Roy Rogers "King of the Cowboys"
and Dale Evans "Queen of the West"
The United States has no king as head of state; but on rare occasions our culture provides a hero so great that the royal title fits: Elvis, King of Rock and Roll; Kitty Wells, Queen of Country Music; Babe Ruth, Sultan of Swat. In 1943 Republic Studios declared Roy Rogers King of the Cowboys. It was an audacious marketing ploy, but it worked. The tuneful sagebrush superstar from Duck Run, Ohio, fit the silver-saddle throne like no man before or since. As a movie buckaroo, he was the best there ever was: he shot the straightest and rode the fastest (on Trigger, "The Smartest Horse in the Movies") and yodeled the sweetest and strummed hypnotic sagebrush tunes about tumbling tumbleweeds on his guitar. He was invincible: when it came to fisticuffs, he could outbox any one man or any four, always fighting cleanly even if they did not. He was fabulously well-dressed in fringe and fancy leather, and he was a man who never seemed to need a shave. His partner in many of the movies he made was just about the prettiest cowgirl there ever was - Dale Evans, "Queen of the West." When Roy crinkled his eyes in a smile, girls fell in love and boys smiled right along with him. Children especially adored him because even though he was a grown-up, Roy Rogers seemed never to lose his boyish enthusiasm for life's adventures.
At the peak of his career, from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, he made as many as six pictures a year, which were seen annually by more than 80 million Americans - over half the population of the country. In 1950 there were more than two thousand Roy Rogers fan clubs around the globe; the one in London had fifty thousand members - the biggest such club then for anyone, anywhere on earth. In 1951 Roy Rogers moved to television and starred for six years on "The Roy Rogers Show" along with his wife, Dale Evans. They also created several long-running radio series that featured their singing duets and dramatic sketches, and they regularly rode in all the biggest parades and performed at all the grandest rodeos throughout the nation.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were simply the most popular cowboy and cowgirl the world has ever known. Their West was a magical American landscape full of promise and hope in which goodness was always rewarded and bad guys always got what they deserved. They reigned at a time when the cowboy ideal seemed to signify everything decent about a nation in which all things were possible if you were a good guy with a solid handshake and a sense of honor. They were, in the words of H. Allen Smith, "purity rampant" at a time when we Americans wanted heroes pure and yearned to believe that dreams come true. They fought fair and didn't swear or even grumble when the going got tough. The adventures they had were thrilling and fun and wholesome, filled with rollicking songs, mile-a-minute horse chases, and a dash of fresh romance (but not too much mushy stuff). Whatever trouble came along, you knew that Roy and Dale could handle it - with skill and certainty, good humor, and grace. The mythology known as pop culture doesn't make heroes like them anymore, which is why Roy and Dale have become American icons bigger than their fame as performers and celebrities.
For many of us who grew up with them, they always felt so much more personal than other Hollywood royalty. In their fanciful movie and TV dramas, but also in the very real and sometimes tragic struggles of their private lives, they took their position as stars to heart and always tried to set a good example. They cared about the influence they had on all the little pardners in their thrall, and they weren't embarrassed to tell us so. Dale often liked to tell her own children as well as the rest of us, "Your life is the only Bible some people will ever read"; and for us youngsters who adored them, Roy and Dale truly were an inspiration of near-biblical significance. If our own parents weren't around to help or maybe sometimes didn't provide such good examples, the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West were there to show us how to live: how to make a slingshot from the prongs of a vining maple tree, how to shoot straight and ride smooth, how to be brave at times when we were scared, how to be decent human beings in the face of bushwhackers and bad guys.
Some of us fell in love with him. A neighbor of ours who runs a Western wear and tack store recalls gathering around the TV with her three sisters to watch "The Roy Rogers Show" every Sunday evening at 6:30. "We sat as close to the television set as our parents allowed," she says. "And whenever Roy came on, we took turns jumping up to kiss the screen." She asks us, "Is he really as nice as he seems? Are they truly in love?" When we tell her that Roy and Dale in person today are as kind and bright and charming and plumb good as she remembers from forty years ago, she beams with delight, looking like a little girl with stars in her eyes.
Another woman we know says that she liked Roy and Dale because of the relationship they had. "Dale sometimes told Roy off," our friend recalls with a wistful smile, "and he liked it! They liked each other so much; you could see that. Dale was my role model when I was growing up because she showed you could be a cowgirl with a fast horse and be pretty, too. I think the biggest thrill of my childhood was when my father took the whole family to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden. We didn't know it until we got there, but Roy Rogers was the headliner. He was there with Dale and his sidekick Pat Brady. They sang songs and put on a show, but what I remember most is the end of the performance when Roy went all the way around the edge of the tanbark, riding Trigger in a sidepass and reaching down to shake hands with the audience. We were in the tenth row, and it seemed like there were a thousand other boys and girls in front of me. As he pranced along and came closer, I bent forward and held my hand out as far and high as I could. Everyone was yelling - all my brothers and sisters and the other kids - but I swear he looked my way when he heard me call his name. He spurred Trigger to move closer so the horse's breast pressed against the stands. Roy stood in his stirrups, leaning forward and extending his right hand - I watched the fringe swinging from his gauntlet - and as he passed, I reached impossibly far above the crowd and into the air. His hand grabbed mine, he looked me in the eyes, and he said, 'Howdy, Pardner.' At that moment, I felt there was no one else in the arena but us, and all he cared about was me."
forward from Jane and Michael Stern's, "Happy Trails, Our Life Story"