Feature: "Happy Trails"
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Happy Trails

By D. Scott Apel

If you're a Baby Boomer, you've got a right to feel that your childhood is evaporating rapidly.

I myself lost both my TV Mom and my TV Dad within the space of a single month earlier this year.

My "TV Dad" was Roy Rogers, The King of the Cowboys, who died of heart failure on July 6 at age 86. Born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, Roy got his start -- as well as his name, his fame and his honorary title -- starring in Republic Studios B-features in the late '30s and throughout the '40s. He eventually appeared in more than 90 films, most of which are available on video.

Roy Rogers photo Roy Rogers' life and his films were intimately connected. Take, for example, his partner, Trigger -- the golden palomino billed as "the smartest horse in the movies," and his inseparable co-star. Or take his 1944 feature, The Cowboy and the Senorita, which paired him with his other life-partner, cowgirl Dale Evans, whom he married three years later. The trio went on to star in numerous movies, as well as "The Roy Rogers Show" on TV between 1951 and 1957, along with numerous sidekicks ... human, animal and mechanical ("Nellybelle the Jeep"). Through it all, Roy was a poster boy for Virtue: a straight-shooter who always played fair, who was polite and chivalrous, who used his strength and talents to defend the oppressed ... and who wasn't afraid of getting a little dirt on his sequins in his quest to bring the wicked to justice. More important, perhaps, was that the real-life Roy was one with his on-screen persona. What you saw was what you got, with no hypocrisy or ambiguity, no irony or apology.

Roy Rogers was a role model to a generation of kids who attended Saturday morning matinees in theaters around the country. And he became a role model to another generation of kids with his TV show in the '50s and the licensing of his early oaters to fledgling TV stations hungry for programming. I distinctly remember rising early every Saturday morning during my impressionable early years to catch a Roy Rogers feature on the tube -- as well as requesting every spin-off product, from fancy shirts and lunch boxes to cap pistols in fringed holsters. The goal was to grow up to be Roy Rogers -- things were that simple, when you're five or six years old! If Virtue was looking for a spokesperson to indoctrinate '50s kids, She needed look no further than Roy Rogers.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, California -- a huge structure built like a log fort and filled with virtually everything Roy had ever owned. I came away drop-jawed with awe and wonder at the virtuosity of the displays and at the sheer number of items on display -- including a number of toys I had owned as a child and had long-since forgotten ... and a stuffed Trigger. My biggest revelation was that Roy Rogers led a life even more adventurous than his screen character, including exploits such as big game hunts in Africa and the Arctic. And apparently he knew just everybody in Hollywood; one mind-boggling photo shows Roy and Clark Gable in a locker room, dressing for a round of golf ... and wearing cowboy boots with spikes!

Roy often visited his museum, but he wasn't there the day I toured -- a minor disappointment. But one of the major regrets in my life was that I didn't take advantage of the one golden opportunity I had to meet him. Roy was the guest speaker at my high school graduation -- one of Dale Evans' granddaughters was a classmate -- and I could have finagled at least a quick introduction, I'm sure. But in those days, I lacked the necessary slyness and chutzpah to do so.

Shari Lewis photo I fared much better with my "TV Mom," Shari Lewis, however, who passed away on August 2, at the age of 65, of complications from uterine cancer. The vivacious ventriloquist got her start on Captain Kangaroo's TV show in 1957, and over the course of the following 40 years won 12 Emmys and a Peabody Award, performed with and conducted more than 50 symphony orchestras, and wrote several children's books -- and (along with her husband, publisher Jeremy Tarcher) an episode of "Star Trek."

Not to mention her work in video, which is how I first met her. In late 1985, Shari's publicist contacted me in my capacity as Video Columnist for the San Jose Mercury News about doing an interview to promote her latest video release. I was thrilled. But when she later cancelled due to illness, I was crushed. The thrill returned soon afterwards, however, when I received a mysterious box in the mail. In it was a Lamb Chop hand puppet and a handwritten note of apology from Ms. Lewis. How many other Big Names, I wondered, would go to this length to make amends for an unavoidably cancelled appointment with an unknown nobody? If I hadn't already been in love with the lady, this simple act of gratuitous graciousness would certainly have won me over.

Soon thereafter, we did meet, in San Francisco, and she proved as charming and personable in person as by mail. It is my pleasure to be able to share here some of the previously unpublished portions of our interview -- the first portion of which naturally focused on her early interest in the arts and show business.

"My mother was one of the music coordinators for the New York City Board of Education," she told me. "And my father was a magician, so we always had magic and puppets and ventriloquists around the house. But I started as a dancer and got into a ballet company and some choruses right out of high school. I found out I could get into choruses but couldn't get out. So I said to my father, 'Where's that puppet?' He had shoved in under my bed ... which is the one place I never looked. Three months after I started, I was on the 'Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show.' And I have been talking to myself and answering myself ever since."

Although best known as the "mother" of Lamb Chop, this sock-puppet was not her first fling with figurines. "My first were big dummies," she explained. "In my current symphony act, I dance with five-foot, four-inch showgirl puppets as well. This dancing with puppets -- including a life-sized Fred Astaire dummy -- makes me feel like I've come full circle. I'm dancing in the chorus all over again."

Her leap from television to video was a logical extension of her talent, interest and commitment to children as well. "Video is a perfect field for somebody who likes to do quality stuff," Shari told me. "I try to do quality stuff. The television marketplace is really geared to the lowest common denominator ... the sloppiest, quickest and most violent." (I hasten to add that these comments were made long before she found a TV home on PBS.) "The home video marketplace is perfect for me," she continued, "since there are thousands -- hundreds of thousands -- of families out there that really want to bring their kids good literature, good music, good entertainment. And in the home video field, you don't have to reach millions and millions to be a success. You can reach the quality parents who really want to do good stuff for their kids."

Not that kids were her only audience. Far from it. "I don't do 'kiddie' stuff," she insisted. "All of my work is for the family market. The reason I aim for the family marketplace is, in the first place, it's much more fun. When you're working live, and you're working just for kids, you really have to simplify your thoughts, and you don't do the kids a service that way. When you perform for the family, and the adults laugh, the kids listen and think, 'Hey -- something's going on! I better listen!' And they listen up. And the adults listen to the kids laughing and they relax and become more childlike. It's a big circle, and everybody profits from it. In addition, it gives the parents and the kids something to talk about and enjoy together. In the case of symphonies, it gives the parents the opportunity to expose the kids to classical music. Kids don't respond just to rock music -- that's all they're exposed to."

Video has an additional value as well, she explained - especially for kids. "The idea of owning a movie that you've loved since childhood, like Pinocchio, just kills me. It's a treasure. And when you buy a video for your kids, you can be sure they're going to watch it upward of 40 times, so it's a real bargain. Some people ask, 'Why put on a tape instead of reading to your kids?' Well, I'm the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Reading Foundation, and one of their interesting ideas is that children should experience quality language ... the kind of language they don't experience watching TV. Children who hear better language develop 'educated ears,' and they become better and quicker readers. I don't tell my stories in simplified language. I use the appropriate language for the telling. If you have books around the house, the kids are likely to read. If you have videos that you really like, that you approve of, there is a really good chance that instead of watching the junk, the kids will watch the better stuff. There's no guarantee. But there is a chance ... and it's worth taking that chance. It gives parents an option -- to be able to have a hand in what their kids are watching. With dual-income families, parents are not always around to read to their kids. A quality tape can be a decent substitute. But it will never replace the real thing. I've never known a kid who wouldn't leave the television set for a real live lap and a story."

During a subsequent interview, over lunch, I was finally able to thank Shari Lewis for her direct personal influence. Her image, which I had absorbed as an impressionable child from the TV, stuck in my mind as the definition of what a woman should be like. Shari Lewis embodied virtually everything I've grown up to admire in women: vivaciousness, intelligence, a quick and wicked sense of humor, and imaginative talent combined with enthusiastic application (to say nothing of her pixie-ish and virtually perfect appearance). And she accepted my insights and compliments with grace and humility. It was my great pleasure to discover first-hand that, like Roy Rogers, Shari Lewis' TV persona was little different from the actual person.

Roy Rogers and Shari Lewis might be gone physically, but their legacy and talent lives on, on video. Most of Roy's feature films are available on cassette (many from Republic Home Video), as well as a dozen or more episodes of television's "The Roy Rogers Show" (Paramount). Not to be missed is the documentary, "Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys" (Republic), a fond look at the life and career of the singing king.

Shari Lewis left behind a number of tapes as well, including Kooky Classics (1984; MGM/UA), a painless introduction to classical music standards like "Carmen" and "The Minute Waltz"; Shari Lewis' One Minute Bedtime Stories (1985; Worldvision), and Lamb Chop in the Land of No Manners (PolyGram). All are suitable for repeated viewing by kids of all ages.

My TV parents treated me well, and I'm proud to be their spiritual offspring -- one of millions of kids in their extended TV family. Ironically, both left an indication of their influence in a single song: Shari in "The Song That Never Ends," and Roy in his theme song, penned by Dale Evans, "Happy Trails."

Happy trails to you, my TV folks, until we meet again. Yours was the influence that never ends. And for that, I thank you.

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

Previous features:
Albert Brooks: The Funniest Man in Film?
Mother's Day: Sons and Mothers
Will We Remember Them? Oscar Winners From the Past
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Love Makes the World Go 'Round
Buried Treasures of 1997
It's a Wonderful Film: Frank Capra's Christmas gift to the world.
Intelligent alien connections with "Contact" ... and other benign close encounters.
Die Laughing: 13 flicks guaranteed to rattle your funny bones.
Film Noir: Build a library of some classic B-pictures.
Thanksgiving turkeys: A giblet-eye view of the worst of 1997.

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September 15, 1998