This Day in Texas History:
A Star is Born
October 31, 1912
Dale Evans, actress, singer, and wife of Roy Rogers, was born Frances Octavia Smith in Uvalde, Texas, on October 31, 1912, the first child of Walter and Betty Sue Smith, who farmed in Italy, Texas. She discovered in 1954 that her original name was Lucille Wood Smith, according to her birth certificate, but her mother insisted this was a mistake. The same document indicated that she was born on October 30, not October 31, but Dale Evans chose to accept the latter date as her birthday.
The Smith family moved to Osceola, Arkansas, when Frances was seven, and she entered high school at the age of twelve. At the age of fourteen she eloped with Thomas Frederick Fox, two years older, who left her twice within the first six months of their marriage. After the birth of their son, Tom Jr., the following year, she moved back in with her parents, who had relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. She divorced Fox, who had left a third and final time, in 1929, and married August Wayne Johns. The two divorced in 1935.
Her show-business career began in Memphis while she was working as a secretary for an insurance company. Her boss overheard her singing to herself in the office and suggested she appear on a local radio show the company sponsored. The station that aired the show then asked her to become a regular. Evans’s efforts to pursue a career as a singer took her from Memphis to Chicago, Louisville, and Dallas over the next few years, but she achieved only marginal success. In Louisville, where she had found work with radio station WHAS using the name Marian Lee, the station manager reportedly suggested she change her name to the more euphonious Dale Evans.
She then moved to Dallas to be near her parents, who had moved back to Italy, Texas, and found a job as a singer on radio station WFAA’s Early Birds program. In 1937 she married a third time, to Robert Dale Butts, a pianist and bandleader whom she had dated in Louisville. Butts had moved to Dallas and got a job with WFAA as well. The couple moved back to Chicago, where Butts was hired as a composer-arranger with NBC and Evans joined the Anson Weeks Orchestra for a tour of the Midwest and West Coast.
After the tour she returned to Chicago, where she worked for local CBS affiliate WBBS during the day and sang in clubs at night. Hollywood agent Joe Rivkin heard her on the radio and persuaded her to try out for the female lead in the movie Holiday Inn, starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. She failed to land the part, supposedly because she wasn’t a good enough dancer (it went to Marjorie Reynolds instead), but executives at Twentieth Century Fox saw her screen test and signed her to a one-year contract. She had small parts in Girl Trouble and Orchestra Wives in 1942.
When her contract with Fox expired, she got a job as a vocalist on the Chase and Sanborn Hour radio show, starring Don Ameche, Jimmy Durante, and Edgar Bergen, but her option was not renewed in the fall of 1943. She signed a one-year contract with Republic and landed a singing part in the country musical Swing Your Partner. During the next year she appeared in several films, including Here Comes Elmer, Hoosier Holiday, and In Old Oklahoma (which starred John Wayne), while performing in numerous USO and Hollywood Victory Committee shows.
In 1943 Republic proclaimed its singing Western star Roy Rogers – born Leonard Slye in Duck Run, Ohio–the “King of the Cowboys.” Republic head Herbert Yates, inspired by the success of the stage musical Oklahoma!, decided that Rogers’s next Western should feature a more prominent role for a female costar. The film was The Cowboy and the Señorita, and Evans won the role despite her lack of experience riding horses. The movie was an immediate success, and Rogers and Evans were paired in four more movies in 1944: Yellow Rose of Texas, Lights of Old Santa Fe, Song of Nevada, and San Fernando Valley.
Evans’s marriage to Butts ended in divorce in 1945, and Rogers’s wife Arline died of an embolism shortly after the birth of their son Roy Jr. in 1946. The following year Rogers proposed to Evans while they were sitting on their horses waiting to appear in a rodeo in Chicago, and they were married on December 31, 1947, at the Flying L Ranch in Oklahoma, where they had just finished filming Home to Oklahoma.
Rogers and Evans became probably the most popular husband-and-wife team in American entertainment history. By 1951, when their television series The Roy Rogers Show began its seven-year run, they had appeared together in twenty-nine movies; their weekly radio show was a huge hit; and there were more than 2,000 Roy Rogers fan clubs around the world, including one in London with 50,000 members–the largest such club in the world.
Dale Evans also enjoyed considerable success as a songwriter. In addition to Rogers’s theme song, “Happy Trails,” she also composed such country and gospel music standards as “The Bible Tells Me So,” “My Heart Went That-a-Way,” “I Wish I Had Never Met Sunshine,” and “Aha, San Antone.”
But Rogers and Evans also had their share of suffering. Their family was a large one–in addition to Evans’s son, Tom, Rogers had three children from his first marriage, and the couple adopted three other children and one foster child. They had one child together, a daughter named Robin, who was born in 1950. She was born with Down syndrome and heart defects, and her death two years later inspired Evans to write the first of her many inspirational books, Angel Unaware. Their adopted daughter Debbie, twelve, was killed in a bus accident in 1964, and their adopted son Sandy, eighteen, died the next year after a drinking binge while serving in the military in Germany.
Rogers and Evans attempted to revive their flagging popularity in 1962 with the short-lived Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, but eventually retired to Apple Valley, California, and devoted themselves to the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum there. (The museum moved to neighboring Victorville in 1976.) Evans continued to write books testifying to her Christian faith and appeared at numerous religious meetings. The Texas Press Association named her Texan of the Year in 1970, and she was named to theNational Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 1995. She and Rogers were elected to the Western Music Association Hall of Fame in 1989. She also had three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her final show-business appearance was as the host of a television show called A Date with Dale for the religious Trinity Broadcast Network in 1996. Roy Rogers died in 1998. In 2000 she was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. Dale Evans died of congestive heart failure in Apple Valley on February 7, 2001. She was buried next to Roy at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley.