MOVIE COWBOYS MOVE TO TV
BY JANE AND MICHAEL STERN
On April 21,1949, Roy Rogers and Trigger were granted an entitlement that marked the pinnacle of success in old Hollywood: they put their boot and hoof prints into wet cement in the courtyard of Grauman's Chinese Theater. Roy reigned across the land, breaking box office records when he appeared at rodeos and on theater stages, turning out six moneymaking pictures every year. Each monthly issue of his comic book sold 1.3 million copies; he was voted the most popular movie star in England; and in America he remained unchallenged as the top moneymaking Western star for twelve years, from 1943 to 1954.
Some film historians like to characterize the postwar era by the appearance of "adult" Westerns that began to deconstruct the conventions of the genre: The Outlaw, featuring Jane Russell's big breasts; High Noon, an allegory about Mc- Carthyism; Shane, a self-conscious Western about cowboy mythology. But such apparently important movies were anomalies. For the late 1940s were also the time when A-budget pictures directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Reef River, elevated the Western genre to a grand and classical dimension. At the same time, lower-budget B-Westerns, with their cheery song interludes, familiar plots, and rudimentary characters, remained immensely popular, especially among their prime audience—children.
Cowboy movies every Saturday afternoon were the favorite entertainment of millions of American kids, but these sixty-minute oaters, starring Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or Charles Starrett or Bill Elliott or Tex Ritter or Lash Larue or any one of a dozen other incredibly good guys, offered their audience of little buckaroos something more than just fun. They provided young baby boomers with unconfusing heroes and a clear sense of right and wrong—a lesson in how to behave each and every week. To grow up with Roy Rogers as your mentor in the postwar years was to have a role model who was kind and decent and immensely capable, and who taught you that life rewarded courtesy, bravery, and hard work. In the world of his movies, goodness always prevailed.
"He has survived other wars and he will survive this one," Life magazine wrote about America's cowboy hero in 1943. Survive he did: and thrive! Despite atomic-era anxieties lurking in the shadows, popular culture of the late 1940s and early 1950s was a mighty happy trail for silver-screen cowboys who fought for truth and justice. After all, their message was that good guys win—which is exactly what had seemed to happen in World War II. America felt mighty proud of itself. Goodness had indeed prevailed.
If we as a nation could do great things overseas, we could do them at home as well; and after wartime years of deprivation and sacrifice, America was a country that felt ready and raring to build things (highways, suburbs) and buy things (cars with tail fins, dinettes of boomerang Formica, TV sets for one and all). As a new, optimistic generation was born, children and parents alike learned that it was good—in fact, it was downright patriotic—to be extravagant consumers. The postwar years were a golden age of modernistic product design, exorbitant advertising, and unblushing celebrity endorsements. Cowboy movie stars pitched products almost from the beginning (Tom Mix was the spokesman for Gold Medal flour); but the coming of television gave them heretofore unimaginable powers of salesmanship.
The movie cowboys' switch to television from the big screen ultimately did spell the end of B-Westerns in theaters by the mid-1950s, but for those who made the move, it meant a whole new magnitude of popularity, prosperity, and power.
The first cowboy to learn what TV could do was Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), who by 1948 had been pretty much forgotten as a cowboy movie star. Television made him a national idol of a proportion no mere movie star had ever known. It started in 1948 when a Los Angeles TV station began running some of his old features to fill up its schedule. The next year, NBC put them in prime time. Clean, pure, black-and-white Hoppy—whose forte was close-up dialogue scenes rather than panoramic action shots—was a perfect fit for the new small screen. William Boyd, who had secured the broadcast rights to his films, edited them down to thirty-and sixty-minute programs, and shot another fifty-two, especially for TV (with Edgar Buchanan as his sidekick, Red Connors). Right up there with Howdy Doody and pro wrestler Gorgeous George, he became one of America's first TV stars, and in 1950 both Life and Time featured him in cover stories about Hoppymania. Time called the phenomenon "one of the most amazing jackpots in the history of the entertainment business," spinning off into radio shows, a newspaper comic strip, and 108 licensed manufacturers selling $70 million worth of Hoppy products to TV viewers that the magazine labeled his "electronic slaves."
"The Lone Ranger" went from radio to television in 1948.
Gene Autry began producing "The Gene Autry Show"; and in 1951, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans finally moved to television.
The small screen proved to be a comfortable medium for Roy and Dale's kind of Western stories, which had always depended less on scenery than on dialogue, songs, and character. Broadcast at 6:30 p.m. on Sundays, their show became one of television's first successful "family" programs, with musical numbers, action, and philosophizing aimed at young and old alike. An MGM Western street served as the series' town, Mineral City; Iverson's movie ranch provided location scenery; and movie bad guy Jack Ingram's ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains served as Roy's Double R Bar Ranch. The show began each week with a shot of Roy on Trigger, racing along a trail with the rest of the cast close behind as an announcer intoned, "Tost Cereals—Post-marked, yes, Postmarked for happy eating—presents 'The Roy Rogers Show' with Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys; Trigger, his golden palomino; and Dale Evans, Queen of the West; with Pat Brady, their comical sidekick; and Roy's wonder dog, Bullet."
Soon after the show went on the air, Roy's likeness began appearing on Post cereal boxes, advertising such prizes as cardboard reproductions of the Double-R Bar and lapel pins with portraits of Trigger and Buttermilk. Roy Rogers had begun seriously endorsing products the year he became King of the Cowboys, in 1943. Within a short while, the only celebrity name on more things than Roy's was Walt Disney's.
He lent his imprimatur to every kind of child's toy imaginable, including cap guns and quick-draw holsters, child-size guitars, "branding iron" rings to fit little fingers, badges, lassos, and musical hobby horses. There were whole suites of Roy Rogers clothes, too: Comfort-A-Foot moccasins, Roy or Trigger bandannas, Trigger-themed cowboy boots, and "Ranchjamas" (known among dudes and grown-ups as pajamas). In addition to kids' stuff, Roy lent his name to many adult products, too, including Magic Chef stoves, Friskies dog food, and Kodak film. The Sears catalogue of 1955, issued at the peak of his TV show's success, had more than a dozen pages of Roy Rogers things for sale. Among them were a rodeo hat with Roy's name on its rayon band, matching Roy and Dale ten-piece "Palomino Sets" that included chaps, belts, holsters, pistols, bandanna, and lariat—everything but hat and boots—and specially made Roy Rogers "Chap-Pants" with scarlet corduroy fronts and black suede trim. Sears also offered denim pants and jackets "specially designed for the 'King of the Cowboys'" and Roy Rogers flashlights with a four-color picture of Roy and Trigger on the side, suitable for use to signal danger. (The flashlight alone cost a dollar. For $1.39, you got it with a holster and a Roy Rogers Morse Code guide.)
For those of us who grew up with Roy and Trigger and Dale and Buttermilk as our ultimate heroes, there was one souvenir that definitely took the cake as the most coveted ever. In 1955 Post sponsored a "Name the Pony" contest. "Boys! Girls! Give me a name for this pony," Roy said in advertisements. "Names like Beauty, Dandy, and Flash are all good, but you can do better. So get going, buckaroos! Send in your names today!" Each entry had to be accompanied by a Post Cereal boxtop. For those who came up with the best names, there were 5,000 pairs of roller skates (fourth prize), 500 paperboard bunkhouses (third prize), 100 Dougboy Family-Size Swimming Pools (second prize), and twenty-five first prizes—YOUR VERY OWN PONY! Complete with "genuine Roy Rogers saddle and bridle," the child-size first-prize horse looked just like a miniature Trigger. Magazine advertisements showed the little palomino rearing high up on his hind legs as the happiest boy in the world sat astride his back, waving his ten-gallon hat in the air and preparing to gallop through his backyard and neighborhood on an adventure that was the dream of millions of American boys and girls.
—J. & M. S.