Friday, January 30, 2004

”Happy trails to you…”

Here’s something that has always puzzled me: how did a man born Leonard Slye from Cincinnati, Ohio ever lay claim to a title like “King of the Cowboys”? I am, of course, referring to the late, great Roy Rogers, and while I mean no malice toward the popular entertainer, it also seemed kind of presumptuous to me that a “flat-lander” would usurp a throne like that. I suppose that when competing with Gene Autry—“America’s favorite cowboy”—something like that was bound to happen in the cowboy biz.

I’m at a distinct disadvantage here because I was born way too late in life to experience Roy’s incredible career in radio, TV, movies, etc. My first exposure to him occurred back in 1975, when a song Rogers recorded, “Hoppy, Gene and Me,” became a top 20 country hit. (It’s a great tune, by the way; a nostalgic exercise to a time when kids packed Saturday afternoon matinees for B-westerns and serials, two movie genres in which I’ve always had an interest.) Roy also co-starred in my favorite Bob Hope comedy, Son of Paleface (1952), and I think he was a good sport to allow his wholesome, straight-laced, milk-drinking cowboy image to take a ribbing. (BOB: “S’matter, don’t you like girls?” ROY: “I’ll stick to horses, mister…”) So Roy is okay in my book.

Rogers’ radio career began back in the 1930s, where despite bouts of mike fright he sang with a number of vocal groups before forming the Sons of the Pioneers with Bob Nolan. The western harmony group achieved tremendous success, making bit appearances in several movies released by Republic Pictures in 1935. Roy caught a lucky break two years later when the studio’s top cowboy star, Gene Autry, left in a contract dispute, and tapped as his replacement, Rogers appeared in a slew of low-budget but very profitable B-westerns, beginning in 1938 with Under Western Stars. While competing neck-and-neck with Autry at the box office, Rogers soon found himself among the top ten moneymakers in the industry by the mid-1940s.

Rogers brought his mix of western ballads and two-fisted action to Mutual Radio beginning November 21, 1944 with The Roy Rogers Show. (His “rival” Autry had already made inroads on radio with Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in 1940.) Sponsored by Goodyear Tire, the show had an around-the-campfire feel to the proceedings, mixing dramatics with songs by vocalist Pat Friday and the Sons of the Pioneers. His co-stars were replaced in 1946 (when the show moved to NBC) with the Riders of the Purple Sage and movie sidekick Gabby Hayes (later Pat Brady), plus a young singer-actress who had recently become Rogers’ leading lady in the movies: Dale Evans. Evans, who had previously been the female vocalist on The Charlie McCarthy Show during the 1942-43 season, would later wed her leading man on December 31, 1947 (though they remained unattached on the radio show and in films) and would take her place alongside Roy as “Queen of the West” (sounds like an Our Gal Sunday scenario, doesn’t it?). After a season on NBC for Miles Laboratories (1946-47), The Roy Rogers Show moved back to Mutual from 1948-51 (for Quaker Oats), then back to NBC in the fall of 1951 where it finished out its run for Post Toasties (and later Dodge), bowing out July 21, 1955.

I previewed two episodes of The Roy Rogers Show last night, both of which were originally broadcast during the 1951-52 season on NBC. In the first, “Ed Bailey’s Bad Luck” (10/12/51), the titular character is a bank robber who tries to pull a fast one on his partners, Charlie Fisher and Dick Harris, by hiding the loot from their most recent job. Bailey attempts to escape the two by jumping out the window, but that—along with gunshots from the two partners shooting after him—only ends up attracting the good townspeople of Mineral City. Fisher and Harris put the snatch on Bailey and Dale Evans (who works at the hotel the trio were staying in) and take them hostage in order to beat a hasty retreat, foolishly underestimating our hero Roy and sidekick Jonah Wilde, “the wisest trail scout of them all.” (Did everybody have a title on this show? Even Trigger got billed as “the smartest horse in the movies.”) Jonah—who sounds like a Gabby Hayes clone—replaced Pat Brady as Roy’s comic relief, and was played by Forrest Lewis, a radio veteran of shows like Tom Mix’s Ralston Straightshooters and I Love a Mystery. (Brady returned to his rightful place as Roy’s stooge at the beginning of the 1952-53 season.)

The second adventure is “Night Riders” (10/19/51), which concerns an ex-bruiser named Jake Gullig (it’s telegraphed early on that this guy is a no-goodnik because he was banned from the boxing ring for killing an opponent) who Roy suspects of being the head of a cattle rustling ring operating in Paradise Valley (the location of Rogers’ Double R Bar Ranch). Roy devises a cunning plan to trip up Gullig by agreeing—only temporarily, you understand—to sell him his faithful dog Bullet. Both of these episodes are fun and entertaining to listen to, perfect kiddie fare for the younger folk in the tradition of The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. (It is interesting to note, however, that the show did make an attempt to attract an older audience in 1954-55, with some mature mystery-thriller plots prominently featured.) I particularly enjoyed the promotion on the show which offered a membership in the Roy Rogers Riders Club, which netted the listener a membership card (“entitling you to all the rights and privileges as a Riders Club member”), official badge, 16-page full color comic book and full-color autographed picture of Roy and Trigger. All for a box-top off a regular-sized package of any Post cereal and a dime—one-tenth of a dollar, you understand.

Two months after these two broadcasts, Roy, Dale, Pat and the Pioneers (along with Trigger and Bullet) successfully transplanted The Roy Rogers Show to television, debuting over NBC on December 30, 1951 and lasting until June 23, 1957. (The show later established in reruns a beachhead on CBS’ Saturday morning schedule from 1961-64.) The King and Queen made a brief return in 1962 with a musical variety series on ABC, but after its cancellation the two stuck to guest appearances and specials. Roy never completely disappeared from public view, however; again, like Autry, he invested in a series of profitable outside interests including a chain of fast-food restaurants that bore his name, some 100 of which that still exist today. (And 90 of which are along the West Virginia Turnpike. Okay, I’m exaggerating that last part.) I’ll confess, when I chose The Roy Rogers Show as today’s show in the spotlight, I didn’t think I would enjoy listening to it—but it just goes to show you never can tell. So until next time, “Goodbye, good luck, and may the good Lord take a likin’ to ya.”

No comments:

Post a Comment