Roy Rogers was known as “King of the Cowboys,” and he has gone down in history as an icon of his era. But the museum dedicated to the star was, unfortunately, less popular in the end. Once upon a time, the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville pulled in over 200,000 visitors a year – yet now it’s gone for good. So, what happened?
Roy Rogers was born with the given name Leonard Slye in 1911 – less than 20 years before the Great Depression took hold. As a youngster, the future star learned to ride on the family horse and was taught square dancing and yodeling. And these skills would serve him well when he was discovered by the entertainment industry.
At 19 years of age, on the advice of his sister Mary, Rogers did a tryout with the Midnight Frolic radio show. At the time, he was a shy young man – yet he was nonetheless able to perform. And as a result, he got into a country music group called the Rocky Mountaineers. Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer were also Rocky Mountaineers at the start of their careers.
In 1933 Rogers, Spencer and Nolan then launched a group by the name of the Pioneers Trio, which eventually became the Sons of the Pioneers. And thanks to the popularity of radio, the Sons of the Pioneers soon grew to be huge. Indeed, some of their songs, such as “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” are still remembered today.
From 1935 Rogers began appearing in Westerns, too. He started out as a supporting character to Gene Autry, the most popular singing cowboy of his era, but ended up as one of the older actor’s principal competitors. And as the rising star got bigger in the world of movies, he changed his name from Leonard Slye to Roy Rogers.
Crucial to Rogers’ success was the presence of Trigger, his horse sidekick. At the beginning of his movie career, Rogers was given his pick of steeds to ride, and he plumped for Golden Cloud – a horse who appeared in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. And after later purchasing the animal, the actor changed his name to Trigger because of his speed and intelligence.
According to Rogers and people close to him, Trigger was incredibly clever and quick to learn. He could apparently walk on his hind legs, sit on a chair, put a blanket over himself and even sign “X” for a signature. Trigger and Rogers were inseparable as well; and as the fame of the actor grew, so too did that of his horse.
Away from performing, Rogers was married a few times during the height of his career. First, he took vows with Lucile Ascolese, a fan of his, in 1933. However, the union didn’t last, and in 1936 the pair got divorced. That same year, though, Rogers married Grace Arline Wilkins – also later adopting a child with her. But while Grace bore two other children, she tragically died from complications after birthing the couple’s son.
Rogers’ third wife was Dale Evans, his co-star in the movie Home in Oklahoma. Evans actually already had a child from another marriage; but while working as an actress, she had to hide the fact that she was an unmarried mother. In fact, 20th Century Fox told people at the time that the child, Tommy, was actually her younger brother.
Rogers and Evans went down the aisle on New Year’s Eve, 1947. And as a sentimental nod to their first meeting, the couple tied the knot at the ranch where the movie Home in Oklahoma had been filmed. After that, they produced a child, Robin Elizabeth – but, sadly, she passed away due to issues arising from Down syndrome before she had turned two. Evans eventually wrote a book, titled Angel Unaware, in the child’s honor.
As a result of losing their daughter, Evans and Rogers began working to change the public perception of disability. And Evans made such an impact that the Dale Rogers Training Center, a council for developmentally disabled children, is named after her. Rogers and Evans later adopted and raised a further four youngsters, too.
However, Rogers ended up suffering yet more tragedy as time went on. Debbie, an orphan of the Korean War taken in by Rogers and Evans, lost her life at the age of 12 in a bus accident. And Sandy, another adopted child, went on to serve in the Army – but died in a military hospital in 1947.
Yet Rogers’ career went on – and a considerable amount of merchandise was made that centered around him: toys; novels; even a comic book series from Dell Comics. Evans, too, became a household name, appearing in almost 30 of her husband’s movies. And thanks to Rogers buying the rights to his own likeness in 1940, he grew to be rich.
Then, in 1951, came The Roy Rogers Show, which starred Rogers and Evans along with their animals – Trigger and Bullet the Wonder Dog. Pat Brady also featured, as the sidekick character. And the show was popular enough to run for six seasons and 100 episodes before coming to an end in June 1957.
In 1967 Trigger subsequently died, and yet he was such an iconic animal that Rogers opted to have him preserved. In fact, he and Evans opened a museum, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Apple Valley – and they had Trigger’s mounted body placed there. However, in 1976 they moved the museum and its occupants to Victorville in California.
The taxidermied remains of Bullet the Wonder Dog were likewise kept on display at the museum – and the same went for the remains of Evans’ horse Buttermilk. The preserved body of Trigger Junior – the horse who had served as a stunt double for the original Trigger – also made the cut. But keeping the animal relics in good condition was no easy feat; they had to be brushed regularly and have their glass eyes cleaned, for one.
After The Roy Rogers Show came The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, but the latter was cancelled after just three months thanks to low ratings. Rogers wasn’t done yet, though. He made various cameo appearances in other TV shows, including Wonder Woman and The Muppet Show.
Then in 1968 Rogers did a business deal with Marriott, lending his name in order to rebrand the company’s Hot Shoppes restaurants. So, Hot Shoppes became Roy Rogers Restaurants. And as a result, Rogers received money for letting the firm use his name – plus a fee for any appearances that he made at the restaurants.
Yet although Rogers’ business deals were important, his relationships with his children were also seemingly at the forefront of his concerns. In 1987 his son Roy Rogers Jr., a.k.a. Dusty, gave an interview to People magazine about his childhood. And Dusty’s mother and father joined in with their own thoughts as well.
“Dusty and Sandy and I used to go out for a couple of weeks at a time and hunt and fish and live off the land,” Rogers told People about his life as a parent. “If you spend time to teach kids right and wrong when they’re little, it’s much easier for them to grow up. And it shows you love ’em.”
Dusty and his father did, however, briefly fall out after the former graduated from high school and wanted to get into movies. Yes, it seems that Rogers didn’t want his son to follow in his own footsteps – and instead told him to get a “good job.” “I got mad and left town with friends,” Dusty reminisced to People. Luckily, though, the pair made up in the end.
“I used to wonder when I was a kid what in the world was so exciting about this guy,” Dusty told the magazine about his father. “Then I got to going through all the clippings, the fan mail, the thousands of pictures of all the things he’s done, the children’s hospitals he’s visited. It’s almost unbelievable. This is the man I had spent my whole life with and never really gotten to know.”
By 1988 Rogers had picked up multiple awards for his work. He also had no less than three stars etched into the Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for TV, one for radio and one for movies. And he and Evans were in addition part of Oklahoma’s Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Plus, the star was inducted into the Sons of the Pioneers in 1995.
Rogers also made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame twice – once as a member of Sons of the Pioneers and another time as a solo artist. So far, he’s the only person ever to have this honor. But even that’s not all. You see, in 1983 he bagged a Golden Boot Award and in 1996 a Golden Boot Founder’s Award.
But sadly, time eventually caught up with the pioneering performer. Yes, Rogers succumbed to congestive heart failure in 1998 at the age of 86. Such had been the star’s impact on American pop culture, mind you, that then-President Bill Clinton commemorated his death. “Today there will be a lot of sad and grateful Americans, especially of my generation, because of his career,” Clinton said.
By the time of his death, Rogers had a whopping 15 grandchildren together with 33 great-grandchildren plus his wife and six surviving children. The children were Roy Rogers Jr., Linda Lou Johnson, Dodie Sailors, Cheryl Barnett, Tom Fox and Marion Swift. And Roy Rogers Jr. was the curator of the museum at this point.
The New York Times mentioned the museum in its obituary for Rogers, too. “Mr. Rogers would often visit the museum and converse with visitors,” the piece read. “He continued to wear his white Stetson, his gabardine shirts and his silver-and-leather belts. Even though his legs ached and he would have been more at ease in sneakers, he always pulled on his pointy boots with the high heels.”
Evans died not long after her husband, in 2001 at the age of 88. And obituaries for the actress pointed out how much she had achieved in both her own career and in tandem with Rogers. For one thing, she was the writer behind the famous Roy Rogers theme song “Happy Trails to You,” having composed the lyrics just 40 minutes before his show went on air.
The museum then stood as a tribute to Rogers and Evans for a few years afterwards. However, in 2003 it moved from its original home in Victorville, CA, to a new spot in Branson, Missouri. The decision was to do with money. You see, after the death of Evans, the I.R.S. levied a high tax on the Rogers estate, and more cash was required to keep the museum open. A more “touristy” area was needed, it appears.
Unfortunately, though, things didn’t work out. The museum moved to Branson, MO, but the number of tourists the family had hoped for ultimately didn’t arrive. There was too much competition from other tourist attractions, and the nostalgia factor just wasn’t in Branson the way that it had been in Apple Valley.
So it was that in 2009 Roy Rogers Jr. published a letter to fans of the museum. “You, the fans, and our Board of Directors are the ones who have kept our family museum going for over 42 years. It has been a wonderful ride,” he wrote. “After millions of visitors and countless stories of what Roy and Dale have meant to you, the Board of Directors have voted to close the museum at the end of 2009.”
“This has not been an easy decision. Various emotional and financial issues have been addressed by all of us, as you might imagine,” Rogers Jr. continued. “The decision to close the Museum has come after two years of steady visitors to the Museum. A lot of factors have made our decision for us.”
Rogers Jr. also went into the reasons for the closure. “The economy, for one; people are just not traveling as much. Dad’s fans are getting older and concerned about their retirement funds. Everyone is concerned about their future in this present economy,” he said. “Second, with our high fiscal obligations, we cannot continue to accumulate debt to keep the doors open.”
Rogers Jr. also talked about what his father would have wanted him to do. “Dad always said, ‘If the museum is costing you money, then liquidate everything and move on.’ Myself and the family have tried to hold together the museum and collection for over 15 years, so it is very difficult to think that it will be gone soon,” he wrote.
“Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers,” Rogers Jr. finished in his letter. “Remember, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans will live forever in our hearts and minds and will continue to ride across the silver screen through their movies. Every time you think of Roy and Dale, that warm feeling you have always felt will always return.”
The valuable items that the museum held subsequently ended up being auctioned off in July 2010. And the taxidermied remains of Trigger naturally drew a lot of interest. In the end, the preserved horse was snapped up by the cable network RFD-TV, as was Bullet the Wonder Dog. Bullet was sold for $35,000 and Trigger for a massive $266,000.
Meanwhile, RFD-TV owner Patrick Gottsch talked to the Associated Press about what the company planned to do with its purchases. Specifically, the channel was getting set to show Roy Rogers movies – introduced by Rogers Jr. and with the forms of Trigger and Bullet in the background. “The goal is to introduce Roy Rogers to a whole new generation of kids,” Gottsch explained.
Gottsch had also received an outpouring of gratitude from Roy Rogers fans who’d feared for the fate of the preserved horse after the museum had closed. “Over the last 24 hours, I’ve received so many emails of thank you, just wonderful letters, saying, ‘Thank you for saving Trigger,’” Gottsch told the Associated Press.
Other famous Roy Rogers-associated items sold for high prices as well. Among the attractions of The Roy Rogers Show was a jeep called Nellybelle that had belonged to Pat Brady’s character. And the real Nellybelle sold at $116,500 to horse trainer and Rogers fan Pam Weidel, who planned to keep the vehicle in a private museum.
What’s more, despite the sad fact of the Roy Rogers Museum having to close, the auction was apparently a happy occasion. Auctioneer Cathy Elkies told the Associated Press that the event was the “most colorful, emotional and sentimental” auction she’d ever witnessed. And at the end of it, the audience even reportedly all sung “Happy Trails” together. Rogers and Evans would surely have approved.