Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum - Gone
For any reader younger than retirement age, there probably isn't much passion for Roy Rogers. But for the first wave of Baby Boomers and the tail end of pre-Boomers, Roy was THE hero-god-white-hatted good guy of their prepubescence.
Roy began his career in the 1930s as a yodeling radio cowboy, went on to become a matinee idol in over 80 western movies, and evolved into a small-screen mega-celebrity in 1950s television. Along the way he married his co-star, Dale Evans (it was his third marriage and her fourth), and turned his horse Trigger into a star almost as radiant as himself.
According to Rogers family history, Roy -- whose real name was Leonard Slye -- visited the Will Rogers Museum when it opened in 1938 and was dismayed to see that so few of Will's possessions were on display. Roy vowed to save as much of his stuff as possible in case he ever opened his own museum -- and when he and Dale retired in the 1960s, and moved to the High Desert just outside of Victorville, California, that is what he did. Roy would often ride over to the museum -- in a golf cart -- to greet visitors, and was a cheery presence until he died in 1998.
With Roy's passing, and the realization that fewer and fewer people were detouring to Victorville to see Roy's stuff, the surviving Rogers pulled up stakes and moved the museum to where older folks (and now, Baby Boomers) took their vacations -- Branson, Missouri. One of Roy's grandsons, Dustin Rogers, now runs the place and is happy to be here. Roy's son, Roy "Dusty" Rogers Jr, performs his dad's old tunes twice a day in the museum's Happy Trails Theater.
The museum is packed with mementos from Roy and Dale's long life together: their gun collection, their parade saddles and jeweled riding suits, their power boat. The displays loop around the Happy Trails Theater, set into fake Old West storefronts along an indoor street. From Roy's Shrine fezzes to his hunting trophies to his bowling balls, it seems to all be here.
Although Roy was known as "King of the Cowboys" to his fans, he was never an actual cowboy -- he just played one in movies and on TV. Consequently his museum doesn't have a lot of authentic cowboy stuff, but it does have a lot of Hollywood-star-playing-a-cowboy stuff, which is more interesting.
The Branson museum is larger than the old Victorville site, and at least as good (without Roy Sr. dropping in, of course). And there are plenty of new features, such as a shooting gallery featuring wax dummies of Roy and Dale (the targets are attached to everything in the tableau except them).
Roy was a pioneer celebrity when it came to mining the riches of product licensing (later generations may recall him more as a defunct fast food chain than a movie star). One display showcases nothing but Post cereal boxes that have Roy's grinning face, and several other cases are needed to convey the range of all of the stuff that he endorsed: comic books, hats, shirts, bandannas, cap guns, holsters, knives, gloves, lassos, furniture, sheets, blankets, clocks, dolls, lunch boxes, guitars, rings, badges, musical hobby horses.
Reproductions of many of these items are sold in the museum's vast Happy Trails Gift Shop, but the cashier confided to us that most people buy postcards and CDs.
Another exhibit of note -- and an example of Roy's dedication to saving stuff -- is the battered 1923 Dodge that his family used when it moved to California, an exhibit that is slightly less evocative now that the museum is in Missouri. To show how far he had traveled in life, the museum also displays Roy's silver dollar Bonneville, which he used when he was grand marshal of the 1960 Rose Parade. It has six-shooters on the door handles, giant steer horns on the front grill, and a metal stud saddle over the transmission hump.
Social conservatives dig Roy and Dale's family values (while overlooking the multiple marriages), and many of the exhibits stress this aspect of their lives. One display showcases Roy's father's tools, another shows his mom's scrapbooks, a third displays Dale's Bibles, and one entire exhibit preserves the Rogers family breakfast table with its lazy Susan center. Off in a corner stand dummies of Roy and Dale, decked out in glittery cowboy/cowgirl finery, surrounded by kid dummies that represent their many natural and adopted children, also in western duds.
An odd counterpoint to this wholesome image is Roy and Dale's unusual fondness for converting their most beloved dead animals into museum exhibits. Perhaps it's understandable that Trigger, a celebrity in his own right, is here -- frozen in a famous pose, rearing on his hind legs -- but next to him is the far-less-famous Buttermilk (Dale's horse) and the historical afterthought Bullet (the Rogers' German Shepherd).
Rumor has it that Roy and Dale wanted to add themselves to the exhibit after they had died (but we probably started that story ourselves). The two are instead buried side-by-side at a cemetery near the former museum in Apple Valley.
As the past recedes into warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia, Roy Rogers is remembered as a likable, smiling, church-going, America-loving family guy who was always grateful to the fans that made him a superstar. This image fueled his museum attendance far beyond the lifespan of his celebrity. Within the ideal aging demographic of Branson, it was hoped that the Happy Trails would go on forever. But they didn't -- the museum closed its doors for good on December 12, 2009.
July 15, 2010:: The museum collection was auctioned off by Christie's. The winning bid for Trigger was $266,500, by Omaha-based RFD-TV, a cable company that specializes in programming about farming and horses. The company bought Bullet as well, and subsequently took the two stuffed relics on tour.