Western movies were very popular in the early part of the last century. At first they portrayed cowboys as rugged gunslingers that fearlessly faced the outlaws in showdowns on the main streets of town. Then someone got the bright idea to add musical numbers to movies to broaden their appeal. This introduced a more personable “singing cowboy.”
The favourite of the time was Roy Rogers, and fans were delighted when he came to the CNE Grandstand Show in 1954. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, but I grew to like him because he was so open and friendly. He was great with the audience – especially children. The “Roy Rogers’ Circus” as it was billed, was wholesome family entertainment.
Roy together with his wife Dale Evans performed with the very popular harmony group, “The Sons of The Pioneers.” (There is a Canadian connection here. Bob Nolan was a founding member of the group and he wrote their most famous tune, “Cool Clear Water.”) In keeping with the theme of the show, the entire orchestra and myself were required to dress in cowboy gear. We were all directed to go to an outfitter on the NE corner of Church and Queen Streets to get fitted. (Think buckskin fringes, checkered shirts, neckerchiefs, etc.) For the duration of the show, it was a cause of much humour for the band. (In fact I’m chuckling now as I write about it.)
The thing I found interesting about this show is that every living and non-living component, had a name and personality. Roy rode a horse named Trigger; Dale rode Buttermilk. Roy’s comic sidekick, Pat Brady, drove a jeep called “Nellybelle.” It was as if these were all members of the family.
Trigger, a beautiful golden Palomino, had a career of his own. He was known as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies” because of all the tricks he could do. I can remember two of them: One was walking on his hindquarters, and the other was his ability to count. Roy would ask, “Trigger, what’s two plus two?” and the clever horse would scratch the ground four times. It was obvious how much Trigger was loved by how well he was treated and how they dressed him. He was outfitted with a gorgeous saddle, which I later found out was worth as much as that year’s Cadillac.
Roy’s theme song “Happy Trails” was actually written by Dale. She was not just a pretty face and may even have been the brains behind the act. She was also very religious. Each time she signed an autograph, she included the reference to a bible verse from Mathew. I can’t remember off the top of my head which verse it was, but I’m sure my daughters have it in their autograph books.
P.S. If you are wondering what I look like in cowboy gear, as soon as I find the photo, I’ll post it.