The Talented Roy Rogers Part Two
Lynne Roberts and Rogers in Billy the Kid Returns, 1938
From his first film appearance in 1935, he worked steadily in Western films, including a large supporting role as a singing cowboy while still billed as Leonard Slye in a Gene Autry movie. In 1938, Autry demanded more money for his work, and there was a competition for a new singing cowboy. Many singers sought the job, including Willie Phelps of the Phelps brothers, who appeared in early Western movies. Slye ended up winning the contest and was given the stage name Roy Rogers by Republic Pictures, shortening his first name and combining it with the surname of Will Rogers. He was assigned the leading role in Under Western Stars. Rogers became a matinee idol, a competitor with Autry as the nation’s favorite singing cowboy. In addition to his own movies, Rogers played a supporting role in the John Wayne classic Dark Command (1940). Rogers became a major box office attraction. Unlike other stars, the vast majority of his leading roles allowed him to play a character with his own name, in the manner of Gene Autry.
Publicity photo of Rogers and Mary Hart for Shine On, Harvest Moon, 1938
In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars poll, Rogers was listed for 16 consecutive years, from 1939 to 1954, holding first place from 1943 to 1954. He appeared in the similar Box Office poll from 1938 to 1955, holding first place from 1943 to 1952. In the final three years of that poll he was second only to Randolph Scott. These two polls are only an indication only of the popularity of series stars, but Rogers also appeared in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films in 1945 and 1946.
Rogers was an idol for many children through his films and television shows. Most of his postwar films were in Trucolor during an era when almost all other B westerns were black and white. Some of his movies would segue into animal adventures, in which Rogers’s horse, Trigger, would go off on his own for a while with the camera following him.
With money from Rogers’s films and from his public appearances going to Republic Pictures, Rogers brought a clause into a 1940 contract with the studio where he would have the right to his likeness, voice, and name for merchandising. There were Roy Rogers action figures, cowboy adventure novels, and playsets, as well as a comic strip, a long-lived Dell Comics comic book series (Roy Rogers Comics) written by Gaylord Du Bois, and a variety of marketing successes. Rogers was second only to Walt Disney in the number of items featuring his name.
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Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers in Rainbow Over Texas, 1946
The Sons of the Pioneers continued their popularity and have not stopped performing from the time Rogers started the group, replacing members as they retired or died (all original members are dead). Although Rogers was no longer an active member, they often appeared as his backup group in films, radio, and television, and he would occasionally appear with them in performances up until his death.
Rogers and Evans were well known as advocates for adoption and as founders and operators of children’s charities. They adopted several children. Both were outspoken Christians after their marriage. Beginning in 1949 they were part of the Hollywood Christian Group, founded by their friend Louis Evans, Jr., the organizing pastor of Bel Air Church. The group met in Henrietta Mears’s home and later in the home of Evans and Colleen Townsend, after their marriage. Billy Graham and Jane Russell were also part of this group. In 1956 the Hollywood Christian Group became Bel Air Church. In Apple Valley, California, where they made their home, streets, highways and civic buildings have been named after them in recognition of their efforts on behalf of homeless and handicapped children. Rogers was also an active Freemason and a Shriner and was noted for his support of their charities.
Publicity photo of Rogers and Gail Davis, 1948
Rogers and Evans’s famous theme song, “Happy Trails”, was written by Evans; they sang it as a duet to sign off their television show. In the fall of 1962, the couple co-hosted a comedy-Western-variety program, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, aired on ABC. It was cancelled after three months, losing in the ratings to The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS. He also made numerous cameo or guest appearances on other popular television shows, starring as himself or other cowboy-type characters, such as in an episode of Wonder Woman called “The Bushwackers”.
Rogers owned a Hollywood production company, which produced his own series. It also filmed other undertakings, including the 1955–1956 CBS Western series Brave Eagle, starring Keith Larsen as a young, peaceful Cheyenne chief, Kim Winona as Morning Star, his romantic interest, and the Hopi Indian Anthony Numkena as Keena, Brave Eagle’s foster son.
In 1968, Rogers licensed his name to the Marriott corporation, which converted its Hot Shoppes restaurants into Roy Rogers Restaurants, with which Rogers otherwise had no involvement.
Rogers owned a Thoroughbred racehorse named Triggairo, who won 13 career races, including the 1975 El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
Rogers and Dale Evans at Knott’s Berry Farm in the 1970s
In 1932 a palomino colt foaled in California was named “Golden Cloud”; when Len acquired him, he renamed him Trigger. In 1932, Len met an admirer named Lucile Ascolese. They were married in 1933 by a justice of the peace in Los Angeles; the marriage failed, and the couple divorced in 1936. Len then went on tour with the O-Bar-O Cowboys and in June 1933 met Grace Arline Wilkins at a Roswell, New Mexico, radio station. They were married in Roswell on June 11, 1936, after having corresponded since their first meeting. In 1941, the couple adopted a daughter, Cheryl Darlene. Two years later, Grace gave birth to a daughter, Linda Lou. A son, Roy, Jr. (“Dusty”), was born in 1946. Grace died of complications from the birth a few days later, on November 3.
Rogers met Dale Evans in 1944 when they were cast in a film together. They fell in love soon after Grace’s death, and Rogers proposed to her during a rodeo at Chicago Stadium. They married on New Year’s Eve in 1947 at the Flying L Ranch in Davis, Oklahoma, where they had filmed Home in Oklahoma a few months earlier. Together they had five children: Robin Elizabeth, who had Down syndrome and died of complications with mumps shortly before her second birthday, and four adopted children—Mimi, Dodie, Sandy, and Debbie. Evans wrote about the loss of their daughter in her book Angel Unaware. Rogers and Evans remained married until his death in 1998.
In 1955 Roy and Dale purchased a 168-acre ranch near Chatsworth, California, complete with a hilltop ranch house, expanding it to 300 acres. In 1965 after their adopted daughter Debbie was killed in a church bus accident in 1964, they moved to the 67-acre Double R Bar Ranch in Apple Valley, California, living in the nearby town.
Rogers was a Freemason and a member of Hollywood (California) Lodge No. 355, the Scottish Rite Valley of Los Angeles, and Al Malaikah Shrine Temple. He was also a pilot and the owner of a Cessna Bobcat.