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Roy Rogers, 'King of the Cowboys,' Dies

July 07, 1998|From a Times Staff Writer

Roy Rogers, the "King of the Cowboys" who sang, smiled and occasionally shot his way into the hearts of multitudes of Little Buckaroos, died Monday. He was 86.

Rogers died of congestive heart failure in his Apple Valley home near Victorville, with his wife and co-star Dale Evans and other family members at his side. He had undergone heart surgery in 1977 and 1990 and had been somewhat frail in recent years.

From 1943 to 1954, when he was at the peak of his popularity, particularly among young fans known as Little Buckaroos, Rogers was ranked by theater operators as the No. 1 Western box office star.

He last performed in public with his wife at a charity benefit May 17, 1997--a few months before their 50th wedding anniversary. They sang their signature theme song, "Happy Trails," which Evans wrote decades ago.

Squint-eyed, slightly bowlegged, never more than a few seconds away from an affable smile, Rogers seemed always to personify the myth that he and others had created on the screen--the legend of a West that never was.

In 87 musical Westerns for Republic Pictures and 101 television segments, he always played the good guy, the man in the white hat--the ever-honest one whose virtue always seemed to triumph over all odds in the end.

"He really believed in all those things--truth, kindness, decency--and he lived that way, as near as a man could," his longtime sidekick Pat Brady once said.

President Clinton, commenting at a White House Rose Garden appearance Monday, said: "I really appreciate what he stood for, the movies he made and the kind of values they embodied. Today there will be a lot of sad and grateful Americans--especially of my generation--because of his career."

Rogers appeared in a dozen or so other motion pictures, including "Hollywood Canteen" in 1944, in which he introduced Cole Porter's hit song "Don't Fence Me In"; Walt Disney's "Melody Time" in 1948; and "Son of Paleface" in 1952 with Bob Hope and Jane Russell.

He earned stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for radio, records, motion pictures and television. He received two Golden Boot Awards and was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. He is the only performer elected twice to the Country Music Hall of Fame--with his Sons of the Pioneers in 1980 and as an individual in 1988.

The "singing" part of Rogers' nickname, the Singing Cowboy, was based on solid musical achievement. From "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" in 1934, to Steve Nelson's "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" in 1948, to "Money Can't Buy Love" in 1970 and "Hoppy, Gene and Me" in 1974, Rogers sold records. In 1991, he recorded a successful CD titled "Tribute," featuring several younger performers in duets with him, and a companion music video with Clint Black that led to appearances for Rogers on the Grammy Awards and Country Music Awards telecasts.

Cincinnati Boy Moves Out West

Deeply religious and father of a close but tragedy-touched family, Rogers must have winced when early studio biographies stretched the truth he held so dear.

He was portrayed as a true son of the West, a native of Cody, Wyo., who had worked on cattle ranches there until he went to Hollywood.

Actually, he was born Leonard Franklin Slye in a red brick tenement in Cincinnati on Nov. 5, 1911. His father, Andrew Slye, worked three blocks away in a shoe factory. Leonard's early years were spent on a houseboat in Portsmouth, Ohio.

He knew from the time he was 6 that he wanted to be a doctor. But as the years went by, that dream became ever more remote. His grades at the one-room schoolhouse in the Ohio town of Duck Run, near Cincinnati, reflected no special academic aptitude.

So he gave up thoughts of medicine in favor of becoming a big-league baseball star.

And finally--when he was 17 and the family fortunes were at a particularly low ebb--he gave up school altogether to join his father in the Cincinnati shoe factory.

"I tried night school for a while, but it was no-go," Rogers said. "One thing, though, I had learned while I was in school: I learned to read music.

"I could play the clarinet. And I could play the guitar."

After he had spent a year in the shoe factory, the Slyes, like so many families in the early Depression year of 1930, headed west. The family packed their belongings into a 1923 sedan and aimed it toward California.

Along the way, something important happened:

"It was one night when we were--as usual--camping beside the road. No money for hotels or anything like that. Just for something to do, my dad and my cousin Stanley, who was with us, brought out their mandolins and started playing. I strummed along on a guitar.

"Well, by the time we were done with the first song, we had a crowd!

"They were people like us, camping out and mostly pretty hungry. You could tell most of them hadn't smiled in a long, long time. But now they smiled, listening to the music. It made them happy; kept the dark away for a little bit. That's what I learned that night: I learned what music is for."

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