Country Crooner, Actor And Now—Father
Outside the still-unfinished Georgia mansion, rye grass glows with the ultrabright green of early Technicolor. In the front yard, a jet-powered helicopter is ready to whisk country singer Kenny Rogers away from his wife, newborn son and multimillion-dollar estate to another day’s shooting on Six Pack, his first feature film. Cast as a stock car racer, the 43-year-old Rogers will collect $2 million for the role—mere pocket money, of course, to the whiskered, whiskey-voiced king of country pop. “Right now me and Willie Nelson are pretty much at the top of things,” figures Kenny. “The question is, how long can I continue?”
For a good long spell, judging from Rogers’ success this past year. Share Your Love, the album produced by Commodores sax man Lionel Richie Jr., has sold more than two million copies and spun off four hit singles, including I Don’t Need You and Through the Years. The Kenny Rogers Christmas album led the country charts in December, while his Greatest Hits has topped 12 million in sales and is still one of the top 100 LPs in both country and pop after 75 weeks. Onstage, meanwhile, Rogers delivers his ballads and country-boy yarns at 100 or so concerts a year—making $100,000 to $300,000 an appearance. With the income from his recording and production companies, TV specials and office buildings, the onetime resident of a Houston public housing project takes in as much as $2 million a month.
Rogers’ proudest achievement isn’t financial or musical these days, however, but the seven-pound eight-ounce son born to his fourth wife, Marianne, last Dec. 4. Christopher Cody (the names were chosen by Marianne, 37, because she liked their sound) debuted three weeks early at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The delivery was by cesarean section after Mom and Dad had spent three months attending Lamaze natural childbirth classes. Although Christopher was suffering from hyaline membrane disease, the respiratory disorder that proved fatal to President Kennedy’s infant son in 1963, the baby overcame the crisis with new medical techniques and now weighs a healthy 14 pounds. To mark the arrival of Marianne’s first child, non-smoker Rogers passed out Hershey bars with all the letters except HE blocked out.
His new son has given Kenny reason to ponder his past shortcomings as a father. He admits his driving ambition for stardom helped wreck his earlier marriages and resulted in his long neglect of daughter Carole Lynne, now 23, and son Kenny Jr., 17. “As you try to get ahead, it’s too easy to think that these kids are still going to be kids tomorrow and that once you get your current project done, you’ll spend some time with them,” Kenny reflects soberly. “Then you say, ‘Well, he’s still a child, after all, so I’ll go ahead and get one more project done.’ The next thing you know the child is grown up and you can’t relate to him at all.”
Insisting that he is “willing to accept the responsibility for those mistakes,” Rogers professes to have found the flip side of his errant ways. His relationship with Marianne, a conservative Georgia-born model who plays a blond-maned Daisy Mae type on Hee Haw, is “mature and caring,” Kenny notes. He met Marianne while visiting a friend on the Hee Haw set seven years ago, and they were married in 1977. As his emotional life stabilized, Kenny’s career as a soft rocker turned country artist took on the touch of Midas. Saddled with dim prospects and $97,000 in debts only a few years earlier, he parlayed homespun laments like Lucille and The Gambler into 35 million LPs, a pair of Grammy Awards and gross receipts that are, well, gross (some $250 million in record sales so far).
If Kenny’s subsequent real estate ventures haven’t revitalized the ailing housing industry, it’s not for lack of buying. His first outlay was $2 million for an L.A. house he spent $3 million refurbishing and filling with antiques. Last year Rogers anted up $14.5 million for the 35-room Beverly Hills mansion of producer Dino (King Kong) de Laurentiis. Though Rogers now characterizes the deal, reportedly the largest ever for a private home in the U.S., as an investment (“I could sell it for twice what I paid for it”), he plans another $5 million in improvements.
Now, with the arrival of Christopher Cody, Rogers has indulged his taste for home life with another spectacular. On 1,100 acres of Georgia farmland bought last year, he is building a country hideaway where the living is decidedly more regal than rural. Called Beaver Dam Farms, the spread includes a columned 8,000-square-foot Grecian-style house complete with a wraparound porch in Italian marble, a 60-foot living room (where the videogame-loving Rogers has installed Pac Man and Space Invaders), and reflective-glass French doors to soften the glare of the western view. Outside are fountains and cobalt-blue multilevel pools; one section is long and narrow for lap swimming, another is raised and square for paddling, a third features underwater bar stools where guests can sit and sip.
The centerpiece of the spread is a temperature-controlled, 90,000-square-foot stable for the Arabians that Kenny plans to breed and sell (foals go for $40,000). He already owns 58. The stable, which will be outfitted with brass railings, has tiled showers for the horses’ daily shampoos and even a heated indoor equine pool. Insect repellent is sprayed automatically from overhead nozzles at intervals throughout the day.
Building the country Xanadu has sparked a local employment boom. The singer currently pays 175 construction workers as well as a household staff of 22, including a full-time nanny for Christopher. “My father, who never owned a house, said to me once when I was young, ‘Do you know that I have paid enough money in rent over the years to buy this whole block?’ I think that’s where my real estate mania comes from,” says Rogers, who years ago bought his folks a Texas home and helped set up his brothers in business.
The Oglethorpe County estate has allowed Kenny time both for work on his movie (being shot near Atlanta) and for Christopher Cody. While shooting continues, Rogers can chopper home at night from the Six Pack set for a goodnight visit with the kid. “Before I leave in the mornings, I hold him and talk to him and get him to smile,” Kenny says. “Every day I see what he’s doing that he didn’t do the day before. I know the hard way that we cannot recapture this age, and I’m not missing those things, because I don’t think I’m going to have another chance,” Kenny adds. “This is it.”
Haunted by the uncertainties of show business, the hard-driven Kenny is determined to expand his career as an actor. Already he has starred in two hugely popular TV movies, 1980’s The Gambler and last year’s Coward of the County. “How long can I go on singing Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town and Lady?” Kenny wonders. “Can I still do this when I’m 55? Movies will allow me to carry on for a few years after the music is over. To me success is not really dollars. It is options.”
The dollars, however, have caused Kenny some embarrassment, and he admits that “people reacting to my money bothers me. Up to a certain point it was like a Rocky story. Then there was a certain backlash, and now people resent it.” Rogers has quietly given 10 percent of his income to charities for several years and has contributed $1 million to help launch an anti-hunger campaign, inspired by his friend the late Harry Chapin (PEOPLE, March 15).
Meanwhile Kenny has begun preparations for his next LP when filming ends. His movie production company (headed by Marianne’s ex-husband, Michael Trikilis) is on the watch for a chaser to Six Pack, which may wrap ahead of schedule. But that’s not surprising for a man with enough energy to build a Georgia fiefdom, jet to concerts, shoot a movie and nurture a business empire simultaneously. “It’s fun,” says Kenny. “I’m most relaxed when I’m active. But when the movie is over, we’ll take a couple of weeks in Hawaii, and I won’t even think about business. Just me and Marianne and the baby.”