No one else has ever depressed me like Roy Rogers Jr. After seeing his Branson show last year, I felt like I had seen Bambi’s mother shot by hunters, then been forced to watch poor, shoeless villagers drink out of a poisoned well — it being the only water source for miles — and, finally, made to read "Old Yeller," twice.
This was partially because his performance doubled as a sort of musical funeral for his dead 1950s-superstar parents, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. And it didn’t help that he recounted other deaths his family experienced, telling us with an empty helmet in hand, for example, about how his brother Sandy died by choking while stationed abroad in the Army.
But the saddest part of all was seeing how he seemed to be a man fruitlessly yearning for the long-gone past in his parents' Western-style shadows. He sang their songs and his in a small, half-empty theater on a quiet-frontier set, complete with a flickering fire and the skeleton of a covered wagon. “Give me one last golden harvest,” he crooned to his largely septuagenarian audience, “before I fade away.”
Performing an anachronistic, nostalgic cowboy show like this in Branson is, granted, pretty on the money. That town is where stars of yore (who aren't Vegas material) go to die, and your average visitor is old enough to remember watching original broadcasts of Trigger — the famed horse who stands stuffed inside Roy Jr.’s Happy Trails Theater — tearing across the range.
But imagine my surprise when I recently read that Roy Rogers Jr. and his son, Dustin “Dusty” Rogers, want to bring the original back on silver screens across America, not just for kicks, but in order to “introduce today's kids to the family values of the Roy Rogers sagas.” One has to wonder how many children they have recently met.
Between eulogies, Roy Jr. at one point bemoaned what a great time it was “to be a kid back then,” when “there were real heroes.” In his subsequent discussion about what a travesty being a kid these days is, SpongeBob SquarePants and his kind were, to put it lightly, unfavorably mentioned.
But, outside of Branson, the likes of SpongeBob are the ones who have kids’ ears. NPR recently reported that, after 10 years of being on the air, SpongeBob’s show is still one of the most popular on television. It gets tens of millions viewers per month, and that many people don’t visit “The Country Music Capital of the World” in a year.
This is not to suggest that Roy Jr. means to challenge SpongeBob to a high-noon duel or that he needs to, but that those numbers might be a harbinger for his venture. Bringing Roy Rogers back as an homage is fun and deserved, but bringing him back as a means of teaching SquarePants-sized amounts of today’s youth is unrealistic.
Moreover, unless the original content is drastically changed, that messenger and his message will not be relatable to kids. They are, after all, living in a country where individuals and families are more diverse than ever before and a time when the problems they tackle as youngsters are becoming increasingly adult.
The perfect example of this disparity presented itself as I went to watch an old Roy Rogers show on YouTube after reading the news. As I waited for Episode 1 of Season 1 to load, a public service advertisement played. In it, a young boy is torn apart by taking ADHD medicine and contemplates throwing himself off a bridge. Then the Roy Rogers show starts, and the first dilemma — I kid you not — is that someone wants to fish in a fishin’ hole where he’s not supposta.
The evangelical outreach of the original Rogers is similarly outdated. Cowboy antics aren’t enough to make today’s kids feel like a homily isn’t a homily. More fundamental is the problem that millions of American children are growing up in homes that aren’t Christian, whether because those households are otherwise affiliated or entirely unaffiliated.
The Rogers men seem, somewhat admirably if also foolishly, to recognize these problems to some extent and be forging on anyway. Their plan is to produce a "King of the Cowboys" film trilogy, plus animated television content, interactive games and merchandise. To do so, they’re paired with Nashville-based, “values-driven” 821 Entertainment Group, in part because, as Dusty explained, “Hollywood wanted nothing to do with this.”
The sad part of this performance is that the Rogers can't have it both ways. To bring back Roy Rogers with modern problems and without his religion would hardly be faithful to the original. To bring him back with fishing-hole conundrums and the spirit of Jesus makes him too foreign to be morally effective.
Still, for the millions of fans worldwide, the renaissance will be welcome regardless. And perhaps the characters will be updated enough to get kids into theaters. But if the remake is, as the Rogers’ comments seem to suggest, as much about edification and entertainment, I worry for the didactic hopes of those backstage at the Happy Trails Theater.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.