Robin's note: in December we published a piece by screenwriter Steve Latshaw about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and the impact they've had on so many of us, from the time we were little cowboys and cowgirls. That piece put Steve in touch with the Rogers clan, and from them he learned of new trouble on the horizon for this American hero and his legacy. But I'll let him tell it, the way he told it to me ...
“Roy needs our help!”
Roy Rogers, that is. I have a dim memory of some famous Republic Pictures Movie Cowboy uttering that line in the 1945 Roy & Dale classic BELLS OF ROSARITA. In that movie, one of my all time favorites, Roy is trying to help Dale Evans save her circus from a group of nefarious villains and help keep all the circus performers and workers alive and working. All she needs is money, visitors and something for people to come see. Roy thinks he can help. At the time, he’s finishing one of his pictures, featuring an orphan boys choir singing a heartbreakingly beautiful arrangement of the title tune. But he soon finds out he can’t help Dale save the attraction alone.
Roy needs more help. So he calls his studio, Republic Pictures. One by one, the greatest Cowboy stars ever to step before movie cameras in the San Fernando Valley pop up as the call to arms spreads through the studio lot: “Roy needs our help!”
Before long, William “Wild Bill” Elliott, Bob Livingston, Sunset Carson, Allan “Rocky” Lane, and Don “Red “ Barry, join Gabby Hayes, the Sons of the Pioneers and Roy and Dale to defeat the bad guys. And in the grand climax, all that expensive movie flesh puts on a show for the locals, bringing in plenty of visitors and revenue, and Roy and Dale’s Attraction stays open.
Dear Lord, how I wish I could pick up the phone and call Republic Pictures today. Because Roy’s in trouble ... and he needs our help!
As I detailed in the last article, the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Attraction moved from Victorville, California, to Branson, Missouri in 2003 for various financial reasons. Primary on the list: tourism. Nobody visits Victorville on the way to Vegas any more. But they all travel to Branson. I figured that was the end of the story. The happy ending in the last reel of the movie. But unfortunately, we haven’t made it to the last reel yet, and Roy and Dale’s Attraction in Branson is in serious trouble. Roy Rogers, Jr., Roy’s son--“Dusty” to his friends--was as blunt as he could be when I asked him what was the worst that could happen, and how soon?
“The doors to the Museum honoring a great American couple and time period in America could be closed permanently--as soon as this year.”
So I sat down with Dusty and with Dustin, Roy’s Grandson who handles day to day operations. I wanted to know why. And I wanted to know how we could help.
We started with how they ended up in Branson.
“The move to Branson came a few years after Dad's passing. Mom & I visited Branson the year Dad passed away, 1998. We were there doing a Western cowboy festival with the Sons of the Pioneers. Mom & I were so touched by the reception of all the folks in Branson. Mom said, 'If anything ever happens to me, you kids really ought to think about bringing the Museum to Branson!'"
Roy and Dale were a terrific team.
I asked her, 'Why, Mom?' She answered, 'The folks of the Midwest still have morals and ethics and family values! The Museum needs to be there.'"
So after Dale passed away, there was a family vote. “The kids all got together and voted whether to close the museum for good or do as Mom wanted and move it to Branson. We all voted unanimously to bring the Museum to Branson. It only made sense. Branson is a family-oriented town that still promotes God and country, just the things that Roy and Dale stood for. And, the average age of Branson’s visitors falls right into the age bracket of Roy and Dales fans today.
Over a period of months, the monumental task of moving a lifetimes’ worth of memorabilia moved forward, back East, in an odd irony, retracing pioneer steps across country from Southern California to Missouri. “We brought everything to Branson from Victorville with the exception of the mounts from Roy’s hunting expeditions. Due to space restrictions, we have to rotate some of our displays each year to bring out items we still have in storage in the backroom.”
And they added to the attraction, fulfilling some dreams Roy and Dale had but were unable to accomplish in Victorville. A theater for one, as Dusty and his band perform daily, preserving the classic Western standards and hits that Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers made famous for decades. “We have an intimate 300-seat theater where “Dusty” performs a live show at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday during the season.” And a brand new addition to the show in 2008 was Dustin Roy Rogers, grandson to Roy and son to Roy Jr., singing in the tradition of his father and grandfather before him.
Roy's Grandson Dustin Roy Rogers, looking an awful lot like the original Roy at the family's Branson, Missouri attraction.
Contents of the museum section of the attraction offer a cross section of American Western and movie history, as well as a chance to revisit some old animal friends. “Not only do we have Roy & Dale’s personal collection and professional memorabilia on display, but our museum is also home to Trigger, Trigger Jr., Buttermilk, Bullet, and Pat Brady’s Jeep, Nellybelle.” And the museum admission also includes an in-depth look at Roy’s motion picture work. Film presentations include two documentaries--one featuring Roy, Dale, and the family and the other featuring Roy and his sidekicks during his long career.
But this is less a museum than it is an “attraction.” There are lots of fun things to do--interactive fun, as befits this more modern age. Upon entering the lobby, there is a great shooting gallery which attracts the kid in every visitor. This shooting gallery resembles the jail set from the 1950s Roy Rogers-Dale Evans TV series. There’s a “bad guy” behind the bars and figures of Roy, Dale and sidekick Pat Brady dressed in original costumes from the TV series. Gabby Hayes is in there, too, for sentimental reasons and because ya just can’t have too many sidekicks.
Behind all this, my favorite jeep, Nellybelle, is crashing through the jail office wall. Inside this spectacular set are 22 separate targets to fire at. Each "target hit" activates more action--some of them actually shoot water back at the visiting cowboy or cowgirl who straps on a six gun.
Wannabe cowpokes can also try their hand at roping calves. Adults can sling authentic PRCA ropes and the kids can bulldog “dummy steers”--roping steers made from horseshoes.
Younger Rough Riders can enjoy the cinematic trails, too. Kids can slip into the saddle on top of wooden horses, slap on a complimentary cowboy hat and ride the pretend horseflesh with their cowboy hero while watching continuous running cartoons featuring the likes of such legendary western characters as Pecos Bill. Dustin continues: “We also have an area where kids can rub and sketch pictures of Roy, Dale, Trigger, and Bullet. There’s a table of Lincoln logs where they can play. And older kids love Roy’s rock collection, gun collection, and vehicles on display.”
As for adult visitors, they just love every inch of the museum as they are reminded of a time when life was so much simpler and the good guys always won. The ladies love viewing Dale’s book display and recalling what an inspiration she has been in their life, and, among other things, the men enjoy the sports memorabilia collection. And for me, it always goes back to the movies. Watching the documentaries brings Roy and Dale back on the screen once again--and sends me hightailing it to the gift shop to buy Roy and Dale’s action and song-packed movies on digitally restored DVDs.
Ah, but I’m a fan, you say. It’s 2009, Steve. It’s been almost 20 years since Roy’s last album (Tribute, 1990, featuring the likes of Clint Black and Randy Travis) and TV shows (“Happy Trails Theater” one of the Nashville Network’s highest rated series). And it’s been over thirty years since Roy rode the big screen range in MACKINTOSH AND T.J. I know, you’re dying to ask. Does Roy Rogers still matter?
Well, I’ve got some questions for you. Does John Wayne still matter? Elvis Presley?
Do your own memories still matter? What about watching that 4th of July parade with Dad? You were sitting on his shoulder, one hand on your heart, the other hand on Dad’s cheek, feeling the wet tears of pride on his skin as the drill team marched past carrying the Stars and Stripes. That’s a memory burned into your heart and soul. Does that still matter?
What about America? The America that’s still standing after you clear away the noise and political nonsense and the teen idols and the plain old gibberish, the America that means something, the people that keep trying to do their best and wind up doing even better, no matter how hard it is for them. The people and the land we love. Does America still matter?
Here it is, from Dusty: “Today, more than ever, America’s youth needs heroes they can look up to who define right from wrong and set forth an example of how to live your life and treat others. Roy and Dale were exemplary. It is our mission to carry on this legacy to today’s generation.”
Our mission, indeed. Roy Rogers is America. He was a simple man, growing up under tough conditions, trying to make it in this world and then trying to make this world better. That is who we are, as Americans. And that’s who Roy and Dale were, and are. Their charity work was endless: the family has supported numerous children’s charities over the years such as The Happy Trails Children’s Foundation, Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs, Christian Action Ministries, Mental Retardation Foundation, Robin’s Place, Rotary, and the Southern Stone County Fire Protection District.
There’s a reason the very mention of their names brings a smile to faces all over the world. “Roy and Dale were part of almost every child’s life who grew up in the forties and fifties. The youth who spent their Saturdays at the movies watching their heroes on the silver screen cherish that innocent time growing up in America. Roy and Dale never let those kids down. Who the kids saw on screen was the same Roy and Dale they met at the rodeos and guest appearances across the country. This couple never hid their faith, and they encouraged their fans as they grew into adulthood to do the same.”
And you see it every time a visitor shows up. “Grown men often stop by the Box Office and admit to shedding tears reliving precious memories of their childhood while strolling through the Museum. We’ve been told that we should have tissue boxes mounted permanently by the Trigger window as the sight of this beloved horse brings a flood of emotion. We’ve had both men and women who walk in saying they only came to the Museum because of their spouse. But upon leaving they stop by and tell us they were so happy they came and how wonderful the tour made them feel."
"I guess that’s because we so often hear that the museum isn’t really like most cold feeling museums. Our museum is really a personal visit with an American couple who greatly influenced the youth who grew up in the l940s and 1950s. For those who attend the live show, they almost always say our show is the best show they’ve seen in Branson, and these folks indicate they’ve been coming to Branson shows for years. The folks are delighted Dusty is keeping Roy & Dale’s legacy alive by keeping the Museum open and by his performance in the live show in the theater. The folks are delighted to see Dustin added to the show. They always remark how much he resembles the young Roy they used to see on the silver screen, and they are so glad that a younger family member is continuing the legacy."
"Most often we hear; 'Roy Rogers was my hero!' 'I’m probably Roy’s biggest fan.'
And more than anything else, 'I am who I am today because of Roy Rogers.'”
Well, pardners, I am who am I today because of Roy Rogers. And I get excited thinking about this legacy. Truth is, there are plans afoot for new film and television projects that get my heart beating faster than when I was a front row kid and Roy and Trigger started a chase scene, running wild, fast and free through the boulders and trails in Chatsworth, California, across the silver screen and into the TV in my living room.
But as I said earlier: we haven’t reached the last reel yet, the happy ending. And there is big time trouble afoot. I asked Dusty what was the first step to turning things around. His answer surprised me: “Bodies in the seats. The two things people say to us after they tour the attraction are ‘thank you for doing this' and 'I didn’t know you were here.'”
“I didn’t know you were here.” Wow. America needs Roy Rogers more than ever and the majority of his fans don’t know he’s still here. His spirit is alive and well in the very heartland of America, Branson, Missouri. So we need to get the word out. Roy’s in Branson. He needs our help. Go see him.
Some financial facts from Dusty. “We have been losing money, and we are barely holding on as of this interview. The museum is struggling to stay open. We have $32,000 a month due in rent alone. We desperately need to purchase the building through donations. The building housing the Museum & Theater is up for sale. We would love to be able to purchase the building, but the price is $2,995,000. We do not have the money, nor do we have the money for a down payment which would considerably lower our monthly lease payment.”
We talked some about the economy in general and Branson in particular. “It’s no secret the economy’s downturn has affected our attendance at the Museum. When times are tough, entertainment is definitely not on the list of priorities for individuals when there is little enough money for food, housing expenses, and gasoline.“
And Branson is having its own problems. Dustin nods. “We thought 2007 was a down year in Branson, but 2008 was worse. Of course the state of the economy is the main reason for low attendance. Fans tell us they would love to come but they are afraid to take any trips right now because of economic uncertainty. When the economy is healthy, folks tell us how much they enjoy Branson and they love to visit several times a year.”
But that may just be a problem of perception. Typically, particularly in America’s Heartland, one would think far off destinations would be the first items crossed off America’s vacation wish list. You’d think a place closer to home, like Branson, might do better. Dustin agrees, “Even in down times folks still need to do something for entertainment. For two-thirds of America’s population, Branson is just a one-day car trip away.”
So this screenwriter, yours truly, immediately begins thinking about tag lines, promo lines: “America’s West is now in your own backyard! Come and visit the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum: We’re closer than you think!” Positive stuff like that. Because that’s how we can help. We have to spread the word and get bodies in the seats. We have to keep this legacy alive.
I’ll close with Roy’s own Prayer, words than never fail to bring a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat, especially when I hear them in his voice:
“Lord, I reckon I'm not much just by myself,
I fail to do a lot of things I ought to do.
But Lord, when trails are steep and passes high,
Help me ride it straight the whole way through.
And when in the falling dusk I get that final call,
I do not care how many flowers they send,
Above all else, the happiest trail would be
For YOU to say to me, "Let's ride, My Friend"
Happy Trails from Hollywood.
Roy's son Dusty and grandson Dustin are part of a terrific show in Branson, Missouri.
To Contact the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum & Attraction for Donations, large and small or to join the ROY ROGERS RIDERS CLUB, please contact:
(Available Tuesday through Saturday, 9am-5pm Central Standard Time)
417-339-1900, ext. #222
or feel free to email at