Having survived thousands of bullets fired at him in 90 films and six years of television, the King of the Cowboys was felled in Fairfax yesterday by a well-aimed cream pie.
It was one of those awkward moments when reality collides with myth right, to be precise, in the face - and the 10-gallon hat.
There was 65-years-old Roy Rogers, up on a bandstand talking about God, The Family and Roy Rogers Roast Beef Sandwiches, standing in front of his Sons of the Pioneers, when a 17-year-old interloper in denims and long hair let him have it right between the eyes.
"Let me get a punch at him," yelled Rogers, his makeup dripping down his face, as Fairfax city police dragged the youth away.
The formal charge was disorderly conduct, but this was clearly a case where Roger's usually bulletproof "Howdy, pardner" greeting failed to take. After the knockdown one of the Sons of the Pioneers blurted "Lemme at that son of a bitch" into a live microphone, shocking some of the elderly women in the crowd of a thousand had turned to encounter the living legend.
Indeed, Roger is a legend, perharps even more as the fastest gun on Wall Street than the Cincinnati shoemaker turned Hollywood golden boy. His name has birthed a multi-million-dollar empire that roams a range of real estate holdings. T-shirt licenses and 200 family restaurants that offer, among other things, cardboard "holsters" of french fries. His face has appeared on 2 1/2 billion boxes of Post Ceral packages, and his 87 republic westerns are about to be reoffered to movie distributors.
In his films and a long-running NBC TV series. Rogers epitomized civilized and square-jawed cowpoke justice. That seasoned squint conveyed independence and detemined fairness. Too little to come across as brawny anyway. Rogers polished off villians more often with flashly fisticuffs than with bullets: the TV setting included a "family" of wholesome sidekicks whom Roy was never too busy to protect.
All this does not just fall into your lap. Myths have got to be built, and no one built myth of the King of the Cowboys more vigorously than Roy Rogers himself. Visit the Roy Rogers-Date Evans Museum in Victorville, Calif., and you can still see Roy's faithful steed Trigger. Dale's Buttermilk and their dog Bullet preserved through the miracle of taxidermy.
"Don't say stuffed," say Rofers. "It doesn't sound good. They're live mounted in spectacular dioramas."
He points out that most of the other memorabila - 32,000 square feet of it - is equally well-preserved.
"You have to keep everything behind glass," he says.
"And locked," adds Art Rush, his agent for 43 years.
As befits a legend, Rogers does not travel along. He is surrounded by a knot of humans who chime in regularly: the president of an advertising agency who hands him lozenges and says, "Roy, your voice sounds a little rapsy;" a vice president of marketing and finance who supplies things like covered wagons and bales of hay to be used in television appearances: and the chief Roy Rogers Family Restaurant hostess, dressed in a red-white-and-blue cowgirl outfit.
"I remember working at a Salvation Army benefit in 1935," says Rogers. "That was where I met Will Rogers and Wiley Post, right before their fateful trip to Point Barrow. Alaska. Well, after Will died, they opened his ranch in Santa Monica as a museum. I went out there to take a look at it and there just wasn't much stuff. I got the sneaki' hunch that that wasn't what he wanted. So I decided then and there that if I ever got famous. I'd make sure people to remember me by. I still have the our family went to California in 1930. It's in the museum."
He was not always Roy Rogers. Born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati in November 1911, Rogers dropped out of high school after two years in 1929, when the Depression forced him to work in a shoe factory. The next year the family moved to California. The bou never returned to school, and instead began making the rounds of music festivals as a guitarist and mandolin player. He soon joined the Sons of the Pioneers, a group of country music for the burgeoning talkies markets. When he heard that republic Pictures was looking for a new cowboy star, he showed uo for a screen test - and went on to make 87 films for the company, 35 with Dale Evans, his wife since 1947.
He talks a lot about families. "I've had nine kids," he says. "Sixteen grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. The family is the backbone of this country, and it's falling apart. I don't know what we can do about it. I made all my films, all my TV shows as family entertainment. There's not much of the left today. Maybe that's why I was so successful: I believe in god, clean fun and God. Five per cent of my share of the restaurant business goes to the Campus Crusade for Christ."
As he walks from the twin Bridges Marriott Hotel - owned by the same chain that operates his restaurants Rogers is swamped by autography seekers, young and old.
A man asks for an inscription to his daughter, Tara. "I'm busy and we don't have time to write letters," Rogers replies, but scribbles "Roy Rogers and Trigger" on the back of an envelope. A Korean bus boy tears a draft from his check book and asks for an autograph. Again the King of the Cowboys signs "Roy Rogers and Trigger" - and tears the check keeping half of it.
"Yoy have to be real careful about checks," he says. "Boy, I sign a lot of them. Every morning."
Two years ago, when the developer of the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum went bankrupt ("I don't know what yoy call it. Receivership? I'm a high school dropout?), Rogers took over the project.
"They were planning a whole shopping center around the place, and they only wanted to give me the building. I told them no deal. It was right next to city hall and the sherriff's office, and I told them 'Give me 40 acres or you can bulldoze the building.' I got my 40 acrese, and it was a real good investment. People love to walk around the museum and get caught up in the past. Then they go out and spend more money."
Illusion and reality. Rogers plays it well.
At a Panorama broadcast yesterday, he was hamming it up with the Sons of the Pioneers on a set covered with hay provided by the Mariott corp. One of the musicians was smoking a cigarette before the telecast began, and Panorama guest host Mark Russell got right into spirit of Roger's perfect myth-making.
"No smoking in the barn, please," he said.