I realize that kids still have celebrity heroes they follow and admire, including personalities from the entertainment or sports worlds, but there appears to be a dearth of one type of hero from my childhood — cowboy stars. I’m not talking about actors who occasionally appear in westerns, but rather those guys who created and sustained an entire career as cowboy movie stars, and in many cases, singing stars too. They often even expanded into TV shows, records, and merchandising, including toy guns and comic books.
Every kid had a favorite star and mine was always Leonard Slye — better known as Roy Rogers, the “King Of The Cowboys”. I had friends who argued in favor of Gene Autry, but I always maintained that he looked like somebody’s pudgy unemployed uncle, and besides that, how could a real hero sing something like “Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer”?
Roy, on the other hand, was joined by the Sons Of The Pioneers on the much more dignified and respectable “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. He also had Dale Evans, the “Queen Of The West”, at his side, Gabby Hayes as an added sidekick, and later Pat Brady. Gene had…Smiley Burnett. And don’t get me started on how Trigger was smarter (and better looking) than Champion. Roy even had Bullet, who was probably the smartest dog this side of Lassie.
There were other cowboy stars around. I had one friend who clung to a fondness for Hopalong Cassidy, who seemed inexplicably popular when you considered his white hair and generally amiable demeanor. He looked more like a kindly grandfather to me. There were also lesser stars, such as Allen “Rocky” Lane, Monte Hale, and of course “Whip” Wilson and “Lash” Larue, whose names probably evoke different thoughts these days.
I’ve probably forgotten a few, but you get the idea. We loved going to the Saturday matinees and watching all the cowboys, and we weren’t the first generation to do so — I remember asking my dad, and he told me that when he was a boy he followed Buck Jones.
My “old buddy Roy” (a phrase he used with his fans) was always number one to me, and he managed to spin out a long and successful career from the attention of boys like me. He even lent his name to a chain of Roy Rogers restaurants, which were pretty popular for a while but eventually went through some ups and downs before reinventing themselves as a smaller chain.
But in all fairness, if we’re going to mention success in later life, Gene Autry might have had the last laugh. I think everyone knows how he ended up making a lot of shrewd investments and became one of the richest former stars ever. Ironically, both stars – who were friends even while rivals – died in the same year, 1998.