My childhood understandings of the world, dreams, and fantasies were powerfully shaped by Saturday afternoon matinees, first at the Lloyd Theater on Sheridan Road and later when they opened the Menominee theater in the old Opera House. Kids’ tickets cost a dime, and the standard fare included a double feature, the news reel, a short (often the Three Stooges), and two or three animated cartoons by Disney, MGM, or Warner Brothers. Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello were at their peak, as were Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy, and Superman. Nothing was as awe-inspiring, though, as the Westerns: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and many others. Roy Rogers, with his palomino horse, Trigger, and his German Shepherd, Bullet, was the king. He was handsome and always had a twinkle in his eye, but, when confronted with injustice, he could battle six men with his fists or shoot the weapon out of the hand of a gunslinger with a single bullet. We never cared a lot for Roy’s singing or kissing, though he wooed and won an asexual Dale Evans week after week. Roy and Gabby Hayes taught us that the world was divided into the good guys and the bad guys, and, though usually outnumbered by muscular, mustachioed villains in black hats, the good guys through their courage, strength, intelligence, and virtue would always prevail.
As a kid, I implicitly assumed that Roy had grown up in Texas. Or perhaps Colorado or Montana. You can imagine my shock when, shortly after moving here, we learned that Roy Rogers was a Cincinnati native who grew up in Southern Ohio. And that he wasn’t a cowboy. And that his name wasn’t really Roy Rogers. He was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, to Andy and Mattie Slye who lived in a tenement building on Second Street, now the site of Riverfront Stadium. His dad and his uncle Will, disliking their jobs and city life, built a houseboat in 1912, floating down the Ohio to the river town of Portsmouth. The Slyes purchased a nearby farm, but its income was meager, and Andy Slye took a job at a shoe factory in Portsmouth. He bought an old racehorse, Babe, for his son with part of his earnings, and Leonard learned horseback riding on Babe. Leonard quit school at 17 to work at the shoe factory and never did finish high school. On Saturday nights the neighbors came over for a square dance, and Leonard sang, played the mandolin, and eventually called the square dances (a skill that he later employed in his movies).
Both Leonard and his father hated their shoe factory jobs and quit in 1929 to visit a relative in California, then moved there in 1930. They got jobs as truckdrivers, but the Great Depression had set in and their jobs disappeared almost immediately. They worked as migrant farmworkers, traveling from farm to farm picking fruit and living in worker campsites. At night Leonard played his guitar and sang at the campsite fires. Eventually he told his dad that he was going to seek a career in music. He and his cousin Stanley Slye moved to L.A., seeking gigs as the Slye Brothers. They had little or no success. After four years Leonard formed a western cowboy group in 1934 called the Pioneer Trio, though a manager changed them to Sons of the Pioneers, judging the boys too young to have been Pioneers themselves. This group did hit it big with songs like “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (the words of which still come readily to my mind).
Beginning in 1935 Leonard began appearing in support roles as a singer and guitar player in western movies, usually as one of the Sons of the Pioneers. Their early work included Bing Crosby’s and Martha Raye’s Rhythm on the Range, where they joined Bing in singing “I’m an Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)” and Gene Autry’s film, “The Big Show.” When Autry temporarily walked out on his contract in 1938, Leonard Slye became “Roy Rogers”, the name of his childhood dentist in Portsmouth, and took over the lead in Under Western Stars. With that film Roy Rogers leaped to stardom and became a competitor with Gene Autry for the title of the nation’s favorite singing cowboy. Roy went on to make over a hundred movies, many of which we wound up seeing. The Roy Rogers Show ran on radio for nine years, then on TV from 1951-1957. Trigger lived for thirty-three years, and Roy rode him in every one of his movies and TV shows. Dale Evans was cast in a movie with Roy in 1945, they fell in love, and they married on New Year’s Eve in 1947. Dale authored their well-known theme song, “Happy Trails to you, until we meet again…” They adopted several children and were active in numerous charities. Roy died in 1998, and Dale followed in 2001. Roy had commented, “When I die, just skin me out and put me up on old Trigger and I’ll be happy.”
We didn’t reflect on it at the time, but our childhood views of the moral order and the contents of our gender identities were substantially influenced by identification with cultural role models like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. As kids, we spent endless hours playing good guys against the bad guys with our western capguns, lariats, and cowboy hats. It was a lot of fun, and it affected who we were to become. We learned some positive values, as well as lessons compatible with a capitalistic and militaristic society. But you can’t go too far wrong if Roy Rogers is your ideal.
Sources: Wikipedia, www.royrogers.com, www.imbd.com