Roy Rogers was a national treasure. The King of Cowboys has starred in over 100 films, radio, and television shows and was a Western icon with his name and likeness plastered on toys, books, and comics. Rogers and his wife Dale Evans were also dedicated to their family, having a total of nine children – five of which were adopted.
But their “Happy Trails” didn’t come without some bumps in the road, in the form of family tragedies. Their famous museum, which attracted more than 200,000 visitors a year, was also forced to shut down. Why did Roy Rogers’ popularity wane in the end? Read on to find out.
Roy Rogers wasn’t even his real name, but it wasn’t him who decided to change it.
A Man With Humble Beginnings
Roy Rogers was born Leonard Slye on November 5, 1911, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up on a farm near Lucasville, where his father gifted him a horse when he was young. This is how he learned the ins and outs of horsemanship.
Because they didn’t own a radio, the Slye family made their own entertainment and often invited neighbors over for square dances. Not only did he learn to dance, but young Leonard Slye also sang and played the mandolin as well. This combined with his horsemanship skills would eventually be an asset as he entered the entertainment industry.
He Joined The Rocky Mountaineers In 1931
By the time he was 19, the Slye family moved out to California where Leonard and his father worked as truck drivers and fruit pickers. In 1931, Leonard auditioned for a Los Angeles radio show called Midnight Frolics and was invited to join a western group called the Rocky Mountaineers.
Though he was shy by nature, Leonard still mustered the courage to perform in front of others. The Rocky Mountaineers toured throughout New Mexico and Arizona in the middle of summer. Finding food was often the hardest part about touring given their meager budget.
He Formed The Sons Of Pioneers
While performing with the Rocky Mountaineers, Slye began collaborating with former Mountaineer member Bob Nolan and the man who replaced him, Tim Spencer. In 1933, they formed a group called the Pioneers Trio, in which Slye played guitar, Nolan played string bass, and Spencer was the lead singer. The following year they added a fiddle player named Hugh Farr.
When the group performed on the radio, the announcer changed their name to the Sons of the Pioneers because of their young age. The group was a hit across the U.S. with songs like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water."
He Began Acting And Changed His Name To Roy Rogers
It wasn’t long before Slye had an opportunity to get in front of the camera and began working in productions of Western films. He made his first film appearance in 1935 and eventually went on to a large supporting role under Gene Autry. When Autry began demanding more money, the studio started looking for a new singing cowboy.
Out of all that auditioned, Leonard Slye was the one that made the cut. Republic Pictures changed his name to Roy Rogers and he was assigned his first leading role in Under Western Stars.
Roy Rogers is synonymous with Dale Evans but one woman had to die before the two fell in love.
You Can’t Have Roy Rogers Without Trigger
As Roy Rogers prepared for his first starring role, the studio lined up five rented "movie" horses for him to pick as his sidekick. Rogers chose a yellow-haired palomino stallion named Golden Cloud. Taking to him immediately, Rogers bought the horse in 1943. He changed Golden Cloud’s name to Trigger because of the horse’s swiftness on foot and intelligence.
Before Trigger became Rogers’ horse, he lived his own life as a Hollywood animal. He previously starred as the mount of Olivia de Havilland’s character in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Trigger Was A Horse Of Many Talents
Trigger learned at least 150 trick cues, including the ability to sit in a chair, use a pencil to sign his name "X," lie down for a nap, and even cover himself with a blanket. Those close to Rogers have even reported that Trigger could walk on his hind legs for at least 50 feet!
All that talent brought Trigger immense fame and he ate it all up. Despite how many tricks he knew, he’d ruin one by bowing the moment he heard applause. Of his abilities, the most impressive was the fact that he was housebroken.
Roy Rogers’ First Two Loves
Outside of his entertainment career, Roy Rogers also found love. In 1933, Rogers married an admirer named Lucile Ascolese but the marriage only lasted for a few years. While touring as a radio singer in 1933, Rogers met Grace Arline Wilkins in Roswell, New Mexico. They married shortly after Rogers’ first divorce in 1936.
Rogers and Wilkins adopted a daughter named Cheryl Darlene before she gave birth to another daughter, Linda Lou in 1943. Three years later, Wilkins gave birth to Roy, Jr. a.k.a. "Dusty." Sadly, Wilkins died of complications from childbirth in 1946.
Roy Rogers Met Dale Evans On Set
Roy Rogers met Dale Evans in 1944 when they both worked on a movie together. Following Wilkins’ death a couple of years later, it wasn’t long before Rogers and Evans fell in love. For her part, Evans was being groomed as a cowgirl co-star to Rogers at Republic Studios.
Evans previously eloped with a man when she was 14 and had a son the following year. After her first husband left her, Evans pursued a radio career during which time she went through two more husbands. Her first three marriages obviously didn’t work out but luckily, she met Rogers.
They went on to have a huge, happy family but tragedy would strike on more than one occasion as you’re about to find out.
Rogers And Evans Tied The Knot And Had A Baby
Roy Rogers proposed to Dale Evans at a rodeo at the Chicago Stadium. They tied the knot on New Years Eve of 1947 at the same ranch where they had filmed Home in Oklahoma a few months earlier.
Soon, Evans gave birth to their first child together, a daughter named Robin Elizabeth. Robin had Down syndrome and sadly passed away due to complications with the mumps before her second birthday. To honor their daughter, Evans would later write a book titled Angel Unaware. It wouldn’t be the only thing they did to honor their daughter either.
They Were Devoted To Family
Angel Unaware inspired many families in 1953. Evans’ account of her daughter Robin’s life opened up a conversation among Americans and those who have disabilities. People appreciated the way Roy Rogers and Dale Evans stayed committed to their daughter during her life. The Dale Rogers Training Center for children with developmental abilities in Oklahoma was named after her.
As time went on, Rogers and Evans eventually adopted four more children: Mimi, Dodie, Sandy, and Debbie. It only went to show how much love the couple had to share outside of their careers.
More Tragedies Befell The Rogers Family
Even though the Rogers family was full of love, the death of Robin wouldn’t be the only tragedy that they would face. Debbie, who was born in Korea, was only 12 years old when she died in a tragic bus accident. Debbie was one of eight people who was killed when the school bus she was on crashed into seven other cars on the highway.
Another one of their children, John David “Sandy” Rogers, only lived to be 18. Sandy enlisted in the Army and was sent to Germany, where he died in a military hospital in 1965.
Rogers Continued To Become A Huge Star
Amid all the time he spent growing and loving his family, Roy Rogers continued to thrive in his career as well. Outside of his films, Rogers made plenty of public appearances as well but all of the money from those ventures mostly went to Republic Pictures.
In 1940, Rogers initiated a clause in his contract that granted him the rights to his likeness, his voice, and his name for merchandise. Rogers grew into such a big star that he had his own action figures, cowboy adventure novels, playsets, and even a Dell comic strip written about him.
Rogers’ kids grew up in a wonderful household but you won’t believe what got in between him and his son Dusty.
The Roy Rogers Show Became A Hit
Roy Rogers eventually had his own show, The Roy Rogers Show. It debuted on December 30, 1951, and featured Rogers as a ranch owner in Mineral City. Dale Evans portrayed the proprietress of the town cafe and hotel. Pat Brady was cast as Roy’s sidekick. Of course, Trigger was another star of the show, as well as the Rogers’ German Shepherd named Bullet the Wonder Dog.
The show was one of the most popular of its time. It aired on NBC for 100 episodes across six seasons before coming to an end on June 9, 1957.
Roy Rogers Didn’t Stop Working
After his show went off the air, Roy Rogers continued to work in Hollywood. In 1962, he and his wife starred in The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, a comedy and variety program that unfortunately couldn’t compete with The Jackie Gleason Show that was airing at the same time. Their new show was canceled after just three months.
Still, Rogers continued to make cameo appearances as himself or other cowboy characters in shows like Wonder Woman and The Muppet Show. Rogers’ final motion picture was 1975’s Macintosh and T.J. filmed in Texas.
Growing Up With Roy Rogers
Growing up with famous parents comes with its own perks and pitfalls, but Rogers and Evans made a solid effort to raise their family as far away from Hollywood as possible. His son Dusty told People magazine, “We always moved away from the encroaching population because Dad liked his privacy. He wanted his kids raised on a ranch, where they could have horses and pigs and chickens and cows.”
Of course, things weren’t always perfect. By the time he finished high school, Dusty was in two movies and wanted to pursue acting, but his father wasn’t happy about it.
A Riff Between Father And Son
Instead of acting, Roy Rogers Sr. wanted Dusty to get a good job. “The job lasted about two weeks. My main task was to test the seams in napalm bombs. Finally, I quit. That really angered Dad. I got mad and left town with friends,” Dusty told People.
Dusty then went off and started his own life in Ohio but soon realized just how important Roy Rogers was to the world, outside of being his father. When he returned to Apple Valley with his family, Dusty made amends with his dad saying, “What really worries me, Dad, is I’m afraid you’re gonna die and I won’t have a chance to tell you that I really love you.”
Soon, it would be Dusty who had to make a very difficult decision…
Trigger Passed Away In 1965
Trigger the horse obviously lived a fruitful life with a successful Hollywood career but even that had to end some time. Trigger sadly passed away in 1965 at the Rogers’ ranch in Apple Valley, California. To let Trigger’s memory live on, Rogers had him preserved and mounted by Bischoff’s Taxidermy.
Two years later, Rogers opened the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Apple Valley. Trigger was put on display there where fans could appreciate and mourn the talented stallion. But many years down the road, Trigger would eventually lose his new permanent home.
The Rogers Family Animals Lived On
Trigger wasn’t the only Rogers’ family animal that lived on display at the museum. Bullet the Wonder Dog passed away in 1957, so Rogers decided to have him preserved and put on display as well. Another family animal that made it to the museum was Evans’ buckskin Quarter Horse named Buttermilk, who passed away in 1972.
The upkeep of these preserved animals was just as laborious as when they were alive. Caretakers had to consistently brush the animals’ hides and clean the glass eyes. But that didn’t last long when the museum was forced to shut down.
The Museum Relocated To Missouri
The Rogers’ family moved their museum from its original location in Apple Valley to the nearby city of Victorville, California in 1976. For many years, the museum in Victorville attracted many visitors who loved to revel in the nostalgia of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Westerns they grew up with on the big and small screens.
But in 2003, the museum was relocated to Branson, Missouri. After Rogers and Evans passed away, the IRS levied a high tax on their estate. Their children were forced to move the museum to a more “touristy” area, hoping that a more steady profit would keep its doors open.
The Museum Was Forced To Shutter Its Doors
Unfortunately, the move to Missouri wasn’t a smart one. There were plenty of honky tonks and other tourist attractions in Branson that The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum failed to keep up with and eventually, the Rogers children decided it was time to shut it down.
“This situation is one I have not wanted to happen. The decision to close the museum has come after two years of steady decline in visitors. We cannot continue to accumulate debt to keep the doors open,” Roy “Dusty” Rogers, Jr. said in a statement.
He Has A Restaurant Chain Named After Him
There’s a Roy Rogers restaurant chain that’s been serving up fried chicken, burgers, and roast beef sandwiches since 1968. Rogers has no affiliation with the chain, but he did license his moniker for the fast food franchise.
The iconic actor also has a drink named after him but you won’t be finding any alcohol in it. It’s a mocktail that has Coca-Cola and grenadine syrup and is finished off with a maraschino cherry.
Roy Rogers Couldn’t Bury His Horse
As we’ve mentioned previously in this article, Rogers had a constant companion named Trigger. When Rogers talked about the death of his beloved palomino horse he said, “I just couldn’t think of burying old Trigger. Too many people loved him. We too took Trigger, Dale’s horse Buttermilk, and Trigger Junior and had them beautifully mounted. Trigger is up on hind legs and he looks just like he did the day before he died.”
Rogers mourned the death of his horse for the rest of his life. Trigger was his best friend and companion.
Find out the incredible work his Happy Trails Foundation is doing just ahead.
He Had Some Surprising Cameos
Roy Rogers was obviously best known for his appearances in basically every Western movie of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. But, he did make some surprising cameos and appeared in Wonder Woman, The Muppet Show, and The Fall Guy.
In 1990, he even became a modern country music video star when he appeared in the Randy Travis video “Heroes and Friends.” The video shows Rogers and Evans’ TV heyday, and Rogers makes a surprise appearance at the end of the clip.
Roy Was A Huge Advocate Of Adoption
We’ve talked about Rogers and Evans’ kids, but a lot of people don’t know that they were huge advocates of adoption. In fact, they adopted four children of their own and had a total of nine children in their blended family.
They were also the founders and operators of several children’s charities. Their big charity is the Happy Trails Children’s Foundation which was set up to combat child abuse which Roy and Dale have said is an epidemic.
The Happy Trails Foundation Is Doing God’s Work
The Happy Trails Foundation has a partnership with Trinity Youth Services and it operates two cottages with a total of 44 beds for kids between the ages of 10 and 16. The boys have all been victims of abuse and been removed from their homes by child protective services.
They stay in the cottages for about a year and go through some intensive treatments and therapy. They get a healthy dose of outdoor activities and athletics.
Was his movie career longevity unmatched? Find out very shortly.
The Kids End Up Staying Out Of The System
Upon graduation from the program, the kids have some consultations with professionals about their progress. Some of the kids are able to return to their homes while others go to a foster home or live with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings.
The Happy Trails Foundation is proud to say that their charity is working well because the youth they work with don’t end up coming back into the system. It’s exactly how Roy and Dale envisioned it.
Roy Is An Inspiration To Introverts Everywhere
It’s easy to think that in order to be in successful movies, you need to be outgoing and extroverted, but Roy Rogers shows that isn’t the case. In his Leonard Slye days, he was a very shy and sensitive young man who dropped out of night school in his teens because he didn’t get along with his classmates.
He actually missed his first radio performance because he was too afraid to talk. Eventually, he worked through his internal insecurities and only went on to become a massive movie star.
The Longevity Of His Career Is Unmatched
Roy Rogers was one of the biggest movie stars in the world for nearly five decades. He acted in at least two (sometimes as many as eight) movies every year from 1935 until 1951.
After he married Dale Evans he took fewer roles, but continued to make sporadic appearances in films and television through 1984. You’ll be hard pressed to find any actor who had been working (not to mention doing eight movies in a year) for as long as he was.
Rogers Was Inducted Into The Country Music Hall Of Fame
Rogers was twice elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, first as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1980 and then again as a soloist. It’s a big deal considering most people wouldn’t immediately say that Roy Rogers was a musician before an actor.
As of July 2013, he was the only person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame twice. In 2001, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to him and his wife Dale.
Coming up, we dive into his box office rankings, and they’re pretty impressive.
He Was Married Three Times
While his name will forever be linked to his third wife, Dale Evans, Rogers did have two other marriages in the past. His first marriage was in 1933 to Lucile Ascolese, but it ended very quickly as they disagreed on some very basic stuff.
His second marriage was to Arline Wilkins, and the couple had two children together. Arline died in 1946 after the birth of their son which, as we mentioned earlier, opened the door for his marriage to Dale.
Trigger’s Movie Career Began Without Roy
We’d love to say that Trigger’s talent was only found by Roy and Roy alone, but that’s not the case. As we mentioned earlier, Trigger began life as “Golden Cloud” and actually first started in the 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood.
He was ridden by actress Olivia de Havilland, who played Maid Marian. It was only after Golden Cloud’s performance in that movie that he was offered as Roy’s movie mount. Trigger would go onto star alongside Roy in almost ninety movies.
His Box Office Rankings Are Quite Stunning
Let’s take this year by year, and go from 1942. During that time he was the second most popular Western star following Gene Autry. By 1943 he ranked number one in the box office ranking.
In 1944, he maintained his fame in the Western community and shot up to the 24th most popular star in the U.S. By 1946 he became the 10th most popular star in the U.S., which was his highest ranking. By 1952 he was still the most popular Western star for the tenth year in a row.
A Deeper Dive Into His Music
We’ve talked about his music career a little bit, but let’s dive into the numbers more thoroughly. His first hit was “A Little White Cross on the Hill” which charted at number seven in U.S. Country.
His second single, “My Chickashay Gal” was his most popular song which charted at number four on the U.S. Country charts. His first song to be a success in another country was “Lovenworth” in 1971 which charted at number 12 on the U.S. charts and number 33 in Canada.
We start to find out who Roger’s wife is and she’s quite impressive.
Who Was Dale Evans?
Dale Evans was actually born with the name Lucille Wood Smith but changed her name to Dale Evans after a divorce. That prompted her to start investing in her own music career.
It’s been said already, but she married Roy Rogers on New Year’s Eve in 1947 at the Flying L Ranch in Davis, Oklahoma. It was her fourth marriage at the time, but by far her (and his) most successful. The two were a great team on-and-off the screen.
She Was Inspired By The Death Of Her Daughter
Together, Dale and Roy only had one biological child together, Robin Elizabeth, who died of complications of Down Syndrome shortly before her second birthday. Her life was the main inspiration for Evans to write her bestseller, Angel Unaware.
Evans was one of the most influential people in changing public perceptions of children with developmental disabilities and served as a role model for many parents during that time. She would go on to write many religious and inspirational books.
Evans Always Fell Back On Her Christianity
From 1951-1957, Evans and Rogers starred in the highly successful television series The Roy Rogers Show, in which they continued their cowboy and cowgirl roles. In addition to the success she saw on TV, she also had a lot of success on the big screen too.
She was in more than 30 films and featured on 200 songs. She wrote the very well-known song “Happy Trails.” She was a devout Christian and would always preach the word of the Lord when people asked her for guidance.
She Started Out In Radio
After beginning her career singing at the radio station where she was employed as a secretary, she began to get gigs and screenings from important companies. She eventually got a contract with 20th Century Fox studios and gained a lot of exposure on the radio as a featured singer for the Edgar/Charlie McCarthy show.
The studio promoted her as the unmarried supporter of her teenage “brother” Tommy (actually her son Tom Fox, Jr). This deception continued through her divorce from her second husband and her development as a cowgirl co-star to Roy Rogers at Republic Studios.
Evans Loved Public Speaking
One of the most memorable moments of Dale Evans’ life was when she was picked to speak in 1964 at a “Project Prayer” rally attended by 2,500 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The gathering, which was hosted by actor Anthony Eisley, sought to flood the U.S. Congress with letters in support of mandatory school prayer.
Evans recorded several solo albums of religious music. During the 1980s, the couple introduced their films weekly on the former The Nashville Network.
How She’ll Be Remembered
She’ll be remembered for her contribution to radio. Dale has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for what she was able to do for radio. A few years later, in 1976, she received her second star for her contribution to the TV industry.
In 1976 as well, she was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma. In 1995, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.
Their Deaths Were Very Similar
Dale Evans and Roy Rogers died the same way, just a few years apart from each other. Rogers died in 1998 from congestive heart failure, and in 2001 Evans followed suit. She is interred at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley, right next to her husband Roy.
Everyone said that it was kind of like the Western “Johnny and June” situation. Evans was heartbroken for three years straight after her best-friend and husband passed away.