Roy Rogers (1911 – 1998): A Biography – Page 2 of 2
“The Cowboy and The Senorita”
In six of Roy’s earliest movies he was teamed with actress Mary Hart (aka Lynne Roberts). They were promoted by the studio as “Sweethearts Of The West” before Ms. Hart got tired of being a female damsel in a Western and quit the series. After Ms. Hart stopped playing Roy’s leading lady a string of different actresses stepped in for the roles. At that time, the roles weren’t exactly what most aspiring Hollywood starlets considered a good part. Roy had become a big star and the female lead in one of his movies played fourth fiddle, at best: Her part came in behind Roy, his horse Trigger, and his sidekick. By the time her character got to do anything there wasn’t a lot left. She rarely got a good line, and didn’t even get to kiss Roy, the hero, in the end: His fans didn’t like any “mushy stuff.”
In 1944 Dale Evans was cast for the female lead in “The Cowboy And The Senorita” starring Roy Rogers. Roy and Dale had met a few years earlier in 1941 at Edwards Air Force Base while entertaining the soldiers, a meeting they both remembered as pleasant but unremarkable. Like most of the other actresses that had recently played opposite Roy, this wasn’t Dale’s dream role, either. She wanted to star on Broadway, or in a big, polished, Hollywood musical, not in a “sagebrush serial” Western. Even so, she worked hard, and Roy liked that she was a good sport and never complained about the long hours or the physical stunts that were so tiring. Roy, who was actually quite shy, found her easy to talk to and fun to be around. When “The Cowboy And The Senorita” turned out to be a hit the studio quickly began pairing Roy and Dale together in more movies. Dale’s roles were often a combination of ultra-feminine beauty combined with a brave, feisty spirit, and in spite of her beautiful hairdos and fancy clothes she was always ready to ride a horse or help out in a fight.
Roy and Dale became good friends, and Roy’s life during this time got better and better: He continued to make a series of successful movies with Dale, who was friendly and easy to work with, and at home he had a happy marriage to Arlene and two little daughters. But then, in 1946, Roy’s personal life experienced two significant changes. One was Dale Evans quitting Republic Pictures and her movies with Roy to take a job with a different studio to make a musical comedy. The other change was incalculably worse: In October of 1946 Arlene gave birth to her and Roy’s third child, Roy Rogers Jr. (“Dusty”), a joyous occasion that turned to heartbreak eight days later when Arlene suffered a massive brain embolism from a blood clot and died at the hospital with Roy at her side.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
Arlene’s death left Roy heartbroken and a single father of three small children. His professional life remained highly successful and he continued to work hard making movies and personal appearances. Months after Dale had quit Republic Pictures and Arlene had died, he ran into Dale in Atlantic City while she was on a singing tour. He asked his old friend to return to making movies with him and Trigger. Gently, she turned him down. Even though the musical comedy she had quit Republic Pictures for wound up never getting made, she was still hungry to make a successful, big-budget musical. She did soon return to Republic Pictures, but it was to make two movies that weren’t Westerns and that didn’t star Roy Rogers. Neither movie was a success, and shortly after that she accepted Roy’s invitation to return to making movies with him.
Audiences loved that Roy and Dale were once again entertaining them on the silver screen and in personal appearances. As they began working together again Roy and Dale resumed their friendship. As the months went by their friendship deepened and Roy began to look at Dale in a new way. In the fall of 1947 he proposed marriage to Dale while he was sitting on Trigger and waiting to be introduced at a rodeo in Chicago. She said yes.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were married on December 31, 1947. At the time of their marriage he was 36 years old with three small children from his marriage to Arlene, and Dale was 35 years old with an adult son from a previous marriage. They were married in the home of Bill and Alice Liken on the Liken’s Flying L Ranch in Davis, Oklahoma. The ceremony got off to a bumpy start when a snowstorm closed the roads and caused the minister to finish his journey to the ranch on horseback, arriving two hours late. Roy himself was late to the alter when, just as he was heading downstairs to get married, he discovered a fire in an upstairs bedroom. Roy and his best man Art Rush stopped to beat the fire out and place some burning curtains into a bathtub full of water, leaving a confused Dale to wait at the alter and wonder why her groom wasn’t showing up. In spite of the rough start, Roy and Dale were happily married until Roy’s death on July 6, 1998, a span of more than 50 years.
Answering God’s Call
Shortly after Roy married Dale she experienced a spiritual rebirth and began a new life with a deeper love of God and devotion to her Christian faith. Roy was happy for her, but did not initially share her enthusiasm. In fact, he even told Dale that while her fresh devotion to Christianity was nice she should be careful not to go overboard. Dale was careful not to push Roy toward her own faith but the new life he saw in her must have made a profound impression, because not too long afterwards Roy also made a spiritual conversion to a love of God and commitment to Christianity.
Roy and Dale’s new faith was tested when the couple was blessed with the birth of their daughter, Robin Elizabeth, in August of 1950. Their initial joy at the addition of their newest child was turned to shock by the news that Robin had Down’s syndrome, a serious condition with numerous life-threatening complications. After Roy and Dale took their new daughter home – Roy refused to place her in an institution as doctors had suggested – the trials and rewards of caring for their seriously ill daughter deepened their faith in ways that both Roy and Dale said they may never have learned otherwise. Robin died in 1952 two days short of her second birthday, but in spite of all the heartache the Rogers family viewed her short life as one of their greatest blessings.
Roy’s commitment to his faith sometimes presented obstacles for his career, but it was his faith that always won out. In 1952 he was rehearsing for the first of a series of personal appearances at Madison Square Garden when promoters learned he planned on singing the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” They quickly objected, telling Roy that “…this is New York. You can’t preach to kids here.” They suggested he still sing the song, but change some of the lyrics so as not to mention God. Roy, a man well-known for his courtesy and congeniality, was also a man who would stand to fight for what he felt was right. Roy told the promoters he would sing the song as written, with no change in lyrics, or he, Trigger, and Dale would simply bow out of the engagement. The promoters quickly backed down, and Roy, Trigger, and Dale put in 43 performances over the next 26 days at Madison Square Garden, breaking all existing attendance records.
The Roy Rogers Show
After a string of highly successful movies Roy wanted to make the move to television. When his second seven-year contract with Republic Pictures was up for renewal in 1951 and a new contract was being negotiated, Roy asked for the right to do television shows. Republic refused, and Roy learned that the studio had plans to trim down the movies he had already made and turn them into television shows for themselves.
Roy, however, fought the studio. Many years earlier when he had asked Republic for a raise they had turned him down, and the best he could do was get a new clause in his contract that gave him the rights to his own name and likeness. While he was initially disappointed about not getting a raise, the money he began making from the marketing of his own name and image eclipsed any increase in pay the studio may have given him. It was this same clause giving him the rights to his own name and likeness that allowed him to successfully obtain a court order to stop the studio from taking his already-made movies to television. In retaliation, the studio fired him.
Roy moved forward with his plans for a television show, producing the shows himself. “The Roy Rogers Show” debuted on December 30, 1951 and ran until 1957. There were 100 (some sources say 104) episodes of the show, all starring Roy Rogers and Trigger, Dale Evans and her horse Buttermilk, Pat Brady and his Jeep Nellybelle, and Bullet The Wonder Dog (a German Shepherd who was also a Rogers family pet). The show aired on Sunday evenings on the NBC network and featured a Western theme with plenty of good guys, bad guys, and action on horseback. It was wildly popular with audiences. Each episode was closed with Roy and Dale singing their theme song, “Happy Trails,” which was written by Dale.
The Rogers Children
When Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were married on December 31, 1947 Roy had three young children from his marriage with Arlene: Adopted daughter Cheryl Darlene, born in 1942; Linda Lou, born in 1943; and 15 month old Roy Jr., or “Dusty,” born in 1946. Dale had an adult son from a previous marriage, Thomas Fox, Jr., who had been born in 1927 when Dale was only 15 years old.
The number of children in the Rogers household remained at three until Dale gave birth to Robin Elizabeth in 1950. After Robin’s death in 1952, the couple was devastated but knew that they badly wanted more children. Within two months of Robin’s death Roy and Dale adopted two more children into their home: A baby girl named Mary Doe or “Dodie,” and a five-year old boy named John David, or “Sandy.” Dodie was a healthy baby girl, but Sandy had a long history of extreme abuse and was also suffering the effects of long-term malnutrition.
In February of 1954 Roy and Dale added to their family again. They were traveling through Great Britain for personal appearances and to encourage people to see Billy Graham who was soon scheduled to appear in London. While visiting an orphanage in Scotland they met Marion, or “Mimi,” a 13 year old girl that had lived in the orphanage since the age of two. Since her divorced parents were still alive the young girl was virtually impossible to adopt, but Roy and Dale did manage to arrange for her to visit them in America. The visit was extended several times, and Mimi eventually became Roy and Dale’s legal ward and a permanent member of their family.
The last child added to Roy and Dale’s family was a little girl of mixed Korean and Puerto Rican heritage. A Korean war orphan, she was virtually un-adoptable in Korea because of her mixed heritage. Roy and Dale adopted her in 1955 when she was about three-and-a-half years old. They named her Deborah Lee, or Debbie for short.
The Rogers’ large, boisterous home brought Roy and Dale a great deal of challenges in raising seven active children at once. The family was constantly on the go, both with family members busy with individual activities and with the Rogers’ clan as a whole touring on personal appearances together. As the family matured they had many happy years before they were again touched by tragedy. In 1964 Debbie, at the age of 12, was killed in a church bus accident. In late 1965 heartache hit them again when Sandy, at age 19, died an accidental death while serving in the military in Germany.
As Roy Rogers more-or-less retired from show business, he put his dream of opening a museum into action. He and Dale purchased an old bowling alley in Apple Valley, California and after renovations opened the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in 1967. They filled it with mementos of every kind from their personal and professional lives, and in 1976 they moved it to a bigger building in nearby Victorville, California. Roy delighted in walking around the museum with Dale in the mornings before it opened to the public, enjoying the history of their lives. He also tried to visit the museum every morning after it opened to meet with and speak to his visiting fans. He took great care to always dress in his cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and fancy shirt and bandana because he knew his fans would be disappointed if they saw him any other way.
Roy Rogers passed away on July 6, 1998, at the age of 86 in Apple Valley, California. A few short years later Dale Evans passed away on February 7, 2001, also in Apple Valley. In 2003 the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans museum was moved to Branson, Missouri. Its most popular attraction was Trigger, whom Roy had mounted in a rearing position by Bischoff’s Taxidermy after the horse died in 1965. In addition to Trigger, Dale’s buckskin horse Buttermilk, Trigger Jr., and Bullet the Wonder Dog were all mounted after their deaths and were put on display at the museum along with many other items from Roy and Dale’s personal and professional lives. Sadly for fans of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans everywhere, the museum closed for business on December 12, 2009.
- Birth / Death
- Birth: November 5, 1911, Cincinnati, Ohio
- Death: July 6, 1998, Apple Valley, California ( congestive heart failure)
- Name at birth: Leonard Franklin Slye.
- Professional names: Leonard Slye, Dick Weston, Roy Rogers.
Leonard Slye first began using the name Dick Weston when doing bit parts for Columbia Pictures. He got a movie deal with Republic Pictures in October of 1937 and began using the name Roy Rogers in early 1938. The last name “Rogers” was chosen because of the popularity of the recently deceased Will Rogers. Someone suggested using “Leroy” as a first name, but since Len had known a kid while growing up with that name that he didn’t like, he shortened it to Roy. Although he began using the name Roy Rogers in 1938 he didn’t legally change his name to Roy Rogers until 1942.
- Nickname: “King Of The Cowboys.”
- Roy had two older sisters, Mary and Cleda, and a younger sister, Kathleen.
- Arlene Wilkins, 1936 – 1946 (her death). Three children.
- Dale Evans, 1947 – 1998 (his death). Six children including Dale’s son from a previous marriage.
- With wife Arlene Wilkins:
- Adoptive father of Cheryl Darlene, born 1942 and officially adopted by Roy and Arlene at around four months of age.
- Birth father of Linda Lou, born in 1943.
- Birth father of Roy Rogers Jr., or “Dusty,” born in 1946.
- With wife Dale Evans:
- Stepfather to Dale’s son Thomas Fox, Jr., born in 1927. Tom was 20 years old at the time of Roy and Dale’s marriage.
- Birth father of Robin Elizabeth, who was born in 1950. Robin died in 1952 two days short of her second birthday due to complications from Down’s syndrome.
- Adoptive father of Mary Little Doe, or “Dodie.” Born in 1952 Dodie was adopted by Roy and Dale the same year.
- Adoptive father of John David, or “Sandy.” Born in 1946, Sandy was adopted by Roy and Dale in 1952 as a young boy with a history of family abuse. Sandy died in 1965 from accidental death while serving in the U.S. military in Germany.
- Foster father of Marion, or “Mimi,” who was from Scotland. While traveling on a tour throughout Europe in early 1954, Roy and Dale met Marion in a Scottish orphanage. She was 13 years old at the time and had lived at the orphanage since the age of two when her parents had been divorced. Both her parents were still alive, making Mimi virtually un-adoptable. After the Rogers’ returned home they arranged for Mimi to come to America to stay with them for a visit that was extended several times. She eventually became their legal ward and a permanent member of their family.
- Adoptive father of Deborah Lee or “Debbie,” a Korean war orphan who was about three-and-a-half years old when adopted by Roy and Dale in 1955. Debbie was part Korean and part Puerto Rican and considered un-adoptable in her homeland due to her mixed heritage. Debbie was killed in 1964 at age 12 in a church bus accident.
- With wife Arlene Wilkins:
- Trigger was born on a ranch in San Diego, California, and was initially given the name Golden Cloud. Most sources give his year of birth as 1932.
- Roy Rogers chose Golden Cloud for Roy’s first starring movie role in 1938, in “Under Western Stars.” Before the movie was released, Roy changed Golden Cloud’s name to Trigger.
- Before Golden Cloud was renamed Trigger and starred in his first movie with Roy Rogers, he had been ridden by Olivia de Havilland in the movie “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” 1938.
- Roy Rogers purchased Trigger from Hudkins Stables of Hollywood, California for the amount of $2,500, paying for the horse on payments, Roy said, “just like you would a bedroom set.” When writing this article we were able to find photocopies of invoices for Roy’s purchase of Trigger showing the first payment of $500 made in September of 1943 and a second payment of $2,000 made in December of 1943. However, the Roy Rogers, Dale Evans autobiography “Happy Trails, Our Life Story” implies the purchase was probably made in 1938 or 1939 with the payment amounts being smaller.
- In 1943, $2,500 was roughly equivalent to $30,000 today.
- Every chance he got when making personal appearances Roy placed Trigger and his fancy horse trailer outside of the arena or building where they were appearing before the show. He wanted all the kids to be able to see Trigger, especially the ones that couldn’t afford to buy a ticket.
- When Trigger died in 1965 his hide was mounted over a plaster cast of a rearing horse. The mounting was done by Bischoff’s Taxidermy, originally located in Los Angeles, California, but currently located in Burbank, California.
- Awards / Honors
- 1949 – On April 21, 1949 Roy Rogers and Trigger placed their boot and hoof prints into cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
- 1953 – Golden Apple Award for Most Cooperative Actor.
- 1976 – Inducted, along with Dale Evans, into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
- 1980 – Inducted, as part of the singing group The Sons Of The Pioneers, into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. The group was founded by Roy. In 1988, Roy would be inducted as an individual.
- 1983 – Golden Boot. The Golden Boot Awards honor actors, actresses, and others that have made significant contributions to Western movies and television. 1983 was the first year the awards were given, making Roy one of their first honorees. Among the other honorees that year was his wife, Dale Evans.
- 1988 – Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Previously inducted in 1980 as part of the singing group The Sons Of The Pioneers.
- 1996 – Founder’s Award. The Founder’s Award is given by the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation.
- Two stars (for motion pictures and television) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- The building in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Roy was born was torn down to make room for Riverfront Stadium. Construction began on the stadium in 1968 and was the home of the Cincinnati Reds National League baseball team. Roy liked to joke that he was born at second base. Riverfront Stadium was also the home of the Cincinnati Bengals National Football League team. In 1996 the naming rights to the stadium were sold, and Riverfront Stadium became Cinergy Field. The stadium was was demolished in 2002.
- From the early 1940s to the mid-1950s Roy Rogers sometimes made as many as six movies in a year. They were seen annually by more than 80 million people in America, which was more than half the population at that time.
- In 1937 when Leonard Slye (who soon changed his name to Roy Rogers) signed a movie contract with Republic Pictures, he had to leave the Sons Of The Pioneers, the highly successful singing group he had founded with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. His place was taken by Robert Ellsworth O’Brady, better known simply as Pat Brady. This is the same Pat Brady that went on to join Roy as his sidekick in “The Roy Rogers Show,” a half-hour television show that ran from 1951 to 1957.
- In 1937 when Leonard Slye (who soon changed his name to Roy Rogers) signed his first contract with Republic Pictures, the studio thought his eyes were too squinty and had him use drops in them to relax his eye muscles and dilate his pupils. The drops were stopped after fans wrote in complaining about the new look. The studio also had him do a hundred handstands a day to increase the muscles in his upper chest and shoulders.
- From his very first movie Roy and Trigger received a mountain of fan letters every week. When Roy asked the studio for a secretary to help answer all of them the studio suggested he throw the letters away. Roy refused, and together with the help of his wife Arlene, his mother, and sisters, he spent his own money on postage and tried to answer each letter with an autograph.
- Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were both popular singing cowboys that worked for Republic Pictures. Because they thought it made good publicity the studio often released information that the two actors had a deep dislike of one another. In truth, however, the two men had a friendly relationship.
- Art Rush became Roy’s agent in the late 1930’s, making the agreement on a handshake. Art Rush remained Roy’s agent for the next 48 years without the two of them ever having a written contract.
- When Art Rush first became Roy’s agent he got him extra work, outside of his movies, on the radio and making personal appearances. Roy didn’t learn until later that Art was so worried about Roy’s finances that he didn’t take his agent’s commission for two years.
- In 1950 there were more than two thousand Roy Rogers fan clubs worldwide.
- One time in the early 1950’s Roy was on a hectic touring schedule when he heard about a five-year old girl that had lost her limbs in an explosion. After performing late into the night he got up early the next morning and drove 200 miles to visit the girl, giving her a personal invitation to his performance that evening and free tickets to her and her parents. The parents brought their daughter to the performance in a laundry basket.
- By the mid-1950’s Roy had added a performance of “Peace In The Valley” to his arena shows, singing the song while Trigger knelt next to him.
- Roy’s picture adorned 2.5 billion boxes of cereal.
- From 1943 to 1951 Roy was elected by theatre owners as their number one Western star.
- In July of 1943 “Life” magazine put Roy, seated on a rearing Trigger, on its cover.
- A lot of the loud Western outfits that Roy and Dale wore for personal appearances were sketched by Dale and made by a man named Nudie Cohn, known as Nudie of Hollywood.
- Roy was fond of shaping his own Western hats, using steam from the shower.
- Roy Rogers was known for endorsing a lot of products with his name or likeness on them. He would not approve of any item for children that would easily break or hurt someone, so in addition to manufacturer testing Roy and Dale insisted that samples of the items be given to them for in-house testing with their own kids.