Monday, December 22, 2008
A Holiday Visit With Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the Double R Bar Ranch
Robin's note: Earlier this month, I introduced you to a friend of mine, Steve Latshaw, who lives in Los Angeles and makes his living writing for the movies. We've been exchanging emails lately about how much we love (and miss) heros like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. It all led to Steve's latest guest blog ...
Roy, Dale, and Me by Steve Latshaw
When I was about three years old, I remember two TV shows vividly. Something called SKY KING, about a cowboy who flew a plane, and THE ROY ROGERS SHOW, also about a cowboy. See a recurring theme here? This was 1962 and it was still all about Westerns on TV, particularly on Saturday mornings when the folks were still asleep. And it was safe for them to sleep while I was downstairs watching this kind of TV. The images were crisp black and white. And so were the morals of the stories, good vs. evil, bad vs. good, and good will never let you down. Another famous movie and TV cowboy, Gene Autry, once said he felt like he’d been babysitter for a generation of American kids. More than one, pardner. I recently looked at my old baby book. By the fall of 1963, I had listed Roy Rogers as my biggest hero. Right under my Dad. And just above President Kennedy.
Roy Rogers had been the biggest cowboy star in movie history from the 1940s to the early 1950s. Roy had originally been brought in by Republic Pictures as a replacement for Gene Autry, in 1938, during a contract dispute. By 1943, thanks in part to a famous cover story in Life Magazine; the whole world was calling Roy “King of the Cowboys.” And Roy came by it honestly. A fine singer, he formed The Sons of the Pioneers with pal Bob Nolan, sang on their biggest hits like “Cool Water” and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and kept them employed for years after the hits stopped coming. He cherished his family and his children, loved to hunt, fish and garden, didn’t drink and his favorite dish was a plate of bacon and eggs. He was truly that guy you saw on screen, with his only vice, apparently, a passion for an occasional smoke.
By 1944 he was co-starring with Dale Evans in their first film together, COWBOY & THE SENIORITA. Within a few years, after the tragic death of Roy’s first wife, Dale became his second. Soon, they were both turning into surrogate parents for all of us, forever and always. And there they were, year after year, in the movies and on TV, always a reassuring presence. By the time I first met them, in 1962, courtesy of our black & white RCA, their television series had been off network TV for five years. But it was still hot in reruns and I got rapidly hooked on the whole cast: Roy, fast as ever on that beautiful palomino Trigger, Dale with that tiny little cowboy hat on Buttermilk, Bullet the dog, and sidekick Pat Brady, so popular and funny he got his own hat named after him. (Ask for a “Pat Brady” or “Shady Brady” hat today at your local Western store: straw, high brims, kinda mashed down, like someone took it off your head and hit you with it). And Pat, of course, drove that jeep “Nellybelle.” Man, oh man, I loved that jeep.
So Roy and Dale kept the faith, year after year, popping up all the time on Hollywood Palace or The Dean Martin Show. Roy had a new hit record in 1975--"Hoppy, Gene & Me”--and they opened a chain of restaurants in the late 70s (the biscuits and chicken are out of this world--I found a Roy Rogers Restaurant earlier this year in New Jersey while on a trip to visit my son at his Coast Guard Base). In the 80s they had their own show on The Nashville Network, hosting their old movies and interviewing fellow western stars. And by God, he’d kept his old costumes and still fit them, sometimes he even wore the same shirt he’d worn in the movie they were showing. In the 90s another comeback of sorts, in a famous Tribute LP, gathering together the likes of Randy Travis and Clint Black (who looks like Roy, right down to the eyes).
Personally, Roy and Dale endured happiness and heartbreak, adopting children, losing some to accident or natural causes, and rediscovering their faith. Dale was always an outspoken guest of Christian TV, plain speaking, having little patience for money hungry “celebrity” TV evangelists like Jim Bakker. She wrote books and toured and appeared on TV, teaching what she knew the best way she knew it. Her books inspired quite a few new generations. Roy, on the other hand, practiced his faith the best way he knew, and lived as the hero we all knew he was: enjoying life and the land and his family, showing up on TV when he had to or whenever Dale called, bowling with the local league, fishing some river or hunting some patch of woods the rest of the time, more often than not with his ever expanding family of kids, grandkids and great grandkids.
But the best darned thing Roy and Dale ever did for us was building that Museum of theirs down in Victorville. Kids of all ages could come from all over the world and relive Roy and Dale’s lives and with them, the history and spirit of everything good about America. It was a quiet, place, surrounded by fort walls, with pictures and guns and costumes and memorabilia and cars (Nellybelle!) and even Trigger, Bullet and Buttermilk, all stuffed for us to see and enjoy like it was still 1962. “What else was I going to do,” asked Roy? “Feed ‘em to the worms?”
And Roy himself would drive down to the museum, every day, sneaking in the back unannounced. A visitor might find himself suddenly standing next to Roy. Grown men would cry. One large, middle-aged fan even picked Roy up like a Teddy Bear, crying like a baby, hardly believing his good fortune. He put Roy down quickly after realizing what he’d done. Roy grinned ear to ear and welcomed the man’s family to the museum with a personal tour.
But time marches on. Troubled for years with a bad heart, Roy passed away in 1998. Dale followed in 2001. The family announced that the Museum, at least in Victorville, would have to close. It seemed as if the dastardly land grabbers were going to win after all these years. Inheritance taxes were such in California that over half the family’s hard-earned assets were about to disappear forever. They would be forced to sell the museum. They planned on pulling up stakes, leaving the Apple Valley with its streets named for Roy and Dale, and moving the entire collection to Branson, Missouri. A perfect fit, really. The last bastion of the Heartland of America.
About two weeks before the Victorville Museum closed for good I visited for one last time. As I entered the old wooden fort the years disappeared… I was again that young kid watching Roy and Dale and Pat and Nellybelle on TV. I blinked again and it was bright and early some Saturday Morning when the world was young and the man from Massachusetts was our beloved President. Quietly, almost solemnly, I walked through the glass cases of toys and memorabilia to the automobile section beyond.
There it was, parked in front of a large photo of Pat Brady... that old jeep Nellybelle. And there I stood, at the age of 43, hunched over the railing, clenching it tight, staring down at that tired hunk of metal and rubber and heart, tears streaming down my cheeks. I was seeing again a part of my childhood and knowing it would soon be gone from my life forever, at least gone from California.
This was part and parcel of who I was. Who I’d always be. And as I would soon discover, part of the raw, rich clay of what I was privileged to do for a living.
A year or so later I finally got to write my own Roy Rogers movie, a picture called AMERICAN BLACK BEAUTY, starring Dean Stockwell and filmed out near Kentucky Farms (just past Lake Sherwood), where Roy and Company shot MY PAL TRIGGER back in 1947. We had a short schedule, much like those late 40s Roy & Dale pictures and, just like those days, we had Western gear and horses and a good family story to play with. I even got to dress in Western garb and play a part in the film, as "Cookie" (named for Roy’s late 40s sidekick Andy Devine), showing an old B western on 16mm for some local farm families. Character actor Peter Jason, who played the Roy Barcroft-style mayor in the piece, sent my script to his friend, award-winning actor Stacy Keach for his opinion. Keach read it and told Jason to do it. He said it was one of the sweetest scripts he'd seen... no real bad guys bad in it and everyone gets to redeem themselves in the end. Like life should be. Well, that was my intent. Roy and Dale taught me that. Peter Jason grinned. He got it.
Dean Stockwell got it, too. Early in the shoot I was talking to one of the actors on set about a place called "The Hitching Post," a movie theater in the 40s and 50s that specialized in westerns. I had mentioned it in the script. Dean Stockwell whirled on me, fixing me with those steely eyes of his that I remembered from BLUE VELVET and MARRIED TO THE MOB and QUANTUM LEAP and even going back to the old movie KIM. He growled "What the hell do you know about the Hitching Post Theater?" I told him I was a fan of old Westerns. His face softened and I could tell this 68 year old, tough-as-nails actor, who'd had a tough go as a child star back in the1940s, was remembering good times past. I knew it when he smiled and started talking about going to the Hitching Post and seeing his heroes... Wild Bill Elliott... Johnny Mack Brown... and Roy Rogers, week after week.
A few months after we made that picture I returned again to Victorville. I'd stayed the weekend down in Pioneertown, another old movie location near Palm Springs, chasing up more B western ghosts. I had decided to return to LA the back way, through Lucerne Valley up to Apple Valley. When I got to Victorville, I took the turn for the museum, driving down the street named after Roy Rogers, wondering if maybe someone had turned that old Fort into a bowling alley or bar or something.
But all I found was a circular, curbed piece of property, vacant, empty, covered with dirt. You could drive across it, drive across all that was left of a lifetime of memories.
And all to show for those memories were a couple of tumbling tumbleweeds blowing gently in the wind. I said my goodbyes that day.
And I vowed to visit Branson, Missouri, very soon. For a time, the Roy Rogers Museum flourished there, perfectly set-up in the heartland of America. But times are tough and it looks like the old Double R Bar Ranch is in trouble again. The B movie villains are at the door and the Rogers family is fighting hard to keep the doors open. As Gabby Hayes said, in countless westerns, “Roy’s in trouble! We gotta help!”
This time we have to. I know I will. In part two I’ll have an interview with Roy’s grandson Dustin explaining just what the family is up against and how we all can help.
But in the meantime I want to leave you with a favorite memory of mine. It seems that one of Roy’s favorite movies was Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES. Dale hated it, of course, but Roy just loved it.
Especially that scene where Slim Pickens and his men are eating beans--too many beans--around the campfire.
That’s what always made Roy different from all the other movie cowboys. He was a kid, just like the rest of us.
And he was cool.