Roy & Dale: King and Queen Forever
The 1960s was not an easy time to be icons of truth, justice, and the American Way. Cowboy heroes and cowboy ideals were not merely out of style; they became a kind of joke to the counterculture, which was composed mostly of baby boomers who felt a little embarrassed about having grown up in a society with old-fashioned values and heroes who were good guys. Cowboy "heroes," such as they were, no longer upheld the Code of the West. Clint Eastwood as the scornful, unshaven "Man with No Name," Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch were all cowboys who didn't give a fig for traditional principles of right and wrong. Many movie "cowboy" types, in contemporary films as well as historical dramas, were presented as trigger-happy lunatics, such as Dr. Strangelove's B-52 pilot Slim Pickens, who rides an A-bomb like a bucking bronco, or the bloodthirsty cavalry officers of Soldier Blue; and there was Paul Newman's Hud, whose lethargy and nihilism was supposed to symbolize the utter death of the West. Perhaps the ultimate cowboy joke of the decade was the pitiful loser played by Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy-the man of the West as a caricature, a hapless hick. John Wayne finally won an oscar in 1969, for True Grit, but it was for playing Rooster Cogburn, a burlesque of all the heroes he had played in decades past.
Despite 1960s cynicism and its iconoclastic legacy, America's cowboy has proven to be one tough hombre. Even though Westerns were pronounced dead once and for all in 1980 after "Heaven's Gate" laid the most expensive egg in boxoffice history, we Americans have returned once again to the values of the West to renew our souls. Ten years after the "Heaven's Gate" death knell was sounded, Kevin Costner made Dances with Wolves. This epic fantasy about a cavalry officer ennobled by his sabbatical with the Sioux corraled gigantic audiences and won a fistful of Academy Awards. The triumph of Dances with Wolves wasn't completely out of the blue; the year before, the miniseries made from Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove had garnered big television ratings for what was a grand-scale, old fashioned cattle-drive epic complete with a thundering stampede, a bloodthirsty Indian out for white men's scalps, a pretty blond whore with a heart of gold, and Texas Ranger heroes who could ride, rope, shoot, fight, and philosophize as well as any pop-culture cowboy ever did.
By 1990, it seemed that Americans were eager once again to embrace the values of the West. BMWs were traded in on pickup trucks, Rolexes gave way to Wranglers, cowboy boots appeared on feet once shod only by Gucci, and the fashionable address became Montana rather than the Hamptons. Cowboy cool has gained ever more momentum in the 1990s as an antidote to the rampant sleaze of pop culture and the hypocrisy of so many public figures in politics as well as pop culture. Consider America's cowboy hero: you'll never see him ranting about his problems to Oprah or Geraldo; nor will you see him waiting in line at the Motor Vehicle Bureau or filling out a medical insurance claim form. In the movie West of Hollywood's imagination, there are no corporate committees who decide when to saddle up, no accountants prescribing proper amounts of hay for the horses, no middle-management bureaucrats putting up gates and fences, and little in the way of meddling government to obstruct a buckaroo with a job to do. If a cowboy hero kisses a girl who doesn't like him, she knows how to slap him with her hand instead of with a sexual harassment suit.
Is it any wonder Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are popular all over again? Never forgotton by their true fans, the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West have come to symbolize a dearly remembered era when pop culture was clean and decent and you got to be a celebrity because you were a good guy. Modern Nashville royalty including Clint Black, K.T. Oslin, and Randy Travis idolize Roy and Dale as the parents of country music; in 1991 twelve current country stars joined in duets with Roy on an album called Tribute, which climaxed with them all singing "Happy Trails." The album inspired a TV special in which Roy sang with the top names in Nashville today. Roy Roger's imprimatur is golden once again, and you can buy everything from a replica of Roy's first gun holster set, to Roy Rogers chocolate candy for your sweetheart. One of the most popular of all souvenirs at the family museum in Victorville, California, is a sheet with all the rules of the Roy Rogers Riders Club written on it. For many Americans who yearn to return to a sense of moral balance missing now from public life, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans represent the best of the West-its ideals.
If you are lucky enough to go to the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum and meet them in person you will not be dissapointed. Roy is old now, but in some significant way he has never aged; he still radiates the rapture and eternal optimism of an all-American boy. Ask him about Trigger or bowling or fishing or his kids, or most certainly about his life with Dale, and you will see his famous eyes crease into slits of happiness and an impish grin erase the decades that have stiffened his knees and dimmed his hearing. And when you walk through the museum, you, too, will be transported back to a time when America was a nicer place. Stroll past the momentos of the lives and careers of the King of the Cowboys and Queen of the West, and you are in a land where every police officer is helpful, where all polite men wear hats-and take them off when the flag passes by-and where children live a charmed life separate and apart from the grim problems of adults. For those of us who grew up in that wonderful imagined America, Roy and Dale are King and Queen forever.
-J. & M. S.
Chapter from Jane and Michael Stern's, "Happy Trails, Our Life Story"