A hero to many young baby boomers, singing cowboy Roy Rogers died at the age of 86. Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a discussion on his life and impact on America's youth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roy Rogers, who died today at age 86, was the number one western star at the box office between 1943 and '54, according to a magazine poll of theater operators at the time. Rogers was also a television star. His Roy Rogers show ran for 100 episodes in the 1950's. And he helped found Sons of the Pioneers, whose recording songs like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water" remain country western favorites. Here he is with his wife, Dale Evans in the 1950 movie "Trigger Junior."
ROY ROGERS AND DALE EVANS: (singing) May the Good Lord take a likin' to you-
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more we're joined by Michael Stern, who helped Roy Rogers and Dale Evans write their autobiography "Happy Trails, Our Life Together," and by Bill Malone, a retired Professor of History at Tulane University and author of "Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers." Michael Stern, how did Roy Rogers become such a big star?
MICHAEL STERN, Biographer: It wasn't by design. As a young child, growing up in extreme poverty, in Duck Run, Ohio. Roy's dream, his fondest wish as a boy was to become a dentist. That didn't happen, but he went West, as so many people did during the Great Depression. He picked fruit. He started singing with the Sons of the Pioneers. Movies went to sound, and suddenly they realized that westerns, which were all action and very little talk, if you added music to them, were a whole new wonderful genre, and Roy was perfectly suited for this new genre, and that's how he got into the movies in the first place.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bill Malone, he was actually quite a good musician, wasn't he? It wasn't just a sideline.
BILL MALONE, Historian/Author: Well, he was a wonderful singer. In fact, I think he's about the best yodeler that we've ever had in American popular culture. He became such a large presence in American popular entertainment that I think it was easy to forget just how good a musician he was.
And he-of course, as a musician, I think he's helped to inspire this whole singing cowboy vogue that still is very much with us. You know, fifteen or twenty years ago if anybody had asked me if we would still be listening to singing cowboys today in 1998, I would have said certainly not. But they're still very much with us. There are just a tremendous number of people out there singing and yodeling cowboy songs, and they all-you know-can trace their lineage right back to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Stern, you worked with him when you were writing-helping him and Dale Evans write their autobiography. What was he like?
MICHAEL STERN: The great thing about Roy Rogers is that in person he was very much like the man on the screen. There was that exuberance, that zest for life, that joy at riding and shooting and being outdoors. To listen to Roy talk about his adventures with Trigger or the time he proposed to Dale, which, by the way, he did while he was riding Trigger, and she was riding her horse, is to hear somebody who had a kind of zest for life that was truly boyish, and I think that was part of his charm as king of the cowboys in all the movies, was that he had such a joy in living, such a sense of adventure, he was ready for anything. And we don't find heroes in popular culture nowadays who have that unbridled sense of fun in their life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Michael Stern, he and Dale Evans not only shared a work partnership but they had nine children or eight children, and they also shared quite a lot of heartbreak, didn't they?
MICHAEL STERN: They did, indeed. I mean, one of the interesting things about Roy and Dale is that their-in their private life I think they were perhaps far more heroic than they were in any of those heroic movies. They made a specialty of adopting, if you will, unadoptable children, children with learning handicaps, physical disabilities, and three of those children died untimely deaths. And it made both Roy and Dale, obviously it made them sad but it also, I think, helped them become very spiritual people. Roy and Dale were people who really tried to not only live a good life but impart that life to others through their movies.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bill Malone, how unusual was it for somebody like Roy Rogers to be so-such a huge star and yet to remain so close to his roots all those years.
BILL MALONE: Well, it's pretty unusual. I agree with Mr. Stern that it was that boyish enthusiasm, the innocence, if you will, that really helped to make him such an important American cultural icon. Even recently, as a person well in his 80's, he still exuded sort of a boyish charm, he still looked very young, and he still talked young, and I think despite all that adversity in his life, he still-you know-conveyed a sense of optimism.
It was very important to that two or three generations of people who kind of grew up with Roy Rogers, watching his movies, or watching his television shows. But they're not very many people like him who were able to maintain that innocence and that sort of sense of virtue through all that tremendous appeal that he had not only in this country but throughout the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Stern, tell us about Trigger. Trigger was really very important to him, wasn't he?
MICHAEL STERN: Trigger was Roy's co-star in every single western that he made. And Roy and Dale used to joke that it was Trigger who always got second billing in the movies. Dale may be way down on the marquis, but it was Trigger who was always billed as the smartest horse in the movies, that was Roy's partner in all those movies, and the fact is that Roy always said that the smartest thing he ever did was back in 1938 to buy Trigger for $2500, because Trigger had nearly as many fans as Roy did, and Roy really loved that horse the way-it was a rare thing. And to hear him talk about Trigger, his eyes would well up with tears at how much he liked that horse, and how important that horse was to him in his career.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Michael Stern, the movies, the cowboy movies were very different than--Roy Rogers didn't shoot people and there wouldn't be blood all over their shirt or all over their front the way the cowboy movie now might be.
MICHAEL STERN: No. In those days cowboy movies and a lot of genres of movies were really morality plays. I mean, these were like the myths of Greek Gods. They were very unrealistic, and people knew they were unrealistic, but that was okay, because we were learning things.
We were learning how to live. And I can't tell you since we did that book with Roy and Dale, how many people have come up to me who said, you know, I had a terrible childhood, I had a hard time growing up, but whenever I got into a jam, a bad situation, I would think, what would Roy Rogers do, and I got the answer from that. And I think that was what those movies imparted, unrealistic though they may be, they really had a very serious moral tone to them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bill Malone, there was kind of a cowboy code, wasn't there, he didn't kiss a woman, except a certain way on the screen?
BILL MALONE: Or you didn't kiss her at all unless she was your mother perhaps, or a girl, you didn't drink, you didn't smoke, you didn't use profanity, and you preserved your relationship with women to being very Victorian. You kissed them off-screen, kissed your horse, if you had to kiss anybody.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Stern, he was very-Roy Rogers was very successful not only in films and music but as a businessman, isn't that right?
MICHAEL STERN: He was at one point early in his career-he wanted a raise-and he went to the head of the studio, the head of the studio was reluctant to give him a raise, and he said, all right, I'll tell you what I'm going to do, Roy. Instead of giving you a raise, I'll give you all the rights to the name Roy Rogers. Roy walked out of there feeling very miserably, hadn't gotten anything, he hadn't gotten his raise, the rights to the name Roy Rogers proved to be the greatest bonanza of his career, so he was a very shrewd businessman, indeed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, what all did he have? We know about the Roy Rogers restaurants, but I mean, I had Trigger as a girl. What else did he have?
MICHAEL STERN: Well, what you have to do someday is go to the Roy Rogers Museum out in Victorville, where he has not only Trigger but Trigger, Jr., and Bullet on display, the jeep Nellie Bell and memorabilia, and stuff from his whole career, his life, both public and private. What he had more than riches was a rich life, I mean, a life that really meant something to his family and to the rest of us Americans, far beyond whatever money he amassed, which was significant.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bill Malone, Dale Evans was a very important part of this partnership, wasn't she? She also had a lot-has a lot of talent.
BILL MALONE: Yes. I don't remember exactly when they married. Was it in 1947?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I think so.
MICHAEL STERN: It was just after World War II in 1947.
BILL MALONE: It was after World War II, yes. And she came with a career in acting herself, a tremendous sense of humanitarian concern. I think the tragedy in the family did a lot to feed that, but she became involved in religious work, and she brought Roy into that, and along with their performance as actors and cultural icons, they were very much involved in crusades, you know, to create a better sense of morality in the United States and be good models for young people, very much involved in religious activities.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Stern, what do you think will be the enduring legacy of Roy Rogers?
MICHAEL STERN: I think-I hope that we will remember Roy Rogers as the symbol of a time when there was a tremendous amount of hope and belief in America. I mean, Roy believed in this country. He was, after all, a poor boy who made good, and I think Roy embodies a set of values that may seem corny to some people but I think would do us an awful lot of good to remember.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bill Malone.
BILL MALONE: Well, I've already alluded to that enduring singing cowboy tradition that is probably as important today, if not more so, than it was in the late 1930's, with people like Riders in the Sky and Don Edwards and the Sons of the San Joaquin, just everyone in the United States-there are cowboy poets and cowboy singers and cowboy yodelers, and they all owe their lineage to Roy Rogers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Bill Malone, Michael Stern, thank you very much.
BILL MALONE: Thank you.
MICHAEL STERN: Thank you.