To America, they were one of the greatest country western duos of all time.To Dusty Rogers, they were simply “Mom and Dad.” Roy Rogers Jr., also known as “Dusty”, recently spoke with Cathy Elkies, Christie’s Director of Iconic Collections, about the upcoming sale of The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum Collection. Dusty opened up about the enduring legacy of his parents, and shared stories about the Roy and Dale you didn’t see on the big screen…
Cathy Elkies: What was it like growing up as the son of Roy Rogers?
Dusty Rogers: When I was a kid, I was living everybody’s dream. People still come up to me and say, “When I was seven years old, I wanted to be you!” Early on, I didn’t know that my dad was any different – I thought everybody worked in the movie business, and grew up on movie sets. I went through a rebellious phase during my teens, and I suppose Dad and I drifted apart a bit during that time. A turning point occurred when he had his heart problems in the early 1970s and we thought we could lose him. His health improved but the experience brought the two of us closer together, and we were like best buddies from that point on. People tell me I have the same mannerisms as him. My voice is a little deeper, I sing baritone and Dad was a tenor. My son Dustin sounds just like his grandpa. Genes run deep in this pool!
With celebrity parents and nine children, I imagine you had some fascinating conversations around the family dining table that we’re offering in the sale.
My parents made family dinners a priority, and we spent hours around that table as children. It was made by George Montgomery, an actor and cowboy who worked in some of Dad’s pictures. He was married to Miss Dina Shore, the Big Band singer and actress. George was a talented woodworker, and he had seen that Mom and Dad had too many kids to fit around an average dinner table, so he built one especially for us. The best part was the Lazy Susan he installed at the center. Mom set all of the food on big plates in the middle, family style, and we’d turn it around, taking off whatever we wanted to eat.
The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum closed its doors in December after over 40 years of operation. This was obviously a monumental decision.
It was the most difficult decision for our family to make. Dad acknowledged many years ago that if the museum ever became difficult to maintain after he died, then we should let it go. We thought we’d always be able to keep it open, but my dad, smart as he was, knew that some day his fans would get older and they would slowly become unable to travel to Missouri. With the economy the way it is, and visitor traffic slowing dramatically, the expenses of operating the museum eventually outweighed the profit. Without being able to break even, we simply couldn’t support it anymore.
That was an amazing thing that Roy said to you before he died. It has to give you a sense of relief to know it would be okay with him.
Yes, but it has still been a challenge. In that sense our family is no different from any other family in the country. When your parents pass on, you’re left to deal with their household, and ultimately, their legacies. You have all of these things that were personal to them, and what do you do with them? You’d love to save them, but you can’t possibly keep everything. You feel terrible about throwing things out, because they mean something to the family.
We’ve agreed that there are people out there who love Roy and Dale and would love the opportunity to have something personal to remember them by. If we give people an opportunity to do just that with this auction, then we’ve done our job as a family.
We have to talk about Roy and Trigger, possibly the most famous horse in show business. Was the Roy-Trigger relationship as close as the media made it out to be?
It really was. Dad and Trigger were both young when they started—Trigger was only four years old, and Dad was 26—and on some level I think they both felt this was the start of something special. Over their 30+ years together, they established a bond of trust and mutual respect. Once, when the show was passing through New York, the truck took a sharp corner, and the trailer carrying Trigger overturned, trapping him inside. Most horses would get so panicked in this situation that you’d have to put them down on the spot. But Trigger was different. Dad managed to reach in through the door of the trailer, through the broken glass, and put his hand on Trigger’s neck. He said, “It’s ok, old man, it’ll be ok.” The fire department came, and they were eventually able to slide Trigger out using the fire hose. He came out with just a few knocks and bruises—that’s all. That shows you the kind of trust they had.
When Trigger passed, my dad was so distraught he didn’t tell the family for over a year (we didn’t know, because he was kept in another stable off our ranch). I think to him it was like losing a child. He told my mom, “I can’t just put him in the ground.” He had Trigger beautifully mounted and installed in the museum. A lot of people were upset about that, but I think he made the right choice. Trigger was one of the most popular attractions at the museum.
Your father made a lot of smart choices during his career. When I look at the collection in our sale, all of the merchandising is amazing—lunch boxes, toys, guitars, and more. What I find incredible is that this was in an era when Disney was the only other large-scale merchandiser. How did your parents become some of the first to take advantage of this opportunity?
It all started in 1941, when Dad was playing a show in Madison Square Garden in New York City. A businessman approached him and said he wanted to put Roy’s name on children’s gun belts, hats, boots, and other toys. Well, Dad later agreed, and from there the business took off. Roy was second only to Disney in all those years of branded kids’ items. I think at one point there were more than 400 items with Dad’s name on them.
Where do you see evidence today of Roy and Dale’s legacy and their influence on American pop culture?
Their legacy lives in the generation of people who grew up watching them on the big screen. It is as simple as people telling me, “I never heard a bad thing about your parents.” Even though they were horrendously busy, managing up to 20 different businesses at a time, raising nine children, taking care of all of their employees, and being on the road 29 days out of 30—no matter how tired they were, they upheld the greatest moral integrity through it all. They taught all of us children wholesome values, and showed us that if you live right, the world will smile on you in return.
Let’s stroll thru a few of your favorite pieces in the upcoming auction…starting with the Bonneville Parade Car and trailer. How did Roy come to have it, and did he really use it?
The story begins with Nudie the Rodeo Tailor, who made all of my dad’s fancy cowboy clothes. Nudie had a wild sense of style— he wore a different pair of boots every day, but they would never match. He’d wear green on one foot, blue on the other. Starting in the early 1960s, Nudie started to work on cars—he’d take apart the interiors of Bonnevilles and rebuild them with every possible cowboy decoration you could want in a car. Turn signals and door handles were converted into guns, and silver dollars were embedded into the side walls and dash board. Nudie made Dad this special car and trailer so he could carry supplies when he went out on location. Dad drove that car everywhere—he took it hunting, fishing—there was no place he wouldn’t drive it. He also used it for some practical joking. There was an eight-track machine installed under the seat, and Dad kept it loaded with an eight-track of a cattle drive. He’d drive up to an intersection at a four-way stop, then project the sound of the eight-track through a bull horn he kept in the car. People nearby would hear this stampede going through and look around in confusion. He thought that was hilarious!
Nothing was too precious for your dad to use. Yet what’s remarkable to me about the Nudie clothes in the sale is that they were “work clothes” but their condition is fabulous!
Dad came from nothing, he grew up without two sticks to rub together as a boy. He finally got to the point where he could get some nice things and he had respect for them, he took good care of them.
One of my favorite items from Dale is the charm bracelet, it tells the whole story.
That bracelet was given to my mom in the early 1950s during the time that Ralph Edwards was doing a show about Dad’s life story, entitled, “This is Your Life.” It completely chronicled Dad’s life in gold charms—it has the school house where he was educated, a duck for Duck Run, where he grew up in Ohio, a pair of hands to signal their marriage, there’s a charm of Trigger rearing. Dad would add charms for every grandchild. It meant an awful lot to my mother, she was very proud of it. I hope to be able to explain to the winning bidder what each charm means.
You’ve really stepped into your dad’s boots with your musical show in Branson, Missouri, which you perform five times per week. How did you decide to follow in your parents’ footsteps?
I sang with Mom and Dad ever since I was a young boy on the road with them. I started my band, The High Riders, about 25 years ago. My mom actually gave us that name. We played local events with my parents here and there, and when they got older, and eventually passed, we started doing more and more on our own. What I want to represent in my singing career is the legacy of Mom and Dad. I pay tribute to them in my show, while also doing some music of my own.
As you said earlier, genes run deep in the Rogers family. I’ve seen photos of your son—he looks so much like Roy.
Yes, if it wasn’t for the goatee and the tattoo he’d look exactly like dad! I’m very proud of him. This year he’s handling more of the show than ever. I don’t know whether he’ll go in that direction— I won’t push him—if it fits, I’m sure he’ll do it, but if it doesn’t, that’s ok too. My father’s legacy touched the lives of so many Americans, and to see that legacy live on in my own son brings me a joy beyond words.