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Roy Rogers

(Leonard Slye)

(1911 - 1998)

 

 

Leonard Slye - Dick Weston - Roy Rogers

(Dick Weston photo from the Karl E. Farr Collection)

 

    One of Roy's favorite songs was Bob Nolan's Sky Ball Paint, the humorous story of a bucking horse. Roy often sang it at rodeo appearances but here he sings in on the evening of September 24, 1976, at the KLAC-sponsored tribute paid to The Sons of the Pioneers at the Hollywood Palladium. The  song behind the page is here courtesy of John Fullerton.

    The films in which Roy appeared with the Sons of the Pioneers are listed in the Filmography section, complete with photographs from each movie.

    Photos and posters are from The Calin Coburn Collection, The Karl E. Farr Collection, Ed Phillips, Michelle Sundin, Kathy Kirchner, Les Adams, Fred Sopher and Elizabeth Drake McDonald. 

    See also the huge Bruce Hickey Collection of posters, lobby cards, production and publicity stills from the Republic films.

    The story of Roy Rogers has been told and retold countless times. For a fuller insight into Roy's life, see the Books and the Bibliography sections for lists of titles. Roy and Dale wrote full biographies twice, Dale wrote several books based on their lives and both Roy's son and daughter wrote the story from their perspective. The following is an outline based on Robert W. Phillips' book, "Roy Rogers", McFarland, 1995, and covers only the years in which Bob Nolan was associated with Roy professionally.

 

ē Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers Work Chronology (compiled by Lawrence Hopper)

 


       

        On November 5, 1911, in a Cincinnati tenement, was born an ordinary boy named Leonard Franklin Slye who grew up to become that extraordinary American icon, Roy Rogers. Today, nearly one hundred years later, Roy's friendly smile still flashes from the old movie channels on TV and he has countless faithful fans all over the world.

        His father, Andrew, was a factory worker and his mother had been crippled by polio. The family was poor in money but rich in affection, laughter and music. The year after Roy was born, the little family moved from Cincinnati into a houseboat where they lived for almost seven years. From the houseboat they moved to a small acreage. Andy could not support his family on the little acreage and was forced to return to factory work in Portsmouth, leaving his wife and the small children to run the farm. Because Roy was the only boy, most of the heavier chores fell on him and he learned quickly how to stretch a penny and to use what was at hand. Because he was needed on the farm, his school attendance suffered. Andy managed to buy his son a black mare named Babe and the youngster did his best to imitate his favorite movie cowboy, Hoot Gibson.

        On his twelfth birthday, Roy was given his first rifle, a .22 Winchester, and he was soon adding rabbits to the family fare. About this time, he began playing his parents' guitar for local dances and discovered that he loved to make people happy with his singing and square dance calling. He was a natural entertainer.

        In 1928, Roy bought his first guitar in a Cincinnati pawn shop for twenty dollars. He also left school that year and joined his father working in the shoe factory, a job that irked them both. Two years later, the family drove to California for a four-month visit to Roy's older sister and husband. Andy and 19-year-old Roy picked up temporary jobs as truck drivers with no difficulty while they were in California. After Andy and family returned to Ohio, Roy went back to California almost immediately, convinced that his future was on the West Coast.

        By 1931 the Depression had settled in and jobs were scarce, even in California. Roy's family sold the Ohio farm and moved out to California, too, along with thousands of other migrant families. None of the jobs Roy picked up lasted long and he finally traveled down to Los Angeles to try to make a living at what he loved most - music. Starting with his cousin, Stanley Slye (whose stage name was Russ Scott), he played every venue open to them. Wages were nil. They lived on the tips they received from passing a hat after each performance. Soon his cousins gave up but Roy was never easily discouraged.

    In the summer of 1931, he entered a competition on a radio show in Inglewood called "Midnight Frolic" and, although he didn't win the contest, his performance brought him to the attention of an instrumental group that called themselves The Rocky Mountaineers. They had a free weekly radio broadcast from Long Beach over KGER which allowed them to advertise as a dance band. Roy was the lone singer.

    The following year, 1932, Roy Roy started dating Lucile, the attractive daughter of Italian-American Joe and Vinchinea Ascolese. Roy managed to persuade The Rocky Mountaineers to hire another singer to help him out and Bob Nolan and his friend, Bill "Slumber" Nichols, got the job for a few months. When Bob quit for a better-paying job as a golf caddy, the group advertised again and hired Vern (Tim) Spencer. The Rocky Mountaineers disbanded and Roy, Tim and Slumber joined Bennie Nawahi's International Cowboys.

 

Photo courtesy of Suzette Spencer-Marshall

 

    Roy and Lucile were married on May 8, 1933 and in June the International Cowboys sang through an earthquake. In Roy's recollection, the song they were singing was Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" but perhaps it was that earlier, original version, "Tumbling Leaves". Understandably, Roy could not recall the exact dates he worked with the different groups, but it appears that in 1933 he worked with The International Cowboys, The O-Bar-O Cowboys and finally, Jack and His Texas Outlaws. Money was still scarce. A six week tour of the Southwest with the O-Bar-O Cowboys had been a painful, fruitless experience.

 

The O-Bar-O Cowboys (Calin Coburn Collections)

 

Jack and His Texas Outlaws

(Calin Coburn Collections)

 

    In December, 1933, Roy, Tim and Bob Nolan began work as the vocal trio for Jack and His Texas Outlaws, featuring the unique 3-part yodeling that was to make the Sons of the Pioneers so popular. They found a sponsor, called themselves The Pioneer Trio and began to receive a regular paycheck - $35 per week each. This allowed them to pay room and board at 1453 Tamarind Avenue in Hollywood and still have money left over. Their rooming house was just two blocks from their radio station, KFWB. Bernie Milligan's column "Best Bets of the Day" in the L. A. Herald-Examiner gave them an extra boost and they found they had no trouble getting sponsors. But Roy did have trouble with his wife. She simply could not adjust to the life of a musician's wife and she left him in Fall of the next year. He moved into another nearby boarding house at 5841 Carlton Way.

    If 1934 was not a successful year for his first marriage, it was astonishingly successful for his career. Now known as the Sons of the Pioneers, the group added violinist Hugh Farr and each member earned $40 a week as staff musicians on KFWB. They were signed with Decca Records and made their first recording session on August 4, 1934. Late that year, the Sons of the Pioneers recorded several hundred Standard Radio transcriptions which were sold to radio stations all over the county. On December 15, Tumbling Tumbleweeds hit No. 13 on the charts.

 

Farley's Gold Star Rangers with MC, Gus Mack

(Calin Coburn Collections)

 

Farley's Gold Star Rangers ad

 

    In 1935, the Sons of the Pioneers included Hugh's brother, Karl Farr, and the group continued making Standard Transcriptions. They also began appearing in movies, first in shorts and then in feature length movies, but always as musicians. They signed with Columbia Pictures to provide music for the Charles Starrett western action series and remained with them until 1941.

 

(Calin Coburn Collections)

 

    1936 was an exhilarating year. On June 8, Roy received his divorce. On June 11, he married Arline Wilkins in her hometown of Roswell, New Mexico. From there, the Sons of the Pioneers and Roy's new wife traveled to the Texas Centennial at the Dallas fairgrounds where they performed from six to eight weeks.

 

At the Texas Centennial

 

(Calin Coburn Collections)

 

 

    Coincidentally, the Pioneers were filming a movie (The Big Show) with Gene Autry, appearing on radio and recording for Decca.

 

The Big Show

(Calin Coburn Collections)

 

 

    Cross and Winge of San Francisco published a total of seven Sons of the Pioneers' song folios (two in 1936, including four songs of Roy's: Ridin' Ropin', Down Along the Sleepy Rio Grande, In the Days of 49 and My Prairie Home.)

    In 1937, Leonard Slye became "Roy Rogers", but not right away. Because of contractual problems with Gene Autry, Republic Pictures hired Roy on October 13 and started grooming him as a replacement for the popular singing cowboy. He was given a new name, Dick Weston, and Pat Brady took his place with the Sons of the Pioneers. Roy finished recording as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers on December 16 when they cut their last side for ARC (Columbia Records)

 

 

Left: Karl E. Farr Collection. Right: February 16, 1938 - courtesy of Les Adams

 

    1938 brought his permanent name, Roy Rogers, and it also brought Trigger. There were several "Triggers" throughout Roy's career but the first Trigger, originally known as Golden Cloud, began his long association with Roy Rogers in their first film together, "Under Western Stars".

 

 

 

With Smiley Burnette, promoting the picture in 1938.

(photo courtesy of Bruce Hickey)

 

 

 

    The film itself was a simple action story shot in nine days but Roy's personality shone through and the public liked him immediately. Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers entertained prior to the premiere showing in Dallas in April. Roy made his first appearance in New York City and he began receiving thousands of pieces of fan mail from all across America.

    Roy was not only appearing in film, he was also making personal appearances to make ends meet. He was paid about $75 per week from Republic but his personal appearances paid for the postage on photos for he and Arline answered every fan letter. All his life, Roy respected his fans. "If it weren't for them," he admitted, "there wouldn't be a Roy Rogers."

    1939 saw a raise in pay to $100 per week from Republic Pictures. He made another cross-America tour to New York City with Trigger. In 1940 he hired Art Rush as a personal manager and Jim Osborne handled his financial affairs. These two men remained with him for years. He also purchased another palomino, Little Trigger, who became his touring "Trigger" while the original horse stayed in California and appeared with him regularly in the movies. Little Trigger also appeared in his movies as did a later palomino, Trigger Jr. Most of the viewing public weren't aware of the stand-ins. Because of a clause in his contract with Republic Pictures, Roy was able to pursue additional commercial avenues and he lent his character name and image to different products.

 

"The Old Man", the original Trigger

 

    Seemingly unable to have children of their own, Roy and Arline adopted a little girl, Cheryl Darlene, from Hope Cottage in Texas in 1941. Roy had been entertaining at orphanages during his personal appearance tours and continued to do so throughout his career.

 

 

    At the end of 1941, the Sons of the Pioneers rejoined him and  signed a seven-year contract to appear with him in a series of action B-westerns with music.

 

 

Calin Coburn Collections

 

1942, with the World War II draft in place, was a critical year in Roy's career. On October 6, Roy and Arline legally had their surname changed to "Rogers". Gene Autry joined the Army Air Corps and Republic began to build up Roy and Trigger to take his place as the Number One Singing Cowboy. For personal appearances, he was at World Championship Rodeos around the country. He made 136 appearances in 20 days in Texas for the 8th Service Command, selling war bonds. He and the Sons of the Pioneers performed for bond sales activities, stage canteens, base hospitals, and underprivileged children.

 

 

They were photographed in front of the  Alamo, at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, and with Governor Stevenson of Texas. Roy himself was photographed in a black hat with Little Trigger on the lawn across from the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Roy and the Pioneers debuted at the 17th Annual Madison Square Garden Rodeo from October 7-25 where roughly 200 cowboys and cowgirls were competing. After 19 days, he set a new attendance record and Trigger "celebrated" a birthday there and impressed the press when he stepped into the Dixie Hotel and signed in with an "X" at the registration desk. Roy and the Pioneers appeared at the famed Stage Door Canteen. Roy presented the mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, with a pair of silver spurs. They entertained at Merchant Seaman's base, Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and at St. John's Home in Brooklyn.

 

Calin Coburn Collections

 

    They entertained at Merchant Seaman's base, Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and at St. John's Home in Brooklyn.

 

 

    In 1943 Roy toured Canada, attended President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 61st birthday. On April 18, Arline presented him  with their first child, a daughter, Linda Lou. Roy wrote a song in her honor. He was also featured on the cover of the July issue of Life magazine. He was voted number one Western star in polls conducted by various film magazines. (He kept that position until the polls ended in 1954.) Decca Records was selling 6,000 Roy Rogers records a week.

 

 

    Whitman Publishing Company began putting out Roy Rogers books.

 

Left: 1950 Whitman

Right: Little Golden Book

 

    The Republic film, "King of the Cowboys", was released and Roy's own songbook, "Roy Rogers' Own Songs" was published by American Music.

 

 

    The Double R Bar brand was designed for him by leather craftsman Bob Brown. He took part in the Sheriff's Rodeo at the coliseum in Los Angeles with other popular Hollywood stars. Billboards touted him as "King of the Cowboys" and he was voted the Number One Money Making Western Star of the Year. His rodeo circuit logged him 50,000 miles this year, seventy-five hundred US theaters were showing his pictures. He was backed this year not by the Sons of the Pioneers but by the Ranch Girls.

 

Roy and Gene

Courtesy of Fred Sopher

 

 

Bruce Hickey photo

 

    In 1944, Dale Evans was cast with Roy in Republic's "Cowboy and the Senorita". This meant that she would also become part of Roy's road shows and joined Roy on NBC Radio.

 

 

 

In April, Roy's first comic came out (Four Color #38).

 

 

    His shirts were becoming more elaborate. The Roy Rogers Championship Rodeo was being formed for touring and made its debut at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He rode Trigger on the Paul Revere ride from Boston to Concord for a bond drive plus a 3-week appearance at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo in the Fall. He attended the opening game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, met Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and former President Herbert Hoover. In November, he went on air with a program sponsored by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

    In 1945, Roy appeared in Col. Jim Eskew's Texas Rodeo in Philadelphia from September 23-30. The Roy Rogers Rodeo made its second appearance in Los Angeles and the crowd was estimated at 80,000. The Rodeo then toured Los Angeles, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston and New York plus the smaller cities between, finishing at Madison Square Garden in October. The Draft Board reclassified Roy as 1-A which meant he was close to being drafted. Then it was changed again to 3-A because of a change in deferment age. Roy was 34 years old.

 

Courtesy of Fred Sopher

 

    By 1946 there were 700 Roy Rogers fan clubs in the US alone and he was receiving close to 90,000 letters a month. Roy's "Weekly Roundup" radio show debuted over NBC, sponsored by Miles Laboratories. His annual income was reported to be $250,000 a year. 1946 also brought him the first of a series of personal tragedies. On October 28, Arline gave birth to their son, Roy Rogers Jr. and six days later she died of an embolism.

 

Courtesy of Bruce Hickey

 

    1947 was the year Roy made a major change in his appearance. His costumes became very elaborate including a lot of suede leather fringes on his shirts. He had a new crown to his hat and, because color film was popular, his outfits were brighter and designed by Ben the Rodeo Tailor of Philadelphia. This is the year he introduced his red, white and blue plastic saddle. He received over 900,000 fan letters this year and employed five ladies to answer it. He sold an average of 25,000 records per month.

 

 

 

 

 

On Wednesday, December 31, Roy and Dale Evans were married.

 

    The next year, 1948, both Roy and Dale made a commitment to the Christian faith, Dale gave up an opportunity to appear in the London stage production of "Annie Get Your Gun" to be a mother to Roy's children and she resumed work with Republic Pictures. Her comics began to appear. Roy continued to tour with his rodeo in the Fall, playing Crosley Field, Cincinnati and Cleveland Children's Hospital.

 

Courtesy of Fred Sopher

 

Courtesy of Bruce Hickey

 

    His show costume was now designed by Nudie of Hollywood. He worked with children through 4-H clubs and was an advocate for safety among school children with the National Safety Council. Competitions were organized and Roy and Dale appeared in person to present the awards at the schools. "The Roy Rogers Show" was  aired Sundays at 6 pm on the Mutual Network, sponsored by Quaker Oats. Roy and Dale were joined by Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage who were hired by Republic Pictures to step into the Sons of the Pioneers' shoes. Dale wrote "Happy Trails" as the closing theme.

    In April of 1949, Roy and Trigger put their prints in the sidewalk at Graumann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood watched by The Riders of the Purple Sage, Pat Brady, Dale and Hoot Gibson.

 

 

 

Courtesy of Fred Sopher

 

Leona McEachern photo

 

     At the end of the year, a Roy Rogers newspaper comic strip began, drawn by artists John Ushler and Peter Alvarado. The Roy Rogers Riders Club was organized and 1,700,000 children joined in the first three months.

    Bob Nolan retired from the Sons of the Pioneers in 1949 and his professional association with Roy was concluded. They did remain in contact for the rest of Bob's life and, like brothers often do, got together once in awhile.

 

Roy and Bob at the Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in September, 1976

 

    The original Sons of the Pioneers had, indeed, become a family. Rumours of a coolness between Bob and Roy were groundless, founded on Bob's complete withdrawal from the entertainment scene. Roy, more sociable than Bob by nature, would have liked a closer association but when the two men did get together, it was apparent to all that they enjoyed each other's company immensely.

 

Robert Wagoner, Roy Rogers and Bob Nolan, 1979

 

Roy outlived him by twenty years and spoke, in tears, at Bob's memorial at Rex Allen's ranch on July 27, 1980:

 

        I look around in all directions and see things that sometime during Bobís life he has written about. Iím not good at ad-libbing Ė at talking - but Bob was very close to me although we never got to spend too much time together except when it was "hungry" in the early 30s. And as years rolled byÖ. You know Bob was a very private man. He didnít particularly care about big groups.

        He was a deep-thinking person as you can very well tell when you hear one of his songs, The Mystery of His Way, He Walks with the Wild and the Lonely, The Touch of Godís Hand. I donít know how Bob felt spiritually, but you only have to listen to one of [Roy's voice breaks down] Bobís songs to know how he felt and youíll play that message in every song Ė practically every one that he has recently written - to people from now on. Can you imagine the millions and millions of people that heís touched with the touch of Godís hand through his music.
        I donít know of anybody that has written songs like Bob with so much thought put in them and with the feeling that he has in them.
        Weíve got such a nice turnout here tonight with people that loved Bob and what he stood for. Iím sure most of you didnít really know him personally. Very few people did because Bob was a private man and he liked to be by himself. Iíve seen him out on location. Heíd wander off and sit on a log and if he didnít have anything to do, heíd be sitting there three hours later. And thatís when he did most of his deep thinking.
        But I loved Bob. I never had a chance to associate in later years very much with him. I didnít want to infringe on his privacy and Iím sure that he felt the same way. He felt like he was bothering somebody if he come to see you. But it wasnít that way but thatís the way I think Bob felt.
 

Roy and Dale in front of their home. Photo by Roberta Mileusnich.

(Calin Coburn Collections)

 

    Even though Roy got his start with the Sons of the Pioneers and was always proud of them, he achieved his greatest fame in the years following through his television series, comics, rodeo and personal appearances with his wife, Dale Evans, and their children. His face appeared on countless commercial toys, books, furniture, food. He was cognizant of his responsibility as a role model for children and he tried to become "Roy Rogers" in every phase of his life.

 

 

Sons of the Pioneers display in the Roy Rogers - Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, CA, 1992

Photo courtesy of Michelle Sundin