By RICHARD SEVERO
Roy Rogers, a
shoe factory worker's son from Cincinnati who rode a golden palomino horse
and a harmonious voice to fame as Hollywood's most beloved and quintessential singing
cowboy, died Monday at his ranch in Apple Valley near Victorville, Calif. He was 86.
With a guitar
propped on his knee and six-shooters holstered on his hips, the crinkly
became a hero to the staunch fans of his TV show and nearly 100 movies, popular enough to
eventually have a roast beef fast-food chain named after him, as he tamed the West with his
characteristic heart and compassion. A practitioner of minimal violence, he much preferred to shoot
the pistol out of a gunslinger's hand than actually harm the man, his vileness notwithstanding.
America, when celluloid prairie life captivated the nation, the redoubtable
the "King of the Cowboys," his wife and co-star Dale Evans the "Queen of the West" and Trigger,
Rogers' wonder horse, the "Smartest Horse in the Movies."
exploits on the Double-R-Bar Ranch, along with those of Buttermilk, Miss
buckskin horse, and Bullet, their German shepherd, was an essential rite of growing up. Children ate
from Roy Rogers lunchboxes, played with Roy Rogers cut-out dolls and slept on Roy Rogers
bedsheets, dreaming of being musical buckaroos themselves. Who could forget Trigger rearing up
majestically while Roy Rogers waves his hand toward the cerulean Western sky? Who couldn't sing
along as Roy and Dale shook off trail dust and broke into "Happy Trails to You," their signature song
that Miss Evans wrote? Who didn't ache for just one chance to meet the hero in the flesh and drawl,
will be a lot of sad and grateful Americans, especially of my generation,
because of his
career," said President Clinton, a boyhood fan of Rogers'.
He was an outsized
and, for a cowpoke, an immaculately-dressed figure. There was his
doubled-creased 10-gallon white hat, the flowing kerchief knotted at the side of his neck, the
gabardine cowboy shirt, the western-cut trousers and those shiny, pointed cowboy boots. He
embodied unmistakably wholesome values, and evoked a vanishing and idealized America, when
men tipped their hats to the ladies and sang sentimental ballads around the bone-warming glow of a
At the pinnacle
of his fame in the decade after the end of World War II, Rogers was consistently
most popular western star in America, succeeding Gene Autry and William "Hopalong Cassidy"
Boyd in the genre. A survey conducted by Life magazine among children found that when they were
asked whom they most wanted to emulate, Rogers matched Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham
Lincoln. In a single month in 1945, he received 75,000 fan letters, eclipsing a record held by Clara
Bow, the silent-film star.
shared the limelight with his wife, who frequently accompanied him in singing
frequently steered him out of harm's way; with George "Gabby" Hayes, his garrulous, bewhiskered
sidekick, and with Trigger. Rogers discovered Trigger among the many horses auditioning for the role
of his trusty stallion in "Under Western Stars," the movie that began his career in 1938.
"I got on him
and rode him 100 yards and never looked at another horse," Rogers later
described Trigger, who cost $2,500 in 1938, as "the best thing that ever happened" to him. Under
Rogers' tutelage, the horse learned a lengthy repertoire of tricks. He could untie ropes, sit in a chair,
fire a gun and add and subtract.
"He liked to
perform in front of people, and there wasn't anything I asked of him he
Rogers once recounted to his biographers, Jane and Michael Stern. "He walked up stairs in hospitals
to visit the sick children. I insisted that Trigger get star billing in all my pictures. After all, what's a
cowboy without a horse?"
died in 1965 at age 33, the Smithsonian Institution wanted to display him
Washington. Rogers could not bear the separation. He had him mounted (not stuffed) and he
remains, in his rearing hind-leg pose, the most popular attraction at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans
Museum in Victorville.
In his durable
career, Roy Rogers starred in 91 feature motion pictures and 102 half-hour
films. For many Americans, the titles of his films are imprinted on their memories: "In Old Caliente,"
"The Arizona Kid," "Days of Jesse James," "Robin Hood of the Pecos," "Springtime in the Sierras,"
"North of the Great Divide," "Pals of the Golden West." His own favorite was "My Pal Trigger."
He also starred
in touring rodeos, made records and developed extensive business interests
estate, music publishing and fast food. Children of today are doubtlessly more aware of Rogers as a
roast beef sandwich than a cowboy. In 1968, the Roy Rogers Family Restaurants, a fast-food chain
built around roast beef sandwiches, was developed by Marriott Corp. in partnership with Rogers.
He, in turn, became a Marriott stockholder. The chain, which grew to upward of 800 restaurants,
was sold in 1990 to Hardee's, which sold it last July to the MRO Mid-Atlantic Corp. It has shrunk to
about 110 restaurants. As recently as 1995, Rogers appeared in an ad campaign for the roast beef
sandwiches. He recited some poetry.
In the late 1940s
and early '50s, more than 2,000 fan clubs around the world declared their
the cowboy couple. More than 400 licensed products bore their names and visages, and Rogers'
picture adorned 2.5 billion boxes of Post cereals. Their rodeo set a box-office record at Madison
Square Garden and they were the only couple picked as grand marshals of the Tournament of Roses
parade in Pasadena.
Rogers felt it
was his duty to send his fans "Rogersgrams" with homespun counsel like,
"Be neat and
clean" and "Study hard and learn all you can."
When not roping
and shooting straighter than anyone else, Rogers and Miss Evans found time
support various Christian charities and the religious programs of the Rev. Billy Graham and Bill
Bright, who founded the Campus Crusade for Christ. Rogers was also involved in programs to aid
the handicapped and chronically ill, especially children.
Growing up, Roy Rogers was emphatically pragmatic, and his interest was in teeth.
He was born Leonard
Franklin Slye on Nov. 5, 1911, one of four children and the only son of
Andrew and Hattie Womack Slye. His father worked for the United States Shoe Co. in Cincinnati;
his mother was a homemaker who loved music.
Their house stood
about where second base now is at Riverfront Stadium, where the Cincinnati
play baseball. The family was of modest means. Rogers used to say, "I hardly wore shoes until I was
Once he became
a star, much was made of Rogers' Choctaw Indian blood from his mother's
the family. American Indians basked in his accomplishments, and in 1967, he was named
"outstanding Indian citizen of the year" by a group of western tribes. Rogers accepted the honor and
was pleased to be counted as one of them, but he made it clear that his calculations made him only
one thirty-second Choctaw. The rest of his ancestors were Dutch and English.
admired cowboy stars from the silent screen era like Hoot Gibson and Tom
did not envision himself galloping across the prairie. His ambition was to become a dentist, a
profession, he reasoned, that everyone needed.
absorption with cowboys and Western culture began to grow in 1919, when
Slye moved his family from the city to a small farm in Duck Run, Ohio. There, in the "last house in the
holler," Roy learned to ride on a mule, acquired the ranchhand-skills and gained the familiarity with
animals and nature that he would eventually apply to the Hollywood range.
Later, the family
moved back to Cincinnati. To help ease Andrew Slye's worsening money problems,
Rogers dropped out of school to work alongside his father in the insole department of the United
States Shoe Co. In 1929, as the stock market was poised to crash, Rogers moved again, this time to
California, to find work as a fruit picker. In short order, his entire family, struggling for survival, joined
Roy Rogers later
said that when he read John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," he thought that
Steinbeck might have been writing about the Slye family instead of the Joads. Rogers spent many
evening hours playing the guitar and singing for fellow farm workers. He would later recall that some
of his happiest memories were from the Depression years, "when we didn't have anything to eat."
his meager income picking peaches, Rogers formed a singing duo with a cousin,
Stanley Slye, and the two performed at parties and square dances for whoever would hire them.
Rogers made his
radio debut in 1931 as a member of Tom Murray's Hollywood Hillbillies.
performed with groups like the International Cowboys and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. For a while, he
was known as Cactus Mac.
Joined by Bob
Nolan, the composer of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," Rogers assembled another
A radio announcer got their name mixed up and called them "the Sons of the Pioneers." It stuck, and
in the middle 1930s they began to make transcriptions of romantic cowboy ballads that were heard
all over the country. "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" became popular even among people with no affinity
for country-western music.
1935, the Sons of the Pioneers began to show up in the movies. They appeared
with Bing Crosby in "Rhythm on the Range" and in Gene Autry's first movie, "Tumbling
musical abilities were very much the rage in those Depression years and
outshone Gene Autry. But when Autry made clear to Republic Studios, a young company focused on
the western genre, that he wanted a hefty raise, the studio began searching for another cowpuncher.
In 1937 Rogers
auditioned for the star role in a movie called "Washington Cowboy," which
about in a hat shop while getting his Stetson cleaned. He bested a line-up of competing singing
cowboys to land the part that had been written for Autry. The name of the film was changed to
"Under Western Stars." Instead of Len Slye, Republic planned to rename him Dick Weston, but they
eventually settled on Roy Rogers, his name from then on.
The public warmed
to him at once. Bosley Crowther, reviewing "Under Western Stars" for The
York Times, wrote that the newcomer had "a drawl like Gary Cooper" and "a smile like Shirley
Temple." Republic worried that Rogers' slitty eyes made it look like he was squinting. They
recommended he use drops to widen them. But moviegoers felt just fine about his crinkly expression.
With Gene Autry off to war as a flier, Roy Rogers became "King of the Cowboys" in 1943. He
never relinquished the title.
In all of his
films, Rogers appeared as a low-keyed, well-intentioned, dependable good
never bragged or postured. Always protective of the weak, he was kind to animals, God-fearing and
slow to anger. He also sang pleasantly throughout his career and in one 1944 film, "Hollywood
Canteen," introduced Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In."
wife was Arlene Wilkins, whom he met in 1931 while on the road with a singing
Broke, he agreed to sing, "The Swiss Yodel" for a lemon pie. She made it. They married in 1936.
She died of an embolism days after she gave birth to their son, Roy Rogers Jr., in 1946.
In 1944, he met
Dale Evans, cast opposite him in "The Cowboy and the Senorita." They were
married on New Year's Eve in 1947, and she remained until he died "my sweetheart and hunting and
fishing partner all wrapped up into one."
Devoted as they
were, they never kissed on the screen. Rogers frowned on such public displays
was ever mindful that he was a potent role model for millions of children (he said he gave up beer on
hunting trips because it was inconsistent with his image). Once, though, he came ever so close to
kissing his wife in front of his fans.
In one film,
he was to kiss her on the forehead to apologize for shoving her under a
bed to keep her
from getting hurt in a fight scene. "But they had a conference and decided against it," Miss Evans
said. "The kids, you know, so I never even got kissed on the forehead. I just get knocked under
They made several
films together, and in their successful television series for NBC, which
between 1951 and 1957, she joined Rogers after every show to sing, "Happy Trails." That theme
was a title of their autobiography, published in 1979.
When Rogers married
Miss Evans, he was a widower with three children, an adopted daughter
named Cheryl, another daughter, Linda Lou, and Roy Rogers Jr. She was a twice-married actress
with a son, Thomas Frederick Fox Jr.
In raising a
family, the couple endured more than their share of heartbreak. Miss Evans
had a daughter, Robin Elizabeth, who was born with Down syndrome and died shortly before her
second birthday. They had kept her at home, uncommon in those days, and rejected any thought that
they keep her illness a secret in accordance with a show-business notion that audiences would recoil
if a perfect couple had an imperfect child. In 1953, Miss Evans wrote a best-selling inspiration book
about their daughter called "Angel Unaware."
To help soothe
their grief over Robin's death, the couple adopted a Korean War orphan
Deborah Lee. On Aug. 17, 1964, when she was 12, she was killed when a church bus collided with
a car near Oceanside, Calif. The following year, John David "Sandy" Rogers, an abused child whom
they adopted after a goodwill visit to an orphanage, choked to death in a military hospital in Germany
where he was serving in the Army. After he died, Miss Evans wrote a book, "Salute to Sandy."
Miss Evans and
Rogers adopted one other child, Dodie, an American Indian whom Miss Evans
while touring an orphanage, and fostered another child, Marion, who was 6 years old when they
found her in Scotland.
In addition to
Miss Evans, Rogers is survived by his children, Roy Rogers Jr., Cheryl
Lou Johnson, Dodie Sailors, Marion Swift and Tom Fox, 15 grandchildren and 33
A memorial service
will be held at the Church of the Valley in Apple Valley. Details are not
Roy Rogers Jr.,
known as Dusty, serves as curator of the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum,
the edge of the Mojave Desert and seven miles from the Rogers-Evans ranch, named the Double-R
Bar like the one on their television series. There can be found all the memorabilia of a time in America
when the good guys were singing cowboys who wore white hats, fought fairly and never used
language stronger than "Shucks."
When it didn't
interfere with his favorite soap opera, "Guiding Light," Rogers would often
museum and converse with visitors. He continued to wear his white Stetson, his gabardine shirts by
the celebrated courtier Nudie of Hollywood, complete with flowers and fringes, and his silver and
leather belts fashioned by Edward Bohlin, known as "the Michelangelo of saddlecraft." Even though
his legs ached and he would have been more at ease in sneakers, he always pulled on his pointy
boots with the high heels.
To the end, Roy
Rogers remained a humble and simple man. "I'm an introvert at heart," he
Commenting on the adversity in his own life, he wrote, "If there were no valleys of sadness and
death, we could never really appreciate the sunshine of happiness on the mountaintop."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
LOS ANGELES, July 6 - Roy Rogers, who galloped his way into the
hearts of millions of Americans during a long movie, TV and radio
career, died of congestive heart failure at his Apple Valley home early
Sunday. He was 86.
The “King of the Cowboys” was surrounded by family members, including
his wife and entertainment partner, Dale Evans, when he died, according to
film critic Leonard Maltin, who was asked by the entertainer’s family to
announce the death.
Rogers’ death did not come as a surprise, Maltin reported, adding that
entertainment legend had been released from the hospital a couple of weeks
ago so he could spend his final days at home.
Born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati Nov. 5, 1911, Rogers launched his
entertainment career by forming a singing duo with a cousin after coming to
California in 1929 as a migratory fruit picker.
He later changed his name to Dick Weston and formed a singing group, The
Sons of the Pioneers, with which he appeared on radio shows in Los Angeles.
Rogers broke into films in bit roles in 1935, at times in support of Gene
Autry, and went on to appear in more than 90 films, often with his palomino,
Rogers and Evans also became one of the most well-known couple in
television history with The Roy Rogers Show, which aired from December
1951 until June 1957 and had as its theme song the enduring “Happy Trails to
You,” which was written by Evans.
The couple came back to TV in September 1962 with a musical variety
show, The Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Show, which lasted only until December
of that year.
In addition to his entertainment ventures, Rogers, who sang well into his
eighties, was a highly successful businessman whose holdings at various times
included a TV production company, real estate, a rodeo show, thoroughbred
horses and a restaurant chain.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Donations in his memory may be made to: the Roy Rogers - Dale Evans
Museum 15650 Seneca Road, Victorville, CA USA 92392
Condolences can be emailed to Evans’ family at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rogers worked on the west coast picking fruit and, after several singing
he formed the Sons Of The Pioneers in 1933. They performed in many western
films, and, as a result of Republic's dispute with Gene Autry, Rogers received
his first starring role, playing a singing congressman in the 1938 film, Under
Western Skies. When he and John Wayne jumped off a cliff in Dark Command,
Hollywood's treatment of horses was severely questioned, which led to the formation
of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1946 his wife died shortly
after giving birth to their son, Roy Jr. On 31 December 1947 he married an actress
from his film, The Cowboy And The Senorita, Dale Evans. His films include King Of
The Cowboys, Son Of Paleface with Bob Hope and Jane Russell, and Hollywood
Canteen, in which he sang Don't Fence Me In.
Rogers’ four-legged friend, Trigger (‘the smartest horse in the movies’)
ridden by Olivia de Havilland in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
and cost Rogers $2,500. His films and television series (100 shows between
1951 and 1957) also featured a lovable, toothless and fearless old-timer
George Gabby Hayes. They contained no sex and little violence (he'd
wing the baddies in black hats), and his wholesome image found favour
when he toured UK theatres in the '50s. High prices are now paid for Roy
Rogers memorabilia, be it cut-out dolls, thermos flasks or holster sets. Rogers'
records include Blue Shadows On The Trail, These Are The Good Old Days,
a tribute to the past, Hoppy, Gene And Me and Ride, Concrete Cowboy,
Ride from the film SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 2. His palomino
Trigger died in 1965 at the age of 33 and was stuffed and mounted, as
referred to in Jimmy Webb's song P.F. Sloan.
Rogers became a successful businessman with a chain of restaurants,
he and Evans confined their appearances to religious ones. He made his
first film in 16 years in 1975, MACKINTOSH AND T.J., while his son,
Roy Rogers Jr., made an album DUSTY in 1983. Don McLean recorded
Rogers' famous signature tune Happy Trails and Rogers revived it with Randy
Travis in 1990. San Francisco rock band the Quicksilver Messenger Service
used Rogers' HAPPY TRAILS as the title of their album in 1968 as well as
recording the song as the closing track. He returned to the US country chart
with his album, TRIBUTE, in 1991, which included guest appearances from
contemporary country performers. Clint Black helped to revitalize his career,
the first time Rogers had accepted help from a man in a black hat.
Music Central '96