Born Leonard Franklin Slye,November 5, 1911 in Cincinnati, OH; died July 6, 1998; son of Andy and Mattie; married Arlene Wilkins, June 14, 1936 (died November of 1946); Dale Evans (born Frances Octavia Smith) at the Flying L Ranch in Davis, OK December 31, 1947; children:(with Arlene) Cheryl Darlene Barnett, Linda Lou Johnson, Roy "Dusty" Rogers, Jr., (with Dale Evans) Tom Fox, Robin Elizabeth, (died 1952), John David (Sandy) Rogers (died 1965), Dodie Sailors, Marion Fleming Swift, Debbie Rogers (died 1964); 15 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren; celebrated golden anniversary, 1997.
Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, was the stage appellation and legal name of the former Leonard Slye, one of the most celebrated singing cowboy personalities in the history of Hollywood. In 1947 he married his co-star, Dale Evans, and together the couple created an enduring legend of American, both through their professional and private lives. The sound of Rogers and Evans crooning their popular theme song, "Happy Trails," has brought a tear to the eyes of generations of Americans.
Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911 at 412 Second Street in Cincinnati, Ohio. Slye (Rogers) was the son of Andy and Mattie Slye and the only boy among the couple's four children. He lived with his family on a houseboat in Portsmouth for several years, and eventually the Slye family moved to a farm in Duck Run. The boy who would become Roy Rogers had a great empathy for other people and their problems and a strong respect for life and a desire to help his fellow man. As a youngster he aspired to be a doctor, but he never did very well in school, in part because he was burdened with the unending chores of maintaining the Slye family farm, because his father worked in a shoe factory all day to make ends meet. Rogers, who never finished high school, was fully-grown when the family, along with cousin Stanley Slye, moved to California in search of better economic conditions. The frustrating endeavor proved fruitless, and the Slye family ended up working as migrant farm labor.
During that difficult time, the Slye family found solace in the evenings around a campfire, singing songs and strumming their instruments, a guitar and two mandolins, around a campfire. Eventually Rogers decided to pursue a career as a professional musician. He started by playing and singing with groups too numerous to mention, in general without pay, although he hoped to be heard by the right ears.
The first tangible glimmer of hope came in the mid-1930s when Rogers' Pioneer Trio was heard on the radio and labeled among the "Best Bets of the Day" by Los Angeles Examiner columnist Bernie Milligan. That notation led to a steady job singing for a local radio station, and the Pioneer Trio eventually added more instruments and musicians, and renamed themselves Sons of the Pioneers. Rogers remembered in his memoir, Happy Trails, among his earliest "gigs" was a performance with the well-loved humorist Will Rogers in San Bernardino, California. The engagement turned out to be Will Rogers's last before his untimely death in a plane crash in 1935. Although Leonard Slye adopted the stage name Dick Weston in 1937, it was from Will Rogers's name that he derived the popular identity of Roy Rogers which ultimately brought him fame. The name of "Roy Rogers" was coined by studio executives at Republic Pictures Inc. in the late 1930s. The Roy Rogers name was derived as a combination of the late Will Rogers's surname preceded by a Westernized version of "Roi," the French word for king. The trademark, "King of the Cowboys" however came some time later. Along with the name change, Republic Pictures invented a legendary past for the singing cowboy character Roy Rogers.
Over and over Rogers was cast in movie scripts as a cow hand named Roy Rogers. A fictional biography issued by the movie studio maintained that Roy Rogers was born on a cattle ranch in Wyoming and worked as a ranch hand before he was discovered by movie producers in California. The concept was a new approach by Hollywood, in that the actor/singer Roy Rogers always played "himself" in the form of the legendary character conceived by the studio. Leonard Slye changed his name legally to Roy Rogers in 1942. A movie called "King of the Cowboys" and starring Roy Rogers was released in 1943, which sealed his new title and reputation. Roy Rogers, according to studio legend, rode a magnificent palomino horse named Trigger, and the studio rented such an animal from a nearby stable. Roy Rogers the actor purchased the horse Trigger from the stable in order to work more closely with the magnificent steed. The famous horse was a lifelong friend to Rogers.
In 1944 the studio teamed Rogers with a new heroine and co-star named Frances Octavia Smith, who became known as Dale. His first wife, Arlene Wilkins, whom he married in 1936, died from complications following the birth of their son, Roy Rogers Jr., in 1946. In all, the couple made 35 films together and eventually married in 1947. Their partnership on and off the screen is a legend of Hollywood history. The couple's theme song, "Happy Trails," excites great nostalgia among generations of Roy Rogers's fans.
The Roy Rogers screen image evoked a classic American hero. Between 1943-54, Rogers was the foremost cowboy movie star in terms of box office draw. Rogers, the man, contributed to the persona of the on-screen fictional character as the quintessential "good guy," a true humanitarian. Rogers and Dale Evans along with their assorted sidekicks, Gabby Hayes and later Pat Brady (on the television show) spent all of their time righting wrongs. In a gun battle Rogers never killed his opponent, instead he would shoot the weapon from an assailant's hand.
Together Roy Rogers and Dale Evans raised the three children from his former marriage, plus Dale Evans own son, and four children adopted after their marriage. The couple also had a child of their own, who died in infancy. Their children, as much as possible, were raised on ranches away from public view. Ultimately the family settled on a ranch in Apple Valley. Two of the Rogers children were killed in tragic accidents.
Rogers and Evans established the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in 1965. The museum, a non-profit organization, is located in Victorville, California and houses the memorabilia of the many years of their professional liaison. When Rogers's palomino, Trigger, died in 1965 at age 33, the horse's body was preserved by a taxidermist and placed on display at the museum. "Trigger" is kept saddled and receives a vacuum cleaning regularly.
Off screen Roy Rogers easily earned a reputation as one of the most caring celebrities of his time. Altogether Rogers adopted six children. Some of the children suffered emotional or developmental disabilities including Robin Rogers, who was born with Down's syndrome in 1950 and died days before her second birthday. She was the natural daughter of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Rogers was conscientious to a fault about answering his overwhelming abundance of fan mail which flowed in from all over the world. In order to show his gratitude to the paying public, who held him in high esteem, he took personal responsibility to see that every piece of mail was answered. The studio refused to assist Rogers with the cost of postage for answering the fan mail, so Rogers footed the bill himself. The postage bills were overwhelming, given the immense popularity enjoyed by Roy Rogers.
After he retired from his movie career, Rogers spent a great deal of his time on his ranch and at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum where he habitually welcomed the public in appreciation of their support. It was said that tourists were frequently brought to tears at the nostalgia of Rogers's warm welcome at the museum. In 1991,Rogers recorded the Roy Rogers Tribute album with Emmylou Harris, Clint Black, Willie Nelson, and others. In 1994 he reunited briefly with the current Sons of the Pioneers in Tucson Arizona and sang together with them.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans celebrated their 50th (golden) wedding anniversary on December 31, 1947. Barely six months later, on July 6, 1998, Roy Rogers died in sleep at his home in Apple Valley.
by Gloria Cooksey
Roy Rogers's Career
Sons of the Pioneers (originally Pioneer Trio), 1930s; Republic Pictures as Roy Rogers the singing cowboy, 1938-1954; Roy Rogers Show and Dale Evans Show, 1951-58.
Roy Rogers's Awards
Inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, as a member of Sons of the Pioneers, 1980; Pioneer Award from Academy of Country Music, 1986; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, as solo aratist, 1988; Hollywood Walk of Fame, 4 stars: for radio, music, films, and television.
- Selected discography
- Roy Rogers Tribute (with Emmylou Harris, Clint Black, Willie Nelson, and others), 1991.
- Roy Rogers , MCA, 1992,
- The Country Side of Roy Rogers , Capitol.
- A Man From Duck Run , Capitol.
- With Carlton Stowers, The Story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans: Happy Trails , Word Books, Waco, 1979.
- Artists and Music , 18 July 1998.
- People , August 27, 1987, p. 66; July, 20 1998.