The opening Jan. 8 of Texas’ Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, a hardy and adaptive survivor of the 19th century, marks not only a continuation of the region’s most emphatic reminder of its economic basis in agriculture. The occasion also nails the 50th anniversary of a major-league show-business breakthrough for the Stock Show. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans arrived in Fort Worth in 1958 to serve as hosts for the first comprehensive network-television coverage of an authentically Western rodeo.
The presence of the “King of the Cowboys” and the “Queen of the West” in Fort Worth marked a showy progression from the name-brand entertainment presence that the Stock Show’s main-event rodeo had begun developing during World War II, starting with an appearance by Texas-bred Gene Autry. Both Autry and Rogers had been on furlough, in a sense, from the movie industry at the respective times of their visits to Fort Worth – Autry, on military duty, and Rogers, in hopeful preparation for a new teevee series – and both had pursued a friendly rivalry since the 1930s.
By the middle 1950s, too, both Autry and Rogers had lapsed from competitive movie stardom to more of an iconic presence within the popular culture, with comic books and signature toys and apparel and lunch-boxes to show for their influence. Autry’s Flying A Productions had discontinued a long-running Gene Autry Show during 1955-1956, and Rogers’ independent company had wrapped the final episodes of The Roy Rogers Show in 1957. A briefer Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Show surfaced during the early 1960s. Such programs remained in syndicated-teevee play well into the 1970s – as would the stars’ numerous big-screen movies, recycled for television.
The Rogers-and-Evans appearance in Fort Worth in 1958 distinguished an NBC extravaganza, a live-and-in-person rodeo presentation with such featured stars as George “Gabby” Hayes, Rogers’ longtime comical sidekick, and the harmonizing Sons of the Pioneers, with whom Rogers and Evans had appeared in numerous films and recordings.
As a result of their breakthrough at the Fort Worth Stock Show – as if Roy & Dale needed another breakthrough, at that stage of a successful shared career – Rogers and Evans found themselves launched into a long-running cycle of stock-show appearances throughout the Southwest. They continued with such showcase performances well into the 1970s, often headlining Amarillo, Texas’ Tri-State Fair, among other such expositions.
The frontier image suited Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, despite his city-boy origins and her greater background as a pop-jazz singer.
Rogers (1911-1998) was born in Cincinnati. His christened name was Leonard Slye. His father, Andy Slye, soon moved the family to rural Ohio and gradually settled into the farming life.
“Some farm!” Rogers told me during the early 1970s on a tour-date stop in Amarillo. “We never raised much more than rocks!
“And sooner or later, my Dad realized that he’d have to go back into factory work if he intended to support a household. He left me at home to handle the chores while he began commuting back to Cincinnati, back to his old job at the U.S. Shoe Co., and spending weekends with us on the farm at Duck Run. Yep, that’s some name for a town! We lived so far out in the sticks that they had to pump sunlight out to us.
“Not that I minded, y’know,” Rogers grinned. “And my becoming the ‘man of the house,’ so to speak, at such an early age surely helped my mother, Mattie, who was a powerhouse of a woman despite a lingering lameness from when she had contracted polio as a youngster. Raised four kids, she did – me, and my sisters.”
On weekends, Andy Slye would play host at household dances. Leonard – Roy, that is – had learned to play the mandolin and the guitar, and he became a skilled square-dance caller. He also became a yodeler; the eccentric singing style had come to him through cylinder phonograph records of Swiss- and Welsh-tradition yodeling.
“Y’know what ‘yodel’ means?” Rogers asked me during one visit backstage at Amarillo’s Tri-State Fairgrounds Coliseum. “It means, ‘to pronounce the word yo.’ Now, the kind of yodeling that the American countrified singers do – that’s kind of a far cry from the original purpose of yodeling, which was what the European mountain-folk did to communicate amongst themselves over great distances.
“My Mom and I, now, we developed a system of yodeling that was a whole lot like Morse Code – she had a yodel to call me in for dinner, and I had another yodel to let the folks back at the farmhouse know that there was a thunderstorm a-coming, and I could modulate my yodeling to let my sisters know where I was. Many variations, there, and when I yodel in a song, nowadays, it always takes me back to my childhood.”
Rogers left high school about midway toward graduation and joined his father on the shoe-assembly line at Cincinnati. Older sister Mary Slye had married by now and moved to the Los Angeles area. On a visit to her new home, the Slyes decided to quit Ohio for California.
“Man, it felt just like John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath, y’know what I mean?” said Rogers. “The Depression had hit California, the ‘land of plenty’ – ha! – as hard as it had socked the rest of the country, and by 1930-1931 I was drivin’ a gravel truck, pickin’ peaches in the Tulare Farm Belt – anything to keep body and soul, and the family, together.”
A radio station at Inglewood, Calif., sent out a call for amateur musicians. The Slye family had a candidate.
“Mary, now, she made me a cowboy-style shirt to wear for the occasion,” said Rogers. “And I – well, I was so shy, apart from parlor-singin’, that I’d never’ve tried a radio appearance without her pressuring me – I just got up there and blurted out some tunes and some yodeling, just as if I knew what I was doin’.”
The guest-shot generated an invitation during the summer of 1931 to join a band called the Rocky Mountaineers. This connection led to alliances with such vocalists as Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer – laying groundwork, in the process, for the eventual development of the Sons of the Pioneers.
Roy married a radio-show fan named Arline Wilkins in 1936 while establishing a sturdier basis in show business. Rogers had re-aligned himself with Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan as a powerhouse act known as the Pioneer Trio. Their harmonic yodeling on a song called “’Way Out There” cinched a distinctive style, defining the sound that would come to characterize not only the Sons of the Pioneers but also Western music as a class.
“It was our radio host, Harry Hall, who gave us our lasting identity,” Rogers told me. “One day, Harry hauled off and declared that we all looked too young to be pioneers, so reckon how come we didn’t just call ourselves the Sons of the Pioneers?” The addition of jazz-influenced fiddler Hugh Farr, followed by his guitarist brother Karl Farr, sealed the trademark ensemble sound. A progressive new broadcast-syndication company, Jerry King’s Standard Radio, helped to break the band out of California toward nationwide recognition.
Radio, in turn, brought the players to the attention of Hollywood. While singing in Dallas during the Texas Centennial of 1936, the Sons of the Pioneers appeared in an on-location Gene Autry movie called The Big Show.
Autry’s success in Hollywood since 1935’s The Phantom Empire
had prompted other studios to seek cowboy crooners. A dispute between Autry and Republic Pictures Corp. provoked the company to begin scouting for some likely replacement. Roy Rogers – now billing himself as Len Slye – heard about the opportunity and barged in on Republic’s casting office without an appointment. In 1937, Republic Pictures signed him, first, under the name of Dick Weston and, then, as Roy Rogers. Republic and Autry resolved their conflict, and by 1938 the small but ambitious studio had two big-time singing-cowhand stars under contract.
The career-making movie for Rogers was Under Western Stars (1938), which also introduced Rogers to his since-famous horse, Trigger. Savvy management strategies established Rogers as a trademark beyond the movies-and-music recognition. Republic announced him as Hollywood royalty with 1943’sKing of the Cowboys – an answer to 1937’s Autry-starrer Public Cowboy No. 1.
Roy Rogers loved a good corny joke, often at the expense of his popular image. During the first of several interviews he and I conducted, he told me about a new brand of dog food that he was developing, manufactured from bone meal: “Reckon that’ll make me the ‘King of the Cow-Bones,’” he said. Just kidding, of course.
His pictures tend to be just as lighthearted in tone, but Rogers also appreciated the Western Gothic style of mystery and suspense and indulged this taste for scary business with such films as 1940’s The Ranger and the Lady
(with a murderous giant at large) and 1948’s Eyes of Texas
(with a pack of predatory wolf-dogs on the loose). Even King of the Cowboys
hinges upon a menacing presence – a mad bomber (played by Gerald Mohr) in the service of the Third Reich.
“I enjoy a good scare as much as the next guy,” Rogers told me. “And there’s no rule that says you can’t have your harmonies and yodelin’ and your smoochin’ on your leading lady in the same picture where there’s a monster on the loose. I reckon there must have been plenty of monsters on the loose, back in the frontier days. Most of ’em were thieves and murderers who, really, must have seemed about as normal as the guy next door – but there must have been some subhuman brutes around, too.
“’Course, now, Republic wanted me to deliver a certain quota of pictures that’d play things mostly light and adventurous, with lots of singin’ and smoochin’ and comedy relief, along with the shootin’ and fistfightin’. But once in a while, they’d let me make somethin’ really dark. There was this one I did in the late ’40s called Eyes of Texas, which had this mean ol’ crooked lawyer-woman [played by the usually grandmotherly Nana Bryant] with a pack of trained-killer dogs.
“And in 1940, we did a kind of a Most Dangerous Game type of thing … The Ranger and the Lady, except I reckon we should have called it The Ranger and the Lady and the Monster. Because we even had Noble Johnson in it, playing the kind of brute he had played in the real Most Dangerous Game  – only scarier, I like to think.” (A later re-edit for television of The Ranger and the Lady minimizes Noble Johnson’s formidable presence; in its 1940 cut, the film is a bona fide Forgotten Horror.)
“And then there was King of the Cowboys – whew! – some way to treat a ‘king,’ if that’s what I was s’posed to be,” Rogers continued. “Man, I took some heavy-duty bullyraggin’ and beatin’s in that one, tryin’ to fight back against those wartime home-front bad guys!”
Rogers’ teaming with Texas-born Dale Evans (née Frances Octavia Smith; 1912-2001) occurred with 1944’s The Cowboy and the Señorita. The chemistry clicked from the beginning, completing a definitive extended family for Rogers’ Hollywood image – Dale, Trigger, the Sons of the Pioneers and cantankerous sidekick Gabby Hayes.
The death of Arline Rogers in 1946 left Roy a widower with three children. He and Dale Evans married in 1947 – a logical and lasting extension of their popular image in the movies. The family grew considerably.
Republic carried on with the Rogers-starring films until 1951, ending the association (as Rogers explained it) “on account of, I was keener on moving into television, and television at the time was considered a threat to the movie industry.” Rogers responded by developing his own teevee show and signing with big-time Paramount Pictures for a co-starring turn with Bob Hope in 1952’s Son of Paleface.
Later ventures included the Roy Rogers Family Restaurant chain and a Roy Rogers Museum (since moved from California to Branson, Mo.). The museum, in turn, helped to inspire development of the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles – both stars insisted upon celebrating both historical Western heritage and the Hollywood-cowboy traditions.
“I’m just an old boy who doesn’t really change all that much over the long haul,” Rogers told me. “I’ve had good times during my bad times, and bad times during my good times, and somehow it all seems to even out so that the good times tend to outweigh the bad.
“It helps to have a loyal audience, and that’s what Fort Worth showed to me and Dale and our bunch – a loyal audience – at a time when I felt I was gettin’ a little too old to play cowboy any longer, but too fond of the music and the cowboy ways to just hang it all up.
“In many ways,” said Roy Rogers, “I’ve owed this whole later phase of my career to the Fort Worth Stock Show, which Dale and I enjoyed every bit as much as the Sons of the Pioneers and I had enjoyed playing Dallas’ State Fair, ’way back in 1936. Both those appearances were turning-points.”