In 1911, Leonard Franklin Slye was born. He would grow up to become one of the most famous performers in American history. He is best known for his many “singing cowboy” westerns, with his horse Trigger and dog Bullet. He truly is the king of cowboys.
Over the course of his career, he starred in over 100 films, radio, and television shows and was a Western icon. His life wasn’t always easy, though. Keep reading to learn more about his personal struggles and triumphs.
He Was Bored So He Taught Himself To Sing
Roy Rogers was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up on a farm near Lucasville where he learned how to ride horses and care for all kinds of animals.
The Slye family didn’t have a radio, so they found ways to entertain themselves. Young Leonard Slye learned how to dance, sing, and play the mandolin to keep himself and his family entertained. These skills, along with his horsemanship, would later come in handy in Hollywood.
He Caught His Big Break At 19
Roy Rogers, then Leonard Slye, was already a working man by the time he was 19. He and his family moved out to California where he worked as a truck driver and a fruit picker. 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.
Leonard was shy initially, but eventually, he got more comfortable performing in front of a crowd.
His Own Band
Leonard loved playing with the Rocky Mountaineers, but he also enjoyed 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.
Radio announcers dubbed the band the Sons of the Pioneers because all of the members of the band were so young. The group was a hit across the U.S. with songs like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water.” People couldn’t get enough of their unique sound.
Turning To Acting
After performing in western bands for a while, Slye tried his hand at acting. He made his first film appearance in 1935 in a Western film, and eventually went on to a large supporting role under Gene Autry. Studios were looking for a singing cowboy, and Slye believed he was the man for the job. He auditioned for the part and made the cut.
Republic Pictures changed his name to Roy Rogers and he was assigned his first leading role in Under Western Stars.
When He First Met Trigger
Rogers’ horsemanship skills would come in handy in his new role as an all-star cowboy actor. While he was preparing for his first starring role, the studio lined up five rented “movie” horses for him to pick as his sidekick. Rogers was immediately drawn to a yellow-haired palomino stallion named Golden Cloud. Rogers actually bought the horse in 1943 and changed his name to Trigger.
Trigger was living and working in Hollywood before he met Rogers. He previously starred as Olivia de Havilland’s character’s horse in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
A Talented Animal
Trigger wasn’t an ordinary horse. He 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. Some say that this horse could even walk on his hind legs for up to 50 feet!
When news of Trigger’s abilities started to spread, people couldn’t get enough of this multi-talented horse. His only downfall is that he would always take a bow whenever he heard applause.
His First Love
In 1933, Rogers married a fan by the name of Lucile Ascolese, however, their marriage was short-lived. Later that year, Rogers met Grace Arline Wilkins in Roswell, New Mexico. After Rogers divorced Lucile in 1936, he and Grace got married.
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.
A New Era
Roy Rogers’ most famous romantic parter is Dale Evans, who he met in 1944. They were both working on the same movie when they met and fell in love. At the time, Evans was being groomed as a cowgirl co-star to Rogers at Republic Studios.
Evans had a son from a previous marriage. She eloped with a man when she was 14, but her first husband left her so she pursued a radio career. She was married and divorced two more times before she met Rogers.
Roy Rogers knew that Dale was the love of his life, so he proposed to her at a rodeo at the Chicago Stadium. They got married on New Year’s Eve of 1947 back at the ranch where they first met.
Evans gave birth to their first child together, a daughter who the couple named Robin Elizabeth. Robin had Down syndrome and sadly passed away due to complications with the mumps before she reached her second birthday.
Dedicated To Family
Evans wrote a book about Robin called Angel Unaware that inspired Americans to have open conversations about people with disabilities. People admired the way Roy Rogers and Dale Evans stayed committed to their daughter during her life.
After some time, Rogers and Evans decided to expand their family by adopting children. They adopted four children in total: Mimi, Dodie, Sandy, and Debbie. They had so much love to give and their family just kept getting stronger.
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.
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.
The Roy Rogers Show
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.
He Kept 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.
A Lasting Impression
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.
Dusty’s Disagreement With His Father
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.”
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 Rogers Museum
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.
When It All Closed Down
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.
A Roy Rogers Restaurant Chain
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.
He Couldn’t Bury Trigger
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.
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.
He Advocated For 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
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.
Getting Kids 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.
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.
A Long Lasting Career
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.
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.
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 Previous Movie Career
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.
Blessed At The Box Office
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.
Roy Rogers’ 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.
All About 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.
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.
A Devout Christian
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 Got Her Start 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.
A Fantastic Public Speaker
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.
A Lasting Legacy
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.
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.