Happy Trails: The Life of Roy Rogers
By Laurence Zwisohn
Roy Rogers was everyone's image of what a cowboy should be, from his white Stetson with its silver hatband to his hand-tooled boots. His face was strong and handsome with eyes that squinted yet still showed a twinkle. His smile was warm and reassuring. Whether he was wearing fringed Western wear or a checkered cowboy shirt, he was the epitome of what a cowboy should be. He was the picture of honesty and integrity. And was there ever a more exciting sight than watching Roy and Trigger riding majestically across the television screen or a rodeo arena? No wonder three generations of kids (and adults) wanted to be like Roy Rogers. We wanted to look like Roy, dress like Roy, and be as honest and forthright as Roy.
He gave us standards to live by that helped teach us the difference between right and wrong. His willingness to stand up for the things he believed in inspired us. And his religious faith and his concern for the less fortunate helped mold our character. Roy lived his life off camera with the same decency and humility that he projected on television and on the silver screen. He was the hero who never let us down. Despite all the success that came to him, Roy never seemed to lose his way. And he never forgot that his fans were the ones who made it possible for a poor boy from Ohio to attain a level of success greater than anything he could ever have imagined. His decency and strength of character come from a simpler time in America. Yet it was anything but an easy time.
Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys, was actually born in the city. It was in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 5, 1911, that Leonard Slye (later to be known as Roy Rogers) was born to Mattie and Andy Slye. Years later, the building where he was born was torn down to make way for Riverfront Stadium (recently renamed Cinergy Field), the home of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. Roy liked to say that he was born right where second base is now located. But the Slye family was never cut out for city life, so a few months after Roy was born, Andy Slye moved his family to Portsmouth, Ohio (a hundred miles east of Cincinnati), where they lived on the houseboat that he and Roy's uncle built. When Roy was seven years old his father decided it was time they settled on solid ground, so he bought a small farm in nearby Duck Run. Living on a farm meant long hours and hard work, but no matter how hard they worked the land there was little money to be made. Roy often said that about all they could raise on their farm were rocks. Eventually Andy Slye realized that he'd have to return to his old factory job at the United States Shoe Company in Cincinnati if he was going to be able to support his family. Since his father would be able to return home only on weekends, this meant that even more of the responsibilities for farm chores fell onto Roy's young shoulders.
Mattie Slye suffered from lameness as a result of the polio she had contracted as a child, and Roy always marveled at the way she was able to raise four active children (Roy and his sisters, Mary, Cleda, and Kathleen) despite her disability. Still, farm life agreed with Roy, who often rode to school on Babe, the old, sulky racehorse his father had bought for him. According to Roy, "We lived so far out in the country, they had to pipe sunlight to us." Living on the farm meant they had to make their own entertainment, since radio was in its earliest days and television was far in the future. On Saturday nights the Slye family often invited some of their neighbors over for a square dance, during which Roy would sing and play the mandolin. Before long he became skilled at calling square dances, and throughout the years he always enjoyed finding opportunities to showcase this talent in his films and television appearances.
It was also while he was growing up on the farm in Duck Run that Roy learned to yodel. Andy Slye had brought home a cylinder player (the predecessor to the phonograph) along with some cylinders, including one by a Swiss yodeler. Roy played that cylinder again and again and soon began developing his own yodeling style. Before long, Roy and his mother worked out a way of communicating with each other by using different types of yodels. Mattie would use one type of yodel to let Roy know that it was time for lunch, another to warn that a storm was brewing, and still another to call him in at the end of the day. Roy would then relay that message to his sisters by yodeling across the fields to them.
By the time Roy had completed his second year of high school, it was clear that their farm would never support the family, so he made the difficult decision to drop out of school and take a job with his father at the shoe factory in Cincinnati. Roy quickly discovered that factory work was just as hot, monotonous, and unpleasant for him as it was for his father. Since his older sister Mary had married and moved to Lawndale, California (close to Los Angeles), Roy and his father decided they should quit their jobs, pack up the car, and take the family out to visit her. Somehow their old car held together, and they eventually made it to Lawndale. (The old Dodge family car in which they made that trip is now on display at The Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum.) After a four-month visit the Slye family returned to Cincinnati, but by now the cold Ohio winters couldn't compete with the lure of California's warmer climate. A few months later Roy returned to Southern California, where the rest of his family soon joined him. Although the Depression was growing worse by the day, Roy and his father had hoped that jobs would be easier to find on the West Coast than they were in Ohio. However, California turned out to be just as hard hit as the rest of the country. Jobs were hard to come by, and they didn't tend to last very long. Roy worked at anything he could find, including driving a gravel truck on a highway construction crew until the truck's owner went bankrupt. In the spring of 1931 Roy went up to Tulare (located in central California's farm belt), where he picked peaches for Del Monte and lived in the same labor camps John Steinbeck wrote about so powerfully in his classic novel, "The Grapes Of Wrath".
After returning from Tulare, Roy happened to be playing his guitar and singing at his sister Mary's house when she suggested that he try out for the Midnight Frolic radio program, which featured amateur talent and was broadcast on KMCS in nearby Inglewood. Although Roy was reluctant, Mary finally talked her brother into going on the program. A few nights later, wearing a Western shirt his sister had made for him, Roy overcame his innate shyness and appeared on the program, where he sang, yodeled, and played the guitar. Years later, Roy said that he was so nervous when he came to the microphone that afterward he never could remember what songs he sang that night. Still, he must have done all right, because a few days later he received a phone call asking if he'd like to join a local country music group called The Rocky Mountaineers. Despite his shyness Roy was always willing to reach out for any opportunity that came his way, so he accepted the group's offer and became a member of the band in August of 1931. Before long, he began urging the group to let him find another vocalist, so they could harmonize together. Eventually they gave in, and he placed an ad in the Los Angeles Examiner seeking a "yodeler." Roy always enjoyed telling the story about how Bob Nolan showed up for his audition carrying his shoes in his hand. Bob had spent the summer working as a lifeguard at Venice Beach, and the long walk from the old red car trolley line to the house where The Rocky Mountaineers were rehearsing had caused his new shoes to give him blisters. But with or without shoes, Bob Nolan was a singular talent. As soon as Roy heard Bob yodel, his eyes lit up, and Bob said he knew he had the job. Before long, Bob's friend Bill "Slumber" Nichols joined the group, and they began singing together as a trio.
Bob Nolan stayed with The Rocky Mountaineers for about a year before deciding the group really didn't have a future. Roy placed another newspaper ad, and Tim Spencer became the newest member of the group. In September 1932 Roy, Tim, and Slumber left The Rocky Mountaineers and worked briefly with The International Cowboys. In June 1933 Roy and Tim joined a new group called The O-Bar-O Cowboys and embarked on what turned out to be a disastrous tour of the Southwest. The Depression had hit rock bottom and entertainment was something most people simply couldn't afford. The boys barely made enough money to pay for gasoline as they drove throughout Arizona and New Mexico in the heat of summer in the days before air conditioning. Roy recalled, "We starved to death on that trip. We ate jack rabbits, we ate anything we could get to eat." While in Roswell, New Mexico, the group was given air time on the local radio station so that they could promote their appearance in town. Each of the boys talked about how homesick he was and mentioned his favorite foods in hopes someone might take pity on them. Roy mentioned how much he missed his mom's lemon pies, and a short time later a call came in to the station saying that if he would sing "The Swiss Yodel" the caller would bake him a pie. That evening there was a knock on the cabin door at the motor court where the boys were staying. When the door was opened, there stood Arline Wilkins and her mother, each with a freshly baked lemon pie. After Roy's return to Los Angeles, he and Arline began corresponding, and in 1936 they were married.
In September 1933 The O-Bar-O Cowboys straggled back to Los Angeles and the fellows went their separate ways. Roy was able to land a job singing with Jack And His Texas Outlaws on radio station KFWB. Still, the desire to be part of a good harmony group wouldn't leave him. Roy always loved harmony singing, and even after achieving success as a solo performer, he always preferred singing harmony to singing solo. He contacted Tim Spencer and talked him into giving it another try and said he thought Bob Nolan should be the third member of the trio. Roy and Tim drove out to the Bel Air Country Club where Bob was working as a golf caddy. (Somehow or other, even in the midst of the Depression, Roy always managed to have "wheels.") Although Bob was somewhat reluctant, he agreed to join with them and see if they could make a go of it. The three fellows moved into a boarding house in Hollywood (that had once been owned by Tom Mix), and they began rehearsing. The boys decided to put the emphasis on Western music and call themselves The Pioneer Trio. Day after day and hour after hour they rehearsed until someone's voice gave out. Throughout this time Roy continued singing with The Texas Outlaws so they could pay their rent. After weeks of constant rehearsing, the trio finally felt they were ready to be heard.
The boys were able to get an audition at KFWB, and many years later Bob Nolan recalled that day. He and Roy and Tim were confident they'd developed a good vocal blend, had some fine original songs, and had come up with a unique trio yodel. While they stood on stage singing, Jerry King, the station's general manager, along with staff announcer Harry Hall, listened to them from the control booth. After a couple of tunes The Pioneer Trio went into Bob's song "Way Out There," which featured their distinctive trio yodel. As soon as they began the yodel, Jerry King got up and left the booth. Bob recalled, "our hearts fell to our feet." It seemed as if the endless weeks of rehearsing, developing a new sound, writing songs, and building a large library of musical material had all been for nothing. When a smiling Harry Hall came over to the boys, they asked why he was so happy when the station manager had just walked out on them. Hall told them that as soon as Jerry King had heard their trio yodel he'd turned to him and told him the group was hired. The boys' dejection rapidly turned to joy.
The Pioneer Trio started out on the Jack And His Texas Outlaws radio program, where their fine harmonies soon began attracting quite a bit of fan mail along with good newspaper reviews. The boys had worked up a particularly fine arrangement of "The Last Round-Up," which caught the attention of Bernie Milligan, the radio columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner. "The Last Round-Up" had become the year's biggest hit song and was being performed by just about everyone on radio. Milligan said The Pioneer Trio's arrangement was the best of all the versions he'd heard. His review and their growing fan mail didn't go unnoticed by Jerry King. Roy always smiled when he recalled, "The station put us on staff at $35 a week . . . and I mean every week." The Pioneers were given a program of their own where they began using Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" as their theme song. Meanwhile, Bob continued writing more fine Western songs, while Tim Spencer, inspired by Bob's efforts, began trying his hand at songwriting. The Pioneer Trio's harmonies and Nolan & Spencer's songs have since become the very foundation of Western music. Always determined to improve their sound, the fellows soon decided they needed a good instrumentalist and added superb fiddler Hugh Farr to the group. One day Harry Hall caught the boys off guard by introducing them as The Sons Of The Pioneers. After their broadcast they asked why he'd changed their introduction. Hall said he thought they were too young to be pioneers, but that they certainly could be Sons Of The Pioneers. Since Hugh Farr was now a permanent member of the group, the fellows decided Hall was right, and ever since that day they've been known as The Sons Of The Pioneers. Hugh Farr began encouraging the boys to bring his guitarist brother Karl into the group. Karl joined the Pioneers early in 1935, and, according to Roy, that was the turning point for the group as they became as strong instrumentally as they were vocally. Jerry King had heard something unique in the Pioneers' sound and had given them their first job. Now he was about to do something that would spread their popularity nationwide.
The early 1930s saw radio blossom as hundreds of stations went on the air throughout the country. While stations in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles had large pools of talent to draw from, stations in smaller cities and towns didn't. This created a need for additional sources of programming and led to the birth of the radio transcription business. Transcription companies produced large libraries of music that was pressed on records and licensed to radio stations. The transcription companies recorded many of the biggest names in music as well as some of the newer artists. In the summer of 1934 Jerry King began Standard Radio, his own transcription company, and the first artists he recorded were The Sons Of The Pioneers. Up until that point the Pioneers had been heard only in the Southern California area through their radio broadcasts and personal appearances. All this changed when their transcriptions began being played on hundreds of radio stations throughout the United States and Canada.
Meanwhile, radio work had led to the Pioneers' first film appearance, in the Warner Bros. short Radio Scout, starring Swedish comedian El Brendel. A few months later the Pioneers made their feature film debut, in The Old Homestead, which featured Mary Carlisle. These films were soon followed by their appearances in two Westerns starring Charles Starrett (Gallant Defender and The Mysterious Avenger), two with Dick Foran (Song Of The Saddle and California Mail), and an appearance in the Bing Crosby film Rhythm On The Range, where they joined Bing in singing "I'm An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)." In July 1936 the Pioneers left KFWB and traveled to Dallas to appear at the Texas Centennial. While performing there they appeared in Gene Autry's film The Big Show, which was partially filmed on location at the Centennial. Interestingly, one of the visitors who saw The Sons Of The Pioneers perform at the Texas Centennial was a young singer named Dale Evans.
Back in Los Angeles the Pioneers continued radio work on KHJ along with more film work and recordings for Decca and OKeh. The enormous success of Gene Autry's films had caused just about every movie studio to jump on the singing cowboy bandwagon, and Columbia Pictures signed The Sons Of The Pioneers to appear in Charles Starrett's series of Westerns. In the meantime Gene Autry had grown unhappy with his contract with Republic Pictures and was threatening that he might not report for the start of his next film. Republic decided to prepare themselves just in case he carried through on this. One day while Roy (who was still known as Len Slye) was in a hat store in Glendale, he heard someone say that Republic was holding auditions for a singing cowboy the following day. "I saddled my guitar the next morning and went out there, but I couldn't get in because I didn't have an appointment. So I waited around until the extras began coming back from lunch, and I got on the opposite side of the crowd of people and came in with them. I'd just gotten inside the door when a hand fell on my shoulder. It was Sol Siegel, the head producer of Western pictures." Siegel, who remembered Roy from the work he and the Pioneers had done in two of Gene Autry's films, asked what he was doing there. When Roy said he'd heard they were looking for another singing cowboy, Siegel asked if he'd brought his guitar with him. Roy said it was in his car, but that he'd run back and get it. By the time he got back to the producer's office he was out of breath and couldn't sing. Siegel told Roy to rest for a minute and then he'd listen to him. The wait must have been worthwhile, because on Wednesday, October 13, 1937, Republic Pictures signed Len Slye to a seven-year contract. Republic put him to work in the Three Mesquiteers film Wild Horse Rodeo in which billed as Dick Weston, he sang one song. Things were quiet for a few months until Gene Autry failed to report for the start of his next film. By then the studio was prepared, and they put Len Slye, who had been renamed Roy Rogers, into the lead role in Under Western Stars, the film that had been scheduled for Autry. When Under Western Stars was released in April 1938, it became an immediate hit, and it made a star of Roy Rogers. Gene Autry and the studio soon resolved their differences, but in the meantime Republic Pictures had launched Roy Rogers' career.
Before filming began on Under Western Stars, several of the stables that provided horses to Republic brought their best lead horses to the studio so Roy could select a mount. As Roy recalled it, the third horse he got on was a beautiful golden palomino who handled smoothly and reacted quickly to whatever he asked it to do: "He could turn on a dime and give you some change." Smiley Burnette, who played Roy's sidekick in his first two films, was watching and mentioned how quick on the trigger this horse was. Roy agreed and decided that Trigger was the perfect name for the horse with which he would become synonymous. After the success of Under Western Stars, Republic starred Roy in a series of historical Westerns--Rough Riders Roundup, Days Of Jesse James, Frontier Pony Express, and Young Buffalo Bill--as he quickly established himself as a major Western star. Early in 1940 Roy received excellent reviews for his role as Claire Trevor's younger brother in the film The Dark Command, which also starred John Wayne and Walter Pidgeon.
By this time Roy and Arline had been married for four years but hadn't had any children. While Roy was on tour in Dallas, Texas, he visited an orphanage called Hope Cottage. A short time later Roy and Arline took four-month-old Cheryl Darlene home as their adopted daughter. Three years later Arline gave birth to a daughter, Linda Lou.
As Roy's popularity grew he never failed to give Trigger credit for much of his success. Roy was an excellent horseman, who sat in a saddle well and who knew just how to handle Trigger. He never resorted to using his reins as a whip and never used his spurs. Trigger had been trained to respond to touch and hand movements, so with just a gentle pat on his neck Roy could let him know what he wanted him to do. And it seemed as if Trigger instinctively knew just how to respond. Roy was proud of the fact that throughout his more than 80 films, the 101 episodes of his television series, and countless personal appearances, Trigger never fell. However, there was one occasion when the horse really put a scare into him. It happened while they were driving up to a film location with Trigger's horse trailer attached to Roy's car. As they came around a bend, a car coming from the opposite direction forced Roy's car off the road, causing the trailer to overturn. Roy jumped from his car and ran back to the trailer, where he found Trigger lying motionless. Roy spoke calmly to Trigger, and by using a rope he was able to pull him from the trailer. At that point the horse opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. A relieved Roy smiled when he realized that Trigger must have thought this was just another movie stunt and that he was supposed to play dead.
Although Roy's film career was going well, he was concerned about his less-than-healthy financial situation and knew he needed better management. Early in 1940 Art Rush, who had been the West Coast head of RCA Victor Records, where he produced recording sessions by artists as diverse as Tommy Dorsey and Leopold Stokowski, invited him to lunch. Art had then become managing director of a major talent agency before starting a management company of his own. Over lunch Art said he wanted to represent Roy and that he felt he could do a good job for him. Although Roy liked Art Rush personally, he was concerned that a manager who represented Nelson Eddy wasn't exactly the right person for a cowboy like himself. Just as they were finishing lunch Roy asked Art where he was from. When he said he was from Ohio, Roy reached out his hand and said they had a deal. For the next 49 years (until his death in 1989), Art Rush represented Roy Rogers. Their handshake was the only contract they ever had.
Over the course of the next few years Art Rush was able to have Roy's contract with Republic rewritten. Although it wasn't as financially rewarding as they had hoped, he did get the studio to include a clause giving Roy the right to his name, voice, and image. As innocuous as it may seem, this clause was actually the beginning of financial security for Roy and his family; Art Rush began negotiating deals with a number of companies to put out a wide variety of products bearing the Roy Rogers name. Before long there were Roy Rogers hats, shirts, and bandannas. There were Roy Rogers cap pistols, holsters, and lassos. There were Roy Rogers furniture, sheets, blankets, and clocks. Roy Rogers's wristwatches were sought after by countless kids, and the Roy Rogers lunch box became an essential part of growing up. Roy Rogers became the biggest individual name in product licensing, second only to the array of Walt Disney cartoon characters when it came to product endorsements. Roy was always concerned about the quality of any product that bore his name. If he found that a product was shoddy or unsatisfactory, he wouldn't renew his contract with that company, because any product that bore his name had to be of a high quality.
Any cowboy worth his salt has to have a sidekick. Smiley Burnette was Roy's sidekick in his first two films, followed by Raymond Hatton, who worked with him in three films. Early in 1939 Republic signed Gabby Hayes for the role of Roy's sidekick in Southward Ho. Although Gabby had already made a number of films with John Wayne and William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd, he is probably best remembered today for the many films he made with Roy Rogers. Right from the start the two of them developed a wonderful on-screen relationship with Roy as the young, sensible, fresh-faced hero and Gabby as his wise, experienced, but irascible sidekick. The two men got along just as well off camera as they did on. Roy always grew wistful when he spoke about how highly he thought of Gabby, whom he considered "my father, my brother, and my buddy all rolled up in one." Roy and Gabby worked together in 40 films along with countless radio broadcasts and personal appearances, and they remained friends throughout Gabby's lifetime. As Roy's films became more and more successful, he began urging Republic to bring his old friends The Sons Of The Pioneers into his pictures. Finally, late in 1941 the Pioneers joined Roy in Red River Valley and worked with him in each of his films over the next seven years. In 1943 Roy was voted the #1 Western star at the box office, and Republic began billing him as the King of the Cowboys. A few months later he made a guest appearance in the Warner Bros. all-star wartime musical film Hollywood Canteen, in which he and the Pioneers introduced the Cole Porter song "Don't Fence Me In."
By 1944 Roy had starred in 39 films and had worked with almost as many leading ladies. All this changed when the studio cast Dale Evans in The Cowboy And The Senorita. The wonderful chemistry between Roy and Dale was apparent to everyone right from the start, as the movie screen lit up with a special kind of magic. Few women had ever made their mark in Westerns before Dale Evans came along. Maybe this was because Dale was different from most of those who had preceded her. She was intelligent, strong-willed, a good sport, a fine singer, and as beautiful as they come. So now Republic had Roy Rogers (the King of the Cowboys), Trigger (the Smartest Horse in the Movies), Gabby Hayes (the most-beloved sidekick), The Sons Of The Pioneers (the finest singing group to be heard), and they were now joined by Dale Evans (the most beautiful and vivacious leading lady in Westerns). The package was complete. The public loved them and life was good.
Yet it often seems that just when things are going well the unexpected occurs. In October 1946 Arline Rogers gave birth to Roy Rogers, Jr., who they decided to call Dusty. However, a week later, while she was still in the hospital, Arline unexpectedly developed an embolism and died. When the shock began to wear off, Roy found himself a widower with two young daughters and an infant son. Although his and Arline's parents were there to help with the children, this was still an incredibly trying time for a man who just a short time earlier seemed to have everything going his way. A busy schedule of work along with the support of his family combined with his positive outlook on life helped Roy come through this very difficult period.
Ever since The Cowboy And The Senorita, Dale Evans had been working with Roy in his films, on his radio program, and at personal appearances around the country. Late in 1947 they were appearing at the rodeo in Chicago. One evening as they were waiting for the announcer to introduce them, Roy turned to Dale and asked if she was doing anything on New Year's Eve. When Dale said she hadn't planned anything, Roy suggested they get married that day. Before Dale could reply, Roy heard his introduction, and he and Trigger went racing out into the arena. When Dale got to the center of the arena she smiled and accepted Roy's proposal. Roy always grinned when he said that Dale must have really loved him, because when she married him he had three young children and 34 coon dogs. On New Year's Eve 1947 Roy and Dale were married on a ranch in Davis, Oklahoma, where a few months earlier they had filmed Home In Oklahoma. Art Rush was Roy's best man, and his wife, Mary Jo, was Dale's matron of honor. On December 31, 1997, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at their home in Apple Valley, California. Their marriage presented Dale with the difficult responsibility of being stepmother to three young children while at the same time she balanced the demands of a busy career. But if there was ever a lady who was up to the challenge it was Dale Evans.
By the early 1950s television had become the biggest thing in the entertainment industry and fewer people were going to the movies. Motion picture studios were running scared as television viewing began cutting heavily into their profits. Roy's contract with Republic Pictures was coming up for renewal, and he wanted his next contract to give him the right to make a certain number of television appearances. However, Republic, like each of the other studios, wouldn't agree to this, because they felt television appearances by their stars would cut even more into movie attendance. Neither Roy nor Republic would give in on this point, so when the studio released Roy's film Pals Of The Golden West in December 1951 it marked a parting of the ways after 14 years and more than 80 films.
Almost immediately Roy went over to Paramount Pictures, where he costarred with Bob Hope and Jane Russell in the laugh-filled Western comedy Son Of Paleface. At the same time he and Dale were preparing their television series, The Roy Rogers Show, which premiered on NBC on December 30, 1951, and quickly became a regular part of Sunday evening viewing for millions of American families. A few months earlier Dale had decided that Roy needed a new theme song. He had been using "Smiles Are Made Out Of The Sunshine," but Dale felt he needed a more Western-style song. Since he often signed his autographs "Trails of happiness, Roy Rogers and Trigger," Dale came up with the idea for the song "Happy Trails." Roy and Dale introduced the song on their weekly radio program, but it wasn't until they began singing it as the closing theme on their Sunday night television series that "Happy Trails" really caught the public's attention. Today the song has not only become synonymous with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, but it also has truly become a part of Americana.
In August of 1950 Roy and Dale became the parents of a beautiful blonde baby daughter they named Robin Elizabeth. A few days after her birth, Robin was diagnosed with Down's syndrome. During the early '50s there was very little the medical profession knew or could do about Down's syndrome, and doctors often advised the parents of these children to place them in an institution and go on with their lives. Roy and Dale never considered doing this. As Roy said, there must have been a reason God gave them this child, so they would take her home, take care of her, and love her. Despite receiving the best care possible, Robin died shortly before her second birthday. Although she had been with them for only a short time, Robin's impact on the Rogers family, both then and now, was enormous. Roy and Dale's religious faith had deepened during the early days of their marriage, and it had been a great source of strength for them as they dealt with Robin's health problems. Very soon after Robin's death Dale was inspired to write the book Angel Unaware, which told about Robin's short life and the way she had changed the lives of everyone in their family. Since this was still a period of time when few people spoke publicly about such afflictions, it was difficult to getting a publisher for the book. Nonetheless, Dale persevered and a publisher was found. Angel Unaware (which is still in print) became an immediate best seller and has been responsible for helping many families deal with the challenges of raising special children.
Only a month after Robin passed away, Roy and Dale were scheduled to open a long engagement at the rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York, an appearance that had been scheduled almost a year earlier. Robin's life had strengthened their religious faith, and Roy wanted to use his position as a role model to encourage children to go to Sunday school. However, his decision to sing the inspirational song "Peace In The Valley" didn't please the Garden's management, who felt the song wasn't in keeping with the type of show they had in mind. Roy was asked to drop the song, but he refused. As far as he was concerned if they wouldn't allow him to sing this song, he'd just as soon pack up and go home. Roy stood firm, and the Garden's management finally backed off. His judgment proved to be right, as his heartfelt performance of "Peace In The Valley" brought a hush to the huge Madison Square Garden arena each evening. Roy Rogers always recognized his responsibilities to his audience, particularly the kids who had made his career possible. He realized that these children looked up to him and that he had an obligation to live up to their expectations. If this meant putting himself on the line, he was willing to do that if he felt the cause was right. Although there were a number of occasions throughout the years when his religious convictions and his patriotism hurt his career, Roy Rogers never backed away from the things in which he believed.
The '50s saw the Rogers family grow to quite a large size. After losing Robin, Roy and Dale felt the need to bring another baby into their family, and once again it was Hope Cottage in Dallas that provided the answer. In the summer of 1952 Roy and Dale adopted a little American-Indian girl they named Mary Little Doe, but whom they soon began calling Dodie. Texas state law requires that an Indian child be adopted by someone with Indian blood. Fortunately, it turned out that the King of the Cowboys was part Indian, since his great grandmother on his mother's side was Choctaw, the same tribe as Dodie. (Interestingly, whenever Indians appeared in any of Roy's films he was always a friend to them. There isn't a single film in which Roy Rogers the cowboy is fighting the Indians.) Only a short time after Dodie's adoption Roy and Dale were appearing in Cincinnati, where they had invited a group of children from a welfare home to attend one of their performances. Roy asked if they had a boy around his son Dusty's age that could be brought to the show. The little boy they met that evening was small and malnourished and had been a victim of child abuse, yet he possessed the biggest and brightest smile imaginable. As soon as he reached out his small hand and said "Howdy partner," Roy and Dale were captivated. That night they stayed up discussing whether or not they should adopt a child with as many problems as this little boy obviously had. When they returned home from their tour, they came back with two new children, Dodie and John David, whom they had decided to call Sandy.
By this time Roy and Dale had moved their family to Chatsworth in what was then a sparsely settled portion of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. These were some of their happiest years, as the Rogers family continued to grow. In 1954 Roy and Dale went on tour to England, Ireland, and Scotland. While visiting an orphanage in Scotland they met a charming young girl named Marion Fleming, and they invited her to spend her summer vacation with them in California. When summer was over no one wanted her to leave. Although British laws prohibit an adoption by citizens of another country, Marion, who everyone calls Mimi, eventually became Roy and Dale's ward, and she is as much their daughter as are Cheryl, Linda, and Dodie. In 1955 Roy and Dale decided that Dodie needed a sister closer to her own age, so they adopted a little orphan girl from Korea named Deborah Lee. It took Debbie awhile to learn to speak English, but before long she was chattering away, and her bright personality helped her fit in perfectly with the rest of the Rogers family.
Having grown up on a farm, Roy was a true sportsman who had a great love of the outdoors. He was one of those people who seemed to be able to master anything he set his mind to. In the '50s he bought a motorboat on which he would take the family fishing. Before long he was entering--and winning--motorboat races. And because he had used a rifle since he was a boy on the farm, it was only natural that Roy became interested in trap and skeet shooting. His keen eye led to his winning many skeet-shooting competitions over the years. Roy always believed that one of the best ways to get to know a person is to go hunting with them. His frequent hunting trips kept the Rogers family freezer filled with venison, pheasant, duck, wild boar, and bear meat. Over the years Roy traveled throughout the country, hunting a wide variety of game, went on two safaris to Africa, and returned from an Alaskan hunting trip with one of the largest Kodiak bears ever taken.
Although Roy Rogers and Dale Evans enjoyed enormous success, they also experienced more than their share of sorrow. A few days after their daughter Debbie's 12th birthday, she and her church group were returning from an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico, where they had just delivered clothing and toys. On a particularly treacherous stretch of road the church bus crashed, and Debbie and her best friend died. Then a year later their son Sandy died in his sleep while he was stationed with the Army in Germany. By this time Cheryl, Linda, and Mimi had married, and the house in Chatsworth was filled with too many memories, so Roy and Dale decided they should "retire" and move up to the high desert in Apple Valley, California. They purchased the Apple Valley Inn but quickly realized that running a hotel meant a full-time job for them. Although their "retirement" was short-lived, their move to the desert was permanent.
Late in the 1960s Roy entered the restaurant business with the chain of Roy Rogers Family Restaurants. The 1960s were a boom period for restaurant franchising. There was Minnie Pearl Chicken, Johnny Carson's Here's Johnny chain, Trini Lopez's Mexican food, Mickey Mantle's restaurants, and many more. The one thing that almost every one of these had in common is that they failed. The exception was the Roy Rogers Family Restaurants. Unlike most of the other franchise operations that had been started from scratch on limited capital, Roy had associated himself with the Marriott Corporation, which had a long history in the restaurant business. By tying in with a well-established company Roy avoided the problems so many other celebrities encountered when they entered the franchising business. By the '80s there were several hundred Roy Rogers Family Restaurants throughout much of the country.
Soon after moving to the desert Roy opened The Roy Rogers Museum, where he displayed the keepsakes of a lifetime. Years earlier he had visited the Will Rogers Home and Museum and was disappointed to see so few of Will's personal belongings on display. That visit led him to decide to save his memorabilia in case there was ever a Roy Rogers museum. Thanks to his years of collecting, there was no shortage of items to be put on display, and within a few years the museum had outgrown its building, so Roy asked his son Dusty, who had become a general contractor, to build a larger museum to house his collection. In 1976 the renamed Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum opened in nearby Victorville. A larger-than-life statue of Trigger rearing up on his hind legs greets visitors to this sturdy structure. As you walk throughout the museum you can follow the lives and careers of Roy and Dale and their family through the good times and the sad times. Roy always enjoyed visiting with his fans, and whenever time and health permitted, he was likely to be found at the museum happily shaking hands with visitors and having his picture taken with fans who were delighted to have an opportunity to discover that the cowboy hero they had admired from afar for so long was just as nice in person.
Roy Rogers was a man who really didn't change over the years. Even though he became a hero to three generations of the world's children and adults, he continued to be the same decent, humble, and ever-smiling guy that he was back in the days of the Depression when he was struggling to make a living. He always remained grateful to the fans that had made his success possible and always felt a responsibility to live up to the public's image of him. Although health problems took a heavy toll during his last two years, Roy always retained that wonderful twinkle in his eye along with his optimistic outlook on life. Early on the morning of July 6, 1998, he passed away, but for the countless people who grew up with Roy Rogers as our cowboy hero, he and Trigger will always ride majestically through our thoughts and our dreams.
Roy Rogers was a man who unashamedly loved his God, his family, and his country. He was that rare public figure who was just the same on screen as he was off. He just wouldn't have known how to be anything else.