ROY SPEAKS AGAIN #5
With the release of a movie bearing the same title in 1943, Roy Rogers officially became the movie world's "King of the Cowboys." In that busy year he would easily become Hollywood's number-one Western star at the nation's box offices, a position he would keep a firm grip on for the next dozen years. His career was moving fast and in fast company. Along with such motion picture celebrities as James Cagney, Loretta Young, Edgar Bergen, famed British stage actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and band leader Fred Waring, he was invited to the White House for a March of Dimes ball held in honor of President Franklin Roosevelt's sixty-first birthday.
While most of those in attendance were carefully abiding by the formal protocol of such an occasion, Roy and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt quietly slipped away to the White House kitchen, where they requested that the chef prepare hamburgers. Mrs. Roosevelt, delighted with the gift Roy had brought to her husband—a pair of silver spurs with the engraving, "To F. D. R. from Roy Rogers"—enthusiastically quizzed her guest about the making of movies and the training of Trigger.
At Republic, the amount of mail for Roy easily surpassed the previous studio record of famed actress Clara Bow. Roy Rogers Fan Clubs were growing in virtually every major city in the United States and several foreign countries; his recordings were turning a handsome profit in the music stores; and West-
ern Pubiishing's release of a series of Roy Rogers comic books delighted millions of young readers. Negotiations were underway with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to sponsor a network radio show starring Roy. A tour of Canada was in the planning, and he would soon make his debut in the famed Madison Square Garden where, during a nineteen-day appearance, Roy, Trigger, Gabby Hayes, and the Sons of the Pioneers would be responsible for a new attendance record in New York's historic entertainment center.
Trigger, by now sharing star billing with his famed owner, captivated the New York press, running through his seemingly endless string of tricks. Wearing special cushioned shoes, he even entered the lobby of the Dixie Hotel, took a pencil in his mouth, and registered with a bigX. It would seem no publicity gimmick was too outlandish when it involved the King of the Cowboys and the Smartest Horse in the Movies.
(WELL OF COURSE THIS WAS NOT THE TRIGGER OF THE MOVIES, BUT THE RELATIVELY NEW SECOND TRIGGER, WHO MASTERED ALL THE TRICKS, AND WAS THE "TRIGGER" ON THE ROAD - Keith Hunt)
In the background Art Rush delighted in the success of his client. While he is hesitant to admit it even today, he had accepted no commission for his work on Roy Rogers's behalf for the first year of their association. Now, with attendance records tumbling everywhere Roy appeared, with prosperous recording and radio contracts signed and development of a merchandising campaign well underway, his client was fast becoming a wealthy man. 'The studio still wasn't paying him much," Rush says, "and I think if Herb Yates had known how much he was making outside his work for Republic he would probably have had a heart attack. I'm sure when he agreed to let Roy supplement his income with some of the activities I had suggested, he had no idea how popular and successful his star would be."
Still, it was the movie business which provided the foundation of that success and popularity. With superior script writers like Norton Parker and Louis Stevens contributing strong story lines, and with talented Joe Kane doing the directing, the Roy Rogers vehicles maintained quality afar cut above the general B- Western fare.
"Joe Kane," says Roy, "was an outstanding director, but he was from the old school of screamers and hat-stompers. If someone missed their lines he would throw a fit, generally directing his anger at me, whether I was the one responsible or not. For a reason I couldn't understand for a long time, I was his chosen whipping boy. I was pretty easygoing, though, and for sure I made my share of mistakes, so I usually didn't get upset. But everyone has a limit.
(TO ME FRANKLY SOUNDED LIKE A SPOILT BRAT; WITH ALL THE FAME ROY NOW HAD OUTSIDE OF MOVIES, IF IT HAD BEEN ME AND NOT ROY, I WOULD HAVE TOLD KANE HE EITHER STOPPED HIS ANTICS OR I'D BE GOING HOME FOR THE DAY - Keith Hunt)
"One afternoon he stopped everything right in the middle of a scene and went into a rage. Boy,' he said, 'it's "get," not "git." It seems to me any idiot could get a simple word like that right. If you can't get it right, maybe I should see about getting somebody who can.'
"I told him where I came from it was git' and that was the only way I knew how to say it. And if that didn't suit him, maybe he should find another cowboy. And with that I pulled the ultimate Hollywood spoiled-brat stunt and walked off the set for the rest of the day.
(GOOD ON ROY; I'D HAVE DONE THE SAME; HE NEEDED TO SMARTEN UP THIS KANE GUY….MUST HAVE THOUGHT HE WAS THE CAT'S MEOW - Keith Hunt)
"It wasn't one of my prouder moments, but I will have to say that he never yelled at me again. In fact, one day when we were driving out to a location, he apologized and told me he really did like me and hoped I liked him. He began telling me his whole life story, pointing out that he had been short-tempered all his life. 'When I get frustrated,' he said, I have to take it out on somebody, and you're the only one I feel I can get away with it on. You aren't the temperamental kind of actor who goes around pouting if you aren't treated with kid gloves, and, believe it or not, I respect you for that.'
(IT'S NOT A QUESTION OF KID GLOVES, IT'S A QUESTION OF SELF-CONTROL, WHICH HE SOUNDED LIKE HE HAD LITTLE OF; AND THAT WOULD HAVE GONE DOWN LIKE A LEAD BALLON WITH ME - Keith Hunt)
"He was one of those people who really didn't mean to harm others, but because of that temper—which I suppose goes along with genius—did. Like I said, I had high regard for him as a director. But it's a wonder I didn't wind up a jibbering idiot during those forty or fifty films we did together."
(now he would have done 50 movies with me…..I would told him to get lost, and find a replacement; nobody can work for such an idiot from that length of time….he needed to be out of there - Keith Hunt)
While the great majority of the B- Westerns never strayed from the Good-Guy-versus-Bad-Guy story line, the Rogers productions generally fell into three categories. Some, like the 1943 production, King of the Cowboys, stressed two-fisted, hard-riding action with stuntmen providing breathtaking tricks of physical skill. In that picture, for instance, famed stuntman Yak Canutt performed a stunt which would be copied by Western filmmakers for years to come—letting a wagon pass over him, grabbing the back of it and hoisting himself in.Then there would be those pictures which stressed plot and music. Third was the speedy story line which wasted little time leading up to a wild and exciting action wind-up with fistfights, chase scenes, and an occasional shoot-out. In this, the most common type of the Roy Rogers films, wrong would be righted with time left over to allow Roy and friends to provide the audiences with a five-or-ten-minute musical revue. The fans not only left the theater houses satisfied they had seen the action they had come to expect, but were also humming a tune.
As Roy Rogers's value to the studio grew with each picture, his involvement in the more dangerous scenes lessened, turned over to more expendable stuntmen. Trainer Glenn Randall even managed to convince Roy and studio executives to use a double for Trigger on occasion in lengthy chase scenes, explaining that the constant work of the Republic schedule, which called for eight pictures a year, would eventually shorten the screen life of the gifted horse.
( I READ IT WAS THE VETERINARIAN FROM THE VERY START THAT SAID WORKING A HORSE SO HARD, DAY AFTER DAY, WOULD CERTAINLY CUT HIS LIFE VERY SHORT - SOUNDS MORE PLAUSIBLE COMING FROM A VET - Keith Hunt)
"I never got hurt during the filming of a movie, though there was one time when I thought sure Yak Canutt was going to personally see to it that I was. And not without good reason.
"We were doing this close-up, and he was standing in for the heavy' in the picture. The scene called for me to deliver this knockout uppercut to his chin. Yak, who was one of the greatest stuntmen of all time and who went on to become a successful director, doing things like the action scenes in Ben Hur, carefully explained to me how I was supposed to deliver the blow. He had this neckerchief that he held out away from his face ever so slightly and I was supposed to bring my fist up under it and he would jerk his head back, making it look as if I had knocked his head off.
"Things didn't quite go as planned, since he wasn't able to judge where my fist was as it came up under the neckerchief. I landed a good shot squarely to his jaw, chipping three or four teeth and actually dazing him a little bit. I felt terrible about it, apologizing as I helped him up.
" 'Don't think anything about it,' Yak said, Happens all the time.' Some way to make a living if you ask me."
While the B- Westerns abounded with action and song, there was little room for the development of parts for leading ladies.
They appeared to do little more than look pretty, cast loving looks at the star, maybe sing along on a song or two, and ultimately get saved from whatever tight spot the scriptwriter placed them in.
In addition to the several pictures with Lynn (Mary Hart) Roberts, Roy had a succession of leading ladies, many of them beauty contest winners who had come to Hollywood, signed six-month contracts, and were put into B- Westerns where their acting skills or lack of same were not likely to endure any severe tests. Among those who appeared on the screen with Roy were Sally Payne, Gale Storm, Peggy Moran, Ruth Terry, and Linda Hayes.
HERE COMES DALE EVANS
And then, in 1944, as shooting of The Cowboy and the Senorita was about to begin, Roy was told that a young actress who had been working in radio and musical comedies would be working with him.
Her name, he was told, was Dale Evans.
Dale and I got along well right from the start. She did, however, have a little to learn about working in Westerns. Learning that she was originally from Texas, it occurred to me that I might finally have a leading lady who could also ride a horse. But in her first riding scene she bounced along like she was on a merry-go-round. I kidded her about it, pointing out that I couldn't ever remember seeing that much daylight between a horse and rider outside a few rodeos I'd been to, but she failed to see much humor in my observation. She was far more concerned over the fact that the ride had jarred several new caps from her teeth and her horse had stepped all over the four-hundred-dollar smile a studio had just finished paying for.
What she lacked in horse-womanship, though, she more than made up for with her energetic acting and singing. And what the heck; Gabby had been forty-five before he ever learned to ride.
It was Gabby who repeatedly pointed out that better parts were needed for the leading ladies in Westerns. "Half of the people going to see our pictures," he would argue, "are girls. They want to see the ladies involved in the stories more. Maybe even with a little romance. I don't think the theaters are going to empty like somebody's hollered Tire!' if Roy was to kiss somebody other than Trigger on the screen. A little hand-holding and peckin' on the cheek would make a lot of little ladies happy."
I have to admit that I seriously questioned tampering with what I figured to be an already-successful, tried-and-proven formula. On the other hand, Movie Life magazine had conducted a poll which indicated that the majority of theatergoers did, in fact, want a little romance. That did not escape the attention of the powers-that-be at Republic. In the very next picture I did with Dale, the script called for me to give her a brotherly kiss on the forehead. A long way from being X-rated, you must admit, but there were those die-hards who wondered if B-Westems would ever be the same. For a while I was one of those die-hards.
Of course, I have to admit that it wasn't my first screen kiss. That had come earlier in a movie entitled San Fernando Valley, from little Jean Porter in a dream sequence.
While the kissing and hand-holding never got out of hand, the parts written for Dale rose far above those my previous leading ladies had been dealt. And the public accepted her immediately.
She had made it clear from the beginning that she aspired to act in musicals but, to her credit, she approached her work in our Westerns with a professional dedication that came through loud and clear every time a new picture was released.
And she was a warm, likable woman who didn't mind the hard work, dust, dirt, and horseback riding that went along with her job. Arlene and the girls visited the set regularly and immediately took a strong liking to her as well. Dale's dressing room, in fact, soon became the favorite playground of Cheryl and Linda Lou.
I liked her, too. How could I help it? She was the first leading lady I'd ever had who bothered to take riding lessons.
In addition to making movies, she also joined us on the road for personal appearances. In short order she found that it in no way resembled the club singing she had done before making her way to California. During one rodeo performance in Detroit, Michigan, her horse spooked and made four wild gallops around the arena before wranglers could stop it and help her off. In Las Vegas, a balcony under which she had been standing just minutes earlier collapsed. And the Baker Hotel where she was staying in Dallas was rocked with an explosion just shortly after she had left. Being a sagebrush sweetheart wasn't easy.
And it was her good fortune, or lack of same, to get into the Western movie business when Republic Studios discovered a whole new and previously untapped market. They decided that if a touch of Spanish accent was added here and a chorus sung in the native tongue of Mexico added there, a whole new market would be opened south of the border. They were right. Duncan Renaldo, who would later gain fame as the Cisco Kid, taught me Spanish, as did Estelita Rodriquez, who joined us for Along the Navajo Trail.
In fact, for her first role with me Dale wore a black wig and played the part of Ysobel Martinez. She still had a healthy Texas drawl (which to this day she's never lost) and during the filming of The Cowboy and the Senorita, Fuzzy Knight repeatedly warned her not to get her Spanish and her Texican, as he called it, mixed up. "If you don't watch yourself," he would chide, "you'll be saying, 'si si, you all.'"
She made it through the movie with flying colors, however, and returned home to Texas for a short vacation with her family. While attending an ice show in the Century Room of the swank Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, the orchestra leader asked her to do a song. As she was making her way to the bandstand, trying to negotiate the ice in high heels, she did a swan dive which was captured by a photographer.
As soon as the photo made its way out to California I sent her a telegram which said, could have been worse. At least this time there was no horse to step on your teeth.
To this day she's never bothered to tell me whether she found my message funny.
Show business, it seems, has a way of inviting embarrassing moments. One of mine came in 1945. We were in New York, working Madison Square Garden at the same time the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals were battling it out in the World Series. Since I was eager to see at least one game of the Series, Ned Irish, the president of the Garden, arranged for Art Rush and me to join him in his box seats.
It was a big thrill for me, going out to the ballpark early to visit with people like Connie Mack and Babe Ruth and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but as soon as we took our seats in Ned Irish's season box, people began coming over and asking for autographs. It didn't bother me until the game was just about to begin and the crowd kept coming. I leaned over to Art Rush and told him that if we weren't able to get these people to return to their seats we'd have to leave, since a lot of people around us weren't going to be able to see the game.
Just as Art was leaving his seat to go speak to the security guards about the problem, I turned to see this man coming— not down the aisle, but climbing over seats, obviously headed in my direction. So intent was he on reaching his destination that he was apparently oblivious to the people he was stepping over and otherwise inconveniencing. Just before he got to my seat he climbed over a box, stumbled slightly, and steadied himself by placing his hand on the hat of a man who had been sitting quietly, puffing on a cigar, waiting for the game to begin.
As soon as I realized who that man was, I immediately began stuttering an apology while Art, aghast over the development, was brushing the man off and trying to smooth his crumpled hat. Former President Herbert Hoover just smiled a warm, patient smile and said, "It's quite all right. No harm done. It so happens that I'm a Roy Rogers fan myself."
Of course with the tight security given the President today, something like that could never occur. I would have enjoyed the game a great deal more had it not occurred on that particular fall afternoon thirty-five years ago.
It would have been difficult in the mid-forties to find many people who wouldn't have traded places with Roy Rogers; he had become one of the most famous men in America and around the world. Success seemed to breed more success. Children loved him and parents appreciated him. He was, in the tired idiom of show business, a bonafide star of stage, screen, radio, and juke boxes throughout the land.
He was financially secure, had a loving wife and two daughters who were the lights of his life. And then, as if the American Dream story had no ending, Arlene gave birth to a son on October 28, 1946. News of the arrival of Roy Rogers, Jr., a healthy boy who would come to be known as Dusty, was spread throughout the world by the wire services.
"At that time in my life," Roy remembers, "I couldn't, even in my wildest imagination, think of anything else I would want. I was feeling pretty good about myself, in fact. Cocky is perhaps a better adjective.
"But the Lord has a way of making you aware of how fragile the thing everyone calls success is. He can take a pretty big ego and get it back down to size in a real hurry. I know. I learned it the hard way."
Six days after the birth of his son, Roy had a Sunday morning golf date with Art Rush. So excited had he been over the arrival of Roy, Jr., that production of the movie on which he was working at the time had been shut down for a week—the exciting distraction had made concentrating on his lines all but impossible. A round of golf, Art had suggested earlier, would be good for him—help him burn off some of his excess energy.
Well before he was to meet his golfing partner, however, the phone rang in his home. It was the hospital, urging him and Arlene s mother, who had come to stay and help her daughter with the new baby for a couple of weeks, to hurry to the hospital.
When they reached Arlene s room they found it crowded with stern-faced doctors and nurses. Arlene lay unconscious, the victim of a sudden embolism. Artificial respiration, injections, and oxygen had failed to do any good.
Shortly after her husband arrived, Arlene Rogers died.
It would be Mary Jo Rush who answered the phone later and rushed upstairs to wake her still-sleeping husband. "I don't know who it is on the phone," she told her husband, "but it sounds urgent. It sounded like a child crying to me."
Lifting the receiver, Art Rush heard the sobbing Roy Rogers say the words that sent a frozen chill through his body. "Art," he heard, "Arlene's dead . . ."
Suddenly Art Rush was also crying. "Where are you?"
"Stay there. I'm on the way."
Art stopped his frantic dressing only long enough to kneel and say a prayer. A deeply religious man, he says, "I just knew we needed help and I asked for it." He then hurried to the hospital.
"When I got there I saw something," Rush says, "that I can still see in my mind as if it were yesterday. There was Roy, standing next to his car in the parking lot, tears in his eyes, and kids surrounding him. He was signing autographs. Crying and signing autographs.
"I know the grief he was bearing was far greater than mine, but that scene just broke my heart. There he was, his spirit broken, not even trying to hide his tears, but still signing the pieces of paper all those little kids were holding out to him."
Such was the mettle of the King of the Cowboys.