There have been a lot of singing cowboys but there’s only been one “Queen of the West.” Dale Evans is the only female to emerge as a star in the “singing cowboy” genre of westerns. Since her debut in a singing western in 1944, there have been a number of ladies who sang—and still sting—songs of the west, and some of them are mighty good.
But Dale Evans remains “The Queen of the West.” Ironically, Dale Evans was a very reluctant western star. In fact, if she had her way back in the 1940s when she began starring in western movies, she would have been a big band singer starring in Broadway musicals. But it didn’t turn out that way. Frances Octavia Smith was born October 31, 1912, in Uvalde, Texas, to Walter and Betty Sue Smith. In nearby Italy, Texas, her father farmed and ran a hardware store.
During her growing up years Frances had piano lessons and did well at school, skipping several grades. Around 1920 Walter and Betty Sue, with their two children, Frances and Hillman, moved to Osceola, Arkansas, located on the Mississippi River about 40 miles north of Memphis. In 1927, Frances was madly in love with Thomas Frederick Fox and the two high school sweethearts ran off and got married; she was 14 and he was 18. The young couple moved in with his parents in Blytheville, Arkansas, but the marriage did not work out; however, they had a son, Thomas Fox Jr., born November 28.
Meanwhile, Walter and Betty Sue Smith had moved to Memphis and they invited their daughter and young grandson to join them. On Easter 1928, Frances and Tom did so. The Smiths offered to adopt Tom, but Frances would not hear of it. He was her son, she loved him and she was committed to raising him. At 17, Frances Fox was a divorced single mom who needed to find a way to support herself and her child. She longed to sing and write songs but the practical side of her realized she needed a steady job. She enrolled in a business school and obtained a job with an insurance company.
Her big break came one day as she sat at her desk “staring vaguely at an accident claim form in my typewriter. I was trying to think up words to fit a tune I had just composed, when the boss walked in. He stood there looking at me for a moment, and then he exploded. ‘Young lady, I think you are in the wrong business!’” As the young mom began to type quickly, her boss walked away, then came back and asked, “How would you like to sing on a radio program?” The insurance company was a sponsor for a program and the boss arranged for her to make a guest appearance; she sang “Mighty Lak a Rose” on that Friday night debut on WREC. After that performance, Frances Fox had a regular job singing for “experience, no pay.”
She also performed at various functions around Memphis where she “learned to meet and face the public.” She also moved up to WMC, one of the top stations in Memphis. The divorce of Thomas and Frances Fox was granted in September 1929. In November 1930, eighteen- year- old Frances married August Wayne Johns, 22, and the couple moved to Chicago. Frances wanted to break into show business in a city that was second only to New York as a center for entertainment. Again, Frances obtained a position with an insurance company, but things did not work out on this first trip to Chicago.
In 1932 she moved back to Texas where her parents now lived. Suffering from malnutrition and anemia, she spent two weeks in the hospital. She also had an abusive husband, adding to her woes. Frances landed a job at WHAS in Louisville in the fall of either 1933 or 1934; there she performed as “Marion Lee.” Joe Eaton, the program director for the station, decided to change her name. “He informed me that my name would thereafter be Dale Evans,” she remembered. “‘That’s a boy’s name!’ I indignantly informed him but Joe wouldn’t budge.
He told me of a beautiful actress in the era of silent films whose name was Dale Winter. He wanted me to be Dale in honor of her. The surname Evans was added simply because Joe decided it was euphonious. It could roll easily off the lips of radio announcers.” In May 1936, Dale divorced August Johns. Still working for WHAS for $30 a week (where she had apparently met Gene Autry during the time he appeared there in spring 1935), Dale landed a spot on the Early Bird program on WFAA in Dallas. Her son, Tommy, lived in Texas with his grandparents; Dale visited on the weekends. Meanwhile, Robert Dale Butts, whom Dale had met in Louisville, moved to Dallas and also went to work at WFAA as a pianist and arranger.
On September 20, 1937, Butts and Dale, whose legal name was now Frances Octavia Johns, were married in Dallas, Texas. In 1936, Dale Evans saw Roy Rogers for the first time. Rogers was with his group, the Sons of the Pioneers, appearing at the Texas Centennial where Gene Autry was filming his movie, The Big Show, which featured the Sons of the Pioneers as guests. Tom Fox remembers he was at the centennial, with his mother and had “just thrown up in her hat.”
The two walked past where the Sons of the Pioneers were and when Dale saw Roy she remarked, “What a pleasant looking young man.” In 1939 Robert Dale Butts (always referred to as “R. Dale” by his wife) and Dale Evans moved to Chicago. Butts went to work as an arranger for NBC while Dale sang with the Jay Mills Orchestra at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.
She then obtained a job with the Anson Weeks Orchestra and toured throughout the Midwest and West Coast with this group. In 1940 Dale was back in Chicago, living with her son, her husband and his parents while performing in the supper clubs at the Blackstone, Sherman and Drake hotels. She sang on WWBM radio and on network shows for NBC and CBS. She also had her own show, That Gal from Texas, broadcast over CBS. In 1940, “out of the blue one afternoon … I received a telegram from an agent in Hollywood,” remembered Dale. “He asked for photographs.
If he liked them, he would arrange a screen test.” Dale remembers she “laughed as I read the telegram. I had no desire whatever to go to Hollywood. I was aiming at stardom in Broadway musical comedies.” The telegram was sent by Hollywood agent Joe Rivkin, who sent several more before Dale answered. She then “had the assigned glamour photos taken and sent the best of the batch” to Rivkin. The agent wired back: “Take a plane immediately for a screen test at Paramount Studios.” So Dale caught a plane from Chicago to Hollywood.
Travel by plane was not as common— or as comfortable—in 1940 as it was at the end of the 20th century, and “ten feet off the ground, on our way to cruising altitude, I developed a severe earache and suffered with it all night long,” said Dale. “In those days airplanes had no pressurized cabins to compensate for high altitudes,” she remembered. “A flight attendant dropped warm oil into my ears. Nothing helped. I slept not a wink and could eat no breakfast because of nausea.” After landing, she saw “a thin man pacing up and down on the tarmac…. I’d read in a book that all agents are nervous and high- strung.”
After introducing herself she noticed “an incredulous look on his face. ‘Oh, no!’ he exclaimed. Are you ‘Dale Evans?’” After replying that she was, he ordered her to take off her sunglasses then mumbled, “Well, you certainly don’t look like your pictures.” After putting her luggage in his car he was driving down the road when he noticed Dale’s wedding ring. “You didn’t tell me you were married!” he said. “You didn’t ask,” she replied. He asked her how old she was and the twenty- eight- year- old singer replied ”twentytwo.” He insisted she say “twenty one…. And you are single.
Understand?” The two drove up to the Hollywood Plaza Hotel where Rivkin took her to the beauty salon and ordered an operator to “see what you can do with her.” As Dale recalled it, “The beautician gave me a stinging facial massage … [and] tinted my light brown hair with an auburn rinse and sent me off to dress for a luncheon with Mr. Meiklejohn, a casting director for Paramount.” She put on a black dress and was curtly informed by Rivkin that “in Hollywood you wear bright colors, with flowers” before she was ushered into Meiklejohn’s office. Looking her over with a critical eye, the casting director noted, “I’m a little worried about the nose. A trifle too long for the chin” and then asked if she danced.
Rivkin quickly replied, “Dance? She makes Eleanor Powell look like a bum” before Dale corrected him, saying, “No, Mr. Meiklejohn, I can’t dance. I can’t even do a time step.” “Bill Meiklejohn almost blew his top when he heard that,” said Dale. “He gave Joe Rivkin the kind of icy stare that would have frozen a polar bear into silence.”
The casting director then told her that he was looking for someone to play opposite Bing Crosby and Fred Astair in the movie Holiday Inn, but “since I could not dance, I couldn’t fit the part.” From the lunch, Dale went to the wardrobe department, then to a drama coach who “picked a scene from Marlene Dietrich’s picture Blue Angel and told me that MacDonald Carey was to play opposite me,” said Dale. For two weeks, she worked hard, rehearsing the part, and tried to lose some weight.
She had to lie about being married and having a son until, she said, “I could stand it no longer. I walked up to Joe Rivkin and told him that I had to talk to him right now before things went any further.” She then informed him she was twenty- eight and had a twelveyear- old son who lived with her. Rivkin said immediately, “You will have to send him away to school.” Dale refused, so Rivkin then said, “Tom is your brother. Do you understand?” Dale remembers that she “didn’t like it but at least this ruse gave me a chance to have Tom with me in Hollywood … so I said, ‘It’s all right with me if it’s all right with Tom.’” Tom agreed but told her “you can do anything you want, Mother, as long as I myself don’t have to lie.”
Back in Chicago, Dale received a call from Rivkin that Paramount had turned her down but Twentieth Century-Fox wanted to sign her for $400 a week. R. Dale, Dale, Tom and R. Dale’s parents then moved to Los Angeles where they rented a house in 1940. Dale landed small parts in two movies, Orchestra Wives and Girl Trouble. She then became a featured singer on the Chase and Sanborn Show on network radio, which featured Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy with Don Ameche and Jimmy Durante. Dale Evans had a 43-week run on the Chase and Sanborn Show but during that period Joe Rivkin entered the military, so Art Rush took over as her agent.
Rush was the personal manager of Roy Rogers, having signed on with the cowboy star in March 1940. Dale had an active singing career, entertaining troops on USO shows at military camps in the United States; her husband, R. Dale, usually went along and accompanied her on piano. Dale soon had a conflict with Art Rush because he spent so much time with his top client, Roy Rogers, so she left him and signed with Daniel M. Winkler. Because of Art Rush and Daniel Winkler, Dale Evans was brought to the attention of Herbert Yates, head of Republic Pictures, home of the singing cowboys.
In 1943 Dale Evans signed with Republic. Her first film was Swing Your Partner with Lulu Belle and Scotty, two stars of the National Barn Dance in Chicago. She then appeared in Hoosier Holiday, West Side Kid, Here Comes Elmer and her first western, War of the Wildcats (also known as In Old Oklahoma), starring John Wayne. She appeared in the 1944 release Casanova in Burlesque with Joe E. Brown and Hitchhike to Happiness. Her husband was busy arranging songs and scoring films for Republic, while her son graduated from high school and entered the University of Southern California.
Both she and R. Dale were busy with their careers, often working together, and the strain began to show on their marriage. Oklahoma debuted on Broadway in 1942 and was the most successful musical during World War II, with songs like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Herbert Yates had seen Oklahoma in New York and, according to Dale, “decided to expand the female lead in westerns and adopt this format for one of his biggest stars, Roy Rogers.”
And so Dale Evans was cast in her first film with Roy Rogers, whom she had met briefly while performing at Edwards Air Force Base where he was performing with the Sons of the Pioneers. The film was The Cowboy and the Senorita. After their first movie together, the duo starred in three more movies: Yellow Rose of Texas, Lights of Old Santa Fe, and San Fernando Valley. Dale Evans eventually starred in twenty- eight films with Roy Rogers; but she was a reluctant star at first, disliking westerns and wanting to be cast in musicals or at least more “glamorous” films.
Before Song of Arizona was released, Dale threatened to leave Republic, stating, “A heroine in a Western is always second string. The cowboy and his horse always come first.” This was proven in the billing of the Roy Rogers films, where Roy was listed first, his horse Trigger second, his sidekick (usually Gabby Hayes) third and then his leading lady. In 1945 Dale was named “Queen of the West” as the top ranking western movie heroine. But things were not going well at home.
In September 1945, she and R. Dale separated; in October she filed for divorce, which was granted in November 1946. Meanwhile, she was spending a good deal of time with Roy Rogers and his wife, Arline, and daughters Linda Lou and Cheryl. Roy and Dale filmed Home in Oklahoma at the Flying L Ranch in Dougherty, Oklahoma, then appeared at the Heldorado Rodeo in Nevada while filming Heldorado in Las Vegas.
On Monday, October 28, 1946, Roy’s wife, Arline, gave birth to Roy Rogers Jr., nicknamed “Dusty.” Six days later, on November 3, Arline died of an embolism. Although he was distraught, Roy continued his professional career, performing on the National Barn Dance in Chicago and at the Illinois State Fair. After Roy and Dale starred in Bells of San Angelo, she let her contract lapse and went back to radio, appearing on the Jimmy Durante Show and the Garry Moore Show. Her next movie role was in The Trespasser with Bill Bakewell.
Gossip columnists speculated about the relationship of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, although Roy issued a statement that he “was not getting married anytime soon to anyone.” Roy Rogers was the top western star at this time. Gene Autry had returned from the armed services, appeared in some Republic pictures, then left for Columbia. Republic then upped the budgets for Rogers’ pictures and had him appear in elaborate costumes. But at home, Rogers had three children that had to be taken care of so he hired a nanny. He had been married twice (his first had ended in divorce) and Dale had been married three times.
During this period Dale wrote a song, “Don’t Fall in Love With a Cowboy,” with the line “no matter how much you love a cowboy he will love his horse the best.” But it seemed like Dale was ignoring her own advice. Roy and Dale spent a lot of personal time together although their film careers separated them; Dale was in the movie Slippy McGee with Don Barry while Roy continued his personal appearances. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, Dale appeared with the Sons of the Pioneers and Roy drove down from New York, where he debuted his “Roy Rogers Thrill Circus.”
Roy and Dale had dinner and he asked about her returning to his films but she declined. Meanwhile, fans kept writing to Republic Studios, wanting to see Dale in Roy’s films. Roy Rogers proposed to Dale Evans while they were making a joint appearance at a rodeo in Chicago; both were sitting on horses when Roy took out a ring and asked for her hand. She accepted and they were married on New Year’s Eve 1947 in Oklahoma at the Flying L Ranch. Because of a blizzard the two spent the first two weeks of their honeymoon on the ranch.
After their marriage, Dale agreed to join Roy in his pictures, so the two went to see Herbert Yates to inform him of this decision. Yates and Republic resisted having a married couple starring in films together, and Jane Frazee replaced Dale in Roy’s films. However, pressure from fans caused the studio to relent, and in 1949 Dale returned to star with Rogers in eight movies. In all, Dale Evans appeared in a total of 38 movies. From this point forward Roy and Dale starred together in films, on television and on radio. Dale’s last movie with Roy was South of Caliente, released in 1951.
The Roy Rogers Show on television followed almost immediately. That show lasted from 1952 to 1957, then the couple hosted The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, a musical variety show. From their marriage forward it was “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.” Their life was filled with career success in movies, TV shows and radio. Ironically, after her marriage she turned down an opportunity to appear in the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun during its run in London.
Although their professional lives were doing well, the personal lives of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans saw a number of tragedies. In August 1950 they saw the birth of their only child together, Robin, who had Down syndrome. Robin lived only two years. Evans’ book, Angel Unaware, was a best- selling account of her life. Their adopted daughter, Debbie, died in a bus crash during a church trip when she was 12 and their adopted son, Sandy, died while serving in the army in Germany after a night of heavy drinking. They were sustained during these tragedies by their strong religious faith.
Dale had made her Christian commitment in January 1948, just after their marriage, while Roy made his commitment shortly afterward. During the time Dale was taking care of Robin, she wrote one of the best- known western songs. “Happy Trails” was a phrase Roy Rogers often used when signing autographs. Dale wrote the lyrics one afternoon; “for the melody, I recalled a phenomenon at the Grand Canyon, on the donkey trail from the rim to the river below,” said Dale. “As the guide started down the steep path with his donkey and a group of hikers, he would yodel a deep note followed by a high one. Far below at the camp a guide would answer back with the opposite call, starting with the high note and ending with the low one.
At the top came ‘Da Da Dee- e- e- e.’ And at the bottom came the answer with the opposite intonation: ‘De- e- e- e Da.’” Dale Evans wrote 25 songs. In addition to “Happy Trails,” she also wrote “Aha, San Antone” and “The Bible Tells Me So,” which was a top seller in 1955. In 1965 Roy Rogers and Dale Evans moved to Apple Valley, north of San Bernardino, where they opened the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum. During her last years Dale continued to write books on her Christian faith (she wrote a total of 17) and had a religious television program, A Date With Dale, on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
The last performance of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came in 1997, just before their 50th wedding anniversary, at a charity benefit where they sang “Happy Trails.” Both Roy Rogers and Dale Evans both lived long and active lives. When Roy died on July 6, 1998, he and Dale had been married for over 50 years. Dale lived another two and a half years, dying on February 7, 2001, at the age of eighty- eight.
SOURCES: Green, Douglas B. Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy. Nashville: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Rogers, Dale Evans. Rainbow on a Hard Trail: Her Story of Life and Love. With Norman B. Rohrer. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1999. Rogers, Roy, and Dale Evans. Happy Trails: Our Life Story. With Jane Stern and Michael Stern. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. _____ and _____. Happy Trails: The Story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. With Carlton Stowers. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979. White, Raymond E. King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press/Popular Press, 2005.