By Anne Adams
Whether it was as singer, actress or author, the young to many. For they could see in her someone who despite a failed teenage marriage, professional disappointments, and the death of three children (one of them with a severe birth defect), she developed a strong faith and reliance on God. It was these struggles as well as her talents and accomplishments that enabled her to become an inspiring figure to an entire generation that knew her as Dale Evans, “Queen of the West.
Born on October 31, 1912 in Uvalde , Texas , into a loving and supportive Christian family, Dale was a “performer” from early childhood, enjoying the attention she received from admiring relatives for her singing and dancing. However, she was also bright enough to skip ahead in school, as well as to behave and to appear older than she actually was. At age fourteen, she eloped with a young man and one year later after a divorce she was a single mother with a young son and working to support them both.
Early business school training enabled her to get an office job in Memphis, Tennessee though her real dream was to be a radio singer, However, she got her chance to perform when she was offered the chance to sing on a program sponsored by her employer, and this led to other singing engagements and still more radio work. At that time, she was performing under her real name Frances Fox, but when she decided to use the name Marion Lee for further engagements, the radio management protested that it was just not right for her. However, when the radio manager decided she would be named Dale , Frances objected that it was a man’s name. Citing a popular movie actress by that name, the manager also added Evans since the entire name would be so easy to say a radio announcer would have no problem with it. So Dale Evans she became.
Finding Memphis too small a venue to attain her dream of being a radio and band singer, Dale moved to Chicago where she did perform with several “big bands” and jazz artists in the stylish hotels and supper clubs. She toured with several orchestras then took a position as a radio singer at a major Chicago radio station. Finally, she attracted the attention of Hollywood and tested for the “Holiday Inn” movie with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby (from which would come the classic “White Christmas”) but while she didn’t get that part, she did get a contract with a major studio where she appeared in small roles in several of their pictures. She also was a regular singer on a nationally broadcast radio program starring such major stars as Edgar Bergen (and of course dummy Charlie McCarthy), Don Ameche and Jimmy Durante.
Because of this radio program exposure the Republic Studios signed Dale to a one-picture contract to do “Swing Your Partner” and then went on to cast her in several other pictures, including singing in a John Wayne western. This was the early 1940s, and one of the biggest Broadway hits was ” Oklahoma !” which featured a romance of a cowboy and a farm girl set in the west. This format inspired the head of the Republic studio to expand the idea of a female lead in the western movies he produced, and specifically the films of one of his most popular stars, Roy Rogers. He reasoned that Dale had a following from her previous movie and her radio appearances and that would make her the perfect actress to cast opposite Roy . Of course, since she was from Texas she obviously could ride a horse, rope a cow and be a perfect cowgirl! However, that assumption proved faulty when it became evident that she couldn’t ride at all, which was demonstrated when one scene called for her to ride at a canter down a hill following Roy on Trigger. All she could do was “hold on and hope” (as she wrote later), and when she finally bounced to a stop Roy ‘s comment was “I never saw so much sky between a woman and a horse in all my born days.” At his suggestion, she took some riding lessons.
Though Dale lacked the “cowgirl” skills the studio head imagined, she was certainly popular and talented as an actress, and his idea was the basis of their first movie “The Cowboy and the Senorita” released in 1944. It was the first of 28 films Roy and Dale would make together. The on screen chemistry between them was popular with moviegoers, and off screen they developed an easy friendship with each other as well as with the other members of the cast. Then in 1946 Roy ‘s wife Arlene died of complications after the birth of their son and third child and as the months passed and Roy continued to perform and tour with Dale, their friendship developed. They were married on New Year’s Eve in 1947.
Roy and Arlene had had two daughters as well as the newborn son, so Dale acquired an instant family. Her son Tom Fox was grown, so Dale faced the challenge of being mother to Cheryl, (born in 1942), Linda Lou (born in 1943) and Roy Jr. (called Dusty) in 1946, and to love and comfort two little girls who still missed their mother. Dale found comfort in her newly revived Christian faith, and was further encouraged when Roy also became a Christian. Then in 1950, Dale gave birth to Robin Elizabeth Rogers. However, the joy of the birth was clouded with the realization that Robin had Downs Syndrome or “mongolism” as it was called then. At that time, such children were often hidden because of their physical and mental disabilities and yet Roy and Dale were openly proud of their little girl. “In those days people saw an offspring as evidence of genetic weakness in the parents,” Dale wrote. “Mongoloid children were usually hidden because society was not willing to accept them….But God knew that if we would accept the challenge of caring for Robin, he could use us to witness of his love in new and exciting ways.” Dale would have that opportunity after Robin’s death just before her second birthday.
Dale could not bring herself to view her baby after death leaving that to Roy, but when he described Robin as “a small size sleeping angel” Dale remembered the passage from Hebrew 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” As Dale later put it: “Like sunlight breaking through clouds after a storm of darkness, it all became clear to me. She had come to us from God – an angel – with all her handicaps and frailties to make us aware that his strength is found in weakness. In the two years she had been among us we had grown close as a family and we had learned how deeply we needed to depend on God. My job was to help deliver that message that had been given us by an angel.” Her account was published in 1953 as Angel Unaware with Robin telling her own story.
Another unexpected blessing from the book was that it meant the beginning of a new acceptance for other Down’s children as evidenced by the number of disabled children in the audience of one appearance. Dale described it later: “Among the cheering youngsters were hundreds of retarded boys and girls – Down syndrome kids, all kinds of kids with disabilities and handicaps …we had never seen them before. In those days parents seldom brought children like that out in public; they kept them in back rooms and closets…but Robin’s book helped change that.” During Robin’s short life, and even after her death, Roy and Dale continued to perform on television, in movies and at rodeos and it was on during one of these trips that they found and adopted two more youngsters.
While touring a Dallas orphanage they discovered a toddler with a Choctaw heritage and since Roy was part Choctaw, they decided this would be their new daughter, Mary Little Doe (Dodie). However, before they could return to take Dodie home Roy decided that since Dusty was the only boy in the family he should have a brother. In Ohio , they received a letter from a woman who operated a private home for handicapped children and when Roy asked if she had a little boy about six the woman brought Harry to the show. His parents had been abusive alcoholics, and had abandoned their son. The child presented a challenge because he had suffered from parental beatings and starvation, but with much thought, Dale and Roy decided that they needed him as much as they needed them. So two months after Robin’s death Mary Little Doe (Dodie) and John David Rogers ( Sandy ) joined the Rogers clan.
However, there were more children yet to come. In 1954, Roy and Dale traveled to Britain to perform but also to appear at the Billy Graham Crusades. While touring Scotland , they met a young teenager named Marion who performed for them as they toured her orphanage. Marion ‘s parents had divorced when she was quite young but while she lived in an orphanage, she could not be adopted because they were still alive. She returned to California with Roy and Dale for a visit, and eventually she became their ward. A year later when Roy and Dale decided to add a sister for three-year-old Dodie, they learned from a Christian organization about a three-year-old Korean War orphan named Lu-Ai Lee who needed a home. That same year she arrived at the Rogers home and as Deborah Lee was soon part of the large Rogers family.
In 1950, Roy and Dale turned from movies to the new medium of television when they formed their own production company to begin “The Roy Rogers Show” which starred Roy as a ranch owner in a fictitious contemporary Western community and Dale as a restaurant owner. The adventure also featured other members of the Rogers ‘ movie company and ran until 1957, and like the Rogers ‘ movies has been translated into other languages and showed around the world.
However, the Rogers family would soon face more challenges with new lessons to learn. In 1964, just before her 12th birthday, Debbie traveled with a church group on a bus to visit an orphanage in Tijuana , and when the bus driver lost control and swerved into traffic, Debbie was thrown through the front window and killed. As Roy was recuperating from surgery, Dale made the funeral arrangements and this time she was intent on seeing Debbie before her burial. ‘There are no words to describe this experience,” Dale later wrote. “One has to go through it to understand it. On my knees beside her coffin, I thanked God for the nine years we had Debbie’s love and companionship. I committed her into his hands. Then I got up and walked out of that place, and God walked with me.” Her next book was a tribute entitled
Then in 1965, Sandy acted on a desire to enter the military and enlisted in the army. Though he wanted to serve in Vietnam , he was instead assigned to duty in Germany . Several months later, Dale received the tragic news that Sandy had died in a bizarre accident.He had gone out with some buddies who persuaded him to drink too much and he was found dead in his bunk the next day. The next summer Dale and Roy toured Vietnam entertaining the troops and, as Dale put it later: “I wrote a book called Salute to Sandy – about that trip and about Sandy ‘s hard struggle to find a place for himself in a world where he didn’t get a lot of breaks.”
Though Dale and ended their television series in 1957 they continued to appear on television for many years, as well as a movie and recording performances for Roy . After Angel Unaware, Dearest Debbie and Salute to Sandy , Dale continued to write and publish. Among her other books are Happy Trails: Our Life Story (with Roy ), Trials, Tears and Triumph, In the Hands of the Potter, and Time Out, Ladies! among others. She also appeared in the weekly program “A Date with Dale” on a Christian television network. Dale received a number of awards such as California Mother of the Year in 1967, The Texas Press Association’s Texan of the Year in 1970, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1995 and three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A long time Rogers ‘ family project was the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Victorville , California , which displayed a great number of family and professional treasures. After Roy ‘s death in July of 1998, the family discussed moving the museum to the more popular and widely visited tourist town of Branson , Missouri . After her own health failed with a stroke, and heart problems, Dale passed away on
February 7, 2001. In 2003, the museum was moved to Branson, to provide fan access to see the career and personal memorabilia of the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West.