A Conversation With Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys
by Dan Harlow
NOTE: The following interview was conducted in 1996 and originally appeared in the Fall 1996 edition of Route 66 West magazine.
When the young Leonard Slye first traveled Route 66, his goal was to see an older sister in California and find a good job. It was 1930. Within a decade, he would become Roy Rogers, one of Hollywood's great western film stars. Now in his eighties, Rogers recalls the road that led him to fame.
|Roy Rogers 1911 - 1998|
“I was born in Cincinnati, but was raised on a farm in a little place called Duck Run. I went to school there and got two years of high school before I had to go to work. The depression was coming on and it was hard for anyone to get a job. I worked with my dad at the shoe factory in Cincinnati.
“I got up one morning and dad said, ‘let's quit our jobs today and go out to see Mary in California’. We were a close family and really missed my older sister. We talked about her all the time. Well, I was just thrilled to death. I told him I had about ninety dollars and thought that was enough for gas. We started packing and were rolling out in about three days.”
The road west, not fully paved, was slow and arduous. It left lasting impressions on an Ohio farm boy, which when recalled in later years bring laughter.
“Oh, it was a pistol. We were in an old 1923 Dodge. We had several flat tires. It took us two weeks to come out here. Of course, ninety bucks bought a lot of gas back then.
“I think we picked up Route 66 somewhere around St. Louis. I remember that we burned out the bearings in New Mexico. In those days, they didn't have places where you could buy bearings and things like that. We had to go out to a junkyard and find another Dodge like ours and take out the bearings. That cost us a couple of days.
“We were from a poor family. Not hungry, but poor.
“For the whole summer of 1931 we picked peaches near Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley. When we came back (to Los Angeles), there weren't any jobs. This was during the depression and there just wasn't any work. That's how I got into show business, really.
“There was a program on a radio station in Inglewood called the Midnight Frolic. It was an amateur show and anyone could go on. It was on the air from midnight to six in the morning. My sister said I should go on the show. She took me up there and when they called my name, I just froze. Mary touched me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now you get up there and sing.’ I sang a couple of songs. I don't to this day remember what songs I sang. I was so scared.
“About three days later this guy called and asked if I wanted to join a group he called the Rocky Mountaineers. It was better than picking peaches. I didn't get anymore money, really. But, it was easier work and I enjoyed it.
“I was the only singer in the Rocky Mountaineers. Bob Nolan joined me and later Tim Spencer. We became the Pioneer Trio. When we got to KFWB radio, they picked the three of us off the Texas Outlaw program and put us on staff.”
The Pioneer Trio changed their name to the Sons of the Pioneers. Len Slye found time to play bit roles and extra parts in Republic Pictures western films. It was not long before his name would also change. As Roy Rogers, he rode into the hearts of American movie fans astride a golden palomino named Trigger.
|1960s-era postcard featuring the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville, California. The museum has since been relocated to Branson, Missouri.|
“At first, I trained Trigger and then I met this trainer from Nebraska, Glenn Randall. Glenn was with me for twenty years. Because I'd be on the road with my guitar, I didn't have the time to work with my horse. Glenn came with me and we just worked together on it. I could get Trigger to do just about anything.”
The following years earned him stars on Hollywood's walk of fame for radio, motion pictures, television and recording. After the death of his first wife Arlene, Roy married his costar Dale Evans. Together they raised a large family and eventually settled in Apple Valley near the Route 66 town of Victorville. Victorville is home to the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum and future site of Rogersdale, USA.
“We've been here about 29 years. We know a lot of people and have friends in the church. It's a real contrast from Hollywood. Of course, I was raised on a farm so this suits me better anyway. I never was much of a talker. I'm better off in the sticks than in the city.
“After so many years in show business, I thought it was a good idea to have a museum for the people. It's stuff that I've saved all my life. I came up during the depression when we never had anything. Every time I got something, I'd just hang on to it. When we first opened the museum, I had two tractor trailer loads of things.
“I just couldn't think of burying old Trigger. Too many people loved him. We took Trigger, Dale's horse Buttermilk, and Trigger Junior and had them beautifully mounted. Trigger is up on his hind legs and he looks just like he did the day before he died.
“I've been interviewed by just about every newspaper or magazine down through the years. I just tell it the way it is or how it's been. I had an ordinary family life, really.”
Dan Harlow is an educator, historian, publisher, and avid proponent of Route 66. He currently makes his home in southern California with his wife, Sheila.