One of my favorite posters is for "Frontier Pony Express," a 1939 Roy Rogers film.
I could quibble about the title. (Why do we have to say "frontier"; what are the odds of an urban pony express?) But I loved the notion that Rogers starred in eight movies -- yes, eight of them -- in the year (1939) when Clark Gable settled for one (albeit a good one, "Gone With the Wind").
Rogers was a classic American hero, a guy who seemed very much like the decent guys he played. Now the 100th anniversary of his birth is coming Saturday. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
This really isn't what they prepare you
for in business school.
Steve Campione, a New York investment
banker, had just been hired as a cable company's chief financial
officer, when he got an assignment: Go buy a dead horse.
Now that's part of the lore surrounding
Roy Rogers' 100th birthday, on Saturday (Nov. 5). At a New
York City auction, working for RFD-TV, Campione bought the late horse
of the late cowboy king.
“His phone was going dead,” Patrick
Gottsch, the RFD founder, said. “I'm yelling, 'Bid higher, bid
higher!' I'm yelling so hard (in Omaha), you could almost hear me in
New York without the phone.”
Campione did buy Trigger for $266,500,
the next day adding his dog-pal Bullet for $35,000. Now both are
planned to be on the final float of the Tournament of Roses parade on
“Dad loved being in that parade,”
Roy Rogers Jr., better known as Dusty, said.
Dusty will be on the float, singing
“Happy Trails” – written by his step-mom, the late Dale Evans –
with his son Dustin. They'll be alongside Trigger and Bullet,
preceded by 100 golden palominos.
And yes, Dusty Rogers said, people get
attached to the stuffed remains of a horse and dog. “They get
emotional; they start crying …. Dad was kind of a surrogate father
He came across as a quiet, country guy
– who happened to endorse more than 400 products. “Dad had good
people to take care of that,” Dusty Rogers said. “He would say,
'I never got off my horse long enough to do any business.'”
Rogers could have been a city guy. He
was born in Cincinnati and briefly lived there. His dad worked in a
Cincinnati shoe factory; for a time, so did Roy.
But the family moved to Portsmouth when
he was young and to a nearby farm when he was 7. The dad soon went
back to the factory, re-joining the farm on weekends. Roy worked it
with his three sisters and his mother, who was partly disabled by
“He fished and hunted,” Dusty said.
“He took the .22 out and shot some dinner.” Money was still
tight; after two years at McDermott High School, he dropped out to
work at the factory with his dad.
Then the family visited Roy's married
sister in California; Roy soon returned there to stay. Early in the
Depression, he picked peaches, drove a truck, lived in a labor camp,
sang on radio shows.
That led to a Republic Pictures
audition for a singing cowboy. In 1937, he signed a seven-year
contract for $75 a week. He changed his name (originally Leonard
Slye) to Dick Weston and then Roy Rogers.
In 1939 – when he was up to $150 a
week – Rogers made eight movies. In all, he made 80 for Republic in
14 years, then focused mainly on his TV show.
That was when Gottsch, 58, discovered
him, growing up on a Nebraska farm. “You would sit on the floor in
the family living room and watch him on TV,” he said.
Viewers also liked Dale Evans. “She
was the best mom anyone could have,” Dusty Rogers said. “She was
amazing. She was married at 14, had her first child at 15. You've
gotta grow up quickly for that.”
He was her fourth husband; she was his
third wife. (The second died of an embolism six days after Dusty was
born.) They lasted 51 years, until Roy's death in 1997, at 86.
Roy saved everything, Dusty said. He
even saved (via taxidermy) Trigger, Bullet and Dale's horse
Buttermilk. “He said, 'Trigger was my pal for 30-plus years.' He
couldn't just put him in the ground.”
He created a museum at his ranch in
Apple Valley, Cal.; later, Dusty moved it to Branson, Mo. As the
economy slowed, relatives pushed to have the museum closed and the
items sold. There were at least 10 auctions around the country; the
New York one, alone, would total $2.98 million.
“I started getting all these E-mails
and letters saying, 'They're going to sell Trigger. Do something,'”
Gottsch said. “I didn't know anything about it.”
He soon bought Trigger, a logical move
for RFD-TV. “We really are four channels in one – agriculture,
equestrian, rural living and music-and-entertainment,” Gottsch said
Other things fell into place – a
“Happy Trails Tour” taking Trigger and Bullet around the country
… a deal to play the shows the Rogers estate controls (Roy's TV
show and 30-plus public-domain movies) on the network … brief notes
on-air and in the RFD magazine, marking the 100th
In January, there's the parade and
more: Dusty and Dustin move their cowboy-music show to the RFD
theater in Branson show to the RFD theater, Gottsch launches another
channel, Rural TV, giving more room for entertainment shows on RFD.
And the actual birthday? Dusty and
Dustin plan to fly to California for the Nov. 5 party, with a pancake
breakfast, tours of the Rogers ranch house and a town dance; two days
later, they'll be back in Branson for their regular 10 a.m. show at
the Mickey Gilley Theatre.
The “Happy Trails Tour” will
continue, Gottsch said, with Buttermilk being added. Trigger was the
smart one, he said, with more than 130 tricks, but there's a metaphor
“Buttermilk was actually faster. Dale
had to slow him down, so Trigger would seem faster.”
Roy Rogers on RFD-TV
– 100th Birthday
celebration, 8:30-9:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5. From Rogers' old
California ranch, there are interviews, plus music by his son and
– Movies, 2 p.m. Tuesdays, repeating
– TV episodes at 12:30 p.m. Sundays,
repeating at 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and noon Saturdays.
– RFD will carry the rose parade
from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Jan. 2, plus a preview at 10 a.m.; it will
profile the equestrian groups from 3-5 p.m. Dec. 30
– RFD – which stands for “rural
free delivery” – is on satellite systems and some cable systems