ROY HAS THE LAST WORDS
From the book "Our Life Story" (1994)
It was time to slow down. We had run a hard race, Dale and I, and we were tired. My heart hurt—the doctors said I had angina pectoris—and our children were all leaving home. Linda, Cheryl, and Marion had already flown the nest. When Dusty was nineteen, he lit off to find his fate. He traveled from California to a small town in Ohio, the exact opposite of what I had done when I was about his age. He wanted to make his own way, so he found work at a construction company, and in 1967 he fell in love and married Linda Yoder. Many of Linda's relatives are Amish, so it was quite some wedding to see, old meets new, newspapers said under pictures of her "plain people," all dressed in black, meeting Dale and me in our finest Nudie of Hollywood formal wear. Two years later, our youngest, Dodie, married Air Force Sergeant Tom Faro. The Rogers household had shrunk to just us two.
In 1965 we had moved to Apple Valley in the Mojave Desert, where I hoped to do some things that might help heal my heart: spend time with grandkids, play a little golf, go bowling, breed horses, ride the high desert roads on my motorcycle. We didn't exactly quit show business, but we tried to limit what we did to special occasions, like guest appearances on TV shows or with Billy Graham during one of his crusades. We hosted a variety show on ABC for a while in 1962, and appeared on "Hee Haw," "The Muppet Show," and with Oral Roberts, and I did a few episodes of "The Fall Guy." In 1983, I had a little fun finally playing a kind of louse in Kenny Rogers's TV movie "The Gambler—The Adventure Continues." To this day, Dale continues to tape her inspirational TV talk show, "A Date with Dale." Like the nineteen books she's written, that's a program she does not so much because it is a job of work, but because she has so much faith to share with others.
One thing we've always enjoyed was being part of the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's, the day after our wedding anniversary. Through most of the 1950s we rode Trigger and Buttermilk; one time I even had a fellow in Wyoming design us some fancy colored plastic saddles for the event because I got so tired of seeing our silver and leather Bohlin saddles get rained on. Those plastic saddles were good, I'll tell you: light, comfortable, easy on the horse and rider. We had 'em made in red, yellow, and blue; but they never caught on with anybody but us, or for anything other than our horses in that parade. Horse-type people are traditionalists, and leather saddles aren't about to be replaced. A couple of years when we didn't ride our horses, we traveled the parade route in a Pontiac convertible that Nudie had customized. It was a doozy! Bright yellow with a hand-tooled leather interior, silver six-shooters in place of the door handles and the gearshift, 339 silver dollars embedded in the upholstery, and a long Continental kit with silver horseshoes and a silver bucking bronco on the tire case.
One year they wanted us to ride on a float that was supposed to look like two great big horses. We had to arrive at the hangar where they were constructing it at four o'clock in the morning, so they could lift us to the top with a crane, literally strap us on so we wouldn't fall off, then trim the float with flowers below and all around us. The folks doing all the work were kind enough to bring us coffee once they wired us in up there. It was cold in that hangar, and I'd say we drank more than a dozen cups. By the time the float was built and the parade was ready to begin, I had a real problem: my bladder was ready to burst! "I'm sorry, Mr. Rogers," they said, "we can't get you down without messing up all the flowers on your horse. There isn't time to unwire you." Dale told me to think of other things, but I was cross-eyed by the time we started waving to the crowds. It was raining hard, and before long my costume was soaking wet. That gave me an idea. Dale looked over at me and saw steam rising up off my pants. "Roy, you didn't!" she said, but the relieved look on my face told her the answer to that question.
I've been away from the movie business for a long, long time. Back in 1959 I did a cameo role in Bob Hope's movie Alias Jesse James, where I appeared along with Gene Autry and Ward Bond; and in 1976 I made my last picture, called Mackintosh and T.J. I enjoyed that movie: it was a modern Western about an old cowboy in a pickup truck (me) who teaches a few things to a thirteen-year-old boy. Like I said to a reporter at the premiere, "There's no leading lady, no shooting, some fights, but no blood spurting, and that's the way I wanted it." Back then, they also had me host a series of old Westerns on TV called "Roy Rogers Great Cowboy Movies." They were some of the old pictures, the kind kids used to spend a dime to see every Saturday, starring real good guys like Bob Steele, Wild Bill Elliott, Monte Hale, Lash Larue, Tex Ritter, people like that. Heroes like them are out of fashion now, they tell me, and I guess that's so, judging by the movies I've seen recently. When I heard that Bruce Willis called himself "Roy Rogers" as a nickname in Die Hard, I thought we ought to go have a look. He may have called himself by my name, but he also used so many dirty words that I found myself sinking lower and lower into my seat as I sat there watching. I was embarrassed! When we had a chance, Dale and I sneaked out the side door. Some of the movies they're making are so bloody and filled with cussing I wouldn't let Trigger see them!
These days Dale and I like to stay home rather than go out to the movies because we have one of those TV sets that is as big as a wall and gets four jillion channels. I watch ball-games, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," and those nature documentaries about wild animals with their babies, but I suppose my favorite show of all is the soap opera "The Guiding Light." When my great-grandchildren come over, Dale and I sometimes put videotapes of our old movies on for them to see. They scarcely recognize who the cowboy and cowgirl in those pictures are, but they all like Trigger.
There wasn't anybody more surprised than me when a song I recorded in 1974 turned out to be a hit. Long before that I had given up recording for the simple reason that it was so danged much work for me to learn new material. Not reading music, I've got to get everything in my head if I'm going to record it, and I lost my patience with that sometime back in the 1950s. But young Snuff Garrett, the record producer, is a charmer who could just about talk the ears off a wooden Indian. One day when we were shooting skeet, he asked if I would record a song for him, called "Hoppy, Gene, and Me."
"I guess I could do that," I told him. "How does the song go?"
"I don't know," Snuff said. "I haven't written it yet."
He wrote it; I recorded it; and doggone if it didn't get way up there on the country music charts!
I had some fun in 1991 doing an album called Tribute with a whole big gang of the country music people around today. I did duets with Emmylou Harris ("Little Joe the Wrangler"), K. T. Oslin ("Tumbling Tumbleweeds"), Clint Black ("Hold On, Partner"), Kathy Mattea ("Final Frontier"), Lorrie Morgan and the Oak Ridge Boys ("Don't Fence Me In"), Willie Nelson ("Rodeo Road"), Ricky Van Shelton ("When Payday Rolls Around"), the Kentucky Headhunters ("That's How the West Was Swung"), and Randy Travis ("Here's Hopin' "); Dusty sang the song he wrote about me called "King of the Cowboys"; I sang a solo on "Alive and Kickin' "; and all of us, including Dale, got together on the finale—which, of course, was "Happy Trails."
One thing I started back in the 1960s that turned out well is the Roy Rogers Restaurants. When we set that up with the Marriott Corporation, they were called Roy Rogers Chuck-wagons, and I appeared at a lot of grand openings for them. In the early days, when you went in to place an order for a beef sandwich, the person at the counter was supposed to ask, "Is this for here or are you taking it on the trail?"
For nearly as long as I can remember, I thought about having a museum. I recall seeing the Will Rogers Museum in California years ago when I started in the business and thinking that there wasn't enough stuff in it, just a few odds and ends from his career. I decided then and there that if I ever got famous, there'd be no shortage. Anyway, I've always liked to save things. I guess because I grew up in an area where we didn't have much, I can't get rid of something once I get it. No matter what came my way, whether it was a letter from a boy or girl movie fan or from a President, or a nice shotgun, or an old-time telephone, I stuck it in the basement, or the garage, or in drawers at home. Dale would say, "Honey when are you going to empty those drawers? I can't get anything in or out of them!" When that happened, I'd put everything in a box and call Bekins Van & Storage to come pick it up and keep it for me. Then I started collecting more.
We bought a bowling alley right across from the Apple Valley Inn, which we were running at the time, and converted the lanes into our museum. First thing I did was call Bekins, and they brought over two big truckloads of stuff I had saved—tools my dad had when I was little, some of my mom's scrapbooks, pictures from the early days of the Sons of the Pioneers, all sorts of things that meant something to me.
There were also lots of fun items I have saved over the years just because they interest me. One of the things I've always liked to do is go to flea markets and swap meets. They all know me at the weekend swap meets, and they know I can't resist a bargain, especially if it's something that's been handmade—a lamp, or a ship in a bottle, or anything from the olden days, stuff like that. Most of what I buy winds up on display in the museum, or in the big storage area where we keep things that don't fit on display. Sometimes I get so carried away I have to laugh at myself. I have one case in the museum that holds a bottle filled with murky water and a strange-shaped object. Awhile back we wrote a sign that says "what is it?" to tantalize the public, but to tell you the truth, I'm not sure I remember what's in there myself. It must have caught my fancy sometime back, so I saved and bottled it.
In 1976 we moved the museum to nearby Victorville, where we built a bigger building near the interstate highway on forty acres of land. Just a few years back, my ol' friend Gene Autry opened a museum, too, in Los Angeles. Gene and I are different sorts of people, that's for certain, and our museums couldn't be less alike. His is a grand collection of Western history with fine art and antiques that scholars and curators have assembled. Our place isn't really a regular museum like that at all. It's personal—things that Dale and I have done, and the kids and the family and Trigger. Everything we've done is in it. We've got our family dining table there-—the big round one with the lazy Susan that Robert Montgomery made for us, where Sandy used to sneak licks at mashed potatoes before prayers were through. It is set up in a display case that looks just like our dining room used to be. We have our old china on it—that real heavy cowboy quality, all covered with pictures of bucking broncos and lariats. Our old parakeet cage is in the corner, along with the family Bible and a picture of Jesus on the wall.
In another glass case, there's a sign that says, "Let's take a look inside Roy's tackle box." That goes back to the fishing trip I took with Sandy and Dusty when Sandy first came to us, and it's got some of my favorite fishing lures; it's even got what's left in the bottle of the bug lotion we used to try to fight off all those mosquitoes! There's a whole case of wristwatches I have worn over the years to keep me on time, and displays to remember those who have left us: Gabby Hayes and Pat Brady; my wife, Arlene; and, of course, our kids—Robin, Debbie, and Sandy. We've got our fancy parade saddles there, hundreds and hundreds of old Roy Rogers comic books, and racks of the fancy clothes, boots, hats, and guns we used to wear in movies and at rodeos. Awhile back we got a piece of the Berlin wall that we put on display.
We're looking forward to expanding the museum. In the next few years, it is going to become part of a theme park called RogersDale. Dale and I like to think that it will be a place for people to come have fun and learn about our lives, and also to remember what America was like not so many years ago. Dusty came back to California, and he is helping us put that together—that is, when he isn't out performing all over the country with his band, the High Riders. He has a beautiful singing voice, and he's the only one of our kids in show business. When Art Rush died a few years back, Dusty took over the job of managing our careers as well as the museum.
(AS WE ALL KNOW NOW, THE RogersDale THEME PARK NEVER GOT OFF THE GROUND; SADLY THE MUSIUM IS ALSO GONE. BUT ROY'S MOVIES AND TV SERIES IS STILL OBTAINABLE ON DVD, THOUGH SADLY AGAIN MANY OF THE MOVIES HAVE BEEN EDITED. MAYBE THE FULL UN-EDITED MOVIES ARE OUT THERE AND ONE DAY THE UN-EDITED MOVIES WILL BE REPRODUCED ON DVD - AND MAYBE THE MANY BLACK AND WHITE MOVIES WILL BE COLOR, BUT THAT'S QUITE THE EXPENSE AND PROBABLY WOULD NOT GIVE BACK ENOUGH DOLLARS TO UNDERTAKE SUCH AN ADVENTURE - Keith Hunt)
One thing Dusty can sure tell you, and that is which exhibit is the most popular one in the museum. It's Trigger, mounted like so many people remember him—rearing up on his hind legs. Nearly everybody who stops by wants to see him, and we've had folks who have come rushing in five minutes before closing time, willing to pay the full four dollars admission charge just so they can run back and see ol' Trig for a minute or two before we shut the doors.
(WOW…..I'VE SAID IT BEFORE ON THIS WEBSITE AND WILL SAY IT AGAIN; SADLY THE SO-CALLED "TRIGGER" ON DISPLAY [WELL WAS ON DISPLAY, AS THE MUSEUM IS NO MORE] LOOKS VERY ORDINARY, NOT A FULL REAR, VERY LITTLE MANE AND TAIL LEFT, EARS PINNED BACK, THE DISTINCTIVE FACE BLAZE JUST ABOUT GONE…..I WAS IN THE MUSEUM A FEW MONTHS BEFORE IT SHUT ITS DORRS, AND "THE TRIGGER" WAS [AND IS …. BOUGHT I THINK BY THE "COWBOY" TV CHANNEL, SOMETHING LIKE THAT] LOOKING LIKE ANYTHING BUT THE YOUNG BEAUTIFUL STALLION HE ONCE WAS. I PERSONALLY BELIEVE IT WAS ROY'S BIGGEST MISTAKE TO EVER MOUNT TRIGGER; IT WAS AFTER ALL ONLY THE SKIN USED, THE REST OF TRIGGER WENT…..WELL YOU KNOW WHERE. IT IS ALSO WRITTEN DALE AND DUSTY WERE NOT IN FAVOR OF ROY MOUNTING TRIGGER, THEY WANTED A BURIAL WITH A NICE HEAD-STONE. ROY WOULD HAVE DONE BETTER IN MY VIEW, TO HAVE MADE A REPLICA OF TRIGGER WITH MANMADE MATERIALS, AS TRIGGER LOOKED WHEN IN HIS YOUTH - THE PRESENT MOUNTED TRIGGER DOES NOT DO JUSTICE TO THE BEAUTIFUL STALLION HE WAS - Keith Hunt)
Trigger retired from show business when we stopped shooting the TV show. Some years before that, we had come to call him "the Old Man," but by the time he was put out to pasture, he really was getting on in years. He got a nice big stall at a stable near our place and green fields to roam, and plenty of mares just across the fence to keep him company. He spent long days grazing in the California sunshine, and I went to see him whenever I could. When I was unable to visit, Danny, the stable manager, called to let me know he was all right.
Early one morning in 1965 I was jerked from sleep by the telephone. Before I even picked it up, I had an awful premonition. "Danny," I blurted into the receiver, "it's Trigger, isn't it? He's gone." Danny confirmed what I feared. He told me that the Old Man had finished his breakfast and had been turned out to pasture just like always. Danny had watched him lie down in the field like he was going to take a nap. When Danny went out to check, he found Trigger dead. The old horse had passed so gently that he hadn't even kicked up dirt, and there was no sign of pain or struggle. He just plain lay down and went to sleep. He was thirty-three years old.
(HORSES WILL OFTEN DIE THIS WAY; LAY DOWN GO TO SLEEP IN A NICE PEACEFUL DEATH. AS ROY GOT UP IN YEARS HIS MIND WAS NOT AS SHARP [AGE CAN DO THAT TO US YOU KNOW] AND HE'D FORGOTTEN EVEN THE SONG HE SANG AND RECORDED WHEN HE WAS 80 YEARS OLD…… "…WHEN I MADE MY FIRST MOVIE TRIGGER WAS 4 AND I WAS 26…." WELL THE FACT IS TRIGGER DIED AT AGE 31, THIS IS NOW FULLY REVEALED IN PANDO'S BOOK "TRIGGER" - Keith Hunt)
When news got out that Trigger was gone, I heard from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who asked if they could have his remains for their collection of historical Americana. That was nice, but I didn't want my stallion's final resting place to be so far away from me. Neither could I abide the thought of putting that beautiful horse in the cold ground. So I came up with a plan to preserve Trigger for myself and for all the other people who loved him. I thought about the hunting trophies I had collected over the years and I contacted Mr. Bischoff, the famous taxidermist in Los Angeles, to see what he could do. Dale howled at the thought of mounting Trigger, saying he deserved a nice funeral and a beautiful headstone, but I reminded her he was my horse and I wanted him for my museum. "Okay, but when you die, I'm going to put you on him!" she threatened. I told her that was fine with me, just so long as she made sure I was smiling. Bischoff took Trigger away to mount him for posterity.
I'm fussy about saying "mounted" rather than "stuffed" when I talk about what we did with Trigger because there's a big difference, as any hunter can tell you. Stuffed means that the animal's skin has been filled with sawdust, then sewn up like a beanbag. Mounted means that an exact replica of the animal's body has been fabricated and the skin stretched over it. Bischoff took great pains to make Trigger look just like he did in life. He got all the proportions right and mounted him rearing up on his hind legs. We put the silver saddle on his back, outfitted him with bit and bridle, and I tell you, he looks good enough to ride.
(THEY MAY HAVE GOTTEN THE SIZE CORRECT [THE SKIN CAN ONLY STRECH SO MUCH), SO SIZE WISE CORRECT, BUT THE FINISHED PRODUCT……WELL I CAN SHOW YOU PICTURES OF A YOUNG TRIGGER, AND I'LL CHALLENGE ANYONE ON TRIGGER'S LOOKS WHEN YOUNG TO THE MOUNTED TRIGGER. OKAY, WANT TO DO THE CHALLENGE? LOOK AT THE PHOTO OF TRIGGER IN THE BOOK "An Illustrated History of TRIGGER" BY LEO PANDO, PAGE 81….. LOOK AT THE MOUNTED TRIGGER…..WELL FOR ME THE TRIGGER ON PAGE 81 IS MUCH MORE SPLENDID AND MAGNIFICENT IN EVERY WAY THAN THE MOUNTED TRIGGER. A MAN MADE TRIGGER ON PAGE 81 WOULD HAVE BEEN MY WAY OF REMEMBERING THIS GREAT AND BEAUTIFUL STALLION - Keith Hunt)
That heroic image of Trigger is one kids grew up with, and it makes me happy that he is still around today for them to see and to show their kids. In a way, he belongs to them. I really mean that, because back in the early 1950s, I kinda gave him away. It happened when a rich man in Texas offered me $250,000 to buy him. Somehow, news of the offer got out and people actually thought that I was thinking of getting rid of him. Well, suddenly the mailroom was overflowing with envelopes from kids containing dimes and nickels they wanted me to have so I wouldn't have to sell Trigger. I returned their money along with a note assuring them that Trigger would never be sold. I also included a certificate that gave each child honorary ownership of the golden palomino.
(THE MOUNTED TRIGGER IS NOT THE ONE I AS A KID GREW UP WITH; THE BEAUTIFUL AND SPLENDID TRIGGER I GREW UP WITH WAS THE ONE IN SUCH MOVIES AS "THE GOLDEN STALLION" "MY PAL TRIGGER" "TRIGGER JR." AND A HOST OF OTHER MOVIES, AS WELL AS THE TV SERIES TRIGGER - LONG MANE, FULL THICK TAIL, UNIQUE FACE BLAZE…..AGAIN GOING BACK TO THE PHOTO ON PAGE 81 IN PANDO'S BOOK "TRIGGER." Keith Hunt)
Trig does require a certain amount of upkeep. We call in the exterminator from time to time to make sure bugs don't get in his hide, and we spray his glass eyes with Windex, and Dusty sometimes takes Dale's old crumb brush and grooms his coat. What's really hard is taking care of all those parade saddles of mine. There is so much ornate silverwork on them, it takes Dusty six days to clean six saddles.
Most people who come to visit the museum feel they know Trigger as well as one of their own pets.
( I HAVE TO ADMIT I DO. I GREW UP GOOGLE-EYED ON THE BEAUTY AND SPEED OF TRIGGER - HAD PHOTOS OF HIM, HAD A MIND-EYE PICTURE OF HIM; THEN WHEN THE TV SERIES CAME OUT IN THE 1950s THERE HE WAS AGAIN IN ALL HIS GLORY…..WHEN I SAW THE MOUNTED TRIGGER I DID NOT RECOGNIZE HIM BEING THE SAME HORSE AT ALL - Keith Hunt)
And they know us, too, not just as movie stars, but personally. I guess that's because they grew up with us. They cried with us when we lost our children, and they shared our joys, too. We have never felt the need or the desire to wall ourselves up the way some celebrities do. In fact, we lead a pretty normal life nowadays—attend church, see our friends, and entertain our kids and grandkids whenever we can. Everyone in the town knows where we live, and there have been plenty of times when Dale and I will be in our bathrobes and slippers when some stranger shows up at the door looking for us. A few of them ask Dale if she is the housekeeper: they can't believe the Queen of the West would be sitting around with curlers in her hair. I remember one time I came downstairs in the morning and found a whole family of strangers sitting in the living room. "Hi, Roy," the man said. "We're from West Virginia and we figured you wouldn't mind us droppin' in." I think I made them a cup of coffee and we yakked awhile. At home or at the swap meet, I'll wear a baseball cap and Reeboks, but when I go to the museum to meet our fans— which I try to do every morning—I want to dress like ol' Roy, King of the Cowboys. That's my image; that's who people come to see. So after I have my coffee I put on my white Stetson hat and cowboy boots, fancy shirt and bandana, and a pair of pants Nudie made me some forty years ago. I can still fit into all those movie clothes. If I ever weigh myself and see I've gained a pound, I just cut back on the pancake-and-egg sandwiches I like so much over at Jilly's Cafe in Apple Valley.
Going to the museum each day to meet people can sometimes be a mite dangerous. More than a few times I've been tossed in the air like a rag doll by some burly middle-aged man who forgets he isn't seven years old anymore, and that I'm eighty-three. It always happens, though: when people see me, they become kids again, and I'm still the sharp shootin' childhood hero they remember. I think some of them would crawl right into my lap if I let them. One day a lady with three teenage children thought her husband had gone crazy because he broke down in tears when he saw me. And there are a lot of women in their fifties and sixties who come over and scold me, saying, "Roy, I was so mad at you when you married Dale! You were supposed to wait and marry me when I grew up." One man who shook my hand told me he was a policeman. He said that when he was a boy his parents used to beat him, and the only happiness he had when he was little was watching us on television. Because he had no guidance at home, he said that when he got into a bad situation, he always asked himself, "What would Roy Rogers do?" Today as a law enforcement officer, he said, he still finds himself thinking that way when he feels confused. I like that a lot.
(OH MY….. SO TRUE, I'VE DONE THAT MYSELF AS A TEEN ETC. "WHAT WOULD ROY ROGERS DO….. Keith Hunt)
Now I'll tell you something I like to do. Early in the morning before the museum opens, Dale and I go in the back entrance and walk around in private. It's quiet and the only footsteps we hear are ours. We walk past all the glass cases and displays. We see Robin's baby toys and the folded American flag that covered Sandy's coffin. There are fading pictures of Debbie that make us remember how happy she was for the years God let us have her before He called her home. We see the old battered car that took my family out of Ohio to the promised land of California. There's Pat Brady's Jeep Nellybelle, and pictures of Gabby Hayes when he was a serious young actor, and a shot of Art Rush helping me get ready for our wedding on New Year's Eve nearly half a century ago. There's Dale wearing fancy hats for her first photo session, and me, in overalls, standing next to my first horse, Babe. Sometimes we stop to read some of the piles of letters that little pardners wrote us through the years, asking our advice and telling us about the good deeds they did. I get a little choked up when I see ol' Trigger, rearing high and looking down at us when we walk past; his saddle looks so shiny and inviting. We stroll past memories of the good times and the bad times and the hard times, and we think of all that we have shared.
I guess Dale and I know pretty well, like her song says, that ''some trails are happy ones and others are blue"; and we also know that when we have to part, it will be only "'til we meet again." And that time, our happy trails will be for all eternity.
I UNDERSTAND HOW ROY WOULD GET SUCH FEELINGS; THOUGH I DIFFER WITH HIM ON HOW TRIGGER SHOULD HAVE BEEN REMEMBERED, I UNDERSTAND HIS REMEMBERING MIND-EYE WOULD CLOUD OVER THE PHYSICAL THAT STOOD BEFORE HIM. FOR HIM IT WAS A WAY TO CONNECT WITH THE PAST GLORY, AND THE PAST GLORY OUT-VIEWED ANYTHING PHYSICAL THAT WAS THERE IN FRONT OF HIM. ROY WOULD NOT LOOK AT THE MOUNTED TRIGGER WITH EYES LIKE MINE; ROY WOULD SEE THE GLORY DAYS OF HIM AND TRIGGER RIDING THE RANGE, GALLOPING LIKE THE WIND; THE TWO OF THEM BLENDED AS ONE, AS THEY FOUGHT THE BAD GUYS, THE KNIGHT ON HIS FAITHFUL HORSE BRINGING JUSTICE AND PEACE TO CROOKED LAND.
THE END OF THE BOOK