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Benjamin Epstein

3 Hollywood 'Cowboys' Honored for USO Work


No matter that they'd just disposed of a gang of banditos in order to save the stagecoach: They still had their hats on. Before getting back in the saddle, they'd serenade some lucky daughter of the West--it was her honor they'd defended with their fists--with a song about the wide open prairies.

They were heroes then, and for many of us, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers--not to mention Champion and Trigger--are heroes still.

Dale Evans met Rogers at a United Services Organization (USO) show in Texas in 1942. Thursday night at the Anaheim Hilton and Towers, Autry, Rogers and Evans, all of whom toured with the USO during World War II and the Viet Nam war, each received a Distinguished American Award before a crowd of 450.

Pat Buttram, Autry's longtime sidekick and real-life close friend, spoke after the presentations. Although they've long since stopped making films, Buttram said the guests of honor still have a lot in common.

"Dale and Roy, you know, are quite active in religion, Gene owns the Angels, they all use the word 'God' a lot. . . ."

Earlier, during a VIP reception, Rogers gave a glimpse at life after television: Apart from his 562 restaurants and his museum in Victorville, he said he's doing just as little as he can do. "I have some young colts, palominos, offspring of Trigger, Jr. . . ."

Evans looked back on her marriage with Rogers. The couple has nine children, 16 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

"There have been happy trails, there have been rough trails," Evans said, "but the Lord's always been there."

The 1st Marine Division Band made dinner conversation difficult at best. "Can't they turn up the volume?" kidded one guest.

The band Fifth Avenue performed such tunes as Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again" and "Here Comes Peter Cottontail."

(Did you know Autry was the first artist to register a gold record? Ditto platinum? Or that he was the first star to endorse a product?)

Rogers could be seen silently singing along with the strains of his "Cool Water."

Master of Ceremonies Johnny Grant read congratulatory messages handed to him by Disney characters. Cinderella was to serve as emissary for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), but was late. Donald Duck, however, was right on time with Gov. George Deukmejian's letter.

Grant introduced the seven dwarfs: "Here they are," he teased, "the Orange County politicians--Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Doc!"

A letter from the Commander in Chief and national USO chairman, Ronald Reagan, came via Mickey Mouse. "Of all the worthy causes you have helped," said the note, "none is more important that the USO." Nancy Reagan and Reggie Jackson of the Angels also sent messages.

Hoyt Axton and Donny Osmond performed. Comedian Norm Crosby was his irreverent self.

"Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, these people are giants, legends, their names are household words," Crosby said. "Of course, so's Jell-O."

Crosby said today's music is fine, but that he misses the kind of songs the honorees used to sing. "Songs that bring tears to your eyes, songs that make you think: 'Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer'. . . ."

Axton said he was thrilled to be invited. "For a kid from Oklahoma, hanging out with these three is pretty hot," he said. "Like this must be heaven and where do I park?"

When he was in the Navy, Axton recalled, the USO was "a great place to go" when he was broke. "More truth than poetry," noted Ida Kahn, wife of USO board member Henry Kahn.

According to Tim Viole, president of USO-Los Angeles, the dinner raised $100,000 for the group's projects.

"We bring entertainment to 250,000 men at 21 bases all over Southern California," Viole said. "The boys from OC, at El Toro, at the helicopter base, are bused to our facility in Hollywood for dances Saturday nights. We're looking to do more for the families of the servicemen, particularly Navy men, taking care of those left at home while they're overseas."

The new James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle USO lounge at LAX opened in September and is used by 30,000 men a year.

On the dais with Viole were Jim Balla, executive director of USO--Los Angeles; Carl Karcher of Carl's Jr.; newscaster Ed Arnold and dinner chairman William Popejoy.

According to Balla, emcee Grant, a previous award recipient, has "made more overseas USO show trips than any other celebrity entertainer in the history of our organization," many "in combat zones and not the plush resorts that so many of our celebrities have been accustomed to."

After vintage film clips were shown and awards presented, Rogers, 74, and Autry, 79, lamented the loss of so many of their co-stars.

"It's hard for me to watch our old pictures," Rogers said. "None of the Sons of the Pioneers are left. . . ."

Buttram joined in the commiseration.

"The doctor told me I could go any day now," Buttram said. "I was very happy. I hadn't gone in four or five days."

Among the guests were child star Jane Withers, now 60 and about to take her 8,000 dolls and 2,500 teddy bears on tour to help feed the children of the world; Monte Hale, the first cowboy to do color films; and Buddy Rogers, who starred in "Wings," the first motion picture to win the Academy Award.

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