The King of the Cowboys Rides Again

By: Dan Bessie

Roy Rogers, of course. Along with his charming wife, Dale Evans. And I'm directing them in a series of commercials urging support for a school for mentally challenged kids.

With no budget, but with the free help of a talented crew - including cameraman Allan Daviau (before E.T. or The Color Purple) - we're off to the Roy Rogers Museum in Apple Valley, California, where Roy and Dale are "delighted to do anything for the children."

Organizing every film project should be so easy!

And the fellow who set it up? For that, a digression: in Hollywood at the time is a fellow called "Nudie." Actually Nudka Cohen, from Russia. Tailor to the stars, he creates custom outfits for everyone from Elvis Presley to Gene Autrey. He drives a Cadillac with six-guns for door handles; carbines mounted on the fenders and Texas Longhorn steer horns as a hood ornament. Inside, the dashboard and seats are inset with silver dollars. And he dresses the part: spurs, string tie and a ten-gallon hat. Our contact is not the Nudie, but an exact replica, down to the string tie and outlandish Cadillac.

By eleven a.m. we arrive at the Roy Rogers' museum. "Nudie" meets us. And next door to the museum is a small real estate office with a western facade, hitching post and all. Terrific! I'll stick Roy in front and have him deliver his spiel. "Oh, he won't go over there," exclaims Roy's secretary, "he's got a feud going with those folks."

OK, we'll film Roy in front of the museum. Then, I figure, we'll catch the other locations and wrap by 4 p.m. So, with a few minutes before the King of the Cowboys is to appear, I slip into the museum. There is Roy's famous horse, Trigger, along with his dog, Bullet, both stuffed and mounted. Other patrons raise their eyebrows when I start to laugh. Because I'm immediately reminded of the joke about the guy who brings his two deceased hunting dogs to a taxidermist. The taxidermist, noting the guy's sad face, says, "I understand, sir, you want them mounted." "Oh, gracious no," says the man, "just side by side; they were only good friends."

I wander back outside. "Nudie" says that Roy can only give us twenty minutes. Our kids pile out of the bus and we set up equipment. Ten minutes later, Roy and Dale appear -in natty western style street clothes. Then Roy spots the camera. And the lights. And our dozen kids and crew of five. I sense trouble. He turns and heads back toward the museum, but Dale hustles to catch his arm. "I thought this was a still shoot, mother," Roy complains, "I didn't expect no camera crew." "Now, Daddy, it's for the children," scolds Dale. "I didn't expect some crowd of kids. I though it was just a still shot." "Now, daddy..."

Roy bites his lip then reluctantly lets Dale lead him back toward the camera. I quickly introduce myself, select a spot for him to stand, and hand him the lines for his intro. Then, after a moment, he says, "Ok, I've got it," and passes the script to Dale.

Before he has a chance to change his mind I hand him six-year-old Wilbur, a cherub of a kid with Downs Syndrome. Wilbur, who weighs eighty pounds, is delighted. Roy is nonplussed. "Roll camera," I shout. Then, "Action!" A consummate pro, Roy immediately slips into the role, delivers the lines then ends, off the cuff, by asking Wilbur if did OK. The lad beams broadly and shakes his head. Great! But not quite right. Roy has trouble holding the kid and looks as if he's straining. "Once more," I say.

This time, Roy, grunting under the boy's weight, almost lets Wilbur slip to the ground. We run through the shot seven times before we have what I consider a decent take. Each time, Roy looks as if he's about to pack it in - and each time a reproachful look from Dale snaps him back. As we finish, Roy wipes his brow, smiles obligingly to one and all and ducks back into the museum. Dale graciously hangs around to thank us for doing this series of spots "for the children."

Our twenty minutes with Roy has taken an hour. By now it's one p.m. We have three hours to grab the rest of the shots we need. So we pile into the bus and race around Apple Valley. We don't make four p.m. Six instead. By then, everyone is wiped.

As we wrap, "Nudie," who's been standing by all day with a benign smile, announces, "Now, boys and girls, I'm'a gonna take y'all t' dinner t' the Apple Valley Inn."

We look at one another. I've promised the crew sandwiches and sodas. But nobody complains. True to his word, "Nudie," his Caddy in the lead, guides us to the Inn, where he's reserved a banquet table. And there, a crew of five, a teacher, a haggard director and a dozen kids enjoy "Whatever y'r l'il hearts wanna order."

As we climb back onto the bus for the long haul back to L.A., "Nudie" offers his personal goodbye to each child. Then he tells me "If'n y'all ever need anythin' else out here in the Valley, j'es gimme a call." With that he turns, grasps the six-gun handle on the driver's side door, opens it, climbs into his arsenal and drives off into the sunset.

And as our bus chugs through the San Bernardino Mountains in the gathering dark, I stare out a window. Moments later, I burst out laughing. Wilbur hears me and joins in. But I don't tell him about the bizarre image carousing through my head: Roy and Dale, years hence, standing beside Bullet and Trigger in the museum - stuffed and mounted.

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Reeling Through Hollywood traces the Hollywood career of Dan Bessie Learn more about working in Tinsel Town days at

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