“A Real Pleasure Meeting You in Apple Valley”
December 10, 2011 § 2 Comments
I picked this up recently in the dollar bin at Amoeba Records (the huge record store in Hollywood in case you are not familiar with it), mainly because it was autographed. I had never heard of and in fact can find very little online about Wayne West, but the fact that it is also an album of old country music and includes the song “Streets of Laredo” also played a role. (I wrote a long piece dealing with that song and my take on some of the connections between Irish folk music and American country music here.)
I am not particularly into autographs, and haven’t paid much attention to them since I was a kid and would get the occasional baseball program or card signed, but when I started coming across these obscure records signed by long-forgotten artists at Amoeba – and they seem to show up there fairly regularly – for some reason they appealed to me. So I started buying them if they were only a buck and looked at all decent. You can see an enlargement of the inscription below, but it says, “To Joy, A real pleasure meeting you in Apple Valley. My best to you, Wayne West.”
On the back of the album it explains that West lives in Apple Valley and plays regularly at Roy Rogers’ Apple Valley Inn. It also says he has appeared “on the motion picture and television screen in many and various roles,” including in Gunsmoke. That is indeed the only credit listed to his name on imdb, for a 1961 episode in which “the theft of a sack of potatoes leads to increasingly violent hostilities.” For his efforts West is credited as “man” in that episode, so it was no doubt a small role – but probably nonetheless exciting to appear on a big show (Gunsmoke, which ran for 20 seasons,” was rated #1 from 1957 – 1961) during the heyday of the Western.
The Apple Valley Inn has some interesting history behind it, I discovered. Apple Valley itself is in the high desert (situated at an elevation of 3,000 feet above sea level) about 90 miles east of Los Angeles and an hour north of Palm Springs. It was developed in the late 1940s by a pair of Long Beach oilmen, Bud Westlund and Newt Bass, who purchased 20,000 acres from the Union Pacific Railroad and set out to build, essentially, a town. One of their first orders of business was to construct the Apple Valley Inn, as a place prospective buyers could stay as well as a sort of hub for the burgeoning community. Covering 28 acres, the inn and grounds were designed in a western “rancho” style, with, as described by Steve Vaught on his excellent blog on southern California architecture and history, “generous use of irregularly stacked stone and exposed woodwork stained in mellow hues. The theme was carried over into the Inn’s interiors, which featured heavily beamed ceilings, plank and adobe-style brick walls and floor treatments in cut stone and rust-red clay tile pavers polished to a shimmering gloss.”
Westlund and Bass mounted a big advertising campaign for their project, one element of which, again according to Vaught, “included the hiring of a Hollywood publicity firm to arrange for famous people to come up to the Inn. To this end they had great success and from nearly the outset of its gala opening November 22, 1948, the charming Apple Valley Inn began attracting an enthusiastic and well-heeled crowd that would grow to include many famous film and television stars as well as leaders in such diverse fields as business, politics and sports who were drawn to the uniqueness of its architecture and starkly beautiful setting.”
These stars included people such as Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Lucille Ball and Natalie Wood, but the celebrity who would come to be most associated with the Apple Valley Inn was Roy Rogers, the “King of the Cowboys,” who took out a 25-year lease on the property in late 1964. According to some sources, including an article in the Daily News just last month, the move to Apple Valley was occasioned at least in part by family tragedy. Roy and Dale Evans’ 12-year-old daughter had died in a bus crash in Mexico that year. Thus their house, on a 141-acre ranch in the then-very-rural Chatsworth area of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, came to be “filled with too many memories” and Roy and Dale decided to make the move to the high desert. (It was a particularly bad stretch, as the next year their son, 19-year-old son Sandy, would pass away in his sleep while stationed in the military in Germany; see this link for an account by someone who claims he was there shortly afterward and heard what happened firsthand.)
Once relocated, the pair ran the Inn for many happy years, and while I have found almost no information about the musical side of their operation, clearly the Wayne West album indicates that they featured regular country music entertainment for at least some if not all of that time. Inevitably, however, and with the rise of Las Vegas and Palm Springs, the Apple Valley Inn eventually declined in popularity, and it closed in 1986. There was an attempt to reopen it in 2003, but that failed, and it now houses businesses and serves as an event center – and has apparently been restored to its former glory.
One memorable footnote to its history, though, and again I first came across this on Steve Vaught’s paradiseleased blog, is that in the Inn’s early days the local phone company did not want to go to the expense of installing phone lines between the main building and the guest lodges. Instead, a homing pigeon “manned” each room, and all a person would have to do to order room service is scribble a note, attach it to the bird, and wait for the kitchen to bring one’s food – along with a new pigeon, ready for the next order.
After perusing a lot of material on the Inn and Roy Rogers himself, I have to say that I find him a more intriguing figure than I had imagined, previously being only aware of just the barest outlines of his career. But he grew up poor in Ohio, survived the Depression by working – like something out of Grapes of Wrath – as a migratory fruit picker in California, and after he made it, first as a singer and then in Hollywood, seemed never to have forgotten his roots (or, put another way, it is said that he “never really changed”). Some of the stories may of course be exaggerated, but it appears that he was pretty much universally regarded as one of the most caring and conscientious stars of his time, and if even some of them are true, he seems to have been an unusually good person – perhaps an even more remarkable fact given all the tragedy he endured, which included the early death of his second (he had an early, brief first marriage) wife, Arline, of complications from the birth of their son Roy Rogers, Jr. in 1946, as well as the deaths of three of his children. But throughout all that, he raised a large family that appears to have adored him, including several children that were adopted (sample story: on one tour they returned home with not one but two adopted kids, including a boy who had been a victim of abuse and was malnourished; unfortunately he was the one who would later die in Germany).
In other areas, he seemed to actually care about his fans, as a couple of anecdotes (both from this site) indicate. After his early movies, when Rogers started receiving huge piles of fan mail (even Trigger got over 250,00 letters during just one 3-month period), he asked the studio for a secretary to help answer them. They advised him to “throw the letters away. Roy refused, and together with the help of his wife Arline, his mother, and sisters, he spent his own money on postage and tried to answer each letter with an autograph.” Later, “every chance he got when making personal appearances Roy placed Trigger and his fancy horse trailer outside of the arena or building where they were appearing before the show. He wanted all the kids to be able to see Trigger, especially the ones that couldn’t afford to buy a ticket.” And you can find comments all over the internet from people who met him later in life and remark about how gracious he was. And then just stories like this, that the general public would have never known about: “A friend of mine, selling cars in Victorville in the 1960’s, sold Roy a couple of Cadillacs. My friend made mention about a shotgun that Roy had…in the back seat of one of the cars. He said that someday he wished to own such a gun like it, but it would always be just a wish. Roy took it out and gave it to him. What a class act!!”
Someone cynical might – I suppose – wonder if some of that was done merely out of concern for his image, to further his career, etc., but it really seems he was just a decent person. In his New York Times obituary the author says that “to the end, Roy Rogers remained a humble and simple man,” film historian and author Leonard Maltin called Rogers “the ultimate good guy,” and there are just so many similar stories out there that paint the same picture: him driving 200 miles out of his way the morning after a show to visit a girl he heard about who had lost her limbs in an explosion; using the same agent for 49 years based on nothing more than a handshake; even a relatively insignificant thing like him stopping the entire Hollywood Christmas parade for a minute or two to go over to the sidewalk on horseback and greet a 7-year-old girl he noticed had a cast on her leg (this was related years later by the woman herself). He certainly had a soft spot for children, and has been described as a “big kid” himself by some who knew him.
Some might call Rogers corny, and certainly he was of a different, simpler era. Also maybe a lot of what he did was oriented towards younger viewers (in a 1992 interview he described himself as having been “America’s babysitter”). In his movies he wore a white hat, Indians were always his friends (he was himself actually part Choctaw), and he didn’t kill his enemies, just shot their weapons out of their hands. But however you want to view him or that time period (and of course it also contained that dark strain of bigotry that today is hard to even imagine; in fact you need look no further than the Apple Valley Inn itself to find examples: when they opened they allowed only white Christians as patrons, and no less than Pearl Bailey was refused a room there, and could not buy land in the development either), it’s quite an accomplishment to go from being the son of a shoe factory worker so impoverished that he had to uproot his family to look for menial work during the Depression to a person of whom it can be said that “he had a more positive influence on the lives of boys and girls growing up in America in the ’40s and ’50s than any other single individual.”
And it would be too much of a tangent to discuss it here, but he was also an astute businessman who became adept at licensing his “brand” earlier than about anyone else (save Disney), and as a musician perhaps had more to offer than it may seem at first glance. From a review of a compilation of his music from the 1940s: “Laced in with all the cowpoke corn is some might fine, mighty jazzy musicianship, giving these songs a special little bounce that makes ’em as irresistible today as they were decades ago. If you haven’t checked Roy Rogers out yet because you think he’s hokey and square… well, that’s an easy mistake to make. But if you want to hear “western” pop music at its best, this disc is a fine place to start.”
To round out this foray into the world of Roy Rogers, though, here is one last story, one that Rogers’ son related in an interview just last month, on what would have been his dad’s 100th birthday. It’s a little long, but I didn’t really see what I could easily cut out, so will just reproduce his entire response to a question about whether fans had related stories to him about his father and what he had meant to them:
“There are a lot of them out there. Many who come to the show were kids in the ‘40s, and polio was very big in the ‘40s. Some had polio when they were kids, and they remember so much my dad coming to the hospital to visit. I remember one story a gal told me. Dad came in and brought Trigger — they put rubber shoes on Trigger, and they brought him right up to the children’s ward on the floor and then dad came around to each of them individually. They were each in iron lungs and you have to face backward and look through a mirror to see people when you’re in those lungs. Dad would come up right next to them. And this one little girl said he went right up to her and got her in her face and said to her, ‘I know, honey, you’re having trouble fighting this disease, but if you work really hard you’ll get out of this, — but you have to do this, no one can do it for you.’ She said he hung this child’s gun belt up on the mirror and said, ‘Now I want you to work really hard and when you get out of this iron lung, you’ll be able to wear this gun and I want you to come see me in California.’ Well, that’s all that a little kid needed was a little bit of excitement in their life, and I cannot tell you how many people have brought those cap guns with them that dad hung on their iron lungs back in the ’40s. There are so many stories, but that’s probably the most poignant.” In another interview he rounded that out by relating that the people often said, “And if he had not given me that encouragement, that I had to do it on my own and told me that I had to do it and no one else could do it for me, I may not be here standing here today.”
Taking his horse to hospitals. Amazing. Maybe almost as amazing as giving a little girl a gun belt. But the mention of Trigger does bring up something I found at least a little bit odd. Roy Rogers and his beloved horse obviously had an incredible bond – Trigger was “the best thing that ever happened to” him, Rogers was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary, and there are many touching stories of the bond the two had. And someone who met Roy Rogers in 1992, over 25 years after Trigger’s death, reported that he had tears in his eyes when he started talking about his old horse. But to me that makes it all the harder to understand how he could have been an avid hunter, killing big game and even bears. Hunting is not my thing at any level, so perhaps I just see it differently. I don’t condemn humane hunting, and I guess many would make a distinction between wild and domesticated animals, but still, to me personally it doesn’t add up easily.
In any event, the mention of the Apple Valley Inn on Wayne West’s album has ended up leading far away from Mr. West himself. I still just find very little on him (if anyone has any info I’d be interested in learning more) or Sage Records (though it appears that it was a pretty interesting, rockabilly-based label, and I may revisit it in another piece). Funnily enough, however, the one album of his I see on eBay at the moment is not only the same record, but is signed in the same spot (which isn’t that surprising: it is a nice expanse of almost-white space). It’s actually a better inscription than mine, too. West writes: “To Nancy, who almost fell asleep during my floor show, and to Candy, thanks for being so nice and sweet. My best to the entire Ohmer family.” If you are reading this during the next 6 days (or perhaps even after that point if it gets re-listed), the asking price is $79.