Tuesday, January 28, 2020


Roy Rogers began his career as a guitarist-singer with the original lineup of the Sons Of The Pioneers, under his real name, Len Slye. When Republic Pictures was looking for a new singing cowboy as a back-up to Gene Autry, to keep Gene in line in case he made any demands to re-negotiate his contract, Roy was chosen and given his own western films to star and sing in. These films turned out to be as popular with Western audiences as Gene’s ever were (and Roy had the same wholesome appeal as Gene, so he could be marketed to children as well as adults, and both men took their position as role model to the youth of America seriously), and Roy went on to become a huge phenomenon on his own, Hollywood’s KING OF THE COWBOYS, a man who was at the top of popularity in movies, on radio, on television, in comic books, in newspaper comics, in storybooks aimed at children, and in toy sales. Anyone who frequents junk stores, antique malls, and the like knows that there was a wide variety of Rogers items for sale in the 40’s and 50’s, and you still see them today, usually in poor condition and being sold at laughable prices. One wonders why sellers would assume anyone would be stupid enough to pay $20 for a water-stained used coloring book (for instance) with half the pages missing—you’d have to convince me to take it for free, and I’m a Rogers fan. I’m guessing most of these sellers saw a mint item similar to that sold for $20 on Ebay once—probably to some collector of Rogers who needed it to complete his collection—and figure that’s the going price. So much for the pre-Ebay days when sellers would price something so that they could move it in a month….and if it didn’t move it in a month, they’d drop it by a third. But I digress…

As someone who listens to old-time radio shows when I’m working (I unfortunately take a lot of work home from my job each night and need something to keep me going while I’m doing hours of tedious work—usually it’s music, but often it’s old-time radio….in the last month, I’ve probably listened to 75 episodes of the late 40’s Philo Vance show, starring Jackson Beck), I’ve had Roy Rogers in my rotation here and there over the years, though I paid little attention to what season I was listening to. On the whole, Rogers’ radio shows featured a lot of music and had a variety show feel, though later in the run, they tended to go more into a juvenile-oriented style, and were sponsored by breakfast cereals, and Roy would appeal directly to “boys and girls” when he spoke to the audience.

So imagine my surprise when I stumble across a set of 14 shows from 1954 (Roy’s last season on radio was 1955), and it’s quite different in format from what I’m used to. First of all, it’s called THE NEW ROY ROGERS SHOW. Then it’s announced at the beginning that it’s “for the entire family.” Usually that would mean that the show was family-friendly for children, with no “mature” content. This, however, means the opposite—that it’s not just a children’s show but is meant for adults too.

And that’s made crystal clear from the sponsor and the many commercial pitches. I don’t think many children are interested in buying an elegant 1954 Dodge or Plymouth sedan….or one of the work-horse Dodge trucks that Roy mentions he uses on his ranch and for pulling the horse trailer for Trigger. In fact, the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans theme song “Happy Trails” is re-written to include Dodge in every line after the first and is sung at least once on every show! There are so many ads for Dodge vehicles on the show, and the ads are full of such rich and enticing particulars, I found myself wanting to own one of those sleek, attractive, and affordable ’54 Dodges at the end of each show, the way I want to smoke a Lucky Strike at the end of each episode of THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM

One gimmick used during this season (it might be used on other 50’s seasons too, but not in the 40’s shows I remember) is that each show is titled after a song, usually some Western standard such as “Strawberry Roan” or “Red River Valley,” which is performed during the show and echoes of which are worked into the orchestral backing during the dramatic scenes, and then some element from the title of the song is worked into the plot…in the most forced but tangential way. For instance, Strawberry Roan is worked into a horse-racing plot (Brad Kohler will have to hear that one), while Red River Valley is set in a town near the Red River!

Also, many of the episodes involve murder mysteries! The earlier shows aimed at 10 year olds were certainly not. Of course, Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner would not have had to worry about any competition, as the quality of the murder plotting is rudimentary, to put it mildly, and one can only introduce so many suspects in a 30-minute show….especially when a chunk of it is given over to music, to Dodge commercials, to sidekick Pat Brady’s comedy antics, and to the Queen of the West DALE EVANS (originally from right down the road in Uvalde, Texas!) getting a song and interacting with the female characters on the show. I guess the murder mysteries were a way of making the show more “adult.” However, the eight-year-olds are not forgotten, as any child who’d listen to one or two previous episodes could figure out the guilty party as quickly as the adult listeners could.

I also like Roy’s being a celebrity in the dramatic parts of the show, someone recognized as being famous by the other characters they encounter as the plot plays out. This technique was used in the later seasons of the YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR radio show (which ran until 1962), where Johnny would appear in some town on a case, go into the local diner and get a cup of coffee and ask a few questions about the locals, and the guy serving the coffee would say, “why I know you, Mr. Dollar—I listen to your show every week.” Here, Roy will be about to question someone who was a witness to a crime or whatever, and the person is at first not wanting to cooperate, but then after Roy says his name, the person is impressed, admits he’s a fan, and says “of course I can help Roy Rogers—what can I do for you, Mr. Rogers.” Boy, it must be nice to have your name open doors like that!

Any fan of old-time radio will recognize many of the voices of Los Angeles-based character actors in the supporting roles, and the music is the kind of vaguely Western orchestral sound I associate with Spade Cooley at his most uptown. The Mello-Men vocal group appear too and do a novelty quartet vocal about Dodge products, the same way the Sportsmen Quartet used to do a novelty song about Lucky Strike on THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM. The instantly recognizable deep-bass voice of Thurl Ravenscroft (voice of Tony The Tiger, of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes Fame) is heard on these tracks, and here and there he gets 8 or 12 bars of solo singing, which is always a treat.

Anyone who remembers the Rogers 50’s TV show will enjoy the antics of comedy sidekick Pat Brady (in his other life, a member of the Sons Of The Pioneers), though since much of his routine on the TV show was visual humor and exaggerated mugging a la Leo Gorcey or Shemp Howard, he’s toned down a bit on radio. Also, his famous Jeep “Nellybelle” does not appear on the ten or twelve episodes of the show I listened to in this review….though the show DOES mention that Pat was on occasion taking Trigger somewhere in the horse trailer which was pulled by Roy’s tough 1954 Dodge truck! Evidently, Jeep not being an advertiser (Jeep was not part of Chrysler back then—it joined Chrysler when they purchased American Motors decades later) kept Nellybelle out of a Dodge-sponsored show!

Overall, this is an entertaining show for the Rogers fan. He’s in virtually every scene, he gets a song in every show, he interacts with his charming wife Dale, he plays the straight man to Pat Brady’s comic buffoonery, he solves a murder in most episodes, and he’s excited about the 1954 Dodge line of cars and trucks, and anxious to tell YOU about them. Listen to a few of these shows in a row, and you’ll be wanting a stylish and economical 1954 Dodge too!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article as ever Bill.