to being thrown off the premises, he heard a friendly voice calling his name. Producer Sol Siegel hurried over to him and shook his hand. The guard returned to his post when the producer waved him off.
Siegel produced many Gene Autry movies and had cast Leonard in minor roles in some of them. Leonard removed his hat and told Sol he had heard they were testing for singing cowboys. The producer nodded. "I've tested seventeen men already," he told Leonard. "And I don't feel good about any of them. If you have your guitar, come on in and give it a try."
Leonard serenaded Siegel with "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and a fast-paced yodeling tune called "Haddie Brown." The producer was impressed and offered Leonard a screen test. Leonard floated out of the studio on a cloud, his hopes high that he might be offered a contract. There was only one hurdle to overcome for that to be possible.
The Sons of the Pioneers had become a popular singing group. Their public appearances, screen vocals, and radio programs had made the band a household name. Not only did the Sons appear on KHJM radio's show Hollywood's Barn Dance, but the boys were under contract with Columbia Pictures to provide music for its films. That contract was the hurdle Leonard needed to clear. Unless he found a replacement for himself with the band, he wouldn't be able to sign with Republic Pictures.
Leonard sought out an old friend of his named Pat Brady. Pat played the bass fiddle in a string quartet at a restaurant in Sunset Beach. He was an accomplished musician, and Leonard respected him, not only for his musical talents, but also because he hailed from Ohio. Leonard invited Pat to take his place with the Sons of the Pioneers. "With you as my replacement," Leonard told him, "I would be free to test for the Republic contract."
The members of the band agreed that Pat would make a fine addition. Pat agreed to give it a try. Columbia approved of the replacement, and Leonard was free to leave.
On October 13,1937, Leonard Slye signed a long-term contract with Republic Studios. He would be making $75 a week. The young boy from Duck Run, Ohio, had arrived.
Republic was known for its high-action B westerns. Herbert J. Yates, the president and chairman of the board of Republic Pictures Corporation, had entered the film business in 1910 by financing several Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle productions.
Yates had later developed the idea of the singing cowboy that helped make Bob Steele, Johnny Mack Brown, and Gene Autry popular. Indeed, Gene Autry was the studio's number one box-office draw among the western stars. Yates was not comfortable with his contract players having the power associated with celebrity, however. When Autry began making demands and seeking to make changes to his contract, the executive was determined to send the actor a message letting him know his status would not hold the studio hostage.
Yates decided to look for another singing cowboy—one who would help Republic increase its production of westerns and be ready to replace the veteran actor if necessary. Leonard Slye had no idea what lay ahead of him.
The studio set out to transform Leonard into "something the moviegoing public would like." After executives determined his upper body was undersized, he was placed on an exercise program that included one hundred handstands a day. Executives found a problem with Leonard's eyes, too. "They're too squinty," he was told.
For a time he used drops to relax the eye muscle and dilate the pupils. And then he received his first name change. Leonard Slye became known as Dick Weston, making his solo singing film debut under that name in 1937 in Wild Horse Rodeo, starring The Three Mesquiteers. Dick Weston also appeared in another film, The Old Barn Dance, opposite Gene Autry.
Leonard was grateful for the work and the chance to work alongside the Republic veteran. His weekly paychecks helped the young Rogers family purchase a home. The newlyweds were confident his big break was about to come.
In the meantime, however, another name change and image enhancement project was in the works at the studio. Herbert Yates and Sol Siegel decided to call him Roy Rogers. Rogers, after Will Rogers, and Roy because it was a name that rolled easily off the tongue. Behind the scenes, the publicity department was creating the quintessential cowboy biography for their newest acquisition.
Leonard Slye was amazed at all Roy Rogers had done. According to Republic Pictures, Roy Rogers was born in Cody, Wyoming, and grew up on a large cattle ranch. He was an expert horseback rider, bronc buster, and top hand with a gun and rope. After a time spent in New Mexico, he headed even farther west, parking his spurs at Republic Studios. The publicity department assured the reserved singing cowboy that altering history was what B westerns were all about.
For weeks, Roy Rogers sat around the studio lot waiting for his chance to be used in a picture. Six months after Republic completed filming The Old Barn Dance, production got under way for another Autry picture, Under Western Stars. By this time Gene and Herbert Yates had been at odds with each other for some time over the money Gene earned for radio appearances and endorsements.
Until their difference could be resolved and a new contract between them drawn up, Autry refused to show up for filming. Yates suspended the actor, and Roy Rogers was summoned to take his place.
Roy would be a good guy in this picture, starring opposite Carol Hughes and Smiley Burnette. The story revolved around a cowboy who takes on Congress to help save poor, starving farmers and ranchers during the Depression. Roy had learned to ride as a boy and was a natural for the role that called for an experienced horseman who would sport a white hat and ride a golden palomino named Golden Cloud. Smiley Burnette referred to the animal as Trigger in reference to his speed and style, and Roy instantly took to the beautiful horse with his flaxen [white - Keith Hunt] mane and tail and proud arched neck. Trigger was four years old when Roy rode him for the first time. He had already appeared in one other movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood. He had an easy lope and fast gallop. Roy and he would become inseparable.
Under Western Stars premiered at the Capitol Theater in Dallas, Texas, in April 1938. Roy, Smiley Burnette, and the Sons of the Pioneers were on hand for the event. Roy and the band performed for the packed theater, and the town mayor gave the boys a key to the city.
In its review of April 12, 1938, the Dallas Morning News wrote, "'Under Western Stars' introduces young Mister Rogers as a new cowboy hero, real out west and not drugstore variety. This lad isn't the pretty boy type, but a clean cut youngster who looks as if he had grown up on the prairies, not backstage with a mail order cowboy suit. An engaging smile, a good voice and an easy manner ought to put him out in front before very long."
Mattie and Andy Slye drove to the local theater in Duck Run to see the film. It was the first of many viewings. They followed the movie from town to town as it played in Ohio. Roy eventually had a print made for his proud parents.
The success of the film enabled Roy to help his family in ways he never could before. With his first paycheck he purchased a new brace for his mother's leg. It was something he'd always promised himself he would do if he ever broke into the business.
Roy toured the country for three months promoting the film. When he returned home he found stacks of mail awaiting him. Fans praised him for his easy manner, engaging smile, and good singing voice. They were equally taken with Trigger.
Trigger was owned by Hudkins Stables in Los Angeles. After visiting the palomino several times, Roy decided he had to have the horse for his own. "I knew they couldn't make anything better than this one," he told the handler. Roy paid $2,500 for his gold-colored costar. "It seemed a lot of money at the time," Roy later confessed. "But I can tell you for sure and certain it was the best twenty-five hundred dollars I ever spent."
TODAY IN 2016 THAT WOULD BE AT LEAST $30,000 - Keith Hunt
Arline was happy about Roy's and Trigger's success in Under Western Stars. She helped him respond to the mountain of fan letters he received every day. The people who wrote him varied in age from eight to sixty-eight. Keeping up with the incoming mail was an expensive chore—one Roy and Arline paid for out of their own earnings.
The singing cowboy believed if someone was thoughtful enough to sit down and write him a letter, he had an obligation to answer.
Roy was eventually spending more in postage than his salary. He appealed to Herbert Yates to help him pay for stamps and possibly hire a secretary to help him respond to the writers. Yates said no, suggesting that Roy do what other stars do and throw the letters in the trash. Roy refused to do that.
To supplement his income, Roy arranged a series of one-night appearances. Theaters paid $150 for an evening performance. In between giving musical programs across the country, Roy continued to make movies for Republic, starring in films such as Billy the Kid Returns, Days of Jesse James, and Red River Valley. The fan mail increased as his fame grew. Still Yates refused to help Roy with the letters.
Frustrated with his apathetic boss, Roy rented a five-ton dump truck, filled it with fan mail, and drove over to the studio. He backed the vehicle up in front of Yates's office and dumped the letters on the lawn. Roy's actions prompted little response from the stubborn executive. He increased his star's pay by $25 a week but steadfastly refused to do more.
After two years with Republic, Roy Rogers was making $150 a week and spending most of that salary responding to fan mail. Agents sought the entertainer out, but it wasn't until he met Art Rush that he decided to trust his career to someone other than himself. Rush represented such talent as Nelson Eddy and Benny Goodman. He had grown up in Ohio and seemed to Roy to be a decent and honorable man. Rush arranged public appearances for Roy at rodeos and got him steady work on a radio show called Manhattan Cowboy. In no time, under Rush's direction, Roy was earning ten times what his Republic acting job paid for his other appearances.
Roy and Arline set out to find themselves a new home, one that could accommodate the children they hoped to have. While searching for a new place, the couple came across a modest chicken ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Roy purchased the house for his mother and father.
Life for the Rogerses was happy. Roy's movie career continued to blossom, and Arline kept the home fires burning. They had everything they could imagine, except a baby. After several years of trying to conceive, the pair decided to consider adoption. Roy came in contact with many orphaned children while performing for group homes and hospitals. He knew firsthand the hearts that longed to have a home.
While on a business trip to Dallas, Texas, Roy took a tour of Hope Cottage, a home for orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children. Forty-two cribs filled one room at the facility. Each crib contained a baby. As Roy walked by the infants, his heart broke for their situation. His eyes settled on an alert, tow-headed moppet staring right at him.
The baby's name was Cheryl Darlene, and Roy knew the moment he saw her she would be his daughter. Arline was thrilled with her new baby. She had never wanted anything more than to be a wife and a mother. The couples's friends and family were thrilled for the couple as well. Some fans and newspaper columnists were less so.
It was not public knowledge that Roy was a married man. Studios, thinking a star's marital status influenced box-office receipts, wanted that information kept quiet. Now the whole world knew that Roy Rogers was a family man. The hearts of lovesick women carrying a torch for the cowboy were shattered.
Less than a year after Arline and Roy brought Cheryl home, Arline announced to her husband that she was expecting. The couple was ecstatic. On April 18, 1943, the Rogers brought home a second daughter, Linda Lou. That same year theater owners proclaimed Roy Rogers to be the number one western star in the country.
Not only was Roy Rogers a proud father and husband, he was now, according to Republic Pictures executives, King of the Cowboys.