We’re soon coming out with our collection of the Roy Rogers comic strip, in celebration of what would be the King of the Cowboys’ 100th birthday this Roy Rogers: The Collected Daily and Sunday Newspaper Strips collects the work of Roy’s adventures, as drawn by the likes of Alex Toth.
I chatted with Roy’s son, Roy “Dusty” Rogers, Jr., who keeps the Rogers dream alive with his own cowboy music band. Dusty also reveals some stories about his legendary father’s fight with his own studio, as well as his family’s friendship with the legendary animator.
CHRIS IRVING: What are your memories of the Roy Rogers comic strip?
DUSTY ROGERS: We had the comic book delivered to us a lot, but the comic strip was only in the paper, and usually came in on a Sunday. We didn’t get a Saturday or Sunday paper. We would go into town with Dad to the local barbershop, or when he had to go to the drugstore, we’d go down with him and sit there and read the comics that way. The thing is, they always left you cliff-hanging. The great thing with the comic books is that you always finished the story. But with the strips in the newspapers, it would leave you hanging. My brother and I would have to wait until the next week. We’d always ask Dad ‘Hey, how does this end?’ He would go ‘I don’t know. I don’t write ‘em!’ (Laughs)
It was a lot of fun. We thought everybody worked in the movie business. For my Dad, it was just a job. When we were really young, he was just Dad to us, and Roy Rogers was another person. When we got older and found out that there were other people that do other jobs, and he really was a star, he took on another connotation. When we were little, we had trouble discerning who this comic strip character was, while the real Roy Rogers just took us down to the drugstore to read the paper. It was different.
CHRIS: Would you say your father was very different from the King of the Cowboys on-screen persona?
DUSTY: No, he was no different, and that’s the great thing about it. He always told me he was very fortunate and said ‘In my life, I’ve never had to play anyone but Roy Rogers.’ He started out with a stage name of Dick West, and used that for a while, and had bit parts in some of Gene Autry’s movies as one of the Sons of the Pioneers. When he signed a contract with Republic, they said ‘You need a different name. Is there anybody you ever really admired?’ He said ‘Well, I always admired Will Rogers.’ They said ‘You can definitely use Rogers as a last name.’ They suggested Leroy and Dad said ‘Nah, I went to school with a Leroy and I couldn’t stand that kid. We’ve got to come up with something else.’
Someone said ‘What about Roy?’ They batted it around the table and everybody liked it. It flowed off the tongue real well, and Dad said ‘Yeah, let’s try it for a while.’ He said that from then on, when he took on the persona of Roy Rogers and the name stuck, that he always played himself. ‘That was my name, and studios liked the characters they saw, and I never had to play anybody else.’ It was easy for him.
CHRIS: What do you think made your father stick out amongst the other cowboys, signing or otherwise?
DUSTY: The great thing about him was that he was excellent at everything. First thing, he was in immaculate shape, and he loved to do acrobatics with the Pioneers and always worked with a stuntman. He was an excellent horseman and he sang better than any of the other cowboys at that time. He just had that All-American look to him, and kids fell in love with him; not only did he look good and sing well, and was very handsome, but he also had a horse that equaled him if not did better than him in some ways.
Trigger made him shine, and he always said ‘If it wasn’t for Trigger, there’d be no Roy Rogers.’ They were just a pair that just seemed to light up the screen. Of course, when Ms. Dale joined, that just added to the wonderful mystique of the crew. He was never any different on-screen than he was off, and I think that’s what people liked about him.
CHRIS: I was watching My Pal, Trigger the other night, and couldn’t get over the genuine warmth between Roy and Trigger. What made him such a great horse?
DUSTY: I think, partially, it was his breeding: Trigger was half quarter horse and half thoroughbred, and he took on the lines in the mane and tail of a thoroughbred, but he also took on the stamina of the quarter horse. He had that beautiful power behind him to be able to run, but he was also lean and sweet like Roy was. I’ve never seen anyone sit in a saddle better than Dad did, and he said riding Trigger was like sitting in a limousine all day. There was just a match there and they truly loved each other. Dad loved that horse and, when we lost him in ’65, it was like losing one of us kids for Dad. It was just very upsetting. He rode Trigger every day, working on his training, since 1939. That’s a long time.
CHRIS: What did Trigger die of? Old age?
DUSTY: Just old age. They took him out on the paddy the morning of July 4, 1965. In the morning he’d go around the paddy a few times. You know how dogs will lay down and roll around in the dirt? Horses do the same thing. He laid down and just didn’t get up. The ranch manager went out to check out on him, and his heart just gave out. He was like somebody at 105 years old for a human, because he was 33 when he passed away.
CHRIS: What about Gabby Hayes? How did he and your father work off of one another so well?
DUSTY: That was one of those things where Gabby, before he came west, was born in New York. He was born in Wellsville, New York and was raised in Hell’s Kitchen. He was doing Shakespeare on the stage when he was a young man, in his early training. He played semi-pro baseball with the Cubs for a while, and then he came out to California. He was a badman in a lot of his movies, especially those early John Wayne ones. Then he started playing as Windy Hayes for a while, then when he took his teeth out and changed his hat, they called him Gabby. They put him with Dad, and those were two playing off each other so well. They generally loved each other, too; Dad said Gabby was his brother, his pal, and his Dad all rolled up in one character. When you witness the work with people of that quality who are still having fun—Dad had more fun off-screen and on set than anyone. My Dad just loved to be out there and everybody lo9ved him. Everybody was just loyal. When you have camaraderie, not only with the people you work with on-camera, but also the people behind the scenes, you have a terrific atmosphere; when you have a great atmosphere that just makes a great difference.
CHRIS: Do you have any memories of Republic, or stories from your Dad about how they were set up or were to work with?
DUSTY: He always complained that old man Yates who ran the studio, Herbert Yates, could just squeeze blood out of a penny. He didn’t want to pay anybody anything. Dad started working for $75 a week, and he said the working conditions were fine, because he liked the crew and they liked Dad, but the studio wouldn’t pay anybody anything.
At one time, in the ‘40s, my Dad was receiving about 400,000 pieces of fan mail a month from kids. He always wanted to answer the kids, because he said ‘If they’re going to bother sending me a note for a picture or autograph, I’m going to take care of it.’ It was getting to the point where his $75 was going out the door (if not more) to postage, and he couldn’t afford it. He went to Republic and said ‘Can you help me out out this a little bit?’
Yates said ‘No, we’re not going to help you out, that’s your headache. We’re not giving you anything else.’ So Dad basically had to go on the road to do rodeos and make personal appearances to pay for the fan mail. It was difficult to work for Republic those days, and of course they treated their people not that well.
He said “I got along with pretty much everybody, but I got ticked off at Herbert Yates for not helping me. He said ‘These kids don’t matter.’ And I’d say ‘Who do you think pays the dimes to go see the movies?’” Dad said “Okay, so you don’t think they count?” He went out and rented a dump truck and went to his office, loaded I don’t know how many thousand pounds of mail into the dump truck and drove to Republic Studios really early one morning, and backed up into Herbert Yates’s parking space and dumped them. When Yates came in to try and park, Dad said “Now tell me those kids don’t matter.” (Laughter)
He had all kinds of stories. Dad was one of those guys who would just love doing something like that. He never hurt anybody doing that stuff, but he’d have more fun trying to make a point to Herbert. It didn’t do any good, because he didn’t actually get any more money.
CHRIS: Everything I’ve read is that they had the best people at Republic, like Yakima Canutt, the stuntman.
DUSTY: He was Dad’s stuntman in a lot of the movies. Dad said “Yak,” they called him Yak. “Yak was the only man I ever hit in a stunt in a scene.” They got their signals crossed and he went one way, and Dad went one way, and just plowed him and knocked him out. Yakima was pretty much the premiere stuntman in Hollywood at that time, and there wasn’t anything that man wouldn’t do or try.
Yakima is the one that also did that drag where he jumps in between a team of horses, and drops down and is dragged, going to the back of the wagon, and then pulls himself up onto the wagon and gets in through the back of it. That was one he did.
CHRIS: That was in Stagecoach, right? I heard that one of the things Republic did to promote was to keep any money that they kept for personal appearances, which helped before TV, which then killed the movie serials later.
DUSTY: Dad got into a shouting match with them because they wanted Dad to resign in 1949 because his contract was up. He said “I’ll resign, but I’ve got to have the ability to do some television.”
They said “No, television isn’t going to amount to anything. You’re only going to do the movies.” We all know different, and Dad knew different at that time and said “Well, then, I’m not going to resign.”
Republic went on a rampage and said “Well, we’re going to take your movies and cut them into half hours and put them on television, anyways, and you won’t be able to do it yourself.” Dad sued them. It went to the Ninth District Court and Dad won.
Then Republic thought “Oh, no, Autry might try.” They could see this big thing happening with all their Western actors and knew they had to do something. When Autry sued, it went all the way back to the Ninth District Court also, but then they ruled against Autry and then overturned the decision on Dad’s case. Dad’s manager saw Herbert Yates out on the parking lot of a golf course and asked “How did you get that decision changed?” Herbert smiled and said “You can get anything you need to if you’ve got enough money.”
They shut it down pretty quick for actors trying to leave the studio when their contract was up. They then blackballed Dad so, from 1949, Dad did one more movie with Bob Hope in 1951 called Son of Paleface. His acting career in Hollywood was then over; they wouldn’t let him make any more movies in Hollywood. Dad went to TV and couldn’t get any sponsors, so finally he got his own sponsors and produced his own show. Of course, you know his history from there: a hundred episodes of The Roy Rogers Show. Dad was one two and a half million boxes of cereal. That was a good thing for Dad.
He was second only to Disney in merchandising in those days.
CHRIS: He teamed up with Disney for the Pecos Bill cartoon?
DUSTY: Oh, yeah. Walt asked him to do that. That was in 1949.
CHRIS: So he knew Walt personally?
DUSTY: Oh, yeah. Walt was like an uncle to us kids. We couldn’t wait until Christmas, when he would send truckloads. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let us keep it. (Laughs) They said “No, you’ve got too much stuff. You’re going to give that to other kids.” So we would take it to church and hand it out to other kids. It was fine.
CHRIS: What was Walt like?
DUSTY: Walt Disney…would come to the house often. [He was] very interested in what you were doing, and interested in the children. We didn’t see Walt a lot, but when we did—and he would send the nicest notes, and would always know us. He also personally signed them to us. Walt was very good for his people. If you worked for Walt Disney, you were a friend for life.
CHRIS: Tell me about what you do with your band.
DUSTY: I live in Branson, Missouri, which is the live entertainment capital of the world. We have more shows here than Broadway has. I’ve been doing cowboy music and carry on his tradition. We do shows five days a week at the Mickey Gilley Theatre here in Branson and do the morning show, and we travel a lot and do road shows. We do a lot of dinner theater where the folks are retired and know Mom and Dad and pioneer music. My son and I do a show on RFD TV, which is a cable channel for rural America in the Midwest. We get dad’s movie up on that. We do a two hour show, and have a band called the High Riders. I’ve been doing it for forty years.
CHRIS: Let me know if you come to New York anytime soon!
DUSTY: I’ve played Carnegie Hall twice in the past five years. That’s one of those things that, when it comes up, you jump on it. I’ve been very fortunate. My Dad played it one time in the ‘40s, and they don’t bring cowboy music in much.