Roy Rogers

Roy Rogers

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Roy Rogers
Rogers in The Carson City Kid, 1940
BornLeonard Franklin Slye
November 5, 1911
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
DiedJuly 6, 1998 (aged 86)
Apple Valley, California, U.S.
Resting placeSunset Hills Memorial Park, Apple Valley, California
34.5569916°N 117.1429367°W
Other namesLen Slye
OccupationSingeractorTV host
Years active1932–1991
1935–1984 (acting)
Spouse(s)Lucile Ascolese (1933–1936; divorced)
Grace Arline Wilkins (1936–1946; her death; 3 children, 1 adopted, 2 births)
Dale Evans (1947–1998; his death; 9 children jointly)

Roy Rogers (born Leonard Franklin Slye, November 5, 1911 – July 6, 1998) was an American singer, actor, and television host. He was one of the most popular Western stars of his era. Known as the “King of the Cowboys”,[1] he appeared in over 100 films and numerous radio and television episodes of The Roy Rogers Show. In many of his films and television episodes, he appeared with his wife, Dale Evans, his Golden Palomino Trigger; and his German Shepherd, Bullet. His show was broadcast on radio for nine years and then on television from 1951 through 1957. His early roles were uncredited parts in films by fellow cowboy singing star Gene Autry and his productions usually featured a sidekick, often Pat BradyAndy DevineGeorge “Gabby” Hayes, or Smiley Burnette.[2] In his later years, he lent his name to the franchise chain of Roy Rogers Restaurants.


Life and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Roy was born Leonard Slye, the son of Mattie (née Womack) and Andrew “Andy” Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio.[3] The family lived in a tenement on 2nd Street, where Riverfront Stadium would later be constructed (Rogers later joked that he was born at second base).[3] Dissatisfied with his job and city life, Andy and his brother Will built a 12-by-50-foot (3.7 m × 15.2 m) houseboat from salvage lumber, and in July 1912 the Slye family traveled up the Ohio River towards Portsmouth.[3] Desiring a more stable existence in Portsmouth, they purchased land on which to build a house, but the Great Flood of 1913 allowed them to move the houseboat to their property and continue living in it on dry land.[3]Rogers’s boyhood home at Duck Run, near Lucasville, Ohio

In 1919, the Slye family purchased a farm in Duck Run, near Lucasville, Ohio, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Portsmouth, and built a six-room house.[3] Andy Slye soon realized that the farm alone would not provide sufficient income for his family, so he took a job at a Portsmouth shoe factory, living in Portsmouth during the week and returning home on weekends, bearing gifts following paydays. A notable gift was a horse on which young Len Slye learned the basics of horsemanship.[3] Living on the farm with no radio, the family made their own entertainment. On Saturday nights, they often invited neighbors over for square dances, during which Len would sing, play mandolin, and call the square dances.[3] He also learned to yodel during this time, and his mother and he would use different yodels to communicate with each other across distances on the farm.[3]

Len attended high school in McDermott, Ohio,[3] but after he completed his second year there, his family returned to Cincinnati, where his father worked at another shoe factory.[3] Realizing that his family needed his financial help, Len quit school and joined his father at the factory.[3] He tried to attend night school, but after being ridiculed for falling asleep in class, he quit school and never returned.

By 1929, after his older sister Mary and her husband had moved to Lawndale, California, Len and his father quit their factory jobs, packed up their 1923 Dodge, and drove the family to California to visit Mary. They stayed for four months before returning to Ohio.[3] Soon after returning, Len had the opportunity to travel again to California with Mary’s father-in-law, and the rest of the family followed in the spring of 1930. The Slye family rented a small house near Mary, and Len and his father found employment driving gravel trucks for a highway construction project.[3]

In spring 1931, after the construction company went bankrupt, Len traveled to Tulare, California, where he found work picking peaches for Del Monte.[3] During this time, he lived in a labor camp similar to those depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.[3] The economic hardship of the Great Depression was just as severe in California as it was in Ohio.

Len auditioned in 1931 on a radio show in Inglewood, California, and joined the short-lived singing group, the Rocky Mountaineers, who were superseded in 1933 by the O-Bar-O Cowboys. The singers toured New Mexico and Arizona on a shoestring in the heat of summer. Even finding food was a real challenge. While performing in Roswell, New Mexico, a caller to a radio station, Grace Arline Wilkins, promised Rogers that she would bake him a pie if he sang “The Swiss Yodel”. Romance blossomed, and the couple married in Roswell in 1936. Arline died in childbirth a decade later, and Rogers subsequently wed Dale Evans.[4]

For a brief time in 1933, Lubbock, Texas, was headquarters for the O-Bar-O Cowboys. The Cowboys made little money performing at dances and little theaters in such places as Brownfield and Littlefield. The O-Bar-O Cowboys disbanded in Lubbock. Rogers and his associates, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, went on to organize the Sons of the Pioneers in 1934.[4]

Music career[edit]

After 19-year-old Len’s second arrival in Lawndale, his sister Mary suggested that he audition for the Midnight Frolic radio program, which was broadcast over KMCS in Inglewood. A few nights later, wearing a Western shirt that Mary had made for him, he overcame his shyness and appeared on the program playing guitar, singing, and yodeling.[3] A few days later, he was asked to join a local country music group, the Rocky Mountaineers.[3] He accepted the group’s offer and became a member in August 1931.[3][5]

By September 1931, Len hired the Canadian-born Bob Nolan, who answered the group’s classified ad in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that read, “Yodeler for old-time act, to travel. Tenor preferred.” Nolan stayed with the group only a short time, but Len and he stayed in touch. Nolan was replaced by Tim Spencer.[6]

In the spring of 1932, Len, Spencer, and another singer, Slumber Nichols, left the Rocky Mountaineers to form a trio, which soon failed. Throughout that year, Len and Spencer moved through a series of short-lived groups, including the International Cowboys and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. When Spencer left the O-Bar-O Cowboys to take a break from music, Len joined Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws, who were a popular act on a local Los Angeles radio station.[7]

In early 1933, Len, Nolan, and Spencer formed the Pioneers Trio, with Slye on guitar, Nolan on string bass, and Spencer as lead vocalist. They rehearsed for weeks refining their vocal harmonies. During this time, Len continued to work with his radio singing group, while Spencer and Nolan began writing songs for the trio.[6] In early 1934, the fiddle player Hugh Farr joined the group, adding a bass voice to their vocal arrangements. Later that year, the Pioneers Trio became the Sons of the Pioneers when a radio station announcer changed their name because he felt they were too young to be pioneers. The name was received well and fit the group, which was no longer a trio.[6]

By summer 1934, the popularity and fame of the Sons of the Pioneers extended beyond the Los Angeles area and quickly spread across the country through short syndicated radio segments that were later rebroadcast across the United States. The Sons of the Pioneers signed a recording contract with the newly founded Decca label and made their first commercial recording on August 8, 1934.[6] One of the first songs recorded during that first session was “Tumbling Tumbleweeds“, written by Bob Nolan. Over the next two years, the Sons of the Pioneers recorded 32 songs for Decca, including the classic “Cool Water“.[8]

Film career[edit]

Lynne Roberts and Rogers in Billy the Kid Returns, 1938

From his first film appearance in 1935, Len worked steadily in Western films, including a large supporting role as a singing cowboy while still billed as Leonard Slye in a Gene Autry movie. In 1938, Autry demanded more money for his work, and there was a competition for a new singing cowboy. Many singers sought the job, including Willie Phelps of the Phelps brothers, who appeared in early Western movies. Len ended up winning the contest and was given the stage name Roy Rogers by Republic Pictures, suggesting the western-sounding name Roy and combining it with the surname of the popular western comic entertainer Will Rogers. He was assigned the leading role in Under Western Stars. He became a matinee idol, a competitor with Autry as the nation’s favorite singing cowboy. In addition to his own movies, he played a supporting role in the John Wayne classic Dark Command (1940), which also featured one of his future sidekicks, George “Gabby” Hayes. He became a major box-office attraction. Unlike other stars, the vast majority of his leading roles allowed him to play a character with his own name, in the manner of Autry.[9]Publicity photo of Rogers and Mary Hart for Shine On, Harvest Moon, 1938

In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars poll, Rogers was listed for 16 consecutive years, from 1939 to 1954, holding first place from 1943 to 1954 until the poll ceased.[10] He appeared in the similar BoxOffice poll from 1938 to 1955, holding first place from 1943 to 1952. In the final three years of that poll, he was second only to Randolph Scott.[11] These two polls are only an indication of the popularity of series stars, but Rogers also appeared in the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll of all films in 1945 and 1946.[12] Rogers was an idol for many children through his films and television shows. Most of his postwar films were in Trucolor during an era when almost all other B westerns were black and white. Some of his movies would segue into animal adventures, in which his horse, Trig

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