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Roy Rogers (1911 - 1998)

Actor

Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1911. (The building where he was born stood where second base of Riverfront Stadium is now located). His father worked in the insole department of the United States Shoe Company and also grew vegetables to supplement his income. Young Leonard dreamed of becoming a dentist. However, in 1929, during the Great Depression, he dropped out of high school to help support his family and headed for California. The family was hit hard by the depression and Rogers said that The Grapes of Wrath could have been his family's biography.

In California, he sang in cowboy music groups to supplement his meager income, and founded the seminal group "The Sons of the Pioneers." For a while he was known as "Cactus Mac." One day while he was working in a haberdasher's shop a customer demanded a cowboy hat for a tryout in the movies. Rogers trailed the man to Republic Studios, sneaked onto the set, and got hired. One of his first roles was the villain in a Republic movie starring Gene Autry. The two became pals.
In 1938 Autry staged a one-man strike against Republic and Rogers became his temporary replacement. When Autry left Hollywood to fly fighter planes in 1943, Rogers again stepped into his shoes. He became the "King of the Cowboys" and made nearly 100 B-movie westerns (also known as "oaters" in crossword puzzles). His most famous movies include Springtime in the Sierras, Billy the Kid Returns and Song of Arizona.

Rogers often co-starred with Dale Evans, whom he married in 1947. The couple had nine children -- two by Roy's previous marriage, one by Dale's, one of their own, four by adoption and one by foster parenthood. In the 50's Rogers moved to television and he and Dale became well known for their Christian beliefs. They spoke at Billy Graham revivals and Dale wrote inspirational books.

Roy Rogers' first commercial success was with the Sons of the Pioneers, but he was an even bigger pioneer in marketing: a champion merchandise wrangler. At the height of his success, in the mid-50's, his photo appeared on 2.5 billion boxes of Post cereals and Roy Rogers comics sold 25 million copies a year. In addition, more than 20 pages of the annual Sears catalog were dedicated to his merchandise. These products included such items as lunch boxes, sheets, wallpaper, socks, ties, hats, watches, cut-out dolls, cap pistols, and similar bric-a-brac. Roy Rogers booked some $50 million a year in sales. By the late 50's Rogers had more than 2,000 fan clubs and more than 400 licensed products on the market.

Rogers called Trigger "the best thing that ever happened" to him. Trigger was Roy's faithful golden palomino, a horse who could untie knots and even shoot a gun. Trigger was billed as "the smartest horse in the movies." The horse usually got second billing, ahead of Dale Evans. When his faithful mount died, Rogers had him stuffed and mounted, much to Evans' distress. Later she relented, and her horse Buttermilk was mounted too. Today one can see Trigger Trigger II, Buttermilk, and Roger's dog, Bullet the Wonderdog, at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, CA. Because of fan pressure to "leave out the mushy stuff," Rogers never kissed Evans on screen, although he did occasionally kiss Trigger! Among Rogers' 91 movies, his favorite was "My Pal Trigger" (1946). "When my time comes just skin me and put me right up there on Trigger as if nothing had ever changed," he said. This wish was never fulfilled.

His theme song, "Happy Trails," which ran under the closing credits of his TV show, was written by Dale Evans. Rogers said that a typical movie featured "a little song, a little riding, a little shooting and a girl to be saved from hazard." For 12 straight years he was the number one western star at the box office. In a single month in 1945 he received 75,000 fan letters, eclipsing a record held by Clara Bow. In 1960 he estimated that it cost him $30,000 a year to respond to his fan mail. A survey by Life magazine found that children named him alongside FDR and Lincoln as the Americans they most wanted to emulate.

Upon Rogers' death, Clayton Moore, the actor who played the Lone Ranger, said, "He certainly was a role model for people all over the world. Just a good, straightforward man. He always treated people with kindness." His lifelong friend Gene Autry said, "This is a terrible loss for me. I had tremendous respect for Roy and considered him a great humanitarian and an outstanding American. He was, and will always be, a true Western hero."

September 14, 1998 was proclaimed Roy Rogers and Dale Evans day in New York City. The mayor press-released, "With the death of Roy Rogers, New York City has lost a good friend and the nation has lost an entertainment icon and a great humanitarian. What many Americans did not know was how active the couple was on behalf of children, particularly children in need, raising funds and making personal appearances all over the country."

Roy Rogers is survived by his wife, Dale, two sons, three daughters, 15 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren. His last words were "Well Lord, it's been a rough ride."