Roy Rogers at 100 -- classic Americana

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:



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
Jan. 2.

“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
to them.”

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
childhood polio.

“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
here somewhere:

“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
at midnight

– 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

A news magazine with (really) news stories

A lot of things have been passed off lately as TV "news magazines." They've told old crime stories or new celebrity stories; the "magazine" part is right, the "news" part is iffy.

That's why tonight's arrival of "Rock Center" -- 10 p.m. Mondays on NBC -- seems important. By all accounts, this will be an actual, serious news magazine.


I'll try to have a review of it afterward. For now, here's the story I sent to papers:


In the world of TV news, this is a big
move: “Rock Center,” an NBC news magazine, debuts Monday (Oct. 31).

But wait … aren't there lots of those
shows out there? It depends on what you call news:

– One Friday (Oct. 21), ABC's “20/20”
thrived in the ratings. It did it with stories about Mariah Carey's
twins and Bernie Madoff's daughter-in-law.

– For the following Friday (Oct. 28),
NBC's “Dateline” planned a Las Vegas crime story from 20 years ago,
about a poker player and a beautiful trapeze artist. “'Dateline'
does a terrific job of covering those kinds of stories … real-life
crime stories,” said Steve Capus, the NBC News president.

– On Saturdays, CBS doesn't even
pretend to do anything else. Its show is called “48 Hours Mystery.”

Yes, the world has changed from the
days when everyone wanted to match “60 Minutes.” Back then, “48
Hours” meant the entire CBS News converged on a single, important
issue for two days.

That show began in 1988, a year before
ABC launched “Primetime” and four years before “Dateline”
started on NBC. “This is the first time in nearly two decades that
a news division has attempted to launch a new, primetime news
magazine,” Capus said.

He talks about doing “quality
journalism, stories that matter.” Rome Hartman talks of generally
doing two or three stories in an hour (one of them very current), but
being free to vary from that at will. David Corvo, the senior
executive producer, talks pf airing it live, with the ability to
quickly switch. “It has the opportunity to be more timely and more

The idea began when the Comcast cable
company was buying NBC, they said. The new owners asked what the news
people wanted to do; plans began for “Rock Center With Brian
Williams” – named for the NBC location (Rockefeller Center) and
for the anchor of both the newscast and this show.

Yes, there may be moments that reflect
Williams' droll humor, Hartman said. “There will be really
ambitious, hard-news stuff, but there will also be stuff that's more
observational, maybe a little cheekier …. Brian has a very eclectic
story set.”

That includes breaking news stories.
The producers talked about Williams' primetime coverage (on NBC and
MSNBC) of the Arab revolts, the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, the
Japan tsunami and more.

Williams recalled one broadcast: “Ten
o'clock Eastern time, the situation in Cairo went to Hell,” he
said. “Richard Engel and I are on a hotel balcony, trying to stay
back from the railing, as to not get hit by ricochets while this gun
battle went on below us.”

Engel – whom Williams called “the
best war-time correspendent going” – will be a “Rock Center”
contributor. So will Harry Smith, Kate Snow, Natalie Morales and Dr.
Nancy Snyderman. All NBC reporters can contribute stories and
Meredith Vieira and Ted Koppel will be special correspondents.

That may bring memories of the years
when Vieira was a regular on CBS' “West 57th” and “60 Minutes,”
the decades when Koppel (until 2005) made ABC's “Nightline”
unswerving. It will remind us that news magazines really are
sometimes about the news.

– “Rock Center With Brian
Williams,” 10 p.m. Mondays, NBC, starting Oct. 31

– That spot opened up when “The
Playboy Club” was canceled; in January, Steven Spielberg's “Smash”
takes the spot and “Rock Center” moves to an unspecified night.

– Other primetime news magazines on
broadcast networks: “Frontline,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, PBS (check
local listings); “Dateline” (NBC) and “20/20” (ABC), both 10
p.m. Fridays; “48 Hours Mystery,” 10 p.m. Saturdays, CBS; “60
Minutes,” 7 p.m. Sundays (unless delayed by football overruns),


Yes, idealism and non-violence sometimes win

It's easy to be cynical, to figure that brute power will always win. Then TV reminds us what idealists have accomplished; back-to-back we get:

-- Harry Belafonte, at 10 p.m. Monday on HBO, rerunning often. See previous blog.

-- Leymah Gbowee, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, at 10 p.m. Tuesday on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:


At times, the women of Liberia seemed
trapped in a no-win world.

One one side was their country's
brutal dictator, Charles Taylor. On the other were the brutal rebels.
In between were women who held sit-ins at the fish market –
singing, chanting, insisting on peace.

“There were times when I felt like we
were never going to win,” said Leymah Gbowee, now featured in a PBS
documentary. “Non-violent protest is … the strongest act that
anyone can go through. It's easy to pick a gun or pick a knife and
stab someone or shoot someone. But to use your body, your conscience,
your words to confront evil is the most difficult thing.”

They did win. In 2003, Liberia found
peace; this year, Leymah was one of three women to share the Nobel
Peace Prize.

Now her story is being told as part of
PBS' “Women, War & Peace.” The story ends with the election
of Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; still, it
mainly has an absence of politics.

“Women had tried to get involved,”
Gbowee said, “but it was often seen as either being for the rebels
or being for the government of the day. When we started, we decided …
we will do away with politics.”

They simply demanded peace. They
extracted commitments from both sides to bargain.

“Then the ceasefire broke down,”
Gbowee said. “I started losing confidence in the effectiveness of

At one point, women refused to let
anyone leave the building where the talks were being held.
Eventually, peace was reached.

Separately, Taylor was arrested and has
faced complex proceedings before an international tribunal. That's
important, said journalist Refik Hodzic, who saw women play a key
role in court testimony about Bosnia. “The International Criminal
Court is the closest the human species has come to this effort to
address mass atrocity.”

It's a start, Gbowee said, but not
total justice. “Taylor lives in a well-built prison. He eats three
meals a day. Those who were hacked … live in tents. They barely
find food to eat.”

That's typical, said Abigail Disney,
who produced the PBS series. “Liberia and Bosnia are both great
examples of places where there was an enormous amount of
international energy around capturing the perpetrator … and then
not really spending the resources” to aid his victims.

– “Women, War and Peace,” 10 p.m.
Tuesdays, PBS (check local listings)

– Opener dealt with Bosnia. Other
hours involve Liberia (Oct. 18), Afghanistan (Oct. 25), Colombia
(Nov. 1) and an overview (Nov. 8)


Belafonte -- passion, power and (sometimes) music

There is great power to Harry Belafonte's life. For most of his 84 years he's been sometimes an actor, sometimes a singer, always a passionate idealist. Now he has a new book and tonight (10 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17) an HBO documentary. Here's the story I sent to papers:



Harry Belafonte and his classmates
expected to spend their lives on stage.

There was Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis,
Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau and more. All studied
with an intense, German-born acting teacher in New York.

They learned passion, performance and
message. “The art of theater was all driven by social mission,”
recalled Belafonte, 84, who has a new HBO documentary and a new book.

His career soon detoured into music.
His acting was often set aside; his social mission wasn't.

“His message is clarion clear –
that we can make the world a better place with passion and commitment
and an honest heart,” said Sheila Nevins, HBO's documentary chief.
“He's extraordinary.”

What most Americans saw first was a
handsome man with a calypso sound they hadn't heard before.

Back in 1956, when Elvis Presley ruled
the Billboard singles charts, Belafonte dominated in albums. His
first two reached No. 1; the second stayed there for an astounding 31
weeks. Over the next five years, he had six more albums that reached
No. 2 or 3.

Americans were fascinated. They might
have assumed he'd grown up on the islands of the Caribbean.

His parents did, but Belafonte was
mainly from Harlem. He spent five childhood years on Jamaica, but
returned to the U.S. He was in the Navy in World War II, then studied
acting under Erwin Piscator.

This was when actors did much more than
read lines. “We began to meet many of the more advanced writers and
directors and creators of theater in our day,” Belafonte recalled.
“Robert Penn Warren, whose book ('All the King's Men') we turned
into a theater piece that became a film …. We began to meet people
like Jean-Paul Sartre.”

That could have been his entire career,
on stage and on film. The music, however, soon took over.

Belafonte started by singing jazz and
pop, then studied calypso. When he reached Broadway, it was in a
music revue; he won the Tony for best featured actor.

Two years later, his music career
soared. Belafonte did some acting, but the world had changed.

“Art had always been a part of
activism,” he said, “where the function of artists as the
gatekeepers of truth was to reflect the world in which we live – to
critique it, to inspire people.”

As commerce grew, he said, less was
expected of actors. “They were just to entertain.”

He did less acting and more direct
activism. There were civil rights marches; there were African
efforts, including the historic “We Are the World” recording.
There were so many new projects that he didn't pause to celebrate the
old ones. “My DNA drives me to go where I have not been,” he

Belafonte stayed in Haiti, turning down
a chance to celebrate the rise of Nelson Mandela.

American foreign policy, Belafonte
said, “demonized Nelson Mandela, vilified him, helped get him into
prison …. He was now free, a new, powerful moral voice. And all of
a sudden, many who had turned their back on him were now beginning to
cash in on the celebration of his triumph.”

Not Belafonte. He had new battles to
fight; he always seems to.

– “Sing Your Song,” debuts at 10
p.m. Monday (Oct. 17) on HBO

– Reruns include 4 p.m. Thursday,
3:45 p.m. Sunday and 11:30 a.m. Oct. 26

– Also: “Harry Belafonte: My Song”
(Knopf) reached book stores this week

Yes, there's life (and TV time) after the governorship

In America, any kid can grow up to be president or governor -- and then, maybe, to get a real cable-TV show.

That's what has happened to Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor. Today, the Current TV cable channel announced she'll have a primetime show, five days a week, beginning in January. Here's the story I sent to papers:


As Al Gore sees it, Jennifer Granholm
has star potential for cable-TV.

In January, the former Michigan
governor will have a show on Current TV, the channel Gore co-founded.
It will be at 9 p.m. weekdays, colliding with Piers Morgan on CNN,
Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Sean Hannity on Fox News.

“We want it to be fast-moving, want
it to be entertaining,” Granholm said. There will eve be a
comedian, Brett Erlich. And as the title (“The War Room”),
implies, it will be heavy on politics.

That's her strong point, Gore said.
“Very few people can articulate the issues the way she does,”

He was the one who first started
discussions with Granholm, a month or two ago, he said. “We were
blown away by the way she just lit up the room and just took

Still, there's a flip side: When
Granholm finished her second four-year term (the limit in Michigan)
on Jan. 1, the state was troubled and her approval rating were low.

“That's the reality,” Granholm said
of the economy that plagued her in Lansing and plagues Barack Obama
in Washington. “It's certainly an issue as we look at what the
solutions are.”

A prime focus of the show will be jobs,
she said – which states have found ways to keep them and to spur
new ones. Gore talked about “a resurgence (in Detroit), which she
laid the groundwork for.”

David Bohrman, the Current president,
insisted that Granholm isn't weighed down by the Michigan troubles.
“Gov. Granholm was re-elected in a down economy.”

Bohrman, formerly of CNN, took over
Current 10 weeks ago and quickly began working on a commentary
line-up for prime time. Cenk Uygur's “Young Turks” will be at 7
p.m., Keith Olbermann at 8 and Granholm at 9, with all three
repeating at 10 p.m., 11 p.m. and midnight.

Gore and Joel Hyatt launched Current in
2005, as a loose collection of viewer-submitted films. Ratings were
meager and the channel drew attention only for its award-winning
documentaries. The transition to a news-and-commentary focus began in
June, when Olbermann moved his show to Current.

Ratings remain low, but Hyatt said
Current is drawing younger viewers. The mean age, he said, is 65 for
Fox News, 63 for CNN, 62 for MSNBC, in the 50s “and getting
younger” for Current.

Now Granholm, 52, steps in. Her show
will be done from San Francisco, near where she and her husband, Dan
Mulhern, have faculty jobs at the University of California, Berkeley.
She said she will continue that (and her job on NBC's “Meet the
Press”), but has resigned from boards of directors.

The rest will be fairly easy, Gore
insisted. “If she can lead the state of Michigan, she can lead the
mechanics of a television program.”