- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005


By Raymond E. White

University of Wisconsin, $65, 518 pages, illus.


Treasure is where you find it. Who would have thought that a thick book bristling with facts and written in the monotone, dry-as-dust style of a corporate annual report could turn out to be a delight? Of course, it helps that the subject matter is Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, entertainers themselves treasured by probably a majority of Americans over 50 and likely by a considerable number under that age, too. Even the most jaded of us can manage a smile at the happy reminiscence of decent, honorable Roy biffing — but never, ever killing — the bad guys with the assistance of loyal, plucky Dale.

“King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West” contains almost everything the most ardent Roy and Dale fan might want to know about their professional careers. If it is not in the narrative history in the first one-fifth of the book, it is certainly in the minutely detailed filmography, discography, etc., that make up the remaining four-fifths. The numerous photos are a treat in themselves. (The cover price is rather steep, but the publisher promises a paperback edition will follow.) What readers won’t find is much about the duo’s personal lives, beyond the skeletal facts — no examination of the dynamics, tensions and pressures in their domestic existence. Still, the facts alone have an allure.

Probably many know that Roy was born Leonard Frank Slye in Cincinnati in 1911. Fewer may know that Dale was born either Frances Octavia Smith (the name her parents gave her) or Lucille Wood Smith (the name the doctor entered in the records) in Uvalde, Tex., in 1912. The original name of Roy’s horse Trigger was Golden Cloud. Roy bought him in 1943 for $2,500. Trigger received movie billing above all actors except Roy, a fact that Dale used to jokingly complain of. Fewer still will know that Dale was married and divorced three times before marrying Roy in 1947. Her first marriage, an elopement at age 14, resulted in a son at 15. Roy’s first marriage, in 1933, ended in divorce after 15 months. His second ended with the death of his wife a week after she gave birth to Roy Rogers Jr. in 1946.

This is the work of not only a scholar, but an enthusiast. Raymond E. White, a professor emeritus of history at Ball State University, views the couple “as significant cultural icons” of the American West who “carefully controlled and marketed their images while incorporating their Christian faith and their family values into their public performances.” The author does add a measure of analysis to the welter of facts, particularly concerning the content and impact of their various media (radio, film, recordings, television, comic books and regular books), their image and their performing abilities.

Between 1938 and 1951, Republic Pictures released 83 Roy Rogers-starring vehicles, the first being “Under Western Stars.” Roy went on to become the top Western moneymaker from 1943 to 1954. White says, “He worked hard at developing his heroic cowboy image, refusing movie parts that might tarnish it and avoiding such things as smoking and drinking in public.” Roy and Dale made 28 films together, starting with “The Cowboy and the Senorita” (1944). “Rather than playing the traditional passive and helpless western female,” Mr. White writes, “Evans portrayed heroines who were smart, independent, and resourceful but at the same time feminine and appropriately submissive to Rogers’s masculine and heroic roles.” No question the male was dominant. Even Trigger in his comic book — yes, Trigger had his own comic—had a band of mares he protected.

However, what most fans will remember is “The Roy Rogers Show,” which was watched by more adults than children. Between 1951 and 1956 Roy and Dale produced 100 episodes that appeared on network television for 10 years before going into syndication in 1962. Since they controlled the production company, they determined the content, emphasizing morality and Christian values, which had become increasingly important to them after Dale had a religious reawakening in 1948. The theme song, “Happy Trails,” was written by Dale and first used on their radio show in the fall of 1951. She also wrote “The Bible Tells Me So,” among scores of other songs.

Roy died July 6, 1998, Dale on Feb. 7, 2001. Maybe an appropriate way to end this review is the way Roy used to end their radio and TV shows: “Goodbye, good luck, and may the good Lord take a likin’ to you.” It couldn’t hurt.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer.

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