The woman who would become famous to the world as Dale Evans, Queen Of The West, lived an eventful life onscreen and off. Dale Evans was well known for many things, including her singing, acting, writing, love of children, Christian evangelism, and her famous husband Roy Rogers. Together with Roy she became a beloved American icon, a Western superstar heroine who endlessly entertained us on movie and television screens and as a singer. Though her personal life was frequently touched by tragedy, she remains an enduring symbol of love, faith in God, and courage.
The woman who would become famous to the world as Dale Evans was born in her grandparents home in Uvalde, Texas. The affidavit provided by her parents, Walter and Betty Sue Smith, as proof of her birth gave her date of birth as October 31, 1912 and her name at birth as Frances Octavia Smith. However, many years later when the young woman then known as Dale Evans requested a copy of her birth certificate from the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics, her birth certificate gave her birth date as October 30, 1912 and her birth name as Lucille Wood Smith. Her mother insisted that the official birth certificate was incorrect, and the information on the affidavit (Frances Octavia Smith and October 31, 1912) has come to be recognized as her official name and date of birth.
When Frances was born her mother had been given an anesthesia called “twilight sleep” to help her through her labor. It not only knocked out her mother but it affected little Frances, too, and the newborn didn’t cry or make a sound for three days. Frances would later say that after she came out from under the affects of the drug she made enough of a racket to let the world know she was ok, and that no one ever accused her of being the quiet type since then. Her father and mother lived on a farm owned by her grandfather, and her father and mother’s brother ran a hardware store in Italy, Texas, about 40 miles south of Dallas.
Looking back, Frances described herself as a born showoff that loved to dance around the house when she got a new dress and that would burst into song at the slightest provocation. By her own description she had six loving aunts that doted on her, and they taught her to read, recite, and sing before the age of five.
When Frances was seven years old her father turned the farm back over to her grandfather, sold his interest in the hardware store, and moved the family to Osceola, Arkansas. He invested in a cotton farm there, but lost everything due to constant rains and boll weevils. Even so, Frances remembered her time there fondly, recalling the times she played with her little brother Hillman (three years her junior), the two children of tenant farmers on the place her father had rented, and her cousins. At age eight she learned to play the piano, which she loved, but became bored with scales and routine exercises, preferring to come up with her own compositions. She did well in school, moving from first grade to the third by the end of her first year, and skipping the seventh grade to go straight into the eighth.
Frances was impatient to grow up and wanted adventure. By her own description she knew she was too aggressive, smart, and extroverted for her own good. Her first public singing solo was at church singing “In The Garden” but she admits that at the time she much preferred jazz music. At the age of 11 the pressures of school and her other activities caused her to have a nervous breakdown and she had to spend the summer in bed recuperating, a period of idleness that was difficult for her.
By age 12 Frances was a freshman in high school, easily looking and acting older than her age. Too young to attend the public dances at the courthouse in Osceola, she talked her mother into chaperoning them just so she could go along with her as a way of getting to dance. It was at one of these dances that she met a tall, dark haired, eighteen-year old boy named Thomas Fox. When her parents realized she was dating the boy they forbid her to see him again, so she continued to see him secretly. When she was 14, Tom lied about their ages in order to get a marriage license and the two of them eloped and were married in the home of a Baptist minister.
In 1927, at age 15, Frances gave birth to Thomas Fox, Jr. while she and her husband were living in Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly thereafter they moved to Blytheville so Tom could work for his father, a dry cleaner, but the young marriage was under a lot of stress. On a spring day when the baby was six months old Tom’s brother and his brother’s wife took Frances to see her mother in Memphis for a weeklong visit over Easter. While she was there Frances received a letter from Tom saying they were too young to be married, that he needed his freedom, and that they should get a divorce. Frances, not yet 16 years old, was devastated. Her divorce was official from Thomas Fox in 1929 when she was 17 years old.
After her husband left her Frances initially remained in Memphis. Her mother not only agreed to help raise baby Tom, she offered to adopt him. Frances, though, desperately wanted to keep the baby for her own. She quickly enrolled in business school and soon got a job at an insurance firm. Her heart, though, wasn’t in her work, and instead of filling out and filing claim forms like she was supposed to be doing she spent much of the time at her desk writing short stories and music. One day, when she was trying to come up with words for a tune she had written, she began singing at her desk when her boss came in without her knowing. Instead of firing her, he complimented her singing, told her she was in the wrong business, and helped her get a job singing on the radio for a 15 minute program his insurance firm sponsored. The next Friday night Frances Fox made her radio debut singing “Mighty Like a Rose,” which she dedicated to her baby son. After that evening the radio station offered her a weekly 30 minute spot, and she sang whatever listeners called in and requested.
A few months later Frances moved to WMC radio, a bigger radio station in Memphis. She soon began to get invitations to sing at area luncheons and banquets, mostly getting paid in free meals. She was insanely happy when performing, and was thrilled to sing pretty much for anyone, anytime, anywhere. She soon moved on to the local CBS radio station, WREC, where she got her own half-hour show. She was in popular demand all over town and the teenager felt like she had arrived.
In spite of Frances’ success singing, the pay was poor and she kept an office job during the day. Reasoning that if she could make it to the top of the market like she had in Memphis, she could make it to the top of a bigger market and she left with her son Tom for Chicago. It was the height of the Depression and she got a job as a file clerk for Goodyear making $25.00 per week, barely able to pay the rent. She was nineteen years old, working full time, taking care of her young son, and going to auditions in every spare moment she could manage. In Chicago, no one seemed interested in her as a singer. Suffering from malnutrition – she had been depriving herself in order to feed Tom – her health failed. She returned to her mother and the rest of her family in Texas where she spent two weeks in the hospital and three months recuperating on the family farm.
When Frances felt better she and Tom set out for Louisville, Kentucky. After she arrived she got what she later described as “her first job with really good pay” performing at radio station WHAS. At WHAS she started out using the name Marion Lee, but the station manager didn’t like it and wanted to change her name to Dale Evans. Initially, Frances resisted the name change, stating that “Dale” sounded too much like a man’s name. The station manager talked her into accepting the name by telling her he chose it for a beautiful silent movie actress named Dale. He also said that both “Dale” and “Evans” were good professional names because they were short, easily pronounced by announcers, and difficult to misspell. While still an unknown talent to most of the world, Dale Evans now had the name that would carry her into superstardom.
As a singer Dale Evans enjoyed success on the radio while in Louisville. She was thrilled, but she was troubled by nagging fears that she wasn’t providing a safe and secure life for Tom. She went back to her family in Texas again, taking Tom to the family farm. In Texas, she loved that he was in a good school and attended church every Sunday. She was able to find a job as a band singer at WFAA radio in Dallas, coming home on the weekends to be with Tom and her family. She remarried in 1937 to a pianist and orchestral arranger she had met in Louisville, Robert Dale Butts. Her singing began to cultivate a strong following, and in August of 1938 she was on the cover “Rural Radio” magazine. She also traveled to sing with different orchestras and at different country clubs, including Meadowbrook Country Club outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Feeling better about herself, she once again set out to conquer Chicago.
This time, Chicago went well for Dale. She found work as a jazz singer, then auditioned for the Anson Weeks orchestra and became his new female vocalist. She traveled with them throughout the Midwest and also spent eight weeks with them in Los Angeles. While there she was offered a screen test but turned it down flat. She reasoned that she was in her late twenties and was too old to start a movie career, and that prospective agents and producers wouldn’t appreciate that she had a son about to start junior high school. Besides, her big dream was to make it big as a singer, maybe all the way to Broadway.
Returning to Chicago from touring with the orchestra she was hired by the head of CBS as a staff singer for their Chicago station WBBM. She was a success, and in addition to her radio job she found herself in demand at Chicago’s finest hotels and nightclubs. The WBBM show was broadcast from coast to coast and she was contacted numerous times by a Hollywood agent who asked for photographs to see if she would be right for a screen test. She ignored the offers, but at the advice of a friend who said a paid vacation to California wouldn’t be such a bad thing, she finally gave in and mailed the agent some photos. She was quickly wired to report for a screen test.
When Dale Evans arrived in California the agent that had contacted her, Joe Rivkin, met her at the plane. He immediately told her to lie about her age and tell the casting director from Paramount Studios they were about to meet that she was 21 years old, not 28. What she couldn’t lie about, though, was her ability as a dancer. When they met with the casting director he explained that the part he was considering her for was with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in “Holiday Inn, ” and told her right up front she needed to be a terrific dancer. She admitted that she wasn’t, and she never screen tested for the part.
Even though the casting director immediately lost interest in Dale for “Holiday Inn,” he liked her well enough to ask her to do a kind of generic screen test in case she might be right for some other part. In the two weeks before her screen test she got outfitted in Paramount’s wardrobe department and studied with a drama coach. During this time she also told Joe Rivkin that she had a 13 year old son. The agent fumed at the news and told her to send the boy away to school. Dale refused, and said if Tom could not join her in Hollywood she would forget about the screen test and return to Chicago. After giving it some thought Rivkin settled for insisting that she tell everyone that Tom was her little brother. Dale went along with the deception because she knew it was the only way for Tom to join her, but the lie about her son ate away at her until the truth came out several years later.
After two weeks of preparing, Paramount was not impressed with her screen test. After the studio rejected her Joe Rivkin took the screen test to 20th Century-Fox who, unlike Paramount, liked what they saw. 20th-Century Fox offered Dale a one-year contract for a $400.00 per week salary, more than twice what she was making in Chicago. She took the offer and in 1941 she and Tom moved to California, along with her mother, to start what she hoped would be a movie career in big-budget Hollywood musicals. Her husband moved out to join them later.
To prepare Dale for her first starring role 20th-Centery Fox insisted she spend her first week’s salary getting temporary caps on her teeth, and then sent her to a spa where she lost 12 pounds. The studio then announced that Dale Evans would be starring in the musical “Campus In The Clouds.” Dale was elated, but in December of 1941 World War II began and the movie was dropped. Instead of doing a movie, she did nearly 500 shows for the USO (United Service Organizations) and the Hollywood Victory Committee, entertaining servicemen in the military. She appeared in only two very small roles in movies for 20th-Century Fox (she played Hazel, an uncredited role in “Orchestra Wives” and Ruth in “Girl Trouble”), both released in 1942. After a year her contract was dropped.
Dale began to feel like a failure, and the lie about calling Tom her younger brother continued to eat away at her. Her agent Joe Rivkin had gone back into the army so she found another agent, Art Rush. He got her a job on the radio show “The Chase and Sanborn Hour” which showcased some of the biggest talent of the era. She did 43 weeks with the show, and credits the comedic genius of Edgar Bergen, the famous ventriloquist, with teaching her comedy skills she would use later on when working with Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes.
In 1943 Dale got another new agent, Danny Winkler. Art Rush had gotten very busy and she felt a bit neglected, and he was driving her crazy with his constant talk about Roy Rogers, a cowboy star that was one of his other clients. Art had even introduced Dale and Roy in 1941 on one of her tours entertaining the troops. She said later she thought he was attractive but very shy. After replacing Art with Danny Winkler, Winkler got Dale a one year contract with Republic Pictures, the same studio Roy Rogers happened to work for. Two weeks after signing her contract with Republic she starred in the country musical “Swing Your Partner.” Right after that movie the studio wanted her to do a Western with their big star, Roy Rogers, but she refused. Both she and Danny Winkler thought that playing in a “sagebrush serial” was all wrong for her and Winkler got her out of it. She worked hard for Republic on other projects, making numerous pictures, and at the end of a year her contract was renewed.
Dale was happy at Republic until Herbert Yates, the studio head, traveled to New York and saw the stage production of “Oklahoma!” The show inspired him to put a different spin on some of the Westerns his studio was making, and he wanted Westerns with more singing and a stronger female lead. He again wanted to cast Dale opposite the major star Roy Rogers, this time in “The Cowboy And The Senorita.” Dale, still not wanting to do a Western and thinking they were not sophisticated enough for her, was pressured into accepting the role.
Dale Evans reported for work on “The Cowboy And The Senorita” having not ridden a horse since she was seven years old. She was assigned a horse that she would later describe as “with the disposition of a convict breaking out of prison.” In a scene where she loped down a hill behind Roy Rogers, the temporary caps 20th-Century Fox had insisted she buy flew out of her mouth and were trampled by the horse behind her. At the bottom of the hill Roy commented that he had seen an awful lot of sky between her and her horse, and suggested she take a few riding lessons if she wanted to stay alive. She did, and Roy also gave her riding tips whenever he could.
In “The Cowboy And The Senorita” Dale played Ysobel Martinez and was credited underneath the star Roy Rogers, Roy’s horse Trigger, and another actress named Mary Lee. The film, which was released in 1944, was a success, and so was Dale Evans.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans began making highly popular and successful movies together regularly. Riding alongside Roy, the established “King Of The Cowboys,” she was on her way to super-stardom. Dale often played the role of a woman with spunk and courage, wearing wonderfully feminine clothes but always willing to ride a horse or help out in a fight. On screen she and Roy could exude a warm, enviable friendship or exchange in feisty, teasing banter. Dale quickly grew fond of her constant companions on the movie sets, Roy Rogers and George “Gabby” Hayes. She formed an easy friendship with Roy, her shy leading man, later calling him “as comfortable as an old shoe” and saying in a letter to her father that Roy reminded her of her brother Hillman. She admired his love of children, and the compassion he showed to sick and handicapped ones on his constant visits to hospitals and shelters. When a Hollywood columnist broke the news that Dale Evans’ little brother was actually her son, it wasn’t news to Roy: Dale had felt comfortable enough with him to tell him the truth earlier.
In 1946, longing for success in sophisticated musicals instead of Westerns, Dale quit Republic Pictures and the highly successful team of Roy, Trigger, Gabby, and herself. She made a move to RKO studios to appear in a musical comedy, “Show Business Out West.” The musical was never made, leaving Dale crushed. Shortly afterwards Republic Pictures enticed her back, promising that if she returned she wouldn’t make only Westerns. She did return, and made “The Trespasser,” released in 1947. The movie was a disappointment with the critics and at the box office, and Dale took off on a singing tour hoping the studio would find her something better. While singing in Atlantic City Dale noticed Roy Rogers and Art Rush in the crowd, and she and Roy got together and talked afterwards. They talked about Roy’s wife, Arlene, who had given birth to their third child in October of 1946 and died eight days later. They talked about Dale’s divorce from her second husband and about her son Tom, who had recently joined the Army. They talked long into the night, enjoying their old friendship.
The next day Roy tried to talk Dale into making more Westerns with him but she turned him down. The next movie she made for Republic was “Slippy McGee,” but it failed the same as “The Trespasser.” After that, Dale took Roy up on his offer and they began making Westerns together again. They were as wildly popular as before, with fans faithfully filling movie houses and also arenas during their personal appearances. Dale and Roy resumed their friendship and spent countless hours together making movies and appearances at rodeos, auto races, fairs, and more. As the months went by their friendship deepened and took on a new and different tone. In the fall of 1947 Roy proposed marriage to Dale while he was sitting on Trigger and waiting to be introduced at a rodeo in Chicago. He was introduced immediately afterwards, and Dale had to wait for her own introduction to ride into the arena after him to say “yes” only moments before they sang the National Anthem together.
Dale Evans and Roy Rogers were married in the home of Bill and Alice Liken on the Liken’s Flying L Ranch in Davis, Oklahoma on December 31, 1947. A snowstorm caused a lot of difficulty for the guests traveling to the wedding, and the minister was two hours late when the roads were closed and he had to finish his journey to the ranch on horseback. After the minister finally arrived Roy was heading down the stairs to get married when he discovered a trash can and some curtains on fire in an upstairs bedroom. He was late to the alter when he stopped to put the fire out with the help of his best man, Art Rush. In spite of a bumpy start, and Dale and Roy were happily married for more than 50 years, until Roy’s death on July 6, 1998.