When Roy Rogers and Trigger brought pandemonium to Britain

Iconic duo: Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger
Iconic duo: Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger - Bettmann

A decade before The Beatles worked teenage baby boomers up into a state of hysteria, it was a singing cowboy and his scene-stealing horse who inspired frenzied hero worship amongst that same generation.

The 1954 theatre tour of the British Isles by 41-year-old Hollywood superstar Roy Rogers, his singer wife Dale Evans and his trusty sidekick Trigger sparked near pandemonium in the seven cities on their two-month itinerary. Not only did their visit become the stuff of local legend in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool, Belfast, Dublin and London, but it also turned out to be an iconic moment in the lives of the youngsters who showed up in their thousands to greet them, who attended their shows, or who happened to spot them while they were off-duty.

Rogers, known as “The King of the Cowboys,” who had most recently been seen in the hit Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface, in which he sang A Four-Legged Friend, was a box office favourite on both sides of the Atlantic. Over here, children regularly saw his movies (he had made over 100) in Saturday morning picture shows, and the Roy Rogers Riders Clubs counted 80,000 members. Roy Rogers comics and annuals were essential reading matter in most homes with school-age residents, and those who had access to a television also followed his adventures via that medium. It is little wonder that the juvenile population went somewhat nuts when the news was announced of the first visit to these shores by their favourite screen stars.

In the week running up to Trigger’s arrival from New York at Prestwick Airport in Ayrshire, staff fielded calls from mothers wanting to know if they could bring their children to meet the plane. Thousands of youngsters – many of them decked out in cowboy gear and waving “six-shooters” – waited from 8am on a bitterly cold Sunday for the touchdown of the KLM freight plane carrying the world’s most famous horse.

The 21-year-old Palomino, who had been insured for $1 million for his flight, stepped sedately from the plane, bowed and, led by his trainer, trotted serenely across the tarmac, completely unruffled by the chaos all around him - as airport workers, police and firemen failed to stem the flow of yippeeing children who had stormed the barricades.

Roy Rogers riding Trigger in front of a group of school children at Harringay Stadium, London, on March 20 1954
Roy Rogers riding Trigger in front of a group of school children at Harringay Stadium, London, on March 20 1954 - Getty

Yet more young fans lined the streets along the route from the airport into Glasgow where Rogers and Evans (known as “The Queen of the West”), who had driven up from London in a brand new red Austin Healey, were to be reunited with their equine co-star (AKA “The Smartest Horse in the Movies”).

At Glasgow Central Station, children as young as five, who had begun assembling long before sunrise, were disappointed when only human stars materialised at around noon. Dressed in a white cowboy suit and matching Stetson, with silver pointed shoes, Rogers – who greeted his young friends with a cheery “Howdy” – later made a round of the crush barriers, shaking countless outstretched hands before mounted police cleared a path through the crowd so he could head off by car to check out the theatre where he would be headlining. Needless to say, he had plenty of pedestrian company on his journey up to Sauchiehall Street and back down to the hotel.

As Trigger’s arrival in Glasgow became imminent, the number of excited children grew to an estimated 3,000. When his gleaming horse box was drawn into the station, a chant went up of “We want Trigger.” Around 13 hours after the crowd had begun to assemble, Rogers emerged with Trigger, and paraded him up and down the barriers. To the accompaniment of cheers, Trigger – who, Rogers told the press, was “really a ham at heart” – bowed at the various entrances to the Central Hotel before being taken inside.

Roy Rogers arriving at Northolt Airport with Trigger, on March 20 1954
Roy Rogers arriving at Northolt Airport with Trigger, on March 20 1954 - Getty

Similar scenes played out in the other cities on the Rogers itinerary. A week later, The Scotsman reported that “the Sabbath calm of Edinburgh was broken” by the convergence of hyper-active small children and their parents on Princes Street Station and the Caledonian Hotel, when the Americans were due to arrive. In Dublin, the following month, youngsters crashed through the police cordon at Amiens Street Station when Rogers’ car came out of the station, and eight people fainted during the ensuing rush. The chanting of what a local paper called “the juvenile mass” in Birmingham’s city centre became deafening when Trigger was raced up and down Stephenson Place to the delight of spectators.

In several cities, a great show was made of Trigger being booked into whichever upmarket hotel was usually favoured by stars – the Queen’s Hotel in Birmingham, the Adelphi in Liverpool etc – and “signing in” at the reception desk with a pen between his teeth before prancing up the staircase to his supposed accommodation at such a brisk pace that photographers often had to jump out of his way. Newspapers reported that in these hotels, a room had been decked out for Rogers’ four-legged sidekick to sleep in, but, in fact, after nodding or shaking his head to answer questions in a press conference, he was checked in to the nearby corporation stables – or, in the case of his Belfast residency, the back yard of a local vet’s house.

At packed theatres, the show was a hit with the young cowboys and girls – many of whom had brought sugar lumps and other treats for their four-legged favourite – but was less enthusiastically received by the critics. Rogers, Evans and their troupe, which included the The Whippoorwills singing group, performed a mixture of “cowboy songs” and Christian numbers.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans arriving in London on February 10, 1954
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans arriving in London on February 10, 1954 - Dennis Oulds/Getty

Trigger, who turned out to be a 52-trick pony, would show off his arithmetic and dancing skills, and Rogers, who acted as a genial compere, performed shooting tricks. “How many of you little cowboys have brought your guns?” he would ask, and all over the auditorium, little hands would shoot up, some with their revolvers firing caps. “Good,” he would say. “You’ll need ‘em if there’s any shootin’ around here.” But the only shooting was Rogers firing at clay targets in the air. Each time he hit one, hundreds of excited voices would shout: “Bull’s eye!”

Early on in the tour there was a bit of unscripted drama when, at Edinburgh’s Empire Theatre, a trick went wrong and “Trigger was shot”. Luckily, he received backstage medical treatment and the show carried on. It turned out that one of the pellets which Rogers had fired had ricocheted from the stage and struck Trigger on the flank. Another had hit Rogers on the nose.

Religion and family values were recurring themes in the show. Rogers and Evans told stories about their life on the ranch, and the brood of children to which they had recently added an infant Native American daughter who was from the same, Choctaw, tribe as the family of Rogers’ mother. Indeed, Rogers’ respect for Native Americans may well have inspired his fans to substitute the “Indians” in their cowboy role play games with “bad guys”.

In a show which a cynic could describe as half circus, half sermon, the devout Rogers gently lectured young fans on the importance of going to Sunday school (“Don’t you listen to the little guys who call you cissies for going,” he counselled them), brushing their teeth and eating their vegetables without complaint.

The preaching didn’t sit too well with the critics. The Birmingham Post reviewer said: “His ‘pep’ talk … seemed to fit the parish hall platform better than the music-hall stage, and this side of the act gained little from the aura of Christian virtue spread by Dale Evans.” The Birmingham Daily Gazette critic was grateful that “Trigger, a very talented horse indeed, danced gracefully, blew kisses to the audience, did some simple arithmetic, nuzzled Roy Rogers affectionately and did not encourage us to go to church.”

Still, the show wasn’t aimed at adults; it was for the children – and they didn’t seem to object to the religious aspect. Indeed, it was because of Rogers’s influence on the young that the London leg of his tour was incorporated into the up-and-coming evangelist Billy Graham’s “crusade” at Harringay Stadium, where 40,000 children came to see the Christian cowboy’s act.

Roy Rogers riding Trigger at Harringay Stadium, March 20, 1954
Roy Rogers riding Trigger at Harringay Stadium, March 20, 1954 - Getty

Between performances, Rogers and Evans – who, seven years previously, had lost a daughter, Robin, before her second birthday – crammed in private visits to children’s homes and hospitals everywhere they went.

One child made a particularly strong impression on them. Marion Fleming, a 13-year-old who sang for them when they visited Dunforth Home For Deprived Children in Edinburgh, captivated them to such an extent that she was invited to spend her summer holidays on their Californian ranch. They subsequently adopted her. In 2019, a couple of years before her death, she said: “When we were in the house we were just a family, they weren’t Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, they were mum and dad.”

Extremely generous with his time and patient with his young fans, Rogers gave a free performance of Home On the Range from a side window of the Glasgow Empire between shows on his opening night in this country. Thousands of fans – many of them small boys on their parents’ shoulders; some of them families who could not afford the inflated ticket prices being charged by the theatre that week – joined in.

Seeing these Hollywood legends perform – whether onstage or in the streets – was a magical, once-in-a-lifetime, experience for the youngsters of 1954. And even now, 70 years later, the mention of Roy Rogers and Trigger (who was so beloved by Rogers that when he died, he had his hide mounted over a life-size plaster model of a horse in rearing position) sparks a twinkle in the eyes of the grown-up cowboys and girls whose hero treated them as pals and provided their first sprinkle of stardust.