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Roy Rogers, the happy hero

I can't remember the name of a single Roy Rogers movie. That's because I saw some of them before I was able to read, and all of them before I started paying attention to titles. They weren't movies. They were that part of life that was known as the Saturday matinee.

This was at the Princess Theater on Main Street in Downstate Urbana. It cost nine cents to get in. For your money, you got two features, five cartoons, a newsreel, coming attractions, a chapter of a serial, and the ads for the Urbana Pure Milk Co. and the Busey Bank. Four hours later, you were disgorged into the daylight again.

One of the movies was always a Western. It usually starred Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Rex Allen, or those two lesser heroes whose tastes seem ever more peculiar with the passing of the years, Lash LaRue and Whip Wilson.

"Hoppy" went through a period of enormous popularity, but year in and year out, Roy Rogers was the top choice because he was King of the Cowboys. We knew all about him: How his palomino was named Trigger, his wife was named Dale Evans, and his dog was named Bullet (that was their relative order of importance).

Evans was, by default, the Queen of the Cowgirls, and in my mind, she ranked beside the queen of England, who was the only other queen I had heard of - except of course for Mary, queen of the May. There was something about Roy Rogers' eyes: They were wise and serene and they looked merry when he smiled. He had an open, happy face and he never seemed to get as alarmed as Gene Autry, or as angry as Hoppy. Life was good for him. He sang a song, he palled around with Dale, he was friends with Gabby Hayes and the Sons of the Pioneers and bad guys seemed relieved to surrender to him. Maybe they hoped he'd sing to them in jail.

The plots of those Saturday afternoon Westerns were utterly inconsequential because we spent half of every movie fighting with one another and running back and forth to the restroom. We hated kisses, but Roy never kissed girls - just Trigger. We cheered when Roy's posses chased bad guys across the range. When we got outside, we made guns of our hands by pointing our fingers straight ahead and our thumbs straight up, and going pow! pow! And when we ran, we slapped our thighs with our open palms, and that was supposed to symbolize riding a horse. I guess we were Roy and our blue jeans were Trigger.

Roy Rogers lived on and on. His wife wrote best sellers. His name was on a chain of restaurants. Sometimes you'd see him on television. When Trigger died, he had the horse stuffed, and I heard a story, possibly apocryphal, that he said, "When I die, I want to be stuffed and put right up there on Trigger." And Dale said, "Now, Roy, don't you go gettin' any ideas about me!"

I suppose in the next few days, they'll show some old Roy Rogers movies on TV. If you watch one, notice how gentle it is and how innocent. How little violence there is. How the action can come to a halt for a song around the old campfire: Happy trails to you . . .

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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