On Roy Rogers' 100th Birthday, Son And Grandson Share Their Memories
"Most of my generation, if you're from the East Coast or some of those areas there where there's still a restaurant available, they think he's just a chicken sandwich," the young cowboy laughs in a midwestern drawl, exasperated at a lifetime of clarification. "And then there's another school of thought that think he's a drink, a Coca Cola with some cherry syrup."
For most, having a culinary namesake or two would be reason enough to brag; in Dusty Rogers' case, poultry and soft drinks are beside the point. On Saturday, on what would have been his grandfather's 100th birthday, Dusty and his father want to remind the world of the real Roy Rogers: film legend, TV staple and cowboy gentleman.
An icon in the golden age of Hollywood, Rogers, who passed in 1998, was a film star -- with a staggering 100-plus films to his credit -- and host of both television and radio programs. He sang, too, barnstorming arenas across America with his family values roadshow and sunny post-Depression-and-war optimism. In the era when the western was king, Rogers was the workhorse, riding his trusty steed Trigger with a smile through soundstage sunsets on a weekly basis.
Roy Rogers Jr., 65, continues the tradition with stage shows in Missouri. They play traditional cowboy music, run old episodes of his dad's TV show and celebrate the values preached when kids played with stick horses, not joysticks. Rogers has planned a special extravaganza for Saturday's birthday celebration.
For the son of the late King of the Cowboys, it's all he's really known.
"I spent my first three or four birthdays on the movie set with my Dad -- I thought everyone worked on the movies until I got out to see that there were other people doing other jobs," Roy Jr. laughed in a conversation with The Huffington Post last week. It was a childhood filled with traditional values and chores like any other, Rogers said, but being a roaming cowboy was truly a way of life.
"We had to do merchandising shoots with them, we went on the road with them in the summer, we did the state fair and the rodeos, Mom and Dad would have us sing with them so we had to dress the part and sing the part, and so it was fun for us," he remembered.
But for all the fun times, what the second generation cowboy remembers best is the charity work that his father performed around the country. During the heyday of Rogers' fame in the 1940s and '50s, Jr. would tour hospitals with his dad as he visited countless polio-stricken children confined to iron lungs, with only their heads sticking out.
"Dad was able to get right to the side, and he'd say, 'Daniel, I know you're having a hard time and things are really rough for you right now, but if you work really hard you can get out of here,'" Rogers Jr. remembered fondly. "And he would take kids gun belts, he would take them by the dozen with him, and he would hang a little Roy Rogers gun belt over on the mirror above their head, because that's how they looked, and he'd say, 'Work real hard and you'll get out of this iron lung and you'll be able to wear that gun belt, and then I want you to come and see me in Hollywood when you get out.' Knowing that he'd probably never see them again."
The payoff, he said, overwhelms him even today.
"I cannot tell you how many of those kids have shown up at our show and said, 'I still have that gun belt, I still have that memory of your dad coming in,'" Rogers marveled. "And if he had not given me that encouragement, that I had to do it on my own and told me that I had to do it and no one else could do it for me, I may not be here standing here today.'"
He's often approached by kids who point to his father as a profound influence, even if they weren't confined to the iron lung, Jr. said. Given Rogers' place in history, following World War II and amidst the rebuilding of America from the Great Depression, being a TV dad was a fraught with responsibilities.
"He came at a time when World War II was coming on pretty heavy and a lot of people, their dad didn't come back or they came from broken homes, so Dad, for a lot of kids, because they didn't have a parent at home, was a father figure to a lot of kids," he said. "And so they looked up to him and they knew they could hang their hat on what he would ask them to do. To go to church on Sundays and Sunday school and to keep yourself neat and clean and take care of your animals and obey your mom and dad, and just basic, common sense things."
These days, TV shows, even the westerns, aren't quite as wholesome, which means Jr. does little browsing of his cable box.
"I've never seen 'Justified.' I have cable, but a lot of shows on there, like my dad used to say, some of the shows on there, I wouldn't even want Trigger to watch," he laughed, thinking of the famous steed. "So I haven't seen any of those. I started watching 'Deadwood,' but that got a little bit raunchy for me. That's a sign of the times, I guess, but no, I haven't seen too many of the westerns."
Besides, he's got his own show to put on, which airs on rural cable network RFD-TV. His son Dusty is his co-hosting cowboy, and while Dusty enjoys singing competitions such as "X-Factor," he's more into the old shows of his grandfather's past.
And what really delights Dusty is the audience of youngsters that come in to see their stage show; it was a fantastic surprise, he said, to find out that the recommended curriculum for kids homeschooled in Missouri includes some of the very same old westerns. Seeing them when they visit the show, Dusty said, is an absolute thrill.
"They're dressed to the nines, they've got the western clothes on, their boots are shined, their hats are in pristine condition, and they shake your hand like a real gentleman," he beamed. "It's just really neat to see that, that could potentially shape their lives. Because that's ultimately what Roy did for millions of kids, that role model shaped millions of kids' lives."
Roy Jr., Dusty and their band, The High Riders, perform live at 8:30 P.M. EST from Apple Valley, California, broadcast live on RFD-TV.