Guest POST by Jerry Sprague
All of us probably have our favorite cowboys from the old B-Western genre. Some of us grew up as Gene Autry fans and others as Roy Rogers fans; and others as Hopalong Cassidy, Lone Ranger, Durango Kid or fans of any of the many other silver screen cowboys. Over the years I have read a lot of newsletters and other media about B-Western stars and the one thing that always amazed me was not the strong feelings some people had about their heroes but the very negative feelings they had for whom they considered their hero’s competition. I remember reading something written by one lady who loved Gene Autry but thought Roy Rogers wasn’t worthy of hero status because he had not served in the military. But for me personally, I always viewed both Gene and Roy as my heroes. Why can’t I like them both equally, though they were very different individuals?
My interest in the B-Western stars began when I was about 12. In the early 60’s our local TV station was showing reruns of Gene’s TV shows. I loved them and dreamed about being like Gene with my horse and guitar. A little later on, I grew in appreciation for Roy Rogers because of his Christian faith. I tried contacting Gene through letters at that time but never got a response; I think he was starting a baseball team at that time and his cowboy fans took a back seat. I did write Roy and got responses back through his fan club. Roy seemed to be more fan conscious than Gene but that fact did not cause me to pit them against each other. Instead, over the years I learned to appreciate each of them for who they were.
Gene Autry was about 4 years older than Roy and he was very business-oriented. He must have been a good athlete because he was offered a pro baseball job after high school. But it did not pay enough to live on so Gene got a job as a telegraph operator. But he did pursue a music career and excelled in that; he wrote or co-wrote many of his songs and recorded some 600 songs during his career.
Roy was also very athletic and considered a better horseman than Gene, though I
don’t think Gene had anything to be ashamed of. Roy loved music also but probably wasn’t quite the musician Gene was; Roy wrote very few songs (one time researched this and could only come up with about 7 songs) but recorded many. He actually had a couple in the top 40 of country music sometime in the 70s. I’ve heard “professional” actors criticize Roy’s voice but I thought he sounded great. He was the prime mover in starting the Sons of the Pioneers; when he, Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan started they would practice 8- 10 hours a day at times to perfect their harmony. They definitely set the standard for Western singing groups. And guess what? Next year the Sons of the Pioneers celebrate their 80th anniversary!
It seems that Roy was not the business man that Gene was and was not a planner. Gene realized he would not always be popular as a cowboy so while in the service, he started making business investments in radio, TV and motels. He also got involved providing livestock for rodeos and was inducted into the PRCA Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs which I visited a few years ago. Roy did not amass much of a fortune, though, like Gene, he did a lot of merchandising with products he endorsed. Gene was meticulous about preserving his movies and most of them have been digitized in recent years and are shown on the Western Channel on cable. Many of Roy’s films were not protected or classified and very few, if any, have been digitized. Just watch the Western channel sometime and you’ll see many more Gene Autry movies than Roy Rogers. Gene’s museum is a class act museum located in LA which focuses on Western history and culture in general and still continues strongly today as a show case and a place where art and music events are held; Roy’s museum was more of a down home collection of Roy and Dale’s memorabilia. It was located way out in the desert town of Victorville and did well as long as he and Dale were there. After they passed on, the museum was relocated to Branson, Missouri but lasted only a few years.
Gene and Ina never had any children even though Gene seemed to really like kids and often visited hospitals and sang kid’s songs. Roy and Dale had a big family of about 9 (if I recall correctly), many of them adopted. Roy and Dale were very family oriented and involved their children in many of their professional activities.
After WWII broke out, Gene Autry was making about $600K per year and had been ranking number 2 and 3 among all movie stars and No. 1 among the cowboy actors. But Gene felt called to serve his country and wanted to fly planes. (And how many actors today have resigned, joined the military and rushed off to help out in Iraq and Afghanistan?) He paid for his own pilot lessons and then resigned from Republic Studio and joined the Army-Air Corps. He ended up flying cargo planes in the South Pacific during the war. On the other hand, Roy never served in the military and it seems he had a deferment due to his large family. However, Roy used his influence to support the war effort, though some people have criticized him for not serving. Gene’s leaving for the war led to Roy becoming the new “King of the Cowboys” while Gene was gone.
When Gene returned from the war, Republic hired him back and for a while Gene and Roy belonged to Republic. Republic had the two most popular cowboy movie stars. And of all things, Republic tried to promote them as competitors who did not like each other. But in Roy’s autobiography, he talks about his relationship with Gene. Both men had the utmost respect for each other and they understood what Republic was trying to do. Often Republic would supposedly quote either Gene or Roy saying something bad about the other. Depending on who was the supposed aggressor, Gene or Roy would pick up the phone and call the other to say it was not true which they probably already knew. Eventually, Gene left Republic to go with Columbia for a while but then eventually started his own company (Flying A Productions) to produce his TV productions of the Gene Autry Show, Annie Oakley, The Adventures of Champion, The Range Riders, and Buffalo Bill, Jr, all of which were aired in the 1950’s.
As far as accomplishments, Gene excelled in a few more areas than Roy did. Gene is the only person who has a star in all 5 categories on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: radio, recording, motion pictures, TV and live performances. Roy has three stars; radio, TV and motion pictures.
But Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were both human, though we wanted to make them infallible. For years I always thought Roy had two marriages; one to Arlene who died after Dusty was born and Dale Evans. Roy never mentioned in any of his writings that he had married at 18 to another teenager but it seems they really never lived together. Roy was traveling at the time with his singing group and she decided that she did not want to be married to an entertainer who was gone all the time. It seems the marriage lasted about a year. Why did Roy never mention it? Roy was always so conscious of being an example to children and other people so I think maybe he just did not want to display that one “black” mark of his past. This fact came out in a recent biography written about Roy; his family was not pleased with the publication of this book. That’s about the only “skeleton” in Roy’s closet that I know of except a little bit of drinking and carousing he did with the Pioneers before he became a Christian. But Gene seemed to have a few more serious problems. According to Gene in his autobiography, while in the military, days could get pretty boring so the soldiers sat around a lot playing cards and drinking. That’s when Gene started drinking. Then in the 50’s when the silver screen had played out Gene started touring a lot and he and his group would perform in one place, then drive all night to their next location to perform again. His performance schedule was incredibly hectic and I personally think that led to him having an alcohol problem. Johnny Western, one of Gene’s musicians on tour with him, described many of their touring travels in a recently published book and it was evident Gene was having a problem. Being a performer is a stressful job and many groups today deal with it by doing illegal drugs or prescription drugs like Richard Carpenter of Karen Carpenter fame. In Gene’s day the preferred drug was alcohol. It seems like Gene struggled with this problem through the late 50’s and 60’s but then got it under control for the later years of his long life. In his autobiography, he comments that he was aware that he was labeled an alcoholic but he did not know any alcoholics who became millionaires, implying that he had overcome it.
So, BOTH Gene and Roy were my “favorite” heroes. My heroes do not have to be perfect because, like me, they are human and fallible. But the good they did far outweighs any shortcomings they may have had. They were both what I consider “real” people; that is, the same on and off the screen. They both were men of integrity with high morals, love of their country, and love of their families and friends. How many celebrity heroes do we have today?
Please note that most of what I wrote I did from memory so I may have made some “mental” errors; but I can claim senior senility since I am 65. Feel free to correct me if I have made any obvious errors.
The Wannabe Cowboy