Seems there are a lot of them. Not even counting those of a religious or political nature, we have Elvis Presley, the king of rock ’n’ roll; Richard Petty, the king of auto racing; and Clark Gable, the king of Hollywood. Even pro wrestling has a king — Jerry Lawler (even if that one is self-proclaimed).
And there’s the man who was known as the King of the Cowboys. I speak in the movie vernacular. Had he lived until Nov. 5 of this year, he would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
He entered the world as Leonard Franklin Slye, a native of Cincinnati, not exactly the cowboy center of the universe. Nevertheless, he journeyed westward to California at the age of 18 and soon was singing in various musical groups such as The Hollywood Hillbillies, the Texas Outlaws, the Rocky Mountaineers and the International Cowboys (don’t you just love those names?).
His singing career caught fire in 1934 when he and friend Bob Nolan formed a group known as the Sons of the Pioneers. They quickly became the number one country-western group in the nation and soon appeared in a feature film with Bing Crosby.
People at Republic Pictures, a movie studio that specialized in movie serials and cowboy pictures, spotted young Slye and saw promise in the young man, not only as a singer but actor as well. His first acting role came as a villain in a western starring Republic’s top star, Gene Autry.
Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Pictures, decided to give Leonard his own series of westerns. Not being able to visualize the name Leonard Slye on theater marquees, Yates told the young man that a name change was in order. Len told Yates that Will Rogers was his hero, so he wanted the his new last name to be Rogers.
“You pick whatever first name you want,” he told Yates.
“Leroy” was suggested. Yates, liking the double “r” alliteration, dropped the first syllable, and Roy Rogers became a cowboy star in 1938. “Under Western Stars” was the first of Roy’s 98 movies. Then, from 1951-57, he made 100 episodes of “The Roy Rogers Show” for television.
A big part of the duties of Republic’s cowboys was traveling all over the country making personal appearances, and Roy did his part. The year after making it big in pictures, Roy Rogers appeared on stage at Salisbury’s State Theatre (now the Meroney).
The date was June 12, 1939. I regret I can’t give you any first-hand details of the appearance, other than Lucille Ball was in the movie that was shown that day and local citizen Walt Shoaf (then 16) was in attendance.
But I can be of more help regarding Roy’s return to Salisbury (36 years later) on Nov. 15, 1975, at the Terrace Theatre in the old Towne Mall Shopping Center.
I was managing the Terrace at that time.
Like many of the old-school guys, Roy hadn’t approved the direction movies had taken in terms of content, many now unsuitable for kids. So he just walked away from feature films and concentrated on television appearances. That changed in 1974 when Roy was approached by an independent film producer, Penland Productions, and asked to star in its upcoming feature, “Mackintosh and T.J.” Roy liked the script. He would play an aging wrangler who has to look after a homeless young boy.
On a day in October 1975, I received a call from my district manager, telling me to be at the Tryon Mall Theatre in Charlotte one weekday morning in the near future to screen a new movie with Roy Rogers.
“Roy Rogers! He’s made a new movie? Are you kidding?” I asked. He wasn’t, so I went.
Often, theater managers in this area would assemble in Charlotte to screen particular new films. We would then give our comments of the movie to the men who would or wouldn’t book the films for the theaters. They wanted ideas from us “in the field” on how we thought we could sell the movie, or if we thought we could sell it at all.
I recall once we screened a movie starring George C. Scott about incest. A son fought his father over the rights to their mother/wife. We all came out of the screening pleading, “Please don’t book this picture for us!” Fortunately, they didn’t.
So the morning of the “Mackintosh and T.J.” screening came, and I went to Charlotte. I liked the movie. It wasn’t off-the-charts, but it was an enjoyable film, and I thought it had potential to do well. Turned out, I was in the majority as virtually all the managers there gave it a “thumbs up.”
When we all walked out into the lobby of the Tryon Mall Theatre, we were met by Tim Penland, one of the film’s producers, who told us all that he was taking the group to lunch at some nearby country club (I don’t recall which one).
So we all formed a caravan and drove to the selected location. Upon entering the building, a fellow in a stiff shirt told us to proceed to the “Continental Room,” or whatever it was called. Well, burn my clothes! When we entered the room to sit down to lunch, there sat Roy Rogers, waiting on us.
After we ate, Penland gave us background on the making of the movie, as did Roy. We were then told that Roy really wanted to get behind this movie, so he would be making an appearance in every Charlotte-market town that booked the picture.
We soon adjourned, but on my way out, I grabbed one of the publicity posters for “Mackintosh” which was hanging behind the head table and asked Roy to sign it for me, which he graciously did. Sadly, he used a green felt tip marker, and over the years, his signature faded away. Oh, well.
Several days later, my district manager called again to tell me that our company booked “Mackintosh and T.J.” as the Thanksgiving attraction at all our Charlotte-area theaters starting Nov. 21. As for Roy’s live appearance, he would be in Salisbury on Saturday morning, Nov. 15, from 10:30 a.m. to noon.
I was elated. Saturday morning! Perfect. I drew the long straw. Some towns had him during the day on Thursday and Friday when the kids were in school and the theaters weren’t even open. But Saturday morning? I could have fun with this. And I wanted Roy to be glad he came to Salisbury.
But what to do to accomplish that goal?
So, what did The King of the Cowboys encounter when he arrived in Salisbury? Would our hero (Roy, not me) perish in the raging rapids below? Would he be trampled by the deadly stampede of thundering buffalo?
To borrow a phrase from the movie serials of yesteryear — to be continued.
(SALISBURY POST - July 4, 2011)