“King of the Cowboys” Roy Rogers has gone down in history as an icon of his era. And like many world-famous idols, the movie star has had a museum dedicated to his life and career – one that, at its height, pulled in over 200,000 visitors a year. Now, though, the attraction is gone for good. So, what’s the truth behind this sad shuttering, and why did Rogers’ son let it happen?
Rogers has more than earned his place in movie legend, after all. And as he still remains popular today, you’d think his museum in Branson, Missouri, would be a hot ticket. But, of course, Rogers wasn’t always famous. He 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. These skills would serve him well when he was discovered by the entertainment industry.
Then, on the advice of his sister Mary, the 19-year-old Rogers did a tryout with the Midnight Frolic radio show. At the time, he was a shy young man, yet he still found it within himself 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. Some of their songs, such as “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” are still remembered today. You’d think that would be enough for the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum to remain relevant – and open.
And Rogers surely should be commemorated as an icon of the screen Western. 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. Then, 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. It’s no wonder, then, that the equine star was honored in Rogers’ museum.
Away from performing, though, 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. She’s commemorated in the name of the museum, too. 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 would make an honest woman of Evans, though, when the pair 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 fact, the series is still remembered fondly today, and you’d probably assume this would be enough to keep the museum open.
But in 1967 Trigger sadly died. Rogers opted to have the iconic animal preserved, and when he and his wife opened The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Apple Valley, 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 canceled 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 afterward. 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 IRS 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.
Of course, Roy Rogers isn’t the only cowboy to have won a place in the hearts of many Americans. Take legendary actor John Wayne, for example, whose portrayal of countless gun-slinging cattlemen earned him much praise and attention. But while Wayne is celebrated far and wide for his performances, few fans are aware that the actor once found himself becoming a target of Joseph Stalin. And with hitmen apparently sent to get him, Duke did as any great cowboy would do: he showed his true grit.
A team of hitmen tracking down a Hollywood star may seem like the premise for an outlandish thriller, but then truth is often stranger than fiction. Wayne, of course, was a Western icon and war film hero famous for his swaggering presence in pictures such as True Grit and Sands of Iwo Jima. He became so well-known, in fact, that in 1975 even Emperor Hirohito from Japan wanted to meet him. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had that pleasure, too.
And the star’s legend grew over more than 170 films – many of which were successful. At one point, Wayne shifted more tickets at the box office than anyone bar Clark Gable. Interestingly, both men began their respective rises to fame at about the same time, although Wayne’s career endured for years longer than his contemporary’s.
Famously, the ever macho Wayne also preferred to be known by his nickname of Duke – a moniker that had come courtesy of a childhood neighbor. The man dubbed the young Marion Morrison “Little Duke,” as he had gone everywhere with a family pet called – you guessed it – Duke.
Wayne even began his career as Duke Morrison, although that soon changed. After the actor was cast in 1930’s The Big Trail, you see, it was decided that he needed a new name. And while director Raoul Walsh suggested Anthony Wayne – after the Revolutionary War general – the studio curiously thought that this suggestion was “too Italian.”
After the fledgling star received his brand-new screen name, though, he became instantly recognizable across the world. Wayne came to symbolize America in many respects – something that the man himself would go on to recognize. And as his career went from strength to strength, he started to pick roles that matched that image and rejected those that didn’t.
Most famously, Wayne portrayed rugged characters – often cowboys or outlaws. After appearing in The Big Trail, he had honed his craft in a string of small Western movies, building up to the film that would bring him his big break. This came in 1939 with the release of John Ford hit Stagecoach – an acclaimed epic that won Wayne considerable plaudits from critics.
And thanks to his performances in movies such as Red River and The Searchers, Wayne arguably came to embody America’s frontier past. Perhaps his defining role, though, was as True Grit’s grizzled lawman Rooster Cogburn – a part that saw Wayne finally scoop the Best Actor Oscar.
The Academy Award was far from the only honor that Wayne would receive, either, as in 1979 he was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. This is one of the two most prestigious decorations given out to American civilians, with the actor achieving the other accolade the following year when President Jimmy Carter posthumously granted him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Two decades on, the American Film Institute even saw fit to place Wayne on its list of the “Greatest American Screen Legends.” And his legacy endures through the several places that have been named in his honor – the most notable of these being, perhaps, John Wayne Airport in California’s Orange County.
Wayne’s trenchant conservative views are arguably part of that legacy, too. And this was despite the fact that the star paid little mind to political matters during his early years – something that would lead Henry Fonda to claim, “When we first made movies together, the Duke couldn’t even spell politics.” In the 1940s, though, Wayne earned a place on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, after which he became aware of the more left-leaning aspects of Hollywood.
It seems, moreover, that Wayne became interested in politics after being denied entry into the military during World War II. He was said to have been downcast at his rejection and reportedly never felt wholly comfortable about playing military heroes when he hadn’t actually served. Consequently, then, he looked for other ways in which he could display his fierce patriotism.
So, towards the end of the war, Wayne became a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), which aimed to take on Hollywood’s leftist fraternity. And while there’s talk that the actor only joined the organization to keep some of his rightwing buddies happy, he nevertheless served as MPA’s president from 1949 through 1952 – when Red Scare hysteria had America firmly in its grip.
Studio bosses pleaded with Wayne to step back from politics, telling him that it would end his career to court controversy. When the opposite happened, though, the star seemed to have the last laugh. Reportedly, he once said, “When I became president of the Alliance, I was 32nd on the box office polls, but last year  I’d skidded up near the top.”
During his time with the MPA, Wayne also worked on a “blacklist” intended to destroy the careers of purported communists. And legend has it that this endeavor ultimately came to the attention of the Soviets – in particular, noted Russian movie director Sergei Gerasimov.
Wayne had tasted the anger of communists before, having previously been sent anonymous threats. But when a friend suggested that the actor could back off a bit on his red-baiting, he was adamant, allegedly responding, “No goddamn commie’s gonna frighten me.” Yet Gerasimov had the ear of someone who was not just any “goddamn commie.”
And debate still rages about how anti-red Wayne was in reality. Unlike a number of his contemporaries, he showed a willingness to forgive former communists if they were repentant – most notably welcoming Edward Dmytryk back into Hollywood after the director had recanted his leftwing political stance.
Nonetheless, Wayne’s work for the MPA showed which side of the fence he was on. And this was what Gerasimov is said to have reported to Stalin when he returned to Moscow. Supposedly, the Soviet leader was all ears when Gerasimov gave him the lowdown on both the blacklist and Wayne’s fierce attacks on communists.
Yet the Soviet dictator was perhaps not in the best frame of mind to receive this news. Stalin was in his 70s at the time, and the stresses of World War II had left him ailing. Some thought that he’d even had either a stroke or a heart attack shortly after the conflict had ended; in any case, he apparently barely bothered with actually governing the Soviet Union.
Instead, Stalin was said to gather his cronies to watch movies – and not just Soviet-made productions, either. By some accounts, the leader had a penchant for European and U.S. films, including detective and boxing flicks. Stalin was also said to have been keen on the work of Charlie Chaplin – although apparently not The Great Dictator – as well as some of Jimmy Cagney’s big-screen outings.
But Stalin supposedly appreciated cowboy films above all others. Indeed, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, is said to have once claimed, “[Stalin] used to curse [cowboy movies], give them a proper ideological evaluation and then immediately order new ones.” And as John Ford westerns apparently had a special place in the dictator’s heart, it’s likely he knew Wayne’s screen work pretty well.
In fact, Stalin may well have seen himself in some of Duke’s characters. In his 2003 work Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag Montefiore hinted as much, writing, “Stalin regarded himself as history’s lone knight, riding out with weary resignation on another noble mission. [He was] the Bolshevik version of the mysterious cowboy arriving in a corrupt frontier town.”
And the aging strongman reportedly didn’t draw the line between fantasy and reality. In a subsequent piece for Sight and Sound magazine, filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev wrote of the dictator, “Stalin didn’t watch movies as works of art. He watched them as though they were real events taking place before his eyes – the real actions of people.”
So, somewhat curiously, Stalin sent Gerasimov to attend a peace conference in New York. And when the director returned, he had plenty to say about Wayne’s behavior. What’s more, these details apparently left Stalin so furious about what he heard that he decided to take action. The plan was simple, too: a KGB hit team was to go to Hollywood and take John Wayne out.
Then, when news of the plot reached America, the authorities took heed and offered Wayne some protection. Yet the actor was having none of it. In his 2001 work John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, Michael Munn claims that Wayne had responded, “I’m not gonna hide away for the rest of my life. This is the land of the free, and that’s the way I’m gonna stay.”
Apparently, the KGB hit squad really did turn up in Hollywood. And after having found out that Wayne kept an office on the Warner Brothers lot, the Soviets are said to have gotten through security by pretending to be FBI agents. Obligingly, they even received directions to find Duke.
But as we mentioned, the FBI was fully aware that the foreigners had come for Wayne. So members of the bureau lurked nearby – out of sight – as the star and a writer called James Grant took their places in the front of the office, trying to maintain a pretense of normality.
Then the would-be murderers apparently came into Wayne’s office. But before they could complete the mission that Stalin had set for them, the feds went into action, jumping out and grabbing the bad guys. Yes, before the two hitmen could even touch a hair on Wayne’s head, they allegedly found themselves weaponless and cuffed.
After that, the FBI agents supposedly bundled the Soviets into cars and traveled to a beach out of town. There, the captives were taken to the surf and forced to their knees, awaiting what they may have feared would be their executions. But when weapons were fired, there was a twist: they were loaded with nothing more dangerous than blanks.
However, this terrifying experience was a mere taste of what awaited the KGB men back in Russia – where failure would surely not be tolerated. So, the duo chose to defect on the spot. And the watching Wayne was characteristically cool, telling the Soviets, “Welcome to the land of the free” before driving off and leaving them to the American authorities.
You may think that after that attempt, Wayne would have changed his mind about receiving protection from the FBI. Yet that wasn’t the case; instead, he knocked back an offer of guards, as he believed that it would set his family on high alert. As a compromise, Wayne changed residences, relocating to a place that was surrounded by a high wall.
Still, even if Wayne was secure at home, there were other ways and means by which Stalin could track him down. Bearing that in mind, the actor’s stuntman buddy Yakima Canutt decided to take action. Specifically, Canutt and his friends infiltrated communist groups in southern California in order to find out what was going on and whether Wayne was still in danger.
In the process, the group discovered that the thwarting of the previous murder attempt seemingly hadn’t put off the KGB altogether. Allegedly, there was also a scheme to attack Wayne on the set of the film Hondo in Mexico in 1953 – although this plot was ultimately foiled, too.
Then, in 1955, the stuntmen apparently found out that KGB agents were hiding at a printing company in Burbank, California. In response, then, Canutt and his crew gave the Soviets a beatdown and sent them packing. After that, the agents were put on a plane to Moscow – and, reportedly, that was the last anyone ever heard of them.
How did the story of Wayne’s brush with the KGB come to light? Well, Munn claimed that the tale had been recounted to him by none other than Orson Welles in 1983. In 2003 the biographer added to The Guardian, “Mr. Welles was a great storyteller, but he had no particular admiration for John Wayne.”
And Welles may have had impeccable sources, too. Supposedly, the director had heard about the Wayne plot from filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk, who in turn had been told by another Russian movie man named Alexei Kapler. Bondarchuk hadn’t believed the news, though, until he’d spoken to Gerasimov, who gave assurances that the tale was legitimate.
Wayne himself would receive first-hand confirmation of the attempt on his life from an even better authority: Khrushchev. The Russian leader met with the star during a visit to the U.S. in 1959, and on that occasion he supposedly told Wayne that the plot had indeed been real.
While at a 20th Century Fox event, Wayne had apparently taken Khrushchev to one side and questioned him as to why the Soviets had wanted him dead. To this, Khrushchev reportedly told him, “That was the decision of Stalin during his last five mad years.” And the politician confirmed that he was certain the danger was past, continuing, “When Stalin died, I rescinded the order.”
Still, Wayne was supposedly not completely safe from communist foes. Khrushchev is said to have explained that Chinese leader Mao Zedong had also known all about the plot – and that it may have given him the idea to eventually succeed where Stalin had completely failed.
And one rumored incident suggests that Mao did indeed have it out for Wayne. While Duke was visiting a Vietnamese village in 1966, he allegedly came under fire from a sniper who was subsequently caught by the U.S. military. Peculiarly, though, the would-be killer was not Vietnamese but Chinese – and he had apparently carried out the attempted hit on Mao’s behest.