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Roy Rogers, Singing Cowboy - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

March 2007

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Especially by today's standards, Roy Rogers' claim to be King of Cowboys might sound ludicrous, he quite simply lacked the charisma of other cowboy greats like John Wayne (with whom he co-starred in Dark Command) or latter day cowboy Clint Eastwood, his Westerns were never on par with those of let's say Tom Mix and Ken Maynard, who reigned supreme in the genre 10 to 20 years earlier, and especially from today's point of view, a cowboy who would burst into singing a cheesy song in pretty much each and every one of his films (and often repeatedly so) hardly qualifies as King of Cowboys - but that said, there was a time during the 1940's when Roy Rogers simply was the biggest name in Westerns, and especially for the kiddie crowds, who didn't necessarily understand John Wayne's more elaborate A-Westerns and were too young to even remember Tom Mix or Ken Maynard, Roy Rogers was an undisputed idol.

Thing is that Roy Rogers initially had no intentions to become an actor, he was a singer on the constant rise to fame when he got into movies rather by accident - and he would keep singing throughout most of his career, with the effect that some of especially his later Westerns looked suspicially like musical revues, with a little Western story thrown in just for good measure ... but I'm getting ahead here, let's start at the beginning:


Roy Rogers was born Leonard Slye in urban Cincinati Ohio in 1911, at the very location where the Riverside Stadium (later Cynergy Field), home of the Cincinnati Reds, was built only a few years later. The Slye family wouldn't remain in the city too long, they moved to rural Portsmouth, Ohio, only months after little Leonard was born, where they reportedly first lived on a houseboat, and later (Roy was about 7) dad bought a farm. However, the farm failed to become a success, and to sustain his family, dad had to move back to the city during the week to work in a shoe factory while farmwork fell upon Roy, his mother and his three sisters. However, the farm got from bad too worse, and eventually Roy decided to drop out of school (after a mere two years of high school) and move to Cincinnati to work in the shoe factory with his father.

Then the Great Depression struck the USA, and for some reason, the Slye family thought the odds would be better in California than in Ohio, so they moved West - and realized they were wrong, California was just as miserable as the rest of the country.

During that period, Roy accepted pretty much every (odd) job he could find, including picking peaches in exactly the labour camps brought to life in John Steinbeck's classic Grapes of Wrath.


During al the years of hardship though, Roy Rogers kept making music, something he had developed an interest in back in his farmdays, when he first mixed traditional country and Western music with yodeling (really). Now it was 1931, and legend has it that he was talked into performing at an amateur talent show on the radio by his sister ... and purely based on this radio performance, he was hired by a country and Western band called the Rocky Mountaineers pretty much right on the spot as a singer. It was not long after he was joined by a second singer  (not something unusual for a countryband back then), Bob Nolan, a man who would accompany him throughout most of his later career - even if he didn't stay with the Rocky Mountaineers for more than a year.

When the Rocky Mountaineers were going nowhere, and going fast, Roy quit and subsequently played in all kinds of Country and Western bands, including The International Cowboys, The O-Bar-O Cowboys and Jack and His Texas Outlaws, before the formed the Pioneer Trio with Bob Nolan and Tim Spence - who was originally Nolan's replacement at the Rocky Mountaineers.

Eventually, the Pioneer Trio was rechristened The Sons of the Pioneers (rather unexpectedly, allegedly, by a radio DJ who just didn't think they looked old enough to be pioneers), and slowly but steadily they were becoming more and more of a success, first on radio (then a booming industry) and records, but evntually also on film ...


The first film appearance of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers was reportedly Radio Scout (circa 1934), a now forgotten Warner Brothers short starring Swedish comedian El Brendel, which was soon followed by the Hal Roach-produced comedy short Slightly Static (1935, William H.Terhune) starring Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, and the Western short Way Up Thar (1935, Mack Sennett), produced by Educational Pictures.

Eventually, the Sons of the Pioneers - including Roy of course - got their first roles in a feature film, the musical Western The Old Homestead (1935, William Nigh), produced by Liberty Pictures and starring Mary Carlisle.

Soon to follow were two Westerns starring Charles Starrett and produced by Columbia, Gallant Defender (1935) and The Mysterious Avenger (1936, both directed by David Selman), two starring Dick Foran at Warner Brothers, Song of the Saddle (1936, Louis King) and California Mail (1936, Noel M.Smith), and a Paramount-produced Western musical starring Bing Crosby, Rhythm on the Range (1936, Norman Taurog), before Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers eventually landed at Republic, to support Gene Autry in two films, The Big Show (1936, Mack V.Wright) and The Old Corral (1936, Joseph Kane) - the latter of which also starred pre-star Lon Chaney jr in a small role [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here].


Back in 1936, Gene Autry was hot stuff: He might not have invented the singing cowboy genre, but he has popularized it with his Mascot-serial The Phantom Empire (1935, Otto Brower, B.Reeves Eason) [Mascot history - click here] and subsequent Westerns for Republic [Republic history - click here] - and suddenly every major and minor filmstudio decided it needed its own series featuring a singing cowboy as well - but so far, noone was able to compete with Autry. So far ...

Thing is, since Gene Autry had become the first star of the then newly formed (or rather newly merged) Republic, he had become a tad difficult, so Republic was looking for someone to fill his boots, not exactly to replace him but to give him competition - which might explain why The Old Corral almost looks like a trial run for Roy, who, despite being credited only with his band as the Sons of the Pioneers, plays the secondary hero and has quite a bit of dialogue.


So eventually, after Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers did another Charles Starrett Western, The Old Wyoming (1937, Folmar Blangsted), over at Columbia, he answered a casting call at Republic, who were by now actively looking for a singing cowboy - and Roy landed the contract, even if that meant the (temporary) break-up with the Sons of the Pioneers who stayed at Columbia to do more Charles Starrett pictures.


Roy's first two films for Republic [Republic history - click here] were nothing special, he did supporting roles in the Three Mesquiteers-Western Wild Horse Rodeo (1937, George Sherman) and the Gene Autry starrer The Old Barn Dance (1938, Joseph Kane), but at least he got to sing a song in both of them.

Curiously enough, Roy, who was listed under his birth name Leonard Slye in his previous films, went as Dick Weston in these two films and these two only.


As legends go, Gene Autry failed to report on set for his next movie, Under Western Stars (1938, Joseph Kane), something which Autry did routinely just to let the studio feel his power ... but this time Republic was prepared, and they promptly promoted The Old Barn Dance's supporting player Dick Weston to leading man status, changed his name to Roy Rogers ... and over night, a star was born - and incidently the only man who could ever compete with Gene Autry, Republic's other singing country star.

(By the way, unlike Gene Autry, Roy Rogers would remain with Republic throughout his B-Western career.)


Actually with Under Western Stars, a Western about Roy trying to convince a congressman about the hardships of the dustbowl, pretty much the formula for Roy's later movies was already in place (actually, the formula was lifted one to one from the Gene Autry-series of Westerns): The film was decidedly light-weight, with Roy as the knight in shining armour always getting the baddies in the end and righting a few wrongs, with always enough time to sing a tune or two and woo a lady. Roy would even ride his famous horse Trigger, a long haired stunt horse previously ridden by Olivia de Havilland in Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz, William Keighley), in this one, the horse he would ride through most of his career and that in some of his later films would even get bigger roles. And Joseph Kane, who directed Under Western Stars, would stay with Roy and direct almost all of his fillms until 1944 - in total, Kane directed Roy in 41 movies with Roy as the lead (and that's not counting the two times Roy sided Gene Autry). Actually, Kane was a leftover from the Gene Autry Westerns, but the combination of him and Roy Rogers seems to have worked out since he quit working on the Autry-series in 1939.

Now Joseph Kane was not a particularly remarkable director, he was certainly no match to John Ford or Raoul Walsh - but that's of course an unfair comparison since those were A-list directors. However, his movies also were never as exciting and interesting as those of let's say B-Western auteur Robert N.Bradbury. Kane was pretty much a contract director (and would remain so with Republic until the studio ceased production in 1959 [!]) who delivered exactly what he was asked for, with Westerns being his speciality. His films were usually competently crafted and reasonably well-paced, but they would usually lack a personal style, original ideas or any particularly exciting setpieces.


Along with Joseph Kane, Roy Rogers also took over Gene Autry's sidekick, former vaudeville comedian Smiley Burnette, however their association was not quite as long-lasting, Smiley only sided Roy in his first 2 starring films, Under Western Stars and Billy the Kid Returns (1938, Joseph Kane) to then team up again with Autry. It was only when Gene Autry joined the army to fight in World War II that Burnette and Rogers were teamed up again for a few films - Heart of the Golden West (1942, Joseph Kane), Idaho, King of the Cowboys, and Silver Spurs (all 1943, Joseph Kane) - before Burnette joined up with Eddie Dew (and later Bob Livingston) for the John Paul Revere series. Yet later he made a few Weserns with Sunset Carson before he supported Charles Starrett in the Durango Kid-series ... but I digress ...


With Smiley Burnette gone as sidekick, Republic tried out a few other possibilities, Raymond Hatton would side Rogers for 3 pictures - Come on Rangers (1938, Joseph Kane), Roug Riders' Round-up and Frontier Pony Express (both 1939, Joseph Kane) -, while the duo Lulu Belle and Scotty (= Myrtle and Scotty Wiseman) would support Rogers in one - Shine on, Harvest Moon (1938, Joseph Kane) -, but it wasn't until 1939's Southward Ho (1939, Joseph Kane) that Roy found his ideal sidekick in Gabby Hayes.

(By the way, Raymond Hatton would share sidekick duties with Gabby Hayes in one more film, Wall Street Cowboy [1939, Joseph Kane], but soon he would move on to play Rusty Joslin in Republic's Three Mesquiteers, sharing the screen with John Wayne and Crash Corrigan for two films, Wyoming Outlaw and New Frontier/Frontier Horizon [both 1939, George Sherman] [John Wayne in the 1930's - click here, Crash Corrigan bio - click here], then with Bob Livingston and Duncan Renaldo for seven more. Much later he would return to support Roy Rogers in a couple or so episodes of The Roy Rogers Show.)


By the time Gabby Hayes hooked up with Roy Rogers as a permanent sidekick (they where in 44 movies together as well as occasionally appearing together on Roy's radioshow in the mid-1940's), he had already garnered himself quite a reputation as a Western actor ... though he did not make his first film until he was circa 45 ...

Born in 1885, Hayes spent his youth as a vaudeville and circus performer before eventually winding up a successful businessman - until he lost pretty much everything in the 1929 stock exchange crash, and decided to turn his attention to film acting - and while he appeared in films of numerous different genres, it was the Western genre that soon stuck with him - his first Western was God's Country and the Man (1931, John P.McCarty) starring Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio - click here] -, which was kind of ironic because until then he couldn't even ride a horse (he did learn to ride for future work though). Gabby could soon be seen supporting Bob Steele and John Wayne in their films for Monogram (sometimes in bad guy-roles), but his breakthrough as a Western sidekick came with the Paramount-produced Hopalong Cassidyseries of films starring William Boyd, with which he stayed from film one in 1935 - Hopalong Cassidy (Howard Bretherton) - until 1939, playing Hoppy's faithful sidekick Windy.

From the Hopalong Cassidy series, Gabby pretty much directly switched to the Roy Rogers-Westerns and only occasionally made appearances outside the series (like the Gene Autry Western Melody Ranch [1940, Joseph Santley] that also starred Jimmy Durante). Gabby proved to be the ideal sidekick for Roy, he was perfect in playing the grumpy old man with a heart of gold next to Roy's optimistic, wiry, youthful charmer who always had a song on his lips. And unlike many sidekicks, e.g. Smiley Burnette, Gabby never tried too hard to be funny - which at least in my eyes ruined most of Smiley Burnette's performances (but be that as it may, fact remains that Smiley and Gabby were the only two sidekicks who repeatedly  ranked among the Top Ten Western Stars of both the Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice).

Gabby's last film with Roy Rogers by the way was 1946's Heldorado (William Witney [William Witney bio - click here]). Gabby did not do much movie work after that ...


By and large, the Roy Rogers-Westerns Joseph Kane directed were without genuine highlights - but also without real lows - but I have still picked out a few that might be more interesting than others:

  • Billy the Kid Returns (1938), Days of Jesse James (1939), Young Buffalo Bill, Young Bill Hickok (both 1940), and Jesse James at Bay (1941) are all (rather free) takes on historic Western characters. Interestingly, while Roy plays both Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill, he doesn't play Billy the Kid (but his look-alike) and does not play Jesse James in Days of Jesse James while he does play him in Jesse James at Bay.
  • The Carson City Kid (1940) features a nice and rare bad guy role for fellow cowboy hero Bob Steele [Bob Steele bio - click here]. Plus, this is the film that has leading man Roy invite his leading lady Pauline Moore to dinner at the local Chinese ... which seems to be a bit out of place.
  • With his steady and stadily growing success, Roy managed to perusade Republic to hire his former band, the Sons of the Pioneer, led now by Bob Nolan, as regular supporting cast (and musicians) on his films, starting with Red River Valley (1941). They would remain a fixture of Roy's movies for the next 7 years, when they were substituted by Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage (presumably for budgetary reasons).
    - Sons of the Pioneers' last: Night Time in Nevada (1948, William Witney [William Witney bio - click here]).
    - Riders of the Purple Sage's first: Grand Canyon Trail (1948, William Witney).

  • Like most other actors of the time, Roy Rogers did his fair share of propaganda work in the 1940's. Thus a film like King of the Cowboys (1943) for example relies less on Western clichés but more on miniature radios, car chases and timebombs, things you'd rather expect from an espionage thriller, but all in Western settings.
  • After having had quite a variety of leading ladies over the years, Roy was teamed up with Dale Evans for the first time in 1944's Cowboy and the Senorita, a pairing that seemed particularly fortunate because back then Dale - unlike most other B-Western leading ladies - still displayed a spunky persona (not the mother of the nation she transformed into in later years) and she and Roy had instant chemistry going on between them. Soon enough, Dale became Roy's regular leading lady pretty much for the remainder of his career on film and eventually also in private life - but more of that later ...

During Joseph Kane's tenure of the Roy Rogers-series, Roy only strayed away from the director very rarely, like playing a role in the Western comedies Jeepers Creepers (1939, Frank McDonald) and Arkansas Judge (1941, Frank McDonald) - both starring Leon, Frank and June Weaver - or supporting none other than John Wayne in a rare Republic-A-Western, Dark Command (1940, Raoul Walsh), in which Roy, as the hothead brother of Wayne's girlfriend Claire Trevor, actually proved he was capable of playing more than the knight-in-shining-armor, an opportunity he was given all too rarely during his long career.


In 1940, while his career was definitely going places, Roy realized that he was not making the amount of money to mirror that, so he hooked up with manager Al Rush, in hopes that Rush would negotiate a contract more in Roy's favour - however, the results Rush came up with were behind Roy's expectations, salarywise. Instead though, Rush would come up with something way more valuable (in the long run): He secured Roy Rogers the rights to the name Roy Rogers (which was originally made up and thus owned by Republic, naturally). And soon enough, Roy could licence off his name and likeness left and right, and as a result he would soon enough show up on pretty much everything a young boy could want: alarm clocks, wrist watches, lunchboxes, ... whatever there was, it seemed, there was a fair chance that Roy was on it (actually in terms of licensing, Roy was allegedly only surpassed by the Walt Disney stable of characters) - which naturally made him a rich man for the rest of his life, and as a thank you, Roy remained loyal to Al Rush for the next 49 years (or until Al Rush's death, if you may).


Song of Nevada (1944) was the last Roy Rogers-film handled by Joseph Kane, with San Fernando Valley (1944), only released a month or so later, being directed by John English, who would soon hand the series over to Frank McDonald and finally William Witney [William Witney bio - click here], with one film - Out California Way (1946) - being directed by Lesley Selander.

One would now think that the new directors infused some new blood into the series that over the years has run a little stale - sure, Joseph Kane was still capable of directing solid B-Westerns, but not much more than that -, but unfortunately, the series slowly took a turn to the worse: What was formerly B-Westerns with a few songs thrown in became increasingly more song-heavy, until the Roy Rogers Westerns resembled more a revue film with a cowboy theme and a few action scenes thrown in as bridging sequences. And more and more screentime was given to Roy's faithful horse Trigger, who often had whole sequences to himself, which only made Roy's film all the cheesier and more childish (but not in a good way). A film like My Pal Trigger (1946, Frank McDonald) - the film about how Roy got his faithful horse - for example is almost painful to watch because of that. Also, Roy's later movies would frequently carry conservative, pro-family, pro-faith messages - and often hammered them home way too bluntly (which is much worse than just carrying these messages).

That all said of course, Roy's movies - e.g. Heldorado (1946, William Witney) - could still occasionally pack a punch, and some of his Western revues were fun in a campy sort of way ... they were just no great Westerns, maybe less so than Joseph Kane's bunch of films.


Still, despite Roy's films obvious shortcomings (provided you watch them as Western), they continued to be big successes, so much so that in 1947, starting with Apache Rose (William Witney), Republic had his films shot in colour - which was highly unlikely at a time when B-films were generally shot in black-and-white (for budgetary reasons), and Westerns were no exception. Of course, Republic would not afford the Technicolor process but Trucolor, a process that is cheaper but also inferior, inasmuch as it gives the film a sort-of cheesy look by default - which did somehow correspond with the content Roy's Westerns from that era though. In 1950, with the traditional B-Western on the decline though, Republic would switch back to black and white (again for budgetary reasons), with Roy's last colour film being the all-star Western Trail of Robin Hood (1950, William Witney).


While his professional life was going from strength to strength though, Roy was less fortunate in his private life: In 1946, Roy's second wife Arline died from an embolism after having given birth to Roy's second real child Dusty (they already had one adopted daughter). Roy married his then permanent leading lady - who has turned friend and obviously lover - Dale Evans on New Year's Eve 1947. She gave birth to their only child Robin Elizabeth in 1950 - but the girl was diagnosed with Down's Syndrom, and she died shortly before her second birthday. Together with Dale, Roy also adopted four more children, one of whom died in a car accident in 1964, another one choked to death in 1965 ...

(By the way, while it is commonly believed that Dale Evans co-starred with Roy in all his Republic films from Cowboy and the Senorita onwards, she did in fact take a time-out in the 1950/51 season - rather understandably since she was pregnant with Robin Elizabeth. The films she was not in were Sunset in the West, North of the Great Divide, and Trail of Robin Hood [all 1950, William Witney] - Roy's all-star Western that also starred Rex Allen, Allan Rocky Lane, Monte Hale, Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio - click here] and Crash Corrigan [Crash Corrigan bio - click here] -, Spoilers of the Plains, Heart of the Rockies and In Old Amarillo [all 1951, William Witney]. Roy's leading ladies in these films were Penny Edwards and Estelita Rodriguez.)


By the early 1950's, the B-Western (or series-Western) of old was breathing its last while Western-series on TV were on the rise. Allegedly, Roy initially wanted to persuade Republic [Republic history - click here] to produce his TV-series after his contract expired but they refused, then wanting to have nothing to do with the new medium (though they soon changed their minds). Thus Roy left the studios and - parallel to a guestspot in the Bob Hope-comedy Son of Paleface (1952, Frank Tashlin), in which he also got to sing, ride Trigger and act next to Jane Russell - he launched his own TV-show (or rather brought his radioshow to television) called The Roy Rogers Show in late 1951.

Dale Evans, Roy's wife, would also play his wife in the series (and slowly become the [cowboy]mama of the nation), Trigger was there, Bullet the dog who has sided Roy in his last few films, was taken over into the series, and Pat Brady of the Sons of the Pioneers would handle the comic relief - not all that well, though. The series was definitely a step down from his movie work, there was pretty much no money available for extensive action scenes let alone special effects, plus much of Roy's singing was now done to advertise cereals or candy (remember, this was the time when actors still personally appeared in commercials for the companies that sponsored their shows), and at times, the show's plots were buried beneath way too much preaching about antiquated family values, still the show was going strong and stayed on the air until 1957, with a total of a hundred episodes.


After the show had come to an end, Roy slowed down his activities, considerably, he (and Trigger) did one more film in the 1950's, which was nothing more than a guestspot in another Bob Hope Western-comedy, Alias Jesse James (Norman Z.McLeod), and in the 1960's, he and Dale hosted the shortlived Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show (1962). During the 1960's, he made quite a number of appearances on TV-shows though, something which he would continue until his death in 1998.

It was also in the 1960's that Roy licensed off his name to a chain of restaurants, the Roy Rogers Family Restaurants, which tried to combine Roy Rogers-style family values with fast food - and wouldn't you know it, it became a success and the chain has survived in one form or another to this day and has made Roy, who had no personal input in the company besides setting certain standards, another fortune.


In 1973, Roy and Dale made another (TV-)appearance in a film together, the Western/musical/comedy Saga of Sonora that starred Vince Edwards, Jill St.John, Zero Mostel and Don Adams, with a guest appearance by Frankie Avalon. Roy and Dale were only among the supporting cast though.

In 1975's Mackintosh and T.J. (Marvin J.Chomsky) on the other hand Roy played the lead, an old drifter in the West who tries to give advice to a young man (14 year old Clay O'Brien) still growing up.


The Bushwhackers (Stuart Margolin), a 1977-episode of the TV-series Wonder Woman, in which he starred, was also a hommage to Roy himself. In this one he plays a Westerner who has adopted numerous kids during World War II, but now he has to realize that his own son has thrown in with a bunch of Fifth Columnists - however, Roy and Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) sort things out before any real harm is done and in the end Roy can prove that he's a good father after all ... hoorray to Roy. Now, what could have been high camp, a cross of Wonder Woman's inherent camp and Roy's own somehow weird World War II propaganda efforts, falls flat on its chest because of its whole good-parenting subtext and cheesy scenes featuring the kids. Plus, upon Roy's insistence, Lynda Carter did not wear her traditional revealing costume but had to wear a more buttoned up Western outfit. Considering the episode was made in 1977, this just proves how out-of-date Roy was with modern times.


Towards the late 1970's, Roy slowed down his working schedule and only made appearances on TV occasionally - which is hardly surprising considering he was going towards 70. His more interesting appearances might be a guest spot on the Muppet Show in 1978 and two appearnces on the Lee Majors-series The Fall Guy in 1983 and 1984 as himself.


Roy Rogers died in 1998 from congestive heart failure, and he died a rich and happy man. (By the way, Dale Evans would survive him for three more years.)


From todays's rather jaded point of view it's of course easy to ridicule a singing cowboy and hard to grasp the impact his films once had ... but maybe for once we are just taking matters too seriously here, by and large the Roy Rogers-films were good-natured B-Westerns for a kiddie-crowd, and regarding their box office, they were most successful at that ... and taken with a grain of salt, some of his movies are quite exhilarating, if not always intentionally so ...


© by Mike Haberfelner

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In times of uncertainty of a possible zombie outbreak, a woman has to decide between two men - only one of them's one of the undead.


There's No Such Thing as Zombies
Luana Ribeira, Rudy Barrow and Rami Hilmi
special appearances by
Debra Lamb and Lynn Lowry


directed by
Eddie Bammeke

written by
Michael Haberfelner

produced by
Michael Haberfelner, Luana Ribeira and Eddie Bammeke


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Robots and rats,
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a collection of short stories and mini-plays
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Tales to Chill
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