Friday, June 28, 2013

Interviewing a legend

   A few days ago, I posted a photo taken in 1983 when I was lucky enough to snag an interview with Roy Rogers. It was the opening of the restaurant in our little town of Berlin, NJ, that bore his name and Roy came to meet and greet his fans. This is what I wrote in the next issue of The Journal:
   “Frontier Playhouse” revisited – September 23, 1983
   What do you ask Roy Rogers?
   I spent all weekend rolling questions around in my mind, knowing that at 4:30 on Sunday, I’d be face to face with a genuine legend and would have the chance to ask him anything I wanted to know.
   It boggled my mind. Not just because there was so much I wanted to know but because everything I could think of added up to several hours’ worth of conversation, never mind the ten minutes or so I’d be given.
   Finally, in the way of all procrastinators, I gave up and decided that the questions would “come to me” when I needed them. Hopefully they’d be the right ones.
   Then it was Sunday. And then he was there.
   Now, let me makes something clear. I was a very small child (ahem!) when Roy and Dale rode into the sunsets singing “Happy Trails.” I have a vague recollection of the 101 TV episodes they made and, although it’s a bit fuzzy, I sort of remember standing in line at the Saturday matinee to see one of the 87 musical westerns Roy starred in. Or one of the 35 that he and Dale made together.
   But unlike the kids of the 1980s, I do know who Roy Rogers is and I am old enough to appreciate what Roy Rogers is, so I have to confess to unadulterated awe.
   Grinning, foolish, teeny-bopper awe.
   In all honesty, though, that lasted about a second or two. After all, faced with the personality of the man, it’s almost hard to remember that he’s as famous as he is.
   Roy Rogers is just plain folks.
   Rich folks, yes… thanks to years of hard work and dedication to his craft, but he is warm, personable, down-to-earth and genuinely enjoying life.
   Maybe his zest for it all contributes to the spring in his step as he leaps onto the platform to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. Most people I know are not that agile at 40, let alone Roy’s highly-publicized 72. It’s obvious that he’s taken good care of himself during his lifetime. He told me he rides his bicycle every morning for eight miles, usually around 6 a.m. He trains hunting dogs, rides, walks, spends a lot of time doing things he enjoys. It looks like he’ll have many more years to do just that.
   So when the awe was conquered and we sat down to talk, what did he say? What did I ask?
   First off … why, after a lifetime of performing and being on display… why does he do personal appearances? Why beat around the country, visiting little burgs and shaking hands?
   His answer was simple. He loves it. “I feel at home in any crowd,” he said, his surprising blue eyes twinkling. “The people out there (referring to the crowd waiting for him outside) are the kids who grew up with me. The kids who were eight and nine then are the parents and young grandparents today, and I feel an obligation to keep in touch with them, to answer their questions… sure, I don’t have to work. I’ve been fortunate over the years… but I can’t just do nothin’,” he said grinning.
   Most of the time, the slight accent colors his speech in ordinary conversation, Often, he thickens the accent, putting an extra twang in his words… the quintessential cowboy. The crowd really loves that little touch.
   It seemed that oodles of people had things to give to Roy. Saddle-frame mirrors, books, the gift from Berlin Borough of a piece of Lenox china, the Berlin Community School t-shirt from the kids of Berlin… so I asked Roy what he does with all the things he must receive as he criss-crosses the country. Well, things like t-shirts, he wears. “They’re mighty comfortable when I’m out training the dogs,” he said. Everything else goes into the museum that showcases his and Dale’s lives. He made up his mind, he said, that if he ever “made it” in show business, he would save everything he could. “They call me a packrat and other names like that,” he said, smiling, “but the museum is the story of my and Dale’s life together and everything goes there.”
   Including a mounted lifelike Trigger, Roy’s faithful companion for twenty-nine years. Bullet, the German Shepherd who ran alongside the famous duo during their adventures, is also mounted at Trigger’s feet. Roy’s voice softens with fondness whenever he talks about Trigger, which is often. He likes it when the crowd asks about the horse… he tells about how Trigger was trained, what little nuances of unusual behavior could be elicited from the horse and he remarks, “If there is a heaven for horses, that’s where Trigger is. I hope when I get there, I can ride him again someday.”
   An intense Christian, Roy refers quietly to his religious beliefs, but his inner serenity and an indefinable goodness shine through. Right off the bat, it would have been impossible to refer to him as “Mr.” Rogers. His ability to set one at ease, to make any situation comfortable, automatically puts him in the first-name-I’ve-known-him-for-years category. There is none of the taut pressure often sensed with other celebrities… none of the tension that flies with the click of the camera only to return when the lights go out. He is himself… no pretensions… no hint that his life has been any more exciting than the man whose hand he shakes in the crowd.
   The facts and figures surrounding Roy’s career can be written down anywhere. Most people don’t really care about the awards he and Dale have received or the connection he has with the Marriott Corporation whose restaurants bear his name. Most people want to see him, ask him questions, touch him… most people just want to experience Roy Rogers.
   He is human enough to let them, enjoying the contact as much as they.
   That’s what legends are made of.

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