Every young man whom I knew as a pre-teen had a western hero. Prior to television the prime source of entertainment in El Dorado on weekends was attending movies at either the Rialto or the Majestic theaters. Both these theaters in the 1950’s were segregated and the only integrated movie theater was the Ritz. We didn’t call them “theaters” in those days; instead they were known as “picture shows.” The Rialto was a more sophisticated picture show and generally didn’t feature the western (cowboy) movies that we loved. The cowboy movies were shown at either the Majestic or the Ritz, so those picture shows were our favorites. There were a number of potential wild-west heroes such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Johnny Mack Brown, Joel McCrea, The Durango Kid, Lash La Rue, The Lone Ranger, Sunset Carson, and the favorite of many, John Wayne. I loved all of them, but have to say that my favorite by far was Roy Rogers. That became especially true after I got to see him in person.
I was fortunate to have an aunt in St. Louis who took great interest in the things that were important to me. Aunt Tooky (Thelma) was an older sister of Mom, and she and Uncle Max, who had been married for many years were not fortunate enough to have children. Their marriage relationship was always a little strange to me, because Aunt Tooky lived alone in a very exclusive and beautiful apartment and only saw Uncle Max on occasion. Mom told me they had been separated for many years but were not divorced. At the time Aunt Tooky was the wealthiest person I had ever met, and all I knew was she had “millions.”
My parents received a phone call from Aunt Tooky in the summer of 1949, and she informed them she knew I loved Roy Rogers and had just read that he was bringing his rodeo to the large downtown arena in St. Louis. She suggested they take a few days off and bring me to the rodeo so I could see him in person. Pop said he needed a few days off and would enjoy going to St. Louis, but bargained with Mom whereby she and Aunt Tooky would be responsible for taking me to see Roy Rogers. The decision was made to take the train to St. Louis which left El Dorado about 8 PM and arrived in St. Louis at 8 AM. The excitement of spending the night on the train was huge and only added to the enormous thrill of getting to see Roy Rogers. I had my finest cowboy outfit in my suitcase for the event.
The trip was uneventful except for the fact that I could hardly sleep thinking what was laying ahead. The noise and the swaying of the train were a little disturbing at first, but since I noticed neither Pop nor Mom were concerned, I decided the anxiety of the travel was a small price to pay for what I was going to be able to tell all my buddies back home!
Aunt Tooky met us at the train station, and she could immediately tell how excited I was. si I had donned my cowboy suit and wanted Roy to know I was just “one of the boys” just in case I accidentally ran into him. The rodeo was scheduled for the afternoon of our arrival so the wait was not quite so long, although it seemed lunch would never end. Mom, Aunt Tooky and I headed for the downtown arena about an hour and a half before the scheduled time of the rodeo so we could park and find our seats. Aunt Tooky had reserved our seats, and I have no idea how much they cost but were some of the finest seats available. At the appointed hour the arena lights dimmed and the giant spotlight focused on one end of the arena while the announcer shouted; “Now heeer’s Roy Rogers!” As the crowd roared I could hardly catch my breath when I saw Roy riding Trigger into the center of the arena while waving his hat to the adoring crowd. Aunt Tooky said I never took my eyes off him for the entire first part of the show, and she had not seen me so focused ever before. Intermission came far too soon for me, but Aunt Tooky asked, “Would you like to go with me and see if we can meet Roy?” “Yes Ma’m!!” I quickly said. The question was like asking a starving man if he would like to find something to eat!
Mom decided to remain in our seats, so Aunt Tooky and I made our way down a number of long corridors which seemed to lead toward the basement area. The number of people we encountered became smaller and smaller until it seemed we were the only ones present. Suddenly a guard appeared and said we were not allowed in this part of the arena. Aunt Tooky told him her nephew had come all the way from Arkansas to see Roy Rogers, and wondered if he could arrange that meeting. As she spoke, I saw her reach into her purse to get a $100 bill and slip it into the guard’s hand. In our present economy, that would amount to approximately $600. As he placed that bill into his pocket he said, “Stay right here, and I’ll see what I can do.” In less than 2 minutes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was Roy Rogers riding Trigger down the corridor and approaching us! He said, “Son, I hear you have come all the way from Arkansas to see Trigger and me.” From that point on I don’t remember a thing I said. I think I just listened. With my mouth wide open from sheer disbelief he asked, “Would you like to climb up on Trigger?” as he extended his hand and pulled me into the saddle behind him. I wanted to just touch those beautiful pistols in his holster but dared not. He said a few more things to both Aunt Tooky and me, and then said he needed to get back so the 2nd half of the show could begin, while letting me down off Trigger. As we walked back to our seats for the remainder of the show I was trying to think just how I was going to tell all my buddies back home I now had a new pal in Roy Rogers. They would just have to dream about what I had gotten to experience first hand in St. Louis because of the generosity of Aunt Tooky.
Roy Rogers died in 1998 at the age of 87 having lived a life of providing clean, wholesome entertainment for millions of young people over many decades. I always regretted as an adult I never wrote Roy a thank you letter for the act of kindness and love he showed an adoring 9-year-old fan. He certainly had nothing to gain from our encounter except the sheer joy of seeing in my face how much I loved him. I’m certain the guard never told him about the $100 bill from Aunt Tooky.