Unhappy Trails: Cowboy Heroes Fade Away as Fans Head to that Great Corral in the Sky
“My heroes have always been cowboys,
And, they still are, it seems.
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of,
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams”
—Lyrics by Sharon Vaughn
My heroes are cowboys, but not the real-life cowboys who rode the western plains. My partners are on the silver-screen; B-movie cowboys and 1950s and 1960s television cowboy heroes. They are men’s men, pitting their wit and wisdom against nature, the landscape and life’s villainous characters.
Their world divides into white and black, the good guys versus the bad guys. There are no shades of gray. Good always triumphs no matter how hard the struggle. While “truth, justice, and the American way” is one of Superman’s signature lines, it applies equally to the silver screen and television cowboy heroes. These heroes symbolize an American idealism that evokes pride, patriotism and brotherhood to all who saddle-up beside them.
Roy Rogers Riders Club Rules:
1. Be neat and clean.
2. Be courteous and polite.
3. Always obey your parents.
4. Protect the weak and help them.
5. Be brave but never take chances.
6. Study hard and learn all you can.
7. Be kind to animals and take care of them
8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
9. Love God and go to Sunday school regularly.
10. Always respect our flag and our Country.
Linda was with our granddaughter Sofia, age 4, when she visited Santa Claus. Sofia called me and exclaimed, “I saw Santa Claus; and, he is real.” The silver screen and television cowboys also are real. What makes them unique is that they are real to an audience of children and adults who know they are not but refuse to accept it.
Hopalong Cassidy is a case in point. Hopalong Cassidy is a fictional character, the 1904 creation of novelist Clarence E. Mulford. Mulford never visited the West. He lived in Maine. A detailed index card research file provided him with the descriptive information he needed to set a scene. Harry “Pop” Sherman cast William Boyd as the white-hat-wearing cowpoke in “Hop-Along Cassidy” (1935), the first of 66 Hoppy films. No one looks at a picture of Hopalong Cassidy and Topper (his horse) and says, “Look, it is Bill Boyd.” Hoppy was as real as you and me. Hoppy’s appearance on black-and-white television created a worldwide cowboy craze that lasted for more than two decades. By 1955, Boyd and Hoppy became synonymous. Boyd remained in character until his death in 1972.
Cowboy heroes vary. Hopalong Cassidy is the wise, old sage. Since he never married, it would be wrong to identify him as grandfatherly. The Lone Ranger is a fiercely independent role model, although a bit standoffish. Gene Autry serves as big brother; and Roy Rogers was a natural good-buddy.
The cowboy heroes I admire died in the early 1970s when television western scripts moved from a family to adult orientation and started focusing on western versions of the social issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Indians stopped being the bad guys and became exploited peoples, the West I loved lost it relevance.
Childhood memories are powerful. They never fade, but rather grow stronger as one gets older. When I close my eyes, Hoppy still rides Topper, Gene Autry sings “Tumbling Tumbleweed,” and the Three Mesquiteers chase bandits and outlaws across the western plains. If these are the last images I see in my mind’s eye when I die, I will rest content.
During one of my trips to California, I visited the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville. Although I watched my share of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans movies on television and in video release and followed their television series, I was never a fan. Cowboy hero worshipers are brand loyal. Beside, how could anyone trust any cowboy that sang or, worse yet, kissed a girl?
In 1991, the Autry National Center of the American West, known at the time as the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, mounted an exhibition entitled “Hoppy, Gene, and the Lone Ranger.” It included my 10-piece Hopalong Cassidy bedroom suite and other pieces from my Hoppy collection. To Gene’s credit, the Autry museum is a tribute to the American West and not Gene himself. It is what I expected a western museum to be.
The collection of the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum focused only on Roy, Dale and the family. It was more a shrine than a museum. Walking the hallowed halls, I encountered Trigger, Bullet, and Trigger Jr., all stuffed and mounted. I shook my head thinking, “Is this what Roy plans for Dale and himself? If I was Dale, I would hope Roy dies first.”
The collection was comprehensive, but not professionally exhibited. Light, humidity and dirt issues were causing many pieces to deteriorate. I left feeling that many items would be lost. The museum lacked a sense of permanence.
The 1990s was a difficult decade for the surviving silver screen and television cowboy heroes. Sunset Carson went to the great corral in the sky on May 1, 1990, joined by Clayton Moore on December 28, 1999. Roy Rogers bit the dust on July 16, 1998; and, Gene Autry left for Boot Hill on October 2 of that same year.
Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger
In 2003, Roy Rogers, Jr. moved the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum from Victorville to Branson, Mo. The museum became part of a theater complex that featured a tribute show to Roy and Dale. All was well until the 2008-09 Great Recession struck.
In early October 2009, Roy Rogers, Jr., released a letter stating the museum would close to the public on December 12. The letter included this paragraph: “The decision to close the Museum has come after two years of steady decline in visitors to the Museum. A lot of factors have made our decision for us. The economy for one, people are just not traveling as much. Dad’s fans are getting older, and concerned about their retirement funds . . . Secondly, with our high fiscal obligations we cannot continue to accumulate debt to keep the doors open. This situation is one I have not wanted to happen. Dad always said – ‘If the museum starts costing you money, then liquidate everything and move on.’ Myself and my family have tried to hold together the Museum and collection for over 15 years, so it is very difficult to think that it will all be gone soon.”
I am one of those individuals who is growing older. I remember the 50th anniversary of the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters in 1985; and, my shock when I discovered 10 years later that the value for Tom Mix collectibles was declining rather than increasing. Ten years have passed since Roy died. His collectibles are decreasing in value as well.
While the Rogers family certainly would have realized far more for the Rogers collection if it had sold the collection 15 years ago, the family’s decision to sell now will maximize the return at this point. Each day, week or month that passes reduces the amount the family will receive.
It would be great if the family donated the collection to the Autry museum, National Cowboy Hall of Fame or another western museum that would keep the collection intact. However, it is questionable if any museum would accept the collection without a substantial endowment to maintain it.
It is hard to watch friends die; a situation I now face with far more frequency than I like. It is harder to watch heroes die, especially when they die several deaths—from the end of a career to the end of life to the disposal of the contents of a museum featuring a collection of their memorabilia. This is one of those instances when this business is not fun.
I am concerned the future holds no “Happy Trails” for Roy, Dale and the silver screen and television cowboy heroes. I would love to find some sunny weather, but all I see are clouds.
Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.
You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.
“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. You can e-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.
Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2009
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