ROY SPEAKS AGAIN
In the fall of 1937 I stopped by a Western hat store in Glendale to see what, if anything, could be done about getting the only cowboy hat I owned cleaned up a bit. It was, frankly, more than a little worse for the wear, but the price of a new one was well out of reach of the Slye family budget. So, to borrow a phrase from Dad, I was making do.
While the clerk looked it over, making me fully aware that he was not in the miracle business but agreeable nonetheless to seeing what he could do, I admired one of the new Stetsons (a model made popular by Tom Mix) he had on display. At that moment a breathless young man, rangy and Western-looking as they come, came running into the store and told the clerk that he needed a new cowboy hat in the worst way.
The sudden prospect of a sale, needless to say, put my cleaning job on the waiting list in a hurry.
"I just heard," the excited customer told the clerk, "that they're gonna hold tests for singing cowboys tomorrow over at Republic. I'm gonna give it a whirl, so I need me a really good-looking hat."
For a brief moment I considered offering him a little friendly advice, but then thought better of it. Even if he knew that having a screen test could end up being one of the biggest disappointments of his life, he would go through with it anyway. So he bought his hat and left, filled with great aspirations. That, folks, is show biz.
A few months earlier I had traveled down the same pie-in-the-sky dream road. The Sons of the Pioneers had steadily grown in popularity and had had a pretty good list of movie credits working. I had even landed a few bit parts here and there in Westerns and comedies—never really doing much acting but, like just about everyone who gets a taste of the movie business, thinking I probably could if the chance ever came along.
I was serious enough about it to adopt a screen name which sounded a little more Western than Leonard Slye. For the life of me I can't tell you why the name Dick Weston was chosen, but you'll have to admit it sounded a little more like a guy who could ride and shoot than the one I was given at birth.
While my parts were generally about as minor as you can get, I did manage to rub elbows with some pretty famous people—Bing Crosby, Dick Foran, Joan Davis, Charlie Starrett, Jo Stafford, Phil Regan—who were among the biggest box office attractions of the thirties. It was pretty heady stuff for a boy from Duck Run, Ohio.
If someone held a gun to my head I wouldn't be able to repeat a line of dialogue or give you the plots of many of the early-day film appearances of Dick Weston, such as they were, but suffice it to say I wasn't riding around on a golden palomino, winning the West, and getting the girl.
For example: In December 1936 Republic Studios gave me a singing part in a movie entitled The Old Corral starring Gene Autry. The plot escapes me, but I do remember having this fight with Gene (guess who was the good guy in that one!). Okay, so Gene wins the fight and then forces me, at gunpoint, to sing him a song. Being a bad guy and all, it was something I was supposed to be completely humiliated by.
Such roles caused no great stir among the members of the Motion Picture Academy, to be sure, but they did serve to reinforce my enthusiasm for the business. Thus when Universal Studios offered me a screen test I was quick to accept. I was sure that Dick Weston, future movie star, was on his way.
A fella named Bob Baker also tested, however, and I finished second in the two-actor race—Trim Carr, the producer, said I photographed too young-looking. I'm afraid I didn't waste a great deal of energy in the next couple of months trying to convince others that I wasn't disappointed about the missed opportunity. I moped around, generally felt sorry for myself, and gradually came to grips with the fact that Leonard Slye by any other name was still Leonard Slye—one of those people destined to go just so far and no farther. I privately lectured myself on the matter and decided that it would be in the best interest of all if I accepted my particular position in life and made the best of it. I vowed to quit looking to greener pastures and courting disappointment.
It wasn't a bad lecture, if I do say so myself. The Pioneers were making headway, I had a pretty lady in my life, and there were still the bit parts in movies from time to time. After our successful engagement in Dallas at the Texas Centennial we had been invited to join Peter Potter's "Hollywood Bam Dance" radio show as regulars. Things were beginning to look pretty satisfactory to me.
Until that young cowboy came barging in to see about buying himself a new hat.
The discussion I had with Arlene that evening is proof positive that time heals the wounds of disappointment. I found myself eagerly telling her of the conversation I had overheard and of my plans to be at Republic Studios the following day.
To her everlasting credit she offered no reminder of the earlier disappointment at Universal. Looking back on it, I guess she saw in me what I had seen a few hours earlier in that young cowboy in the hat shop. Republic was calling and, whether Republic knew it or not, Dick Weston was ready to ride.
It never occurred to me that I would have trouble even getting on the lot. To show you how schooled I was in the ways of Hollywood, I arrived at the Republic gates early the next morning with neither a gate pass nor the foresight not to admit to the guard on duty that I had no appointment. The guard, I have to say, was jealously devoted to his job. No amount of persuading would soften his stance. No, he had never heard of Dick Weston. Never heard of the Sons of the Pioneers. And, nope, he didn't recollect ever seeing me before, even though I had gone through that gate dozens of times.
I got the distinct impression that should I have broken and run for the gate he might well have drygulched me even before I had a chance to strum a note. Fresh out of ideas and unwilling to return home and admit to Arlene that I hadn't even managed the opportunity to fail this time around, I waited. And waited.
For several hours I stood outside that gate, hoping to see a familiar face or, better yet, devise some brilliant plan for getting past the guard. The familiar face, alas, never materialized; finally a plan did. Its brilliance, however, is subject to question.
As a large group of studio employees returned from lunch, strolling past the guard without so much as a wave or show of identification. I fell in with them, head down, trying to look as casual as a trespasser can hope to. I had made it roughly ten yards before my adversary spotted me and called out for me to stop.
Then fate, bless her, took over. Just as I was about to receive my escort off the lot—and, no doubt, out of the motion picture business—I heard a friendly voice. Sol Siegel, the producer, recognized me and came over to say hello. In all the movies I would later make I can't think of a rescue I made that was any more timely than that of Mr. Siegel's.
"Something you want to see us about?" he asked.
Literally with hat in hand, I explained to him about hearing of the screen testing. "I'd like to stay around and try," I said. If the truth were known, I probably was digging the toe of my boot into the ground as I made my pitch. Suffice it to say it probably wasn't the most forceful job application Sol Seigel had ever received.
"Let's go into my office and talk," he said.
Once seated, he lit a cigar and pointed out to me that he had already tested a dozen or so cowboys that day. "I don't know why I didn't think about you," he said. "The job's still open. Where's your guitar? It's a singing cowboy I'm looking for, you know."
In another stroke of the genius which seemed set on sabotaging my own chances, I had left the guitar in my car a couple of blocks away. "Well, go get it," Siegel said. I hurried to the door and then turned to speak.
"Don't worry," he said, reading my thoughts, "I'll see that the guard lets you back in."
I ran all the way. I hit the doors of Siegel's office singing. Actually, about all I was able to do was pant and heave to the beat. Siegel smiled and motioned toward a chair. "Sit and get your breath back," he said, "then let's hear you sing."
After a few minutes I sang Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumble-weeds," the theme song of the Sons of the Pioneers, then a couple more that we did in just about all our shows, plus some yodeling. Siegel said nothing until I finished, then after what seemed like an eternity to me, rose and smiled. "I think," he said, "you just might be what we're looking for. We'll test you first thing tomorrow."
Then, as something of an afterthought, he said, "You aren't tied up with any other studio, are you?"
The fact of the matter is that I was tied up. Along with the rest of the Sons of the Pioneers, I was under contract to Columbia Studios to do background music for their Charles Starrett pictures. I explained it as best I could to Mr. Siegel, and he suggested that there might be some way I could talk them into releasing me.
The people I most needed to talk to, though, were the Pioneers. The problem as I saw it was finding a replacement for myself. Columbia didn't want Leonard Slye or Dick Weston under contract; it simply wanted the background music provided by the Sons of the Pioneers. If they could be assured that my absence wouldn't affect the music, I didn't see any problem.
Which is basically what they told me when I told them of the opportunity. The Pioneers told me not to worry about things, that the chance was too good to pass by. Still, I felt a need to be sure my spot was filled.
It was time to take a drive down the Coast Highway and have a talk with another old Ohio boy I had come to know and respect since moving to the West Coast. Pat Brady was not only a good man to go to for advice, but just might be the solution to the problem.
He played in a string quartet at a restaurant called Sam's Place on Sunset Beach, a spot we often stopped in after a performance. More often than not, we would wind up in a hot jam session after closing time. There were a number of things that impressed me about Brady. First of all, anyone from Ohio couldn't be all bad. Second, he was an accomplished musician, and had been in show business of one form or another since he was just a toddler following his mother and father, traveling tent show performers, from town to town. And third, I guess if I had ever run across anyone more shy than myself at the time, it was Pat Brady.
I came straight to the point with him after completing the fifty-mile drive. I outlined the situation and then said, "Pat, I can't guarantee that things will work out between you and the Pioneers, but if you would give it a try it would be a big favor to me. With you as my replacement, I would be free to test for the Republic contract."
He agreed. The Pioneers agreed. Columbia agreed. And on October 13,1937,1 signed a contract with Republic Studios.
There are varying theories as to why Republic would sign me or, for that matter, any other singing cowboy, to a contract when it did. It already had Gene Autry, who in 1937 was solidly the number-one box office draw among Western stars. Already a veteran of twenty-four movies, he was as familiar a name as Hollywood had to offer. To introduce a new singing cowboy, some said, would put the studio in competition with itself.
But others suggest that Autry's success had motivated Republic to increase its production of Westerns and therefore command an even larger income. Then there was the theory that Gene was becoming dissatisfied with some of Republic's policies, and was threatening to strike for higher wages if the studio did not agree to some of his demands.
(Pretty sure Republic Pictures had more than a little knowledge that Gene was going to do "a strike" on them….they were cover their butt as they were not going to bow to Gene Autrey's wishes and demands - Republic was a skin-flint when it came to paying its top stars - Keith Hunt)
To this day I'm not sure what the basic motivation in hiring me was. I do know, however, that the hardest part of my new job in the early days was sitting around waiting for something to happen. Not only did I spend the first several months just reporting to the studio to stand around and do nothing, I found out that just about everything about me was wrong. Someone, for instance, decided that my shoulders weren't broad enough, so I was placed on a routine which called for a hundred handstands a day. The fitting department put extra padding into my shirts. They even talked about some kind of drops for my eyes to make me squint less.
(Oh Republic knew alright that Gene was going to go on strike, with them; they knew for a long time it would come to that; they were tighter than new shoes, and would not bow to Gene Autrey's commands - Keith Hunt)
I did finally sing a solo in a film entitled The Three Mesquiteers, the first of a lengthy series of Three Mesquiteers Westerns which starred Ray Corrigan, Robert Livingston, and Max Terhune. It sure beat doing a hundred handstands a day, but the fan mail didn't exactly start flooding in. I was a long way from being King of the Cowboys.
Then Gene Autry declined to show up on the first day of shooting a new picture.
In his own biography, Back in the Saddle Again, Gene points to a number of reasons for his decision. His contract included a clause which entitled Republic Studios to half the money he received from things like endorsements, radio, or public appearances. And then, he was quite upset over the fact that the studio had begun to confront film distributors with a block buying proposition—to get one of Gene's pictures they had to agree to take a number of other Republic films. For a number of the smaller distributors this jumped the price of the package to an amount their relatively slim budgets could not stand. Some were no longer able to purchase the Autry movies that their customers, the movie houses, wanted.
It was, according to Gene, the block buying scheme which was the final straw. He reportedly confronted Republic owner Herb Yates with his list of grievances—he wanted the block buying practice stopped, the clause allowing the studio to pocket half his non-movie earnings removed, and, while he was at it, a fairer share of the profits from his increasingly successful films.
But Herbert J. Yates was not a man who had gotten where he was by bowing to the wishes of those he had under contract. At one time he owned Consolidated Film Labs, a processing plant which was developing the majority of films shot by Hollywood studios. It was pretty common practice in those days for Yates and Consolidated Film Labs to develop film for smaller studios—companies like Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Imperial, and Chesterfield, whose main fare was low-budget serials and adventure movies—on promise of payment later.
Then one day in 1935 came the announcement of a merger—the aforementioned studios would form a new corporation to be known as Republic Pictures, Inc. Merger it wasn't. Consolidated Film Labs had simply made an immediate demand for all money owed it, and Yates was suddenly in the motion-picture business in a big way. He inherited Mascot's North Hollywood studio and the contracts of a couple of pretty valuable properties—Ann Rutherford and Gene Autry. From Monogram he got the contract of a young Western star named John Wayne.
There are those who credit Herb Yates with the foresight to add a new twist to the standard Western movies being produced; the idea of a singing cowboy, I'm told, was that of Mr. Yates. And while he and I would have our own misunderstandings in the years to come, be aware that he was a man who well knew how to turn all the keys to success in the movie business.
Word got around pretty quickly that Yates was in absolutely no frame of mind to lose out in a power struggle with Gene Autry or any other person whose check he signed. Not wishing to get involved, and unaware that the incident would have any effect on my career—such as it was—I just kept my mouth shut and did my one hundred handstands a day.
When I was given another bit part in a Gene Autry movie entitled The Old Barn Dance, I had no way of knowing it would be his last for Republic for over six months. The meetings in Yates's office had evidently resulted in both parties refusing to budge. When Gene failed to show up on the first scheduled day of shooting for a movie to be called Washington Cowboy, he was suspended. The studio even took out an injunction to prevent his appearing on stage until his contract with Republic had been fulfilled.
Like I said, Herb Yates drove a pretty hard bargain.
(That is putting it politely…..he was a skin-flint - Keith Hunt)
I don't mind telling you I was more than a little nervous when I was summoned to his office. And I couldn't tell you what I said when he informed me that I was going to play the lead in the movie Gene had failed to show up for. The truth of it was that I was speechless.
Washington Cowboy was something of a Western's answer to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The script had a cowboy take the Dust Bowl story to the men in Congress, appealing for help for the ranchers whose cattle were dying and farmers whose crops were burning up in the fields. And there was also a nest of local politicians who had been bought body and soul by the evil and oppressive water company to be dealt with. So, quite naturally, the powers-that-be decided to change the name of the picture to Under Western Stars. In my years in the movie business I feel like I have learned a few things here and there. But, for the life of me, I have never managed to come to an understanding of the manner in which film titles are decided upon.
At that particular time, though, I wasn't in the least concerned over what title would eventually be flashed across the screen. The simple fact that I was going to actually start working for my seventy-five dollars per week made everything else quite secondary.
But before the shooting finally got underway, there were still a few details to be ironed out. My physical appearance was evidently finally satisfactory (they even gave up on the idea of the drops for my eyes), but it was decided that my name was still wrong. Dick Weston, it was decreed, wasn't all that much of an improvement over Leonard Slye. So the Republic brain trust went into a huddle.
Yates gathered several of the studio's top men—Bill Saal, and Moe and Sol Siegel—into his office and began the search for the proper name for Republic's new singing cowboy. Sol Siegel, I was later told, pointed to the fact that the late Will Rogers remained one of the most familiar and best-loved figures in America. "Rogers is a good, solid name," Siegel said. "To the public it represents honesty and integrity and trust. I say let's go with it. The first name has to be something short, easy to remember, but something with some meaning."
"What about something that might offer a little bit of an alliterative ring to it?" Yates suggested.
"Roy means 'king,' " Siegel suggested. "How does the name Roy Rogers strike you?"
"I like it," Yates said, rising from the chair behind his desk. That was it. Roy Rogers it was. If anyone had ever bothered to ask, I would probably have said I liked it too.
(Roy leaves out here the fact that Leroy was first mentioned as a first name; Roy opposed it because some kid in school had that name, and Roy could have pinched his head off for many reasons - Keith Hunt)
If nothing else, that particular brainstorming session brought an end to the name game I had already grown tired of playing. Of course, the new name took a little getting used to. But later, in 1942,1 went down to the court house and went through the process required by law to have my name legally changed to Roy Rogers.
Once the problem of a name was settled, it was the publicity department's turn. I posed for more pictures than I'd ever posed for in my life, and was repeatedly informed that I had to have what was called a proper "image." Roy Rogers, it was decided, was a true-blue son of the West, born in Cody, Wyoming, and raised on a sprawling cattle ranch. He even was supposed to have labored as a ranchhand in New Mexico for a while before finally making his way to the bright lights of Hollywood. Pictures and press releases soon began going out, introducing the studio's "newest Western star" even before he had gotten far enough down the road to stardom to learn his lines for the movie in which he would debut.
It didn't take long for some of the publicity to backfire. There came a letter to the studio from a complaining group in Cody which seemed far more concerned with historical accuracy than Hollywood hype. Their research, they claimed, revealed absolutely no evidence of anyone named Roy Rogers having ever been born in the whole state of Wyoming, much less Cody.
To the best of my knowledge, the calling of the publicity department's hand did little if anything to slow the flow of advance stories. They had a product to sell, and if it meant a slight alteration of fact and the nation's history now and then, so be it. After all, that, in a nut shell, was what B-Westems were all about in the first place, so why should the folks in the publicity department tamper with success?
During the filming of Under Western Stars I did everything you can think of that an actor is not supposed to do. I forgot my lines, I repeatedly made a mess of my make-up jobs, and I seemed to have a special knack for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. If the script called for me to draw my gun and say, "Reach!" more often than not I said "Reach!" and then drew my gun.
I marveled at the patience of not only Joe Kane, the director, but of the film crew and experienced performers like Carol Hughes and Smiley Burnette, my leading lady and sidekick in the movie. No doubt there were times when they all collectively wished I had stayed on that Wyoming ranch the publicity department had invented for me.
But we got it done and, to the surprise of even the ever-optimistic Herb Yates, the movie was a roaring success. In addition to doing very well at the box office, Under Western Stars would eventually be voted the Best Western of the Year.
And I kept learning my lessons about show business. Making a movie is only part of the work for an actor. The next step is to pack your bags and follow it all over the country, making public appearances and promoting it. I would soon learn that my previous musical travels were little more than short distance warm-ups for the travel involved in promoting a movie.
Under Western Stars, a movie made in Hollywood, starring a so-called Wyoming cowboy who goes to Washington, premiered in April of 1938 at the Capitol Theater in—where else?—Dallas, Texas. Figure that bit of logic out.
I'll have to admit, though, that if the people of Dallas did see illogic to our being there, they hid their feelings very well. It was red carpet every step of the way. Smiley and I were presented the keys to the city by the mayor. There were elaborate receptions for us everywhere we went and, best of all, a standing-room-only crowd at the theater.
The studio had hired the Sons of the Pioneers, Pat Brady and all, to make the trip with us since the group had been a great success at the Texas Centennial, and we put on a lengthy stage show before the initial showing of the movie.
The reporters turned out in force for interviews and pictures. And it was in the Dallas Morning News that I got my first review. If I wasn't already hooked on the movie business, the reviewer did the trick.
"The movie," the reviewer wrote, "introduces young Mr. 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."
Pretty heady stuff, you'll have to agree, for a farm boy from Duck Run, Ohio.
The lines of people waiting in front of theaters across the country to see Under Western Stars, which would earn the distinction of being the first B- Western ever shown at the Criterion Theater on Broadway, not only promised overwhelming financial reward for Republic, but were proof positive that young Roy Rogers was an instant success. On the screen he had been heroic; on the stages of the promotional tour, he had been charming. The moviegoing nation had adopted a new hero.
The two biggest Roy Rogers fans, Andy and Mattie Slye, followed their sons picture from town to town, feeling a new flow of parental pride every time the words 'starring Roy Rogers" appeared on the screen. Their son, fearing they would wreck the family budget buying gasoline and movie tickets, finally arranged to have a print of the film sent to them.
Upon his triumphant return to the studio, he was escorted to the mail room, where stacks of fan mail awaited him. With one feature role Roy Rogers had, in the vernacular of show business, become a star.
With Arene's help he began the endless task of answering the mail, which seemed to arrive in greater volume each day. Daily she went to the post office with boxes of cards and autographed pictures of her husband to be sent not only to adoring youngsters throughout the country but to people of all ages.
"That," says Roy, "gives you some kind of an indication what kind of a businessman I was. On the salary I was making,
I couldn't even pay for the postage. Finally, I went to Herb Yates and told him about the problem, hoping that maybe the studio would agree to help me handle some of it. He wasted little time telling me that I was foolish to worry about answering fan mail; that nobody else in the business did it because it took too much time and money.
"I couldn't buy that. It seemed to me that if someone is thoughtful enough to sit down and write you a letter, you had an obligation to answer them. Thus, it was obvious to me pretty quickly that I would have to solve the problem myself. Fortunately, the success of the movie had put me in demand."
Taking advantage of the situation, Roy arranged a series of one-night appearances, using the money he earned to help defray his mailing expenses. For the first two years at Republic, in fact, the cost of handling his fan mail exceeded the salary the studio was paying him.
He traveled a lot of miles to buy stamps, pay for pictures, and pay the salaries of four ladies hired to help see that requests were answered.
"In those days," he remembers, "a theater would pay one hundred fifty dollars for a night's performance. So as soon as I finished a picture, a couple of musicians and I would climb in the car and hit the road. One trip we made comes to mind and serves as a pretty good example of what we did. Over a three-month period we went through Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee. We'd drive all night and then sometimes do as many as four shows, grab a bite to eat, and climb back in the car.
"The more I traveled, the more disgusted I became with the studio. I had been made aware that there were other studios which were agreeing to help with the fan mail, realizing that those people who were writing were also buying tickets to the movies.
"Once, when I got back off the road dead tired, I got so disgusted with the whole thing that I hired a five-ton dump truck, filled it with mail and drove over to the studio. I backed it up to the front of Herb Yates's office and dumped it on the lawn.
"He came running out, waving his hands and yelling, asking what I thought I was doing. I just smiled and told him it was some of the fan mail that he wouldn't help me to answer, and that I was just about killing myself trying to do it on my own."
Yates, flabbergasted, was momentarily speechless. Then as Roy climbed back into the cab of the truck the studio owner said, "You're not going to just leave all this here, are you?"
"Yes sir," Roy said politely, driving away.
The grandstand play had all the elements of first-class theatrics but, in truth, did little good. As mail addressed to Roy Rogers increased to twenty thousand letters a week, Herb Yates stood his ground. Except for the fact that he agreed to increase Roy's salary by twenty-five dollars a week. Two years after signing his contract with Republic, he was making one hundred fifty dollars a week—and still doing one-nighters like they were going out of style.