VICTORVILLE — The wind they call Mariah has the tumbleweeds tumbling on the outskirts of this boom-town of the new American West. For a chilled cultural pilgrim, the large wooden fortress in the middle of a deserted parking lot is welcome sanctuary.
"Howdy Pardner," the sign says. Three dollars seems a small price to pay for a short reprieve from modern reality.
Initially, there is only one visitor in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum on this Saturday evening in December, creating an air of intimacy between the viewer and the first wax figures of Roy and Dale.
Competition Is Coming
Next October, another singing cowboy will have a new museum bearing his name. But the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, with a budget of $25 million, will use state-of-the-art exhibits by Walt Disney Imagineering to present a sweeping view of Western history.
With signs hand-lettered in Magic Marker--"Roy's Mom and Dad," "My First Guitar," "My First Boots"--Roy and Dale's museum takes a less formal approach.
"It's a family thing . . . the story of our lives, mine and Dale's," Rogers explained later, in a telephone conversation.
Artifacts from the couple's life surround a visitor as he walks through the glass encased exhibits, listening to the country Western music echoing through the museum's frontier-motif interior.
"A few of the watches that have kept me on time for 50 years," reads a card in a case that includes old pocket time pieces and a gold-plated digital "micro-alarm" watch. Bongo drums, a troll doll and other mementos fill a case dedicated to a daughter who died early in life (the couple have buried three of their nine natural and adopted children).
Dozens of Roy's rifles and pistols are displayed throughout the museum. Roy Rogers' lunch boxes, flashlights, toy cowboys, cookies, lamps, jigsaw puzzles and comic books fill other shelves, and several exhibits spotlight artifacts acquired during Roy's long involvement with the Freemasons.
As the visitor examines a large exhibit containing a table set for the Last Supper and various portraits of Jesus--including a full-sized stained glass representation and a picture in which Christ moves from the Cross to the clouds as one passes by--two families that have driven from Barstow arrive.
Leaving their parents to mull over Rogers' bowling balls and bowling prizes, the children sprinted ahead to more dramatic trophies.
"He killed all this stuff?" 11-year-old Rhiannon Lyons asked no one in particular as she encountered the first of numerous exhibits featuring Roger's hunting trophies, including red foxes, silver foxes, a cheetah, a snarling lion, three timber wolves, a grizzly bear, raccoons, skunks, African dik-diks, a mountain lion, bobcats, an alligator, a huge bull elephant, and three baboons whose heads have been mounted in a "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" pose.
"Wow! A stuffed horse," 8-year-old Timmy Romero yelped as he arrived at the exhibit containing Roy's horse, Trigger, and Dale's horse, Buttermilk, skillfully mounted by a taxidermist.
"Is that his real tongue?" the boy wondered, staring at Roy's dog Bullet.
The close relationship between the King of the West and his horse was more than movie publicity hype, Rogers explained.
Rogers rode Trigger in every one of his 90 feature films and all 101 half-hour television shows. "He was without a doubt the greatest horse that anybody ever had in pictures. When Trigger and Bullet passed away, I couldn't bury them," Rogers said. "I had a couple people say 'How could you do that to poor Trigger?' Well, I was raised on a farm. I knew what happens. I just couldn't put him in the ground and let that happen, the worms and everything."
The kids were too young to remember Roy's faithful Jeep, Nellybelle, chugging across the television screen, but they seemed impressed by his old Bonneville convertible, with six-guns mounted on the fenders, six-gun door handles, a six-gun shifter, a saddle between the seats and Winchester rifles on the rear fenders.
Other exhibits feature artifacts from a blacksmith shop, dozens of pairs of cowboy boots, Tom Mix's cowboy hat, some of Roy's and Dale's sequined cowboy suits, hammered copper portraits of the couple, old furniture, a collection of American flags and patriotic sayings, plaster bric-a-brac, and an exhibit in which an Eskimo stalks a seal and a polar bear.
Takes More Than a Day to See
"We're adding to it all the time," Roy said. "You can't see it all in one trip. I had two people who spent two days in there . . . I asked them, 'By the way, how'd you like my elephant?' They'd spent two days in there and had never even seen the elephant!"
Rogers' offices are located on the second floor of the museum, and whenever he gets a chance he likes to go down and mingle with the visitors who--during the busy season--come in from across the country by the tour busload.