On the Many Phases of Roy Rogers
Today is the birthday of that unique American phenomenon, star of radio, television, film, live performance, and the recording arts Roy Rogers (Leonard Slye, 1911-1998).
Yes, “Leonard Slye”. And he spent the first 19 years of his life no further West than Ohio, but he sure made up for it later. In 1931 he was working in California as a manual laborer when he won a singing contest on a Los Angeles radio show, which led to his joining a group called the Rocky Mountaineers. For the next three years he was in a succession of Western themed singing groups with names like the International Cowboys, the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Jack LeFevre and his Texas Outlaws, the Pioneer Trio, and finally in 1934 the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers proved to be an overnight success on radio. That same year recorded their breakout hit record “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, written by fellow bandmember Bob Nolan.
In 1935, the group began appearing in films, as well. At this stage, our hero was still appearing as Leonard Slye. In 1938, he was hastily drafted by Republic Studios as a replacement for Gene Autry, who had walked out on his contract. It was at stage that he was given the name “Roy Rogers” and catapulted into stardom. (The last name was borrowed from the recently deceased Will Rogers, a choice which no doubt still causes confusion to this day). While Slye had officially left the Sons of the Pioneers the group would often continue to appear in some of his pictures. Between 1938 and 1951 Rogers was a major box office attraction, starring in over 80 films. Most of these would be more accurately described as “singing westerns” or “western musicals” than westerns per se. While many of the films had similar plots, they were often simpler and less violent. Some of the movies were set in the present day. Many featured Andy Divine or Gabby Hayes as Rogers’ sidekick.
Rogers was a “pioneer” in more ways than one. In 1940, he negotiated a contract that gave him merchandising rights over his character and image (and that of his equine partner Trigger), and he truly began to make a fortune.
In 1944, his first wife died and he married the woman who would be his permanent co-star and love interest Dale Evans. It was Evans who wrote the pair’s theme song “Happy Trails” in 1952.
From 1951 through 1957, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans essentially transferred their energy from film and radio to television, airing over 100 weekly episodes on NBC. Here’s the first episode!
In 1962, the two attempted a variety show The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, which ran for three months on ABC before cancellation.
After this, it was hardly like they were out of the public eye. I remember seeing them periodically on television in the 1970s and 80s, on variety shows, talk shows, telethons, televised events (like parades), commercials, PSAs. In 1968, Rogers licensed his name to a fast food franchise, extending his fame and his name to every highway exit rest stop, even if he had nothing to do with the management of the concern or the cuisine itself. In the 1970s, he actually charted several country records. And in 1975, he made this comeback film Mackintosh and T.J. (which didn’t do so well):
He was 86 when he passed away in 1998. Dale Evans followed him three years later. The original Trigger died in 1965.
For more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
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