Peggy Keener: Trial by tumbleweed

Published 6:30 am Saturday, August 21, 2021

I was 10 years old … and in love. Yes, I had given my heart and soul completely to Leonard Franklin Slye.

Friday night movies at the Paramount Theater were where we rendezvoused. For twelve cents I got a ticket to dreamy Swoonsville for there up on the giant screen was the object of my affections: Leonard. Oh, how I lusted. And I knew … yes, I knew … that as I sat there in my Paramount seat, the King of the Cowboys was singing to me and me alone.

I nearly had apoplexy, then, when I learned there was someone else in his life and that that someone was blocking any chances I had at romance. As densely as a cork plugs up a beer keg, she was stopping our love from blossoming. The vixen’s name was Dale. And she was hogging Leonard all to herself.

But, things didn’t end there. It was just my luck that something else was vying for my heartthrob’s affections. It wasn’t another woman. No, no. It was a horse! A palomino named Trigger. At this point, the tryst was now a twisted triangle. Actually, it would be fair to say it wasn’t exactly your regular menage a trois, but something close to it. To be more precise, for me it was a classic case of blatant unrequited love.

By now you have undoubtedly figured out that I am talking about Roy Rogers, the target of my affections. Also by now my clandestine affair with him was getting seriously complicated. It was like this. Roy wasn’t Roy, but was actually Leonard. He had a wife. He had a horse. And get this, he was also the father of nine children! NINE? Right there the vicissitudes of my ardor tanked. Happy trails had become an unhappy trial.

Baby Leonard’s life began in a Cincinnati tenement. Dissatisfied with their lives, his father scraped together some salvage lumber and built a 12’x50’ house boat. The Slye family motored it down the Scioto River in July of 1912, landing in Portsmouth, Ohio. Still they continued to yearn for a more stable life, so they purchased a parcel of land on which to build a house. Before that happened, however, the Great Flood of 1913 floated their houseboat onto their property. Perched up high on dry land, it made all the sense in the world for it to stay right where it had landed, making the houseboat truly a house boat! Boat house?

Six years later the Slye family purchased a farm in Duck Run, Ohio. There they built a six room home. Soon, however, Leonard’s dad realized he could not support his family on the farm income, so he got a job at a distant shoe factory. Five days a week he lived near his work, but always returned home on weekends bearing gifts for the family. One of the most notable presents was a horse named “Golden Cloud.” Not only did Leonard rename him “Trigger,” but in no time he had mastered the basics of horsemanship.

As the family had no radio, they made their own entertainment. Saturday nights were big when they invited the neighbors over for square dancing. Leonard not only called the dances, but he also sang and strummed the mandolin. He, as well, yodeled. In fact he and his mother would use different yodels to communicate with each other across the farm fields. Who knew yodels were coded?

Leonard attended high school, but completed only two years. Realizing the family needed financial help, he quit school and joined his father at the shoe factory. Still eager to continue his education, he attended night school, but after being ridiculed for falling asleep in class, he quit and never returned to school.

In 1929, the family went on a visit to Lawndale, California. The trip planted a seed of desire and two years later the family moved there. Leonard found employment driving gravel trucks for a highway construction project. Within the year, however, they found themselves under the clouds of the Great Depression. Soon the construction company went bankrupt and Leonard found himself picking peaches for Del Monte. He lived with other indigent migrants in a labor camp that was in every way depressingly similar to the one in Grapes of Wrath.

In 1931, Leonard worked up his courage, donned a Western shirt his sister had made for him and auditioned for a radio show called the Rocky Mountaineers. He was hired on the spot. Within two years the group folded and Leonard moved on to the O-Bar-O Cowboys. It was a hard life touring on a shoestring budget in the brutal summer heat of New Mexico and Arizona. Even finding food was a challenge. But, despite the difficulties, Roy married Lucille Ascolese in 1933. Perhaps the discordant, strife-riddled life was too much for Lucille for three years later they divorced.

That same year while performing on the air in Roswell, New Mexico, a caller promised Leonard she would bake him a pie if he sang “The Swiss Yodel.” He did and she did. Romance blossomed and he married Grace Arlene Wilkins. A decade later, she died in childbirth.

Enter Wife #3. Born as Lucille Wood Smith, her named was changed while she was still a tiny baby to Frances Octavia Smith. Inexplicably, these six names eventually boiled down to simply “Dale.” My rival. A swain of the first order, Roy proposed to her during a rodeo.

This was also when the Pioneers Trio was formed, with Roy on guitar. Meanwhile he continued to do his radio program as more musicians joined the group. Later that year, the Pioneers Trio became the Sons of the Pioneers when a radio station announcer changed their name because he felt they were too young to be called pioneers. The name stuck.

During the next year, the group’s fame quickly spread across the U.S. Evidence of their popularity was demonstrated when in the following two years, the Sons of the Pioneers recorded 32 songs for Decca Records.

Leonard made his first film in 1935 and continued to work steadily in Western films. He was still billed as Leonard Slye while starring in a Gene Autrey film. Without warning, a disgruntled Autrey suddenly demanded a higher salary. Competition for a new singing cowboy ensued. Leonard won. Republic Pictures stepped in and polished up Leonard’s image by suggesting a name change. They liked the western sounding name “Roy,” and combined it with the surname of the popular entertainer, Will Rogers.

Roy, now Autrey’s stiff competition, soon became a matinee idol and America’s favorite singing cowboy. That’s where the Paramount Theater and I (as well as thousands of other heart throbbing 10-year-old girls) entered the picture.

Roy and Dale went on to have five biological children and four adopted children. They were publicly recognized as great supporters of homeless and handicapped children.

On July 6, 1998, at age 86, Rogers died of congestive heart failure at his ranch in Apple Valley, CA. Dale died three years later. There is no mention of Trigger and his demise. I heard that Roy had him stuffed. I think they used Dale’s old pantyhose, but don’t quote me on that.