New York — "Buffalo Bill's defunct." So wrote e. e. cummings in his short poem about the late great cowboy who "used to ride a watersmooth silver stallion and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat."
Well, Roy Rogers is anything but defunct. And he proved it during a recent trip to New York to celebrate his 50th year in show business and to promote the opening of a new Broadway restaurant for the chain that bears his name.
Riding a prancing palomino through Central Park, he added a touch of cowboy magic to the pedestrian world of New York.
"I can't believe it!" exclaimed one lady in the crowd. "I've waited 30 years to see him." Another woman in a damp jogging suit stopped to stare in wonder at the cowboy who could knock out onetwothreefourfive outlaws justlikethat, and sing right on key afterward.
The zealous public relations man from the hotel chain that owns Roy Rogers restaurants hurriedly kept such fans at bay, turning aside a disappointed, autograph-seeking little boy with brusque efficiency. And the mob of reporters and photographers and TV camera crews gave the scene a kind of carnival atmosphere.
But, for a fleeting moment, the place was touched with unaccustomed grace.
It happened at a point when only a handful of reporters had arrived and were milling around waiting for the celebrity to appear. A couple dozen riderless horses were saddled and tied to a row of park benches in dappled sunlight, waiting to take the assembled reporters on a ride to the nearby Tavern-On-The-Green restaurant. There was a light, summer- morning breeze gently combing the leaves of the park trees.
Suddenly, a long, sleek, silver-and-black limousine pulled up on the park road, and out stepped one of the handsomest men you ever saw.
Wearing a shimmering blue shirt, red bandanna, white hat (of course), and narrow black pants, and flashing his trademark smile, Roy Rogers swung into the saddle of a sun- yellow palomino and ambled ever so slowly over to the shade under a clump of trees to pose for pictures.
From a distance, it looked like a moment preserved in amber: the morning sunlight, the handsome cowboy, the golden horse, the crowd of admirers, and the whole feeling of a time when one could still believe in such things as good guys in white hats.
The day before, sitting in an elegant chair at a nearby hotel, Rogers reminisced about those days and the 90 pictures he appeared in during that era.
"We made those pictures for kids and the family," he recalled. "A mother could drop her kids off at the theater from 11 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon and not worry about what they were seeing. I began to feel like a babysitter.
"It was a wonderful, healthy era for children."
Nor was it a particularly bad era for singing cowboys. But things were not always as lucrative for Rogers as they are today, when he sits in a plush hotel suite wearing a golden saddle ring, a suit that looks like it was poured onto him, and a warm, healthy glow.
"I was making $75 a week when I first began starring in pictures," he remembers. "Before long, I was getting 20,000 letters every week. I had to hire four girls to answer them, and it was costing me more than I was making. I had to do one-night [rodeo] stands just to pay for them."
All that began to change during a rodeo show at Madison Square Garden, when a stranger walked up to him and asked him if he'd ever thought of putting his name on products for commercial tie-ins. He hadn't thought of it, and didn't know what to to about the offer, so he went and asked his studio boss if he were allowed to do such a thing.
"He was so cheap he wouldn't pay a nickel to see an ant eat a bale of hay," Rogers recalls. "He told me, 'Do anything you want, only don't ask me for a raise.' And he gave me a contract saying I owned the rights to my name, face, and likeness. Right after that, commercial tie-ins got real big everywhere, and I became second only to Disney."
Not bad for a poor boy who had to teach himself to read well enough to follow his early scripts.He was born on a riverboat near Cincinnati and lived there until he was 7, when his family moved to a small farm in Duck Run, Ohio.
"During the depression," he recalls, leaning back in his seat, "I got a job driving a Model-T truck in California, hauling sand and gravel. That was in 1930. In 1931, the guy lost his trucks, and I went up north to pick peaches. Later, I found out I was in the same camp where John STeinbeck wrote 'The Grapes of Wrath.'"
Looking back on those times, he says the only way he can explain the phenomenal success he eventually found -- he was No. 1 among cowboy heroes for almost every year he was in pictures -- was that he was guided into the right places to catch the wings of opportunity.
One of those places was a hat store where he was having his one hat cleaned. While he was there, some stranger came in very anxious to buy a cowboy hat. When he was asked why, he answered, "Got to have it. I've got a screen test for Republic Pictures tomorrow. They're looking for a singing cowboy."
The next morning, Leonard Slye (his real name) was outside Republic Studios trying to get past a truculent security guard. He had been singing background for Gene Autry and other stars, but his face was hardly well-known enough to get him into his own furnished room, let alone a movie studio. So, when a group of extras came back from lunch, he sneaked in on the other side of them.
"When I got in, I felt a hand on my shoulder," he recalls, "and I thought it was the security guard coming to throw me out."
Instead, it was the studio's top producer, Sol Siegel, who had been on his way out to lunch. He had recognized Slye from one of his backup appearances. "I never would a thought of ya, Len, unless I had seen ya just now. But why don't we try a screen test?" Rogers remembers him saying.
"They were worried about my eyes," Rogers recalls. "I was squinty-eyed. Then, they were worried about my name. And they changed that. But I must have done OK, because after that I made my first picture, 'Under Western Skies.'"
That was the first of a highly successful string of what Rogers matter-of-factly refers to as "'B' pictures." They were not to to be compared with "'A' pictures like 'High Noon,' with top budgets, and all kinds of time to shoot," he points out. Then he sings the opening bars of the "High Noon" theme song: "Do not forsake me, Oh my darling. . . ." His friend Tex Ritter sang the original.
The pictures Rogers madE, on the other hand, took little time and money to shoot. And they showed it. But that was of small moment to the hordes of kids who grew up watching them while cramming handfuls of popcorn and jujubes into their mouths.
He decries the violence and sex of current films, which he traces back to the days of the so-called "spaghetti westerns," and other foreign films that didn't have to pass the Hollywood censor. He worries that children have been affected by the entertainment that is put in front of them.
"Children at a certain age can be greatly affected by these films," he argues. "Seeing this violence all the time has to have some effect. That guy who shot our President had to learn such ideas somewhere.
"These are tough times for kids to grow up. Children kind of grow up and miss their childhood. And the school systems don't give them a straight line of yes or no. There is a lot of emphasis on bands and sports and play. But life just isn't that way. Not everybody winds up as a rock star or sports hero. Most people fall somewhere in between where you have to have enough horse sence and tenacity to make a living."
"Tragedy is often a part of life," he observes. "I lost my first wife six days after my son was born. Then Dale and I lost three children. The way you handle such things is what counts. I've got to believe that someone bigger than me is making all the decisions, and He knows much better than I do.
"It's been hard for us. But we have been able to accept these things through prayer."
More recently, life has been smoother for Rogers, who still makes money off his arrangement with Marriott Hotels, and enjoys making public appearances around the country.
Does he ever miss the good old days, when he was them cowboy hero for a generation?
"I get a chance to kind of relive the old days," he says. "I have a little ranch with some good bird dogs. And then I have my museum where I meet the people who used to watch me."
He recalls one such visitor, a burly 6-foot-3 man who happened on his boyhood hero in the museum, picked Roy Rogers up by the waist with tears streaming down his face and said, "I know I'm cryin', Roy, but I don't care. It's been a dream all my life to meet you in person."
To a reporter who has interviewed numerous celebrities, it hasn't quite been a lifetime dream to meet Roy Rogers, but somehow, sitting there with the man who could leap on Trigger at full gallop, who could seem somehow kinda respectful and friendly even though he was tougher than anyone else, and who could shoot straight and live clean . . . it all seemed to good to be true.
So, in case I ran into someone who didn't believe I had actually met the King of the Cowboys, I asked for his autograph.
"To Chris," he wrote obligingly, "Many Happy Trails.
"Roy Rogers & Trigger."