It was one of those starry high-desert nights and all visitors to the Roy Rogers–Dale Evans Museum were long gone, the last hand shaken and autograph signed. And there, on the outskirts of Victorville, Calif., I was being given a tour of the fort-shaped facility that housed mementos from one of the most remarkable Hollywood careers in history.My host was Roy Rogers himself, the legendary matinee idol of my youth, King of the Cowboys, the bigger-than-life silver screen hero who rode a golden palomino named Trigger, never lost his white hat in a fight with the bad guys, and saved the day every Saturday afternoon down at the Bijou.
I admit it. When I was 12 going on 13, I dreamed of growing up to be Roy Rogers. When he personally addressed us from the movie or TV screen, he called us “little buckaroos,” and I was proud to be among that group.
Then, in the early stages of a book-writing career, my fantasy came as close to reality as one could hope. It was in the late 1970s when I was asked whether I would be interested in working with Roy and his wife/co-star, Dale, on their autobiography Happy Trails. As their literary Boswell, I would help them tell their remarkable fame-and-faith life story.
And so it was that as Roy and I were getting acquainted, walking among the displays of the museum, I got my first glimpse of the magnitude of the career I was to help chronicle. A self-professed pack rat, Roy had spent a lifetime collecting the items on display. Late into the evening we wandered among the historical artifacts of his life — posters from more than 100 Western movies and TV shows, merchandise items (cap pistols, belt buckles, children’s lunchboxes, etc.) that once filled no fewer than 12 pages of the annual Sears catalog, comic books, coloring books, and dozens of movie magazines and cereal boxes featuring his smiling likeness. We listened to recordings of his radio show that aired for nine years and heard the gentle melodies of Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers harmonizing on “Blue Shadows on the Trail.” The museum’s centerpiece, of course, was a taxidermist’s handiwork of the late Trigger, posed for posterity as if ready to once more carry Roy off to fight against cattle rustlers, bank robbers and various other Old West evildoers.
I had not thought of those long-ago California visits to Roy, Dale and their museum in years. Then I read that the memorabilia the museum once held was sold by the famed Christie’s auction house in New York City. After the star couple’s deaths more than a decade ago, attendance at the Victorville site fell dramatically, with the entertainment icons no longer on hand to meet and greet fans. The museum was relocated to Branson, Mo., but in time it became apparent that those who so idolized the couple were too few in number. The Saturday-matinee crowd had begun to disappear, and the museum shut its doors in 2009.
Too bad. I must admit to feeling a tinge of sadness when I learned that Trigger, purchased for $266,500, would be shipped off to a cable TV network official in Nebraska, and that others from the more than 1,000 items offered for sale would be scattered to the wind, owned by strangers.
Still, for me, there are memories that go far beyond price tags.
Back in their heyday, Roy and Dale taught their young fans that good forever triumphed over evil and that every hard day’s work ended with a song. A bit simplistic, you might say, but youngsters of my time bought into the notion lock, stock and barrel.
In person, Roy showed me other things. While, quite honestly, I’d have preferred that he teach me to ride, rope or fast-draw a gun, he was an avid bowler and took it upon himself to become my coach. And, as a bonus, he once even helped me out of marital hot water.
At one time, he had owned Victorville Lanes, where he and fellow league members gathered regularly. He later sold the establishment with one unusual proviso. Roy retained ownership of one lane, and it was his to use anytime. When he learned that I was, at best, a raw novice, he suggested we could kill two birds with one stone by conducting our interviews while he taught me the finer points of his favorite sport.
Then, there was the morning when I reported for our interview session in a mood he immediately recognized as less than upbeat. I explained that I felt sure I was deep in the doghouse back home, being absent on my wife’s birthday. “Get her on the phone,” Roy urged.
I dialed the number and handed him the receiver. When the lady of the house answered, he burst into song. “Happy birthday to you …” Once again, the legendary Singing Cowboy had come to the rescue, saving the day.
They don’t sell moments like that, even at a Christie’s auction.