Note: Links with green underlines are shopping links and will open in a new window
Roy Rogers personified America’s quintessential good-guy cowboy hero. From the late 1930s to the late 1950s Roy’s presence and magical singing voice touched us from movie screens, television screens, radio and records, and in countless personal appearances all over the country. In 1943 he was declared “King Of The Cowboys,” a grand title that fit him effortlessly. Decked out in some of the wildest, most flamboyant cowboy garb ever seen and mounted on his golden palomino stallion Trigger, he was known for more than his beautiful singing voice and acting career: Roy Rogers, the man, was known for his deep compassion. His energy for showing kindness seemed to be endless as he put his compassion into action with a never-ending stream of visits to children’s hospitals, shelters, and meetings with individual kids that sorely needed to meet their hero. Roy Rogers galloped into our hearts as a movie cowboy but stayed there for being a real-life hero, a man we knew we could count on to do what was right.
Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, at his family’s home in a four-story brick tenement building at 412 Second Street. He was the third of four children, and the only boy, born to Andrew (“Andy”) Slye and Martha (“Mattie”) Slye (maiden name Womack). His father worked for the United States Shoe Company in Cincinnati, and his mother was a homemaker who had difficulty walking due to having had polio at age two.
Less than a year after Len was born the family moved onto a houseboat made of salvaged lumber and scrap materials made by Andy and his blind brother, Will. In July of 1912 “Andy’s Ark,” as the neighbors called it, left Cincinnati and moved down the Ohio River to Portsmouth, Ohio where Andy Slye had been born. Once in Portsmouth Andy worked at the local shoe factory while he and his family continued to live on the houseboat for the next four years. After Len, at age five, was taken to the local police station for sucking on the ice on an ice wagon, Andy and Mattie Slye moved their family onto dry land, making the move 12 miles outside of Portsmouth into the woods to a small group of farms and cabins called Duck Run.
While Mattie and the children lived on the farm at Duck Run Andy had to keep his job at the shoe factory at Portsmouth, only able to go home to his family every other weekend. This left Len, now age six, to learn a lot of things on his own. He began a series of what he would later describe as “figuring out things.” He figured out how to plant vegetables and how to plow behind a mule named Tom. He figured out how to hunt with slingshots and bows he made himself, and later with a .22 single-shot rifle his father gave him. He figured out how to raise chickens and pigs, and how to ride a mule named Barney, his best friend. When faced with an abusive teacher in his grade school, he figured out how to stand up for and defend himself. Although he couldn’t read music, he also figured out how to play the mandolin and guitar. When he was eleven years old his father gave him an ex-sulky racehorse named Babe as a Christmas present, and he figured out how to stay on her when she went as fast as she could go, and how to teach her tricks. His early years of “figuring out things” hardly seemed noteworthy at the time, but they taught Len basic skills that would make him famous and loved worldwide years later.
Both Andy and Mattie Slye were musical, and music was a common pastime for the Slye family while living in Duck Run. The four Slye children and their parents often sang together, with Andy playing the mandolin and Mattie on the guitar. Len could play the mandolin and guitar as well as a little clarinet, and sing exceptionally well. He also became quite good at calling square dances for small, local get-togethers, and learned to yodel. Finances remained hard on the Slye family during their years at Duck Run, and Len remembered the time there with a mixture of weariness for the constant hard work and struggles with never enough money, and fondness for the times with his animal friends and his family. After Len graduated the eighth grade at the small school in Duck Run, he attended high school as a freshman and sophomore in McDermott, Ohio, about four miles away.
Hard financial times continued to plague the Slye family. When Len was seventeen he quit high school and the family moved back to Cincinnati where he and his father both went to work for the United States Shoe Company, the same factory his father had worked for earlier. Len worked in the insole department, making about $25.00 a week. To make his mother happy he began going to high school at night but one evening, exhausted, he fell asleep at his desk and didn’t wake up until after everyone else had gone and the room was empty. He quit high school again and this time never returned.
By now Len’s oldest sister, Mary, had married and moved to California. As Len and Andy became depressed from living in a large city and working in a factory, Mary sent them letters from sunny California. Len began to dream about what wonderful possibilities there could be for him and his family out West, and In June of 1930, when he was 18 years old, he talked his parents into making the trip. Len and his folks combined their money, loaded up their 1923 Dodge, and headed West to see Mary and to look around California to “see what’s there.” They towed a junker car behind them the entire way to use for parts when their Dodge broke down, and pulled off of Route 66 at night to sleep outside on blankets.
Once in California, Mary’s husband got Andy and Len jobs driving gravel trucks for a construction company. Len would say later that it was hard, sweaty work but that he liked it far better than the shoe factory. It felt like a wonderful adventure to him just being there, and he loved working outdoors in the California sun. After four months, though, his father wanted to return to Cincinnati and Len returned with his parents. The old depression quickly settled in, however. Later the same year when Mary’s father-in-law decided to head to California, Len went along with him, this time to stay. Shortly thereafter his parents sold the farm in Duck Run and followed Mary and Len out West.
Len’s second time in California began much like the first. He got his old job back driving a gravel truck and he felt happy and at home in California. Only a few weeks after he got his job back, however, the construction company he worked for went bankrupt. Len, his father, and his cousin Stanley Slye became migrant fruit pickers, getting paid by the bushel and living in migrant camps following the harvests. Money and food were both scarce, and the Slye’s spent most of their time tired and hungry. On one occasion Len was able to kill a rabbit with a slingshot for supper, but the aroma of the frying rabbit brought up so many hungry children from throughout the camp that the Slyes, hungry themselves, gave the rabbit to the children. Afterward Andy and Stanley played their guitars for the kids while Len sang.
When working as migratory fruit pickers proved to be futile for the Slyes, Andy headed for Los Angeles to apply for a job at yet another shoe factory. Len, however, decided to pursue a career as a singer. He briefly teamed with his cousin Stanley, billing themselves as the Slye Brothers but the duo went nowhere quickly. Next he joined up with Uncle Tom Murray’s Hollywood Hillbillies but Uncle Tom Murray’s habit of not paying him caused him to quickly leave. At his sister Mary’s persistence he then went to perform on a midnight amateur show for KMCS radio in Inglewood, California. He nearly choked with stage fright, but once again with Mary’s insistence he sang what he described as “some old hillbilly songs” and got out of there fast.
The day after Len sang on the amateur radio show he got a call at a payphone near where he was staying from a man who was manager for a group called the Rocky Mountaineers. The Rocky Mountaineers were an instrumental group that needed a singer, and the man wanted Len to sing with them on a radio station in Long Beach. Even though the job wouldn’t pay – the group just hoped the exposure would lead to paying jobs – Len was dying to sing and took the offer. He encouraged them to recruit another singer for the harmonies, so they placed an ad in the newspaper. A lifeguard named Bob Nolan, who was a superb singer and aspiring songwriter, showed up at the door and was brought on board. Soon afterwards another singer, Bill Nichols, joined the group, and Len was pleased with their blended harmonies. The newly formed group was popular on the radio, but times were hard and no one could afford to pay them. After eight months of living mostly off of the food, shelter, and kindness provided by the banjo player and his wife, Bob Nolan left the group to become a caddy at the Bel Air Country Club.
After placing another ad in the newspaper Tim Spencer, another excellent singer, yodeler, and aspiring songwriter joined the starving group. They revamped and reworked the group several times, trying to get a big break, and changed the name to Benny Nawahi’s International Cowboys. While they continued to sing and play on the radio they still weren’t getting paid and success of any kind was completely elusive. In June of 1933, after continued changes with the group and more name changes, they began a tour of the Southwest as the O-Bar-O Cowboys. The tour turned out to be a miserable disappointment, and discouraged by no crowds, a constantly broken down car, and no money or food, different members left the group along the way. At one point Len borrowed a rifle and managed to hunt a “stringy jackrabbit” for one night’s supper, a hawk for the next evening’s meal, and a blackbird for the night after that.
At a radio station in Roswell, New Mexico the hungry young men talked about their food fantasies on the air and the station got a call from a female caller saying that if Len would sing “The Swiss Yodel” the next evening on the air she would bring the young men a lemon pie. Len stayed up all night practicing, and true to her word a local woman, along with her daughter, brought the group two homemade lemon pies after he sang the song on the radio. The woman introduced herself as Mrs. Wilkins, and her daughter as Arlene. Looking the young men over Mrs. Wilkins seemed to understand the hardships they were enduring and she invited them for a fried chicken dinner the next day, for which they all eagerly showed up. As it turned out Len was as much interested in Arlene as he was the food, and he later described his feelings for her as love at first sight.
After the O-Bar-O cowboys returned to Los Angeles from their disastrous tour what was left of the group split up. Many of them quit the music business all together, with Tim Spencer getting a job at a local Safeway. Len joined another singing group, Jack and His Texas Outlaws, but he was unhappy singing with them. Len, who had begun exchanging letters with Arlene back in Roswell every chance he got, now focused his dreams on forming another new singing group. He talked Bob Nolan into leaving his job as a golf caddy, then talked Tim Spencer into leaving his job at Safeway. Together, the three of them made another try at making a living as singers and musicians. It was 1933, and they called themselves the Pioneer Trio.
The Pioneer Trio quickly got a lot of radio work with no pay, working in exchange for getting to advertise over the radio they were available for hire. They had a magical three-part harmony accompanied by instrumentals and sometimes yodeling. A local newspaper columnist, Bernie Milligan, took a liking to the group and began to frequently mention them in his column. They began to get paying jobs, and a radio station hired them for actual money: $35.00 a week for each of them.
In early 1934, while preparing for a radio performance, radio announcer Harry Hall called the group Sons of the Pioneers instead of The Pioneer Trio. He said that the young men looked too young – Len was only 22 at the time – to be pioneers themselves. The new name stuck, and the Sons of the Pioneers, with their blend of beautiful harmonies, found success with jobs that actually paid. They not only had successful radio and personal appearances, in August of 1934, after adding Hugh Farr (an accomplished fiddle player) to the group, they made their first recordings. They sang such classics as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (written by group member Bob Nolan) and “Moonlight On The Prairie” (written by M.K. Jerome, Joan Jasmyn, Tim Spencer, and Bob Nolan). They got a penny for every record they sold.
The Sons Of The Pioneers singing success soon led to their appearances in numerous movies, including four of Gene Autry‘s early films. In 1936 they were invited to perform at the Texas Centennial, and going from California to Texas Len stopped off at Roswell, New Mexico long enough to marry Arlene in her parents living room.
Above image embedded from Getty Images. The caption at the right says: Roy Rogers with His Wife Arlene & Daughter Cheryle Darlene 1944. Note: To the best of our knowledge the spelling of the daughter’s name is “Cheryl.”
In early 1937 The Sons Of The Pioneers signed a deal to appear in a number of movies for Columbia Pictures. They appeared only in brief interludes or as voices in the background, but Len, using the name Dick Weston, also got a few small parts on his own. But he wanted more. He did a screen test for Universal hoping to get bigger and better parts, but they turned him down because he looked too young. When he heard that Republic Pictures was holding auditions for a new singing cowboy, he sneaked through the gate of the studio hoping to get an audition. Just as he got inside a guard spotted him and was about to throw him out when the producer for the film happened to walk by. Recognizing Len as one of the Sons Of The Pioneers, he invited him to stay and audition. When the audition went well he was invited back the following day for a screen test. The screen test went well, too, and on October 13, 1937, for $75.00 per week salary, Leonard Slye got a seven-year deal to became a contract player with Republic Pictures.
Leonard Slye had to make a number of adjustments to his life after signing with Republic Pictures. Since the Sons Of The Pioneers had just signed a contract with rival Columbia Pictures to appear in a series of B-Westerns, Len had to officially leave the group in order to take the movie deal with Republic (he remained close to the group, however, and continued to perform with them frequently). The studio also wanted some changes in his physical appearance: Since leading men were supposed to be big and strong, they had him do a hundred handstands a day to build up the muscles in his upper chest and shoulders. They also thought his eyes were too squinty and had him use drops in them to relax his eye muscles and dilate his pupils, a practice that was stopped after people wrote in complaining about the new look.
But the biggest change the studio wanted was his name. In early 1938 the studio changed Len’s onscreen name from Dick Weston to Roy Rogers. The last name “Rogers” was chosen by the studio because of the popularity of the recently deceased Will Rogers. When one of the studio executives suggested using “Leroy” as a first name, Len refused. While growing up he had known a kid that he didn’t like with that name and he didn’t want it assigned to him. After a little consideration Len suggested just shortening “Leroy” to “Roy,” and the studio liked it.
Roy Rogers started slowly with Republic Pictures. He first appeared in small roles in “Wild Horse Rodeo” and in “The Old Barn Dance” starring Gene Autry, the biggest singing cowboy of the time. When Mr. Autry became embroiled in contract negotiations with the studio they reassigned a leading role originally intended for him to the newly renamed Roy Rogers. The starring part was for a Western named “Washington Cowboy.”
For his new role as a cowboy leading man, Roy had to choose a horse. Several horses were brought to him to try out, including a golden palomino stallion named Golden Cloud. When Roy Rogers first rode Golden Cloud it was love at first ride. The young actor was later quoted as saying, “I got on him and rode him 100 yards and never looked at another horse.
Not long afterwards while working on the set a character actor named Smiley Burnette commented “Roy, as quick as that horse of yours is, you ought to call him Trigger.” Roy liked the suggestion so much he quickly changed the horse’s name to Trigger. Before “Washington Cowboy” was released its name was changed also, to “Under Western Stars,” and it officially launched the duo of Roy Rogers and Trigger.
“Under Western Stars” was a big success for Republic Pictures, and Roy Rogers and Trigger began making a long series of highly successful Westerns together. While Roy played both good and bad guys in his early movies he quickly became best known as the good-guy cowboy hero. There was a lot of Western action in his movies, and even though there were always bad guys that needed to be caught the overall mood in his movies was never too scary, and in fact was often downright lighthearted. Roy’s best known, most frequent characters were of a man that was slow to anger, quick on the draw, and just as quick to forgive. Even though there were often plenty of cars around he preferred to ride his faithful horse Trigger, which he did like the daring and gifted athlete that he was. With twinkling eyes Roy would often tease his leading ladies with an ornery good nature, and in every movie he managed to find several good excuses to break into song. As soon as their contract was up with Columbia Pictures, Roy brought the Sons Of The Pioneers on board with him at Republic Pictures, and they joined their friend in singing and riding their way through a long list of successful Westerns. Roy became known for his spectacular Hollywood-style Western clothes, guns, holsters, and hats, and made sure his beloved Trigger was outfitted just as spectacularly as he was.
Trigger galloped along with Roy into cinematic super stardom, dazzling audiences with his speed, beauty and brains, always showing up at just the right time to help his partner Roy. Together, Roy and Trigger may have always stood for what was right but they never let that get in the way of a lot of good, heart-pumping action. In movie after movie Roy and Trigger never failed to thrill audiences with their daring cowboy-and-faithful-horse adventures.
Roy’s star continued to rise, and 1943 became the year the little boy from Duck Run, Ohio officially changed from an up-and-comer worth keeping an eye on to a full-blown Hollywood star. In that year Republic Pictures began billing him as “King Of The Cowboys,” a daring title considering all the other movie cowboys around at the time. The crown, though, was naturally and rightfully Roy’s. Crowds thronged to see his movies and personal appearances, and theatre owners elected him their number one Western star. “Life” magazine put him on its cover for their July issue, comfortably seated on a rearing Trigger, whom he had purchased for his own. Part of the accompanying article in “Life” read: “He is purity rampant. He never drinks, never smokes, never shoots pool, never spits……He always wins the girl though he doesn’t get to kiss her. He kisses his horse. His immense public would have him no other way.”
In addition to his movies Roy kept a grueling schedule of personal appearances. He appeared at theaters, in arena shows, at rodeos and parades, and more. He also made endless visits to children in hospitals and shelters all over the country, voluntarily devoting much of his personal time in the hopes that the “King Of The Cowboys” could help the spirits of his weakest fans. Every chance he got when making personal appearances Roy placed Trigger outside of the arena or building before the show so that all the kids could see him, especially the ones that couldn’t afford to buy a ticket.
In 1942 Roy and his wife Arlene had adopted a baby girl named Cheryl Darlene. In 1943 they added another girl to the family when Arlene gave birth to daughter Linda Lou. Roy Rogers had a loving, growing family. He was on top of Trigger and together they were on the top of the world.