by Robert W. Phillips - published 1995
The study of Roy Rogers and any of the media in which he appeared is the study of an era, the pastimes of a people, the heroes of a country, then-current photography, Hollywood, art, and "Madison Avenue." One must grasp the era in order to understand how an individual could become rich and famous and gain entry into our history books as a legendary figure. I was not old enough in the 1940s to recall much of what that decade was all about, but I recall the 1950s very well. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president from 1953 on; the world had only been out of a major war for a few short years and the United States was engaged in another war in Korea. Television had not been around very long, and the amount of money a family had left over after meeting necessities determined the pecking order of who got televisions into their homes first. As the grandson of a woman who was crippled and took in boarders to supplement the income of her husband, who was also crippled and made fifty dollars a week as a carpenter during the better weeks, I recall we were about the last ones in town to get a television and then it was a present.
Gathering around a radio in one room to listen to action, suspense, and drama shows was a nightly affair and a part of everyone's lives until television came along. The "cowboy shows," as we called them at the time, were an important part of radio. Men and boys tended to like them more than women and girls, but all enjoyed them to some extent or didn't think any more about them than putting on a pot of beans for supper or going out into the garden to gather the onions and peppers for the meal. "The Roy Rogers Show" (Mutual network; 1944-1955) was one of these, and there wasn't a more popular show to be heard. He came on
Thursday nights and was sponsored by General Foods.
When television came into our home, it took a long time for some programs to catch on. At first, we watched in the daytime, and the personalities we had listened to on the radio were the ones we were most likely to tune in on the tube. As soon as we learned that "The Roy Rogers Show" was on every Sunday evening, 5:30-6:00 p.m. (CST), we never missed a single episode. When a family went to the grocery store back then, the cereal aisle was never overlooked, even when there was no money for the cereal. These were the days before "pop tarts" and microwave meals, and schools stressed the importance of eating cereal. Roy Rogers' picture or likeness was in every cereal aisle, in every grocery store in the country, on the front of Post Cereal boxes (and the backs). Inside those boxes were premiums such as Roy Rogers trading cards or photos. On the backs of the boxes were advertisements that stated that by sending in a quarter with the box-top, you could expect in 4-6 weeks to receive a Roy Rogers sheriff's badge or set of photos. When Christmas time rolled around, the Roy Rogers industry had every base covered. There were toys of every variety for boys and girls; there were clothes and even bedspreads and lamps. Toys were sold in the well-known stores like Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward and cost in the neighborhood of $5. That was a lot of money in the 1950s. Any Roy Rogers item was a class item that bore Roy's own seal of approval as an assurance to parents that it was a wholesome and quality item that was fairly priced.
Roy Rogers was as familiar a name in the schools as he was in homes because he sponsored a safety bike riding program in which all schools and youngsters could participate. Roy Rogers was not merely a cowboy hero to children, however. I recall that movie theaters were full of adults as well. I happen to know that my grandfather, who grew up in the days when the cowboy heroes were William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Buck Jones, was crazy about Roy Rogers. If I did not beat him to the drugstore to get the new Roy Rogers comic each month, it would already be in our house. The comic books were as important a part of American life as the Sunday newspaper color comic sections. Dell Comics had an advantage over most of the rest. They were a perfect place for Roy. Just as he was the most colorful and classy of the "silver screen cowboys," Dell was the most colorful and classy company in the comic business. They used a heavily coated, extra slick cover as opposed to the flat pulp covers of many comics, and they used photo covers and photography that really stood out in the newsstands full of Western comics with illustrated (or "line-drawn") covers.
The 1950s was an era of real heroes when guys like Mickey Mantle and Audie Murphy were constantly in the news. It was hard for any parent to argue against any hero that was everywhere you went, telling kids to eat all the food on their plates, go to Sunday School, mind your parents, be kind to animals, ride your bicycle safely, and study hard. When the rodeo came to cities such as Fort Worth, Texas, many people went not to watch the bull-dogging or bronc busting but to see in person Roy Rogers, "King of the Cowboys," ride Trigger out into that big arena and put the horse through all his famous tricks. It might be hard to conceive of all this today, for we do not have cowboys like this anymore, and we do not have heroes like Roy Rogers anymore either.
All of these heroes rode into a final glistening sunset in the era this book addresses. We might, as adults now, realize that there were some huge money-minded corporations behind the making of icons like Roy. There were corporate giants in advertising—the Madison Avenue folks, the big publishing houses, Hollywood, network television, etc., and they had a lot to do with it all, but the story does not stop there and is not that simple. Although these organizations helped to create the image they desired to sell, it would not have all come together if there had not been some mighty tall men to fill the saddles and if the powers-that-were did not have a person who could protect and maintain that image and thus protect the investment of all concerned.
There were, throughout these decades, dozens of "whisper" magazines, or "gossip" or "scandal" magazines as they were known then, that contained juicy bits of information on every actor that ever walked around the corner of Hollywood and Vine streets. Well, almost every actor. Roy Rogers was in many magazines throughout the heyday of his career, issue after issue, month after month. But today, when you go out and start rummaging through all the old stacks of magazines from the 1940s and 1950s found in used book stores and flea markets across the country, you can save your time looking through the gossip ones. The magazines in which you will find plenty of articles on Roy, his wife, and his kids, usually all together, are ones like Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, Liberty, Screen Stars, Film Land, Modern Screen, etc. The kind of man Roy Rogers has been, and the kind of character he has portrayed, are suited to these better titles. He provided the Hollywood gossip columnists with little to talk about. They did, however, occasionally follow him and his family to church, and there they got their stories and photographs. He was in all the "class" magazines, in stories aimed at the families of America.
Roy spent his lifetime, on and off the screen, living up to this image. It made him a legend. He was one of the "singing cowboy" matinee idols of the 1950s, acting in the "B" westerns of this strange era when the cowboy was seldom seen being vile and violent, a drifter hell-bent on revenge, killing everyone in gory fashion. Instead, he was seen shooting the gun out of the villain's hand, wounding him, or just chasing him out of town in order to get down to the serious business of singing a song to his horse, winning the heart of a decent young lady in distress, and trying to teach a code that was very similar to that of the Boy Scouts of America. Roy was a cowboy who completely represented the genre of Western film: he stood a little taller, looked a little more trim and neat (almost like a Marine Corps lieutenant of the Western set), sat a little taller in the saddle, rode a more magnificent-looking horse, and outfitted himself in attire that was somewhat more colorful and extravagant. At the same time he possessed a much more beautiful singing voice and had more yodeling ability than his competition. Roy Rogers was a little "un-realistic" say the Western purists, but one should keep in mind that the setting in which Roy rode was not so much the real Old West, but rather a semi-mythical present day setting out West. And his attire for a Western entertainer cowboy definitely has its roots in a real part of the Old West, that of the "Wild West Shows" that men like Buffalo Bill Cody owned and performed in. Rogers' films had a touch of class, like the "Wild West" shows. They were part Western musical events and part action films with solid story lines.
The saturation of America with Rogers memorabilia was carried out through radio, phonograph records, movies, comic strips and comic books, novels, toys, food products, television, clothing, etc. So the study of Roy Rogers, the man, Roy Rogers, the character, and the Roy Rogers comic book is a study of Americana and American popular culture in an exciting time—a story of how far one man can go in the entertainment world with enough charisma and determination. The collectible comics, like the collectible toys, are relics of a bygone era when real heroes existed and became legends serving as role models for the nation's youth.
There is a real story that begs to be told in the lives of Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans. Only half of it has been told, and much of that is clouded with old publicity-generated tales and scenarios and by the routine omission of facts, an omission dictated for the most part by a Hollywood publicity department that was always suggesting, advising, and insisting on what should and should not be told.
Over the past sixty years, there have been many biographical and autobiographical works on the Rogers' lives in the form of books, magazine articles, and recorded interviews, all of which have read largely the same, offering little if anything new of substance and forming a chain of rehashed publicity stories.
There have been a few critical evaluations, founded in ignorance and aimed at destroying their image in a contemptible manner. Until now, there has been little attempt at producing a scholarly and objective study. Roy and Dale have lived extraordinary lives in their climb from obscurity to stardom and have become legends as the result of publicity from their film studios and their personal publicity departments and because of the exemplary lives they have lived.
They have been caught up in a celebrity world most of their lives, and books that have told their story have only told part of it. For a researcher who has dissected and analyzed what has appeared in print during those sixty years, there were many gaps to be bridged, holes to be filled, and questions to be answered. I have been a lifelong fan of Roy and Dale, and my research will continue long after the publishing of this work until I am satisfied that every possible question has been answered.
The first two chapters of this book trace the lives and paper trails of two individuals who started out in life as an Ohio farm boy named Leonard Sly and a Texas farm girl named Lucille Smith and wound up, many failures and successes later, as "America's Favorite Western Couple." The publicity is examined and documents are studied that both support and contradict the publicity. It was inevitable that controversy would develop as the result of this exhaustive research. There are those who will not accept that the real people behind the part mythical image are as important to our traditional American values as the image itself. Underneath the symbols of the "King of the Cowboys" and the "Queen of the West" are two very real, and sometimes very ordinary, persons who developed, protected, and dedicated their lives to maintaining the image of these very important symbols. Two of the hardest-working people ever to set foot in Hollywood, they rose to stardom and became American symbols despite a mixture of conventional and unconventional fashions.
In addition to formally introducing the pioneering study of Roy Rogers Comics and Roy in the commercial art form, I have attempted in this work to locate and consolidate into one comprehensive reference source all information pertaining to the phenomenal life and career of Roy Rogers. Although some of this information culled from a thousand sources may seem trivial to some, such detail can be of significance to the future researcher, opening up new avenues to pursue. The author's forty-year Roy Rogers collection, especially those hundreds of items in the print media, which represent a generous amount of pure publicity but also an excellent source for factual detail, has made all of this possible. For the most part, it enables the researcher to find the answers in one text. In any instance, surely few, where this fails to be the case, the source of information is shown, along with a detailed and expansive bibliography that will enable the reader to pursue a topic in greater detail.
Biographical information on the subjects of this work has appeared in numerous books and hundreds of magazine articles over the past sixty years. Conflicting statements in these sources, as well as in countless published and recorded interviews with the subjects, are examined and annotated. Any entries made for the first time are fully supported by documentation or notes from my research that brought about a finding. Hundreds of pages of legal documents, hundreds of magazine articles, numerous published works, and published, recorded and filmed interviews have been used for reference and are shown in the bibliography.
I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD IN 1949 IN ENGLAND [WE HAD MOVED FROM OUR SMALL VILLAGE IN SOUTH WALES WHEN I WAS 5] WHEN MY PARENTS TOOK ME TO A COWBOY MOVIE AT THE THEATER. IT WAS A COLOR MOVIE. THE OPENING SCENE WAS THIS UNBELIEVABLE GOLDEN HORSE [I’D NEVER SEEN ONE BEFORE THIS] WITH A LONG MANE AND TAIL, DASHING ACROSS THE WEST, WITH THIS FANCY DRESSED COWBOY LEANING FORWARD IN THE SADDLE; THEY WERE OFF TO RESCUE THE GAL ON THE RUNAWAY HORSE OR BUGGY [FORGOTTEN WHICH NOW]. THE CAMERA MOVED IN CLOSE TO THIS COWBOY ON HIS HORSE; A TAP ON THE NECK FROM THE COWBOY AND THE HORSE MOVED INTO TOP GEAR…… WOW….. WHAT A SIGHT. I FELT THERE WAS NOTHING MORE GLORIOUS ON THE SILVER SCREEN. MY EYES JUST ABOUT DROPPED OUT OF MY HEAD….. I WAS SMITTEN…… I KNEW RIGHT THEN AND THERE, I HAD TO GO WEST, HAD TO HAVE FANCY COWBOY CLOTHES AND A HORSE LIKE THIS FAST GOLDEN ONE I WAS WATCHING. OF COURSE WITHIN A FEW MINUTES OF THE MOVIE, HE INTRODUCED HIMSELF TO THE LADY AS “ROY ROGERS,” AND HIS HORSE NAMED “TRIGGER.”
I DID GO WEST AT THE AGE OF 18, TO WESTERN CANADA [VERY EASY TO IMMIGRATE THERE IN 1961], TO SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN [HOW’S THAT FOR COWBOY/INDIAN SOUNDING LAND]. BEST TOWN THEY COULD HAVE SENT ME TO. IT WAS THERE UNDER A MAN [HALF INDIAN AND HALF WHITE] THAT I LEARNED JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING TO DO WITH WESTERN HORSES….. HE WOULD BUY “WILD” - I MEAN REAL WILD HORSES. NEVER BEEN TOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDS, AND TEACH US YOUNG GUYS HOW TO BREAK THEM; IT WAS THERE I ALSO LEARNED HOW TO “TRICK RIDE.”
NO I DID NOT GET MY “TRIGGER” AT THAT TIME.
I WAS WORKING HARD AT BEING A COWBOY, AND ALL SEEMED TO BE GOING JUST AS I PLANNED FROM AGE 7.
THE LORD HAD OTHER IDEAS FOR MY LIFE.
I WOULD IN SASKATOON LEARN THE TRADE OF ORTHOPAEDIC HAND MADE SHOES AND BOOTS, AS WELL AS ORTHOTICS. THE LORD WAS INTRODUCING ME MORE AND MORE, IN A MUCH DEEPER WAY IN MY LIFE, TO HIS WORD THE BIBLE [THAT I GREW UP ON BEING SCHOOLED IN A CHURCH OF ENGLAND SCHOOL All MY LIFE FROM GRADE ONE TO TWELVE]. HE SHOWED ME HE WANTED ME FOR HIS MINISTRY. SO IT WAS TO BE….. I PUT ASIDE MY BOYHOOD PLANS AND DEVOTED MYSELF TO THE WORK OF THE LORD.
I THINK THE LORD WAS PLEASED. AT THE AGE OF 62 I GOT BACK INTO HORSES FOR A PASTIME AND FUN-TIME. I HAD THIS STILL SMALL VOICE SAYING TO ME “OKAY, YOU CAN NOW LOOK FOR YOUR ‘TRIGGER’ “ - WHICH I DID BUT DID NOT SEEM TO BE HAPPENING. THEN AN AD APPEARED IN A HORSE MAGAZINE “REGISTERED QUARTER HORSE FOR SALE DUE TO ILL-HEALTH.” IT WAS A LADY CALLED DEBBIE, AN OUR NORTH OF CALGARY WHERE I WAS LIVING. I EMAILED HER AND ASKED, “WELL YOU DON’T HAPPEN TO HAVE THE HORSE OF MY CHILDHOOD DREAMS—— A DARK GOLDEN PALOMINO, A MARE, YOUNG, AND ABOUT 15 HH.” SHE ANSWERED BACK TO MY SOMEWHAT SHOCK, “YES, I HAVE THE VERY HORSE YOUR LOOKING FOR.”
AND INDEED SHE DID; THAT’S HOW I GOT MY “TRIGGER” - HER REGISTERED NAME IS “FINAL TOUCH” - HER GRANDFATHER WAS “I’M IMPRESSIVE” - THE USA NATIONAL HALTER CHAMPION. DEBBIE BOUGHT HER FROM THE USA AS A YEARLING FOR HER BREEDING RANCH. SHE’S HAD TWO BABIES AND WAS A GREAT MOTHER. SHE IS INDEED BEAUTIFUL, AND AS FAST AS A BULLET. I’VE NOW HAD HER 12 YEARS THIS COMING SPRING OF 2017.
I THANK THE LORD FOR ALL THE MANY BLESSINGS I’VE HAD IN MY LIFE, AND FOR HIM GIVING ME THE HORSE OF MY 7 YEAR OLD DREAMS.
THE LORD IS GOOD ALL THE TIME, AND ALL THE TIME THE LORD IS GOOD.