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Rural Missouri Magazine
A man,
a legend,
a museum

The Roy Rogers Museum comes to Branson

by Bob McEowen

Dale Evans and Roy Rogers thrilled audiences for generations as "The King of the Cowboys" and "Queen of the West."

His radio show aired on more than 500 stations. His acting career spanned 40 years and included 88 films and more than 100 TV episodes. He has four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has more than 400 musical recordings to his credit and is the only person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame twice. His picture appeared on 2.5 billion cereal boxes and countless other products.

Who is he? If you didn’t guess Roy Rogers you’re too young to remember the era of the film and television Western — perhaps the most uniquely American entertainment genre of all time. Known as the “King of the Cowboys,” Rogers was arguably the best-known entertainer ever.

“He was far bigger than most celebrities today,” says Dustin Rogers, Roy’s grandson and general manager of the Roy Rogers Museum and Happy Trails Theater in Branson. “He was No. 1 at the box office for 12 years straight. His merchandising was second only to Disney. There wasn’t anything that came out that didn’t have his name or likeness on it.”

Born Leonard Slye in Ohio in 1911, Roy first came to America’s attention as a member of The Sons of the Pioneers, a cowboy singing group, and later starred in films and a wildly popular TV series. The Roy Rogers Museum, which celebrates his life, recently moved to Missouri from California and brings one of America’s most enduring legends to the Ozarks.

Roy died in 1998. His wife and co-star, songstress and “Queen of the West” Dale Evans, passed away in 2001. Before their deaths the Rogers family had begun to discuss moving the museum from its remote desert location in Victorville, Calif.

Alan and Janet Vasicek of Fargo, N.D., examine a display of Roy Rogers’ pistols at the new Roy Rogers Museum in Branson. The museum recently moved from Victorville, Calif.

Although the Rogers family considered a number of places to relocate, Branson kept rising to the top of the list. Roy and Dale had both visited southwest Missouri and liked what they saw, says Roy’s son, Roy “Dusty” Rogers, Jr.

“Dad first came to Branson because Boxcar Willie asked him to do a couple of shows,” Dusty says. “We brought Mom here about six years ago. Mom said if anything ever happens to me you really ought to think about moving the museum here.”

In 2003 the family closed the California museum, sold some of the holdings at auction and moved the rest to Missouri. “Just the museum alone took 14 semi trucks,” Dustin says, adding that six families made the move to Branson as well.

The new facility opened last June. The Branson location was a perfect fit for the Rogers family. “This is where God and country and morals and ethics still mean something,” Dustin says.
Located at the west end of Branson’s Highway 76 strip, the museum offers a unique mix of film and television Western history as well as Rogers family memories.

Along with Roy’s and Dale’s parade saddles and fancy cowboy outfits there are personal mementos and photos showing life at home with their nine children. One section of the museum is devoted to three Rogers children who died young. Another display is devoted to the family’s religious faith. Even the Rogers’ dinner table is on display.

Naturally, the best-loved artifacts are included in the museum; everything from Roy’s twin Colt Frontier .45 pistols to Nellybelle, a Willys Jeep that took on a persona of its own in the TV series.

Roy's 1964 Pontiac Bonneville convertible features a hand-tooled leather interior and a saddle and is decorated with 300 silver dollars and authentic, but non-firing pistols and rifles.

Perhaps most remarkable is the depth of the collection. Every aspect of Roy’s life, from childhood on, is represented — the first guitar he owned, even the car he drove to California from Ohio in 1930.

“My grandfather couldn’t throw anything away,” Dustin says. “How my grandmother ever let him get away with that I’ll never know.”

Beyond Roy himself, the biggest star of the museum is Trigger, Roy’s faithful steed for 33 years. The horse, mounted in a rearing stance after his death nearly 30 years ago, is on display behind a glass wall, along with Trigger Jr., Dale’s horse Buttermilk and their German shepherd dog Bullet.

“It’s our No. 1 attraction, without a doubt. People come thousands of miles, some of them come from overseas, just to see this,” Dustin says.
“I’ve seen people crying because they’ve seen Trigger,” adds Dusty. “They remember Dad riding around the rail when they were little kids and they stuck their hand out to try to touch his mane or his tail.”

While the mounted Palomino touches fans’ heartstrings, it’s also been the subject of more than a few jokes over the years — a number of them told by the family itself.

Roy Rogers' son, "Dusty," and grandson, "Dustin," pose near a display of Roy and Dale's horses. Roy's faithful steed, Trigger, has been mounted and on display for nearly 30 years.

“My mom got on him pretty heavy about it. ‘How could you do that to poor Trigger?’” Dusty recalls Dale asking. “He said, ‘It’s my horse and I’ll do what I want with him.’
“Mom said, ‘Well that’s fine. When you die I’ll just skin you out and put you up on him.’ Fortunately, there’s laws against that,” Dusty says.

These and other personal stories from the Rogers family history are told throughout the displays and during Dusty’s shows in the Happy Trails Theater.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Dusty has performed cowboy music for nearly 30 years. The Roy Rogers Museum in California did not include live music but when the family built the Branson facility it included an intimate 308-seat theater where Roy Rogers Jr. and The High Riders perform twice a day, five days a week, March through December.

The 90-minute show features music from the Old West as well as songs associated with Roy and Dale. Naturally, “Happy Trails,” written by Dale and forever known as Roy’s theme song, is performed.

Roy “Dusty” Rogers Jr., center, rehearses with his band, The High Riders, at the Happy Trails Theater in Branson. The son of the legendary cowboy singer and actor Roy Rogers, Dusty performs twice a day, Tuesday through Saturday, for visitors to the Roy Rogers Museum.

While audiences rave about the music, it may not be their favorite part of the show. During each performance Dusty turns up the house lights and visits with the audience.

“He tells folks what it was like to grow up with Roy and Dale. What it was like inside the house and then lets them ask questions,” Dustin says. “We haven’t had a show yet where he hasn’t had to stop them so they can get the show back under way.”

Spending time with guests during the show and seeing buses off afterwards is the Rogers way, Roy’s son and grandson say. Roy and Dale took pride in being available to fans, whether at public events or during times they dropped in on their California museum. It’s a tradition that continues today in Branson.

“Everything we built here is real intimate, real close. That’s the way we wanted it,” Dustin says.
“It’s a real personal story that’s told here.”

Admission to the Roy Rogers Museum is $14.40 for adults. A combination ticket, including the Roy Rogers Jr. musical show is $31.98. Prices are reduced for children and war veterans. For more information call (417) 339-1900 or log onto www.royrogers.com.

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