Seventy-five dollars a week, each and every week! That's what Republic agreed to pay me for the next seven years. I was sitting on top of the world.
(This was when Roy got the leading male part in the movie "Under Western Stars" - 1938, after Gene Autry went on strike with Republic Pictures. It was then, as Republic's new singing cowboy, that Roy was put on salary of $75 a week. From all I've read and that has been written, he was never on a salary with Republic before being chosen to be Republic's new singing cowboy, in-place of Gene Autry - Keith Hunt)
Before I signed, I had to wangle my way out of the contract the Sons of the Pioneers had only recently signed with Columbia Pictures. Actually, that was easy. Harry Cohn, the studio boss, was happy to release me so long as I promised to find someone to replace me in the group. His decision made my move to Republic possible, and also underscored why I wanted to be at Republic rather than Columbia. I would have been just another cowboy singer at Gower Gulch—easily replaceable—rather than a potential leading man the way they were talking at Republic. Besides, Republic made the best, most action-packed Westerns in those days.
My place in the Sons of the Pioneers was taken by Robert Ellsworth O'Brady, a fine bass fiddle player who had also learned comedy from his parents, who were vaudevidians. Everyone called him Pat Brady, and I liked him a lot. He was originally an Ohio boy himself, and would later become one of my best pals, then a good sidekick in movies and on television. He was a real mugger when he got up stage—made faces of all kinds, cracked up the audience; but you know something funny? Offstage, he was more shy than me. Why, he'd paw the floor and look at his shoes whenever he had to talk to someone new.
All the high spirits I felt after my screen test and getting the contract with Republic were soon replaced with the harsher realities of finding myself described as "raw talent" that needed to be made into a marketable commodity. My singing voice, yodeling talents, and acceptable screen presence were just the beginning of the package Republic wanted to put together. They decided to use studio machinery to rework me into something that the moviegoing public would like.
The first problem they wanted to solve was my eyes. The studio felt that a movie star should have big, soft, limpid ones like Clark Gable's. Mine were squinty, just like Pop's—I guess because of our Choctaw blood. They put me on a routine of prescription eyedrops that were supposed to relax my eye muscles and dilate my pupils. Fortunately, this lasted only a short while. After I appeared as a bit player and sang a solo in Wild Horse Rodeo (one of a series of "Three Mes-quiteer" Westerns that were popular in the 1930s), the studio got a good handful of letters from folks who had liked my face the way it had been. "What did you do to his eyes?" they wanted to know. After that, I quit using the eyedrops, and once I got popular these squinty eyes of mine pretty much became a trademark.
Next, my body was examined and it was decided that my upper chest and shoulders were too puny. I was instructed to do a hundred handstands a day and walk around on my hands as long as I could. I actually got pretty good at it, and could walk around on my hands nearly as comfortably as on my feet. I wonder if my Pop's talents as an acrobat might have been passed down to me along with his eyes. Anyway, this hand-walking came in handy as a way to pass the time during my first few months at the studio.
I showed up for work every day, but most days I had absolutely nothing to do. So I whittled some, shot the breeze with other bit players between takes, and walked from set to set and around the lot on my hands.
(I doubt very much indeed this has nothing to do when filming "Under Western Stars" where Roy was busy in the lead role. He's probably thinking of the times he and the Sons of the Pioneers were hired for a few movies, then with no more than a bit part, you'd have lots of times with "absolutely nothing to do." I've spoken to "bit part players" in movies and that is exactly what they tell you - you stand, you sit, you walk around all day or days long with nothing to do; your bit part can come at the end of the day, if the weather is right, and if it not, your bit part waits for another day…..yes the few I've talked to say having a bit part in a western can be as boring as boring can be. There was lots to do when Roy was shooting "Under Western Stars" and other movies, where Roy and Dale speak of getting up at 4:30 a.m and not getting home till after sun-set - Keith Hunt)
At the time, I was calling myself Dick Weston. I had traded in Leonard Slye for the new name when I first started getting small roles in movies because I believed it sounded more rugged. But the studio people didn't like it—thought it was too bland.
(The studio people did not like it AFTER Len got the part of the main singing cowboy. Before that, when in some movies with The Sons of the Pioneers, Republic could care less what his name was; the Sons of the Pioneers were hired as a group, for some singing. They would be paid as a group and split evenly among them all, as was their agreement among themselves. Republic did not care what their names were - Keith Hunt)
One day I was called into the office of Herbert Yates, the head of the studio. Sol and Moe Siegel were there, too.
(This was after Roy had been hired and contracted to take Gene Autry's spot as lead role singing cowboy in what would be Roy's first full length western movie - Under Western Stars - Keith Hunt)
They all kind of ganged up and told me that if they were going to make anything of me, the first thing they had to do was give me a new name. Because Will Rogers had been a wonderful man and was loved by all America, one of them suggested the last name "Rogers." I liked that because he was one of my heroes, too, so I said okay. Then one of those fellas said he thought Leroy would go pretty good with it. I said a loud NO. You see, I had known a kid named Leroy back in Ohio when I was young, and I didn't like him one bit. I sure didn't want his name stuck to me for all the world to know. But then I shortened it to Roy, which sounded pretty good. Mr. Yates approved. He said it flowed off the tongue. "I like it," he declared. "It's alliterative."
Sol Siegel pointed out with great delight that in French, Roy means "king."
So it was that early in 1938 I became Roy Rogers. As a matter of fact, I didn't legally change my name from Leonard Slye to Roy Rogers until 1942; I reckon I wasn't quite certain until then that my work as an actor was for real. Before I even got comfortable with my new name, I was sued by a vaude-villian named Roy Rogers. He felt that there wasn't room for two of us in show business. Republic made a deal with him, giving him some money and the right to use his name on stage but keeping the rights to the name Roy Rogers for motion pictures. I'm not sure exactly what they paid the other Roy Rogers, but he walked away a happy man; and I walked away with a whole new identity.
The new and improved Roy Rogers was supposed to be a man who had a much more interesting life than I ever did. Studio publicists decided that to go with my name, they'd brew up a tale or two about where I came from. I guess they figured the saga of poor Len Slye from Duck Run, Ohio, wasn't romantic and heroic enough. So they came up with a biography for me that they started sending out in press releases even before I had a featured role in a movie. Republic's "newest Western star," Roy Rogers, had been born in Cody, Wyoming, and grew up on a vast cattle ranch, where he picked up horseback riding skills before he learned to walk. He was a rodeo star at a tender age, and a top hand with a gun and a rope. He left home (on horseback) for New Mexico, where he worked as a cowpuncher before galloping West and tying up his trusty mount at Republic Studio's hitching post.
The studio was so danged busy fussing around with my name, my looks, and whoppers about my background that they pretty much forgot to put me in any pictures. Other than my small roles in Wild Horse Rodeo and Gene Autry's The Old Barn Dance, I had way more time than I wanted to perfect my hand-walking skills. Don't get me wrong. After pickin' peaches and working in the shoe factory I was as happy as a plump pig in the sunshine to be in the movies and taking home a weekly paycheck. Arlene and I had a roof over our heads, and I was confident that my big break would come along any day.
(Knowing the skin-flint Yates was, I doubt very much he'd be paying some $75 a week for doing just about nothing. Doing just about nothing was probably when the Song of the Pioneers were hired in as "bit part singers" in Gene Autry movies and a few others. Maybe Roy was paid a small amount until those pictures were finished; but from Roy himself, he got the $75 a week when hired full time by Republic. From what I've read before from Roy and others the $75 per week came when Roy was hires to take the place of Gene Autry in Under Western Stars - Keith Hunt)
It happened when Gene Autry did what he had been threatening to do: up and quit. He and Mr. Yates came to loggerheads over the fact that the studio was getting a nickel for every dime he made, no matter how he made it—not just movies, but radio, personal appearances, and endorsements. Another problem was that Gene didn't like the way Republic was selling his pictures—as part of a package, forcing exhibitors to take a bunch of movies they might not want in order to get one of his. He was one of the most popular movie stars in the country at the time, but the only person more stubborn than ol' Gene was Mr. Yates, who refused to alter the contract. On the first scheduled day of shooting a picture to be called Washington Cowboy, Gene sent word to the studio that he wasn't going to show up. In retaliation, Mr. Yates suspended him, then sued to prevent him from performing in any venue or using his name for any purpose until he fulfilled his obligations to Republic.
(This is all true, then and only then did Republic start the search for another singing cowboy to replace ol' Gene……and the fellow who seemed to be leader of The Sons of the Pioneers, never entered the mind of any of the "big brass" at Republic - Keith Hunt)
I was called into the offices of Republic and offered the leading role in Washington Cowboy.
(Washington Cowboy became "Under Western Stars" - Roy going into the office to be offered the lead role….well, it may have happened when they decided to give the role to Roy [and Roy was not Roy then, but Len … or Dick, or whatever he was calling himself before he was renamed Roy Rogers]. The story of how Roy got the audition is famous among Roy Rogers fans, and was repeated by Roy many many times in interviews and writings, and on Happy Trails Theater. Roy here probably was tired [at age 83 or so] to repeat it again for the umpteenth time, so I suspect he skipped over it and gave the time when he was offered the role…..and so a kinda "come into the office Len…." How did Len get the audition? To state it once more - Len was in the hat shop picking up his cowboy hat after cleaning and reblocking; in comes an excited guy and tells them Republic is auditioning fellows for the singing cowboy lead role in their up-coming movie. Len has no pass to get through the entrance gate to try out for the audition; he see a bunch of staff people; he mixes in with them; gets through the gate; a voice calls out to him; he think they caught him sneaking in; thinks it's all over; but its Sol Siegel, the producer. Len says he wants to try out for the part offered. Sol says he did not know why he never thought about Len, the leader of the Sons of the Pioneers. They had been in a few Republic pictures already. Len gets the audition, after running back to get his guitar. Len thinks he did "Tumblin' Tumbleweed" and "Hady Brown" that had some pretty fancy yodelling in it. So it may have been some days after [Len didn't remember or had forgotten when he was 83] that Len was called back in to say they were offering him the role - Keith Hunt).
This was what I had been shooting for, although it sure as heck wasn't how I wanted to get my first big part. At the time, I didn't know Gene Autry all that well—he was a big star and I was pretty much a nobody—but I liked him. I've always liked him. Ever since the beginning, though, a lot of studio p.r. people have tried to create a rivalry between us, and the fact that I replaced him when he walked out made it easy to imagine we saw each other as enemies. With all the write-ups, you'd think we hated each other. But believe me, that's just Hollywood malarkey. Problem was, that when you were under contract to a studio, you didn't have much control over what they said about you or even over the words they'd put in your mouth. There were plenty of times they'd give something to a writer that Gene supposedly said about me, or I about him—something mean and ugly—and it would go into print. Whenever that happened, he'd call me or I'd call him and say, "Listen, Gene, you know I said nothing like this whatsoever." We've gotten along just fine over the years. We're different sorts of people, that's for sure—I like the outdoors, hunting, and such; he was always more of a businessman—but we're two human beings, and we respect each other. Always have, no matter what words they've put in our mouths.
I liked the story of Washington Cowboy. It was about a buckaroo who goes to Congress to save poor starving farmers and ranchers during the Depression. Well, I knew a little something about those hard times myself, and the idea of at last being the good guy really appealed to me. The leading lady was Carol Hughes; my sidekick was Smiley Burnette, along with his horse, Ring-Eye Nellie; and my horse was a newcomer to pictures, a big golden palomino named Trigger.
(Well the horse that Roy chose was not named Trigger when Roy tried him out, but it was not too long after that the horse was named Trigger…. and it stuck from then on out - Keith Hunt)
A few days before shooting began, several different stables brought horses around for me to try. After all, you can't be a movie cowboy without one! Each outfit was eager for me to pick their horse because if I did, it meant that they would likely be able to supply all the posse horses for the picture. There were six or seven good—I mean really good—mounts to try. They were handsome, well-trained, and fast. But the minute I got on this palomino stallion brought over by the Hudkins Stables, I didn't even consider any of the others. He was beautiful with his flaxen mane and tail and proud arched neck. As I hit an easy lope, then a fast gallop, I could feel that this boy was an athlete with power to spare and fine balance that would set him in good stead for chases over rocky grades and down steep mountain slopes. His sire had been a racehorse; his mother was a cold-blooded palomino; he took his power from Dad and his good looks and easygoing personality from Mom. Named Golden Cloud, he was four years old at the time and had already appeared in one other movie—as Olivia De Havilland's horse in The Adventures of Robin Hood. His name got changed when Smiley Burnette and I were hanging around the set one day and I was practicing my quick-draw. Smiley said, "Roy, as quick as that horse of yours is, you ought to call him Trigger."
Washington Cowboy was renamed Under Western Stars. Republic put everything they had behind making and promoting it. In April 1938, they sent me, Smiley, and the Sons of the Pioneers down for the premiere in Dallas, where we performed live to a full house and were given the key to the city. Critics liked it, and I got reviews that made my head swell.
Variety called me "a cinch B.O.'er"; the New York Times said I was "a new Playboy of the Western World . . . who has a drawl like Gary Cooper [and] a smile like Shirley Temple." Republic was known for producing B-Westerns, but Under Western Stars made its way to first-run houses such as the Criterion Theater in New York City. Audiences in cities and small towns liked it as much as the critics did; but no long lines of people waiting to see my first picture thrilled me quite as much as my own mom and pop's reaction. They drove their old jalopy to the theater it was playing in and watched it over and over again, night after night. A few years later I had the studio make them their very own print.
During the three months after the picture was released, I toured the country and promoted it in every big and little city you can think of. Wherever I went and listened to people tell me how much they enjoyed Under Western Stars, I heard how much they liked not only my performance but also Trigger's. Trigger was still owned by the Hudkins Stables, which meant that I couldn't take him out on a personal appearance tour if I wanted to; it also meant that they could lease him to another cowboy actor if they wanted to. When I returned from the publicity tour I went out to see Clyde Hudkins. I found him in the barn. "Sell the palomino to me," I said, "and if I hit the jackpot, I'll make sure Hudkins horses are on the set."
Mr. Hudkins considered my proposition as he watched me rub the nose of the golden stallion, who had stuck his head out of his stall when he heard my voice. Then he named his price: $2,500. Remember, I was earning seventy-five dollars a week. Twenty-five hundred dollars was like Sutter's gold. Still, I took a deep breath and held out my hand to shake. It was a deal. Mr. Hudkins agreed to take care of ol' Trig until I came up with the money. I paid him off on time, just like you would a bedroom set. It seemed like a lot of money back then, but I can tell you for sure and certain that it was the best $2,500 I ever spent.
(In Today's money - 2016 - the horse was sold for AT LEAST $30,000 - Keith Hunt)
Exactly what it meant to be a star didn't hit me till I came home from that first publicity tour and walked into the mail-room of Republic Studios. There I came face to face with a Mount Everest of fan mail. The next day Arlene went over with me to try to sort it all out, and piece by piece, we answered letters and signed photographs and hand-addressed every one. By the end of the day, the pile of new letters that had come in was twice the size of the ones we had answered.
I may have been a star to the public, but you sure wouldn't have known it by the way I was treated at the studio. Why, Arlene and I spent half our time running back and forth to the post office all day long and buying stamps with money from our own pockets. I was actually spending more in postage than my salary. When I asked for a secretary to help answer all the letters, Mr. Yates refused. He suggested doing what some other movie stars did—throwing the fan mail in the garbage.
I didn't like that idea at all. It went against my nature. It was rude, and Mom and Pop didn't bring me up to be rude to people who were nice enough to take the time to sit down and write me a letter. Anyway, all the people who wrote those letters were the same ones who stood in line to buy movie tickets. It seemed like a sensible exchange to me: spend a few pennies for a stamp to mail them back on autograph in return for them spending a dime to buy a movie ticket. The more I traveled around the country to do personal appearances and met the people who were writing these fan letters, the angrier I got at Republic for disrespecting them.
I returned to Hollywood from a long road trip with a full head of steam about this matter, and decided to put my old skills as a truck driver to use. I rented a five-ton dump truck and drove it over to the studio. I pulled it up to the loading dock at the mailroom and filled it full of Roy Rogers fan mail waiting to be answered. I backed the truck up in front of Herb Yates's office, opened the back gate, and hoisted the bed. Out tumbled a cascade of letters forming a huge pile in front of his picture window. He came running out screaming and yelling and demanding to know what I was doing. I told him that this was the mail that I alone was supposed to handle and that I would appreciate it if the studio gave me a hand in writing back to the fans. The Old Man was red in the face with anger as I climbed back into the cab of the truck. "Rogers, take this away," he screamed as I waved sweetly back at him and drove off.
"Nope," I called back. "I'm going to leave it here on your lawn." As I drove away, I saw him in the rearview mirror, jumping up and down next to that mountain of letters.
It would be great if I could tell you that the next day I had a squadron of secretaries at my disposal, but Yates was as stubborn with me as he had been with Gene Autry. I received a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise (I suppose to help with the price of stamps). I, Arlene, my mom, and my sisters still spent a whole lot of free time slogging through the 20,000 pieces of fan mail that came in each week for me.
Mr. Yates kept me plenty busy after the success of Under Western Stars. I made thirty-six pictures between 1938 and 1942. Each was about an hour long. Gene Autry had ironed out his contract dispute and come back to the studio, so we were working there at the same time; but our movies were generally pretty different. Gene always played himself, and his movies were all set in modern times with cars and radios and bad guys in business suits. Most of my early pictures after Under Western Stars were set in the past, and I played someone else, not Roy Rogers. I was Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, or Buffalo Bill; and we tried to give each picture an historical flavor. I always seemed to be wearing some sort of costume from the Civil War or the old days, and I didn't always play the good guy either. In Billy the Kid Returns, I played two roles—one as Billy the Kid and another as a good guy who looks like him and gets accused of killing somebody. I sang about a half-dozen songs in each picture, and even though I started out thinking of myself as more a singer than an actor, I eventually learned acting pretty much the way I learned music—by ear. I would read a script and I'd hear it a certain way in my head, and that's the way I did it. If I was a bad guy, I didn't smile; if I was a good guy, I had plenty of pleasant personality and a lot of smiles. That was about it: I never tried any fancy trick acting on screen. I was just me. The Roy Rogers way back then was the same as the one sittin' here today. As Popeye used to say, "I yam what I yam."
(Well we can all probably agree at age 83 or so you may forget a few things. Back in the middle 1980s on Happy Trails Theater, Roy said he was taught lots on acting by "Gabby." And IF Roy sang half a dozen or so songs in those early movies they have sure cut lots of them out today, when you buy those early movies. Some of them only have a few songs in them. Then not all of Roy's early movies were "historical" ones…some were just "bad guys and good guys" type movies, and some very talented "music" and "comedy" people were in them - Keith Hunt)
I did argue with Mr. Yates when he tried to cast me as a real heel in a non-Western movie about a newspaper called The Front Page. I was supposed to be a cigarette-smoking, hard-drinking reporter. I knew for sure that my fans wouldn't like it at all if I played that part, but when I said no, the Old Man started yelling and reminding me I was under contract to the studio. To get me in line, he threatened to take away my upcoming cowboy roles as well, and to put a point on his threat, he said he would replace me with another actor who could ride Trigger in my place. The horse would make a star of anyone who rode him, he argued. "Trigger is the one who's earning the paycheck, not you, Rogers," he said. It sure was fun to tell Mr. Yates that there wasn't going to be any other cowboy riding Trigger, because I owned him. As angry as he was, he wasn't fool enough to press his hand. Trigger was pulling in hundreds of fan letters a week in his own right, and if Yates insisted on having me play the role of a drunk he was going to lose two stars for his Western movies, not one. He backed off and let me have my way. Lloyd Nolan played the part of the newspaper reporter in The Front Page.
Herb Yates never entirely dropped the issue of trying to get me to play more than just cowboy roles. Sometimes he won, and the result was worthwhile. In 1940 I was cast in Dark Command along with John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon, and Mar-jorie Main, a group of actors anyone would be proud to work with. The picture got good reviews, but I was much more comfortable playing a good guy cowboy in "oaters" by the dozen.
(Roy really only had a "bit" part in the movie, and was not the Roy Rogers we came to love him for….and he never sang one song in it. When I loaned it out to someone recently, they later said to me, "I was waiting for Roy to sing" - it never happened - it was not a movie to show-case Roy Rogers - Keith Hunt)
I was becoming part of an ensemble that would stay with me most of my professional life. Trigger was always by my side, soon getting second billing on posters and marquees as "The Smartest Horse in the Movies." When Gene Autry came back to Republic, Smiley Burnette returned as his sidekick, which meant I needed one. Gabby Hayes, who had developed his role as a crazy old codger playing Windy Halliday, sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy, filled the bill perfectly starting with Southward Ho in 1939. Gabby became a good friend as well as movie sidekick—a brother, father, and buddy all in one. You know, the funny thing about Gabby is that his old-coot character was all an act. He was a fine actor, and one of the best-dressed men in Hollywood, someone you couldn't imagine rambling on about "them dag-nabbed persnickety women" like he did in all those movies we made. I called him Pappy, and we confided in each other. One time between pictures he called me in a panic, moaning, "Roy, I'm in big trouble! I shaved off my beard. When I looked in the mirror, I almost died. I forgot how ugly I am!" We talked about it awhile, and after I reassured him the beard would grow back, he calmed down. "You won't see me for a while, though," he warned me. "I'm not even going to stick my head out the door until the dang thing's grown back and I look myself again."
Starting with my second picture, Billy the Kid Returns in 1938, I was teamed up with Mary Hart, who was added to give the stories some romance. We never kissed or anything; but she balanced all the action with a nice, soft touch and gave the movie someone I could sing to. Studio publicists labeled us "Sweethearts of the West." After we did six pictures together, Mary decided she had had her fill of sagebrush romance, quit the series, and took back her original name, which was Lynn Roberts. You see, when she started making Westerns Mr. Yates made her change her name to Mary Hart just so he could bill us as "Republic's own Rogers and Hart," like the successful Broadway musical writing team.
(Mary Hart was very fine as a leading lady with Roy; I enjoy all the movies she made with Roy; she was pretty and she was sweet - Keith Hunt)
I was a star, at least judging by the amounts of mail I got. But believe me when I tell you I sure wasn't rich. Arlene and I lived in a small frame house, and we were always cooking up schemes to try and bring in enough money so we didn't have to live from paycheck to paycheck. We opened a Western-wear store in Studio City called Roy's Hitching Post, but dust gathered on the shelves and our bankbook stayed flat.
My fortunes began to change when I got a call from an agent, Art Rush, who asked me to have lunch with him at Eaton's, a restaurant across the street from Republic Studios. I didn't have much use for agents at that time, but I was still enough of a hungry country boy at heart to agree to meet him when he said he'd pick up the check. I was skeptical; I knew Art Rush represented some pretty heavy-duty talent, including MGM's Nelson Eddy and the Sportsmen Quartet, who were regulars on Jack Benny's radio show. Before striking out on his own, he had been a well-known boy wonder on the Hollywood music scene, producing records for RCA by such artists as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Artur Rubinstein when he was only in his twenties. I couldn't imagine why he would want to do business with a Republic Studios singing cowboy earning $150 per week.
The William Morris Agency had been interested in me, but after that lunch, I knew Art was the agent for me. My decision was based less on any particular deals he outlined and more on the way I felt about him. He seemed like such a decent and honorable man, plus he had grown up in Ohio.
What more could I ask? We shook hands at the end of that lunch, and neither of us ever felt the need to put it in writing. Art remained my agent for forty-eight years on the strength of that handshake, with never a written contract between us. Nowadays, no one does business like that; but, then, Art Rush was one of a kind.
Art got me work doing some radio shows and public appearances to supplement my income. I came to learn much later that he was so worried about the state of my finances that he never drew his commission until two years after he started working on my behalf. For a while I starred in a syndicated dramatic radio show called "Manhattan Cowboy," which added a hundred extra dollars a month to my income. It was Art's idea for me to make appearances at rodeos all around the country, including the big one at Madison Square Garden in New York, and he made it so the studio didn't get a cut. I think if Mr. Yates knew how much I was making on the side, he would have busted a gut. Once those personal appearances began, I was earning ten times what my acting job at Republic paid.
"Roy, I think you and Arlene can start looking for a nicer house," Art called to tell me one day. He knew we were eager to move. "I think you can afford one that costs $10,000."
I jumped for joy. The next day, Arlene and I went out house-hunting. But the place we found wasn't for us. We now knew we'd get that soon enough. What we found instead was a home for my folks: a white bungalow on a little chicken ranch in the San Fernando Valley. "Welcome home!" I said to Pop as I handed him the key. The place had cost a little under $9,000, so I took the money left over from my ten and hid it in a dozen sugar bowls in the pantry where I knew my mom would find it.
Arlene had a lovely singing voice and could play the piano well, but she did not share my interest in show business. She was a homebody who wanted children more than anything. I was pretty eager for some little ones myself. It hurts when the thing you want the most doesn't come your way, and this was the case with us having babies. We simply couldn't conceive a child. As time went by, we started to think of other ways to have a family. Right from the beginning of my career I had always played charity events, and I could never turn down a request to perform at an orphanage or children's hospital. Those little faces looking up at me made my heart ache; and now that I was married and had enough money to be a good daddy, it became all the more difficult to walk out the door of a place filled with babies who needed homes.
There was one orphanage I visited in St. Louis more than fifty years ago that I remember like it was yesterday. A little girl with coal black hair and bright blue eyes ran up to me and hugged me tight, begging me to take her home. She just grabbed me and refused to let go. I sang a couple of songs to her, and it near killed my heart the way she held on. When it was over and I had to leave, the staff pried her little hands from my arms. I can still feel them, and I can still see that lonesome girl as though she's standing right here now.
Adopting was never far from my mind, and I could see the need for a baby in Arlene's eyes, too. In 1942 I traveled to Dallas, Texas, to meet with two men who were releasing my pictures. When we got through talking business, I said, "By the way, you guys wouldn't know where a fella could adopt a child?" They grinned, looked knowingly at each other, and then back at me. "Roy," they said "it just so happens that we're on the board of directors for Hope Cottage." Hope Cottage was a home for orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children. We went right over and met the matron, Mrs. Carson, who showed me around.
There were forty-two little cribs in one big room, each one occupied by a baby that needed a home. Some were just weeks old, and I was told that they couldn't be adopted until they had reached four months. I started through, looking into each crib, and when I got to the seventh one, this little blond head just popped up and looked straight at me with her big brown eyes. I don't think I ever saw a baby look so hard. At that moment, I knew God had given us a child. Her name was Cheryl Darlene. I told Mrs. Carson I wanted her. When I called Arlene and told her what I had done, she wept with joy.
Mrs. Carson, head of Hope Cottage, came to stay with me and Arlene for two weeks to make sure we were not "Hollywood types" and that we would make good parents. She watched every move we made and asked questions day and night: "What time do you go to bed on Friday night? . . . How often does the milkman deliver eggs? . . . What sort of music do you listen to on the radio?" The questions weren't so bad, but the wait for our baby to turn four months seemed like forever. We passed the inspection, and when Cheryl Darlene was old enough we drove to Dallas to claim her as our own. Our friends and family were thrilled that at last we were a family. The only bitter note was the disdain shown by some Hollywood columnists who apparently hadn't known that Roy Rogers was a married man. It was standard procedure in those days for leading men to be single and available, so publicity sent out by the studio didn't mention anything about a Mrs. Roy Rogers. To the surprise of some folks in Hollywood, I now not only had a wife, but a baby, too; and the gossip columnists wrote that my image as a heart throb was tarnished. It didn't bother me a whit. I was too happy being a new daddy to concern myself with the bitter words of a few reporters. When Cheryl Darlene batted her brown eyes and smiled in my direction, nothing else mattered very much.
Things got better every day. Arlene and I moved to our own bigger home—a six-acre spread in the San Fernando Valley. I decided my career was going well enough that it would finally be all right to change my name legally to Roy Rogers (although to my mother I would always be Leonard).
One day I came home from work with real exciting news. The city of New York had asked me to ride Trigger in a grand parade to benefit the war effort. They were dropping a longstanding no-horses regulation for the occasion, and I was thrilled at the thought of taking my golden palomino up Fifth Avenue alongside the governor's and mayor's cars. Arlene seemed delighted to hear about it, too. But then she asked me to sit down. She sat next to me, on the arm of the chair, put her hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and topped my news by a mile.
Arlene said, "Roy, I'm pregnant." There and then, I was certain that the world had stopped spinning. After waiting so long, Arlene and I finally made a baby together. Linda Lou Rogers was born April 18, 1943. The Rogers family was now three girls and me.
That year it was like my career had been hitched to a shooting star. Gene Autry left Republic to join the Army Air Corps, and Mr. Yates, who had always had a fondness for pictures with the word "King" in the title, decided that with Gene gone it would be the proper time to crown me once and for all as King of the Cowboys. It turned out to be the right time to make that move, because that year the theater owners elected me the number-one Western star. Cowboy pictures, which had once been the staple of Saturday matinees and second-string theaters, were popular among all kinds of folks, not just the kids. Partly, it was because of the success of John Ford's Stagecoach in 1939, which showed that cowboy movies could be more than shoot-'em-ups. I reckon maybe it also had something to do with the war: at times like that, when people feel insecure and threatened, it's good to have a hero who knows just what to do when he's faced with trouble. Whatever the reasons, it seemed that all over America the cowboy had become everybody's favorite kind of movie star.
To prove my royal status, Republic starred me in a movie called King of the Cowboys, set in modern times, in which I foil a band of Nazi saboteurs. During brief lulls in the action, I get together with the Sons of the Pioneers to sing "A Gay Ranchero," "I'm an Old Cowhand," "Red River Valley," "Ride 'em Cowboy," and a few other numbers. The studio initiated a nationwide billboard campaign to promote me. They had used billboards in the past to promote a movie, but this time it was for me, King of the Cowboys. By July 1, there were 192 roadside billboards; Republic was buying spots on the radio and big advertisements in all the newspapers. The cost for all this was supposedly half a million dollars, which in 1943 was a plentiful amount of money to spend on any movie or movie star. Westerns were suddenly no longer relegated to second-run theaters and Saturdays matinees. Variety wrote about "the return of the cowpokes," commenting, "Republic's Roy Rogers saddlers are galloping into high-admission houses that once refused to recognize Gene Autry." King of the Cowboys played on 7,500 screens when it was released, including the prestigious Loews chain.
The corker for all this came in July, when Life magazine put me on its cover. I guess you could say that in the 1940s Life was the ultimate test of stardom, sort of what People is today, but maybe even more so. The cover showed me waving on Trigger, who was rearing up with the city of Los Angeles in the background. The story that went with it was kinda silly, written by the humorist H. Allen Smith. Mr. Smith, who as a journalist was very aware of Republic's publicity campaign for me, was tickled by all my fancy clothes and the big studio buildup, describing me as a "manufactured personality." He didn't believe I was for real, so he had some fun with my image as a hero:
He is the protagonist in the American morality play. He is purity rampant—never drinks, never smokes, never shoots pool, never spits, and the roughest oath at his command is "shucks!" He never needs a shave, and when it comes to fist-fighting, he seldom takes on a single opponent: he beats their brains out in a group. He always wins the girl though he doesn't kiss her. He kisses his horse. His immense public would have him no other way.
Franklin D. Roosevelt invited me to the White House for a March of Dimes Ball held on his sixty-first birthday. I brought him a pair of silver spurs engraved "To FDR from Roy Rogers." There were other Hollywood celebrities there, too, including James Cagney, Loretta Young, and Edgar Bergen, but while they were dining off fine china in the formal room, Mrs. Roosevelt came along, tapped me on the shoulder, and invited me back to the kitchen. To be honest, I was a lot more comfortable there; and you know something funny? So was she. She asked the chef to make us some hamburgers, which we ate with our hands, and we gabbed all night about one of my favorite subjects, and hers: Trigger!
After Mary Hart left the series of Westerns, I had a string of leading ladies, including Sally Payne, Gale Storm, Peggy Moran, Ruth Terry, and Linda Hayes. None of them lasted long for the simple reason that playing opposite me wasn't much of a plum part. Trigger was my costar, and Gabby Hayes got all the funny lines; the girl was lucky if she appeared in three good scenes. Gabby was always arguing for better women's roles in the movies. "Half the people who come to see our pictures are girls," he reasoned. "I betcha they'd like to see ladies in the story, maybe even see Roy give one a kiss." In 1944, I did get my first screen kiss, with Jean Porter, in San Fernando Valley. It was in a dream sequence, but even so, I am told that a lot of my loyal audience—the young boys— moaned and groaned and squirmed in their seats when they saw it.
(That movie was not the only movie where Roy got a kiss….there were a few others; and even one where Dale Evans kissed him, I mean a good kiss on the lips - yes sir-ree Keith Hunt)
In 1944 I got a new costar, who was hired to play in a picture called The Cowboy and the Senorita. Her name was Dale Evans and, like me, she had started out as a singer. In fact, I had met her a few years earlier when we were both entertaining the soldiers at Edwards Air Force Base in 1941. I appeared with the Sons of the Pioneers, and I was dancing with Claire Trevor when Art Rush introduced us. I was too bashful to do much other than say "Howdy," but I thought she seemed like an awfully nice girl.
When we started to work together, I got to like Dale right away. She was a person who always looked like she had just stepped out of the shower—real fresh and clean; and she was a good sport, too, carrying her weight in each and every scene and never complaining when we had to work long hours and do stunts that wore us out. I knew that being the girl lead in a cowboy movie wasn't her greatest dream in life, but she never gave it less than her all. When we weren't rehearsing or filming a scene she made me feel comfortable because she was so easy to talk to. When my daughters visited the set it seemed they always liked to pay a visit to Dale's dressing room. She had a way about her that made people feel good. The only thing I found hard to believe was that she had been raised in Texas, because she sure didn't know one end of a horse from another.
I had lots of fans who were girls and grown women, and at least half the fan mail I got came from them. Oh, I'd get ten or twenty proposals of marriage every week! Dale was brought in to make my pictures a little more romantic for their sakes; but we had to watch ourselves. If we got too romantic onscreen, we knew we would hear from those boys out there who were allergic to "mushy stuff." Dale was a more sophisticated leading lady than I had had before. Her parts were often written to contrast her city ways to my country ways; she would play a reporter or a rich smart aleck who'd have to learn her lesson the hard way. In Song of Nevada, she plays an uppity gal who lives back East and has an obnoxious rich boyfriend named Rollo Bingham. She comes out West to sell the ranch of her dead father, but it turns out that her father's only playing dead: he fakes it to lure her back out West, where I'm supposed to win her back to good old Western ways. It takes some convincing, and some singing (including "A Cowboy Has to Yodel in the Morning" and 'The Harum Scarum Baron of the Harmonium"), but in the end she falls in love with the West, and with me. It turned out to be a good contrast: her sass and my patience. We made a good team. On screen, of course.
Miraculously, Arlene and I were able to conceive another baby, and I was beside myself with joy when it turned out to be a boy. On October 28, 1946, Roy Rogers, Jr. (we called him Dusty), was born. The press went wild with the news. One headline proclaimed, the king has a prince. Wire services spread the story all over the globe, and telegrams and presents poured in. I was so tickled by Dusty's birth that I stopped production on the movie I was shooting to take a few weeks off; there was no way I could remember dialogue while I was thinking about the new little fella. I wanted to concentrate on nothing but my wife and my baby boy.
In the days after he was born, I spent nearly all my time at the hospital visiting them. One day Art Rush suggested a game of golf just to ease me back to earth a little, and I thought it sounded like fun. Before I left the house to go meet him, my telephone rang. I stood pinned to the floor as I heard a doctor from the hospital give me the news. Arlene had suffered a massive brain embolism from a blood clot. They wanted me to come at once. I hardly remember the trip there; but I do remember that when I reached Arlene's room, she was in a jungle of tubes and wires and beeping machinery. The doctors looked grim. All their attempts to revive her had failed. I stood by the side of the bed numb with pain. All the good fortune that I had worked so hard to achieve—to share with her, to build a family with her—was fading as surely as the life in her pale body. I couldn't think straight, I couldn't make sense of what was happening. How could life be so good one minute, then be all over? I stood beside my wife until the last breath left her. I laid my hand on her forehead and whispered good-bye. The nurse pulled a sheet over her face.
I stumbled to a phone and called Art Rush. When his wife answered, I gasped for breath, unable to say the words, finally croaking out, "Arlene's dead." Art got on the phone and told me not to move; he'd be right down to the hospital. I was frantic. I needed to get out, get some air. I went down in the elevator and outside into the parking lot. Shaking so hard with grief I could hardly stand up, I leaned against my car as the world around me spun. I stood there rocking back and forth, weeping. Some children noticed me. Gradually they approached. Too shy to speak, or maybe frightened by the way I was behaving, they nonetheless recognized me as their hero, the King of the Cowboys. They handed me scraps of paper for autographs. I stood there red-eyed and dizzy with grief, looking down into the little faces of my fans. I tried my best to scribble my name and whisper the words "Happy trails" before I sent them on their way, one by one.
(Art Rush wrote that when he answered the phone, he thought it was a child crying…..Roy was weeping so. Art said, it was an unbelievable sight when he got to the hospital; there was a weeping Roy Rogers signing autography for kids who recognized him - Keith Hunt)