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Leading Ladies

 

Dale Evans
Her Example Changed a Generation

By Anne Adams 

Whether it was as singer, actress or author, the young woman born Frances Octavia Smith was a true encouragement to many as she faced many challenges in her public life. However, while it was these struggles as well as her talents that enabled her to become the inspiring figure of Dale Evans, "Queen of the West," she was also a personal example to other women faced with the same challenge she encountered in mid life. And at one time she was apparently unaware of what she had done. A year before she died, as described by her daughter Cheryl Rogers-Barnett in her book Cowboy Princess: Life With My Parents Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Dale was depressed as she grieved that she wished she had done more during her lifetime.

Cheryl was surprised. “I must have looked at her as though she was crazy. ‘What in heaven’s name are you talking about,’ I said, ‘You changed the world! Who gets to do that?’” (Cowboy Princess, p. 31)

For aside from her movies, TV appearances and many books, perhaps one of Dale’s greatest accomplishments was how her family dealt with the birth of their mentally disabled daughter.

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. Then 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. It was at this time that she acquired her new name since station management felt her name should be easy for a radio announcer to pronounce. So Frances Fox became Dale Evans.

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. Then she attracted the attention of Hollywood and moved to the West coast to appear in several pictures and sing on a nationally broadcast radio program. 

Then after more pictures, the idea behind a Broadway play brought her the type of roles that would assure her true success. In the early 1940s, 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 add Dale as the female lead in the next Roy Rogers film. Also, the studio reasoned those since Dale was from Texas it seemed logical that she obviously could ride a horse, rope a cow and be a perfect cowgirl!  However, it was a faulty assumption when it soon became evident that she couldn't ride at all. This 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.

Released in 1944, "The Cowboy and the Senorita" was Roy and Dale’s first picture and the first of 28 films they would make together. Their on-screen chemistry was evident to moviegoers, but 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. Then as the months passed and Roy and Dale continued to perform in movies and also tour, their friendship developed into something more serious.  They were married on New Year's Eve in 1947.

Roy and Arlene had had two daughters as well as the infant son, so Dale acquired an instant family. Her own son 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 Down 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 decided to be publicly 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."

One way the Rogers family demonstrated how Robin was a part of the family was when they included her in family publicity photos. In an era when such children were kept out of sight and their existence treated with shame and guilt, this open treatment was unusual. However, their movie studio was displeased with their open treatment of Robin. As Ms. Rogers-Barnett described the studio reaction: “To the public relations department, a child with Down syndrome was the ultimate in bad publicity. They were convinced that Mom and Dad would repel their fans by ‘flaunting’ this sick child.” 

When Robin died in 1952, just before her second birthday, Dale could not bring herself to view her baby after death. When Roy later described Robin in her coffin 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. 

The book helped increase public acceptance of Down children and this was revealed by the number of disabled children in the audience at one performance. 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."

Just a few years after Angel Unaware was published, daughter Cheryl also noticed the change. “By the time I was fourteen, we’d be doing a show and there would be a whole group of kids with Down’s at the rodeo, right up front. It was incredible to see these kids who had been hidden away, finally allowed to lead happy and fulfilling lives, having fun and being thrilled by the sights and sounds of a rodeo, just like ‘normal’ kids.” (Cowboy Princess, p. 40)

Angel Unaware was not only a bestseller, but it has gone into nearly thirty printings, and has been translated into several languages. Yet Dale received none of the profits because she had donated the royalties to the National Association for Retarded Children. At the time this was a small organization, made up of parents and physicians who sought research funds to find answers to the heart-breaking problem of childhood mental disability.

“Mom’s little book gave them the money to start the research and form a real association…” Cheryl wrote. ”Even today I get statements from the organization stating that the book has brought them $7000 or $12,000 that year and that’s fifty years after “Angel Unaware” was first published!” (Cowboy Princess, p. 39).

Cheryl summarizes the change: “In the world into which Robin was born, Down syndrome kids were something to be ashamed of and hidden away. It’s a different world now, thanks, in great part to my Mom.”

After Robin’s death, Dale and Roy added other children to their family. So two months after Robin's death Mary Little Doe (Dodie) and John David Rogers (Sandy) joined the Rogers clan. Then in 1954 while touring Scotland, they met a young teenager named Marion who performed for them as they toured her orphanage. Though technically she could not be adopted, she returned to California with Roy and Dale for a visit, and eventually she became their ward.  A year later Roy and Dale adopted Deborah Lee, a Korean orphan.

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 ran until 1957. Like the Rogers' movies has been translated into other languages and showed around the world.

In 1964, just before her 12th birthday, Debbie was killed in a bus accident and Dale’s next book was a tribute entitled Dearest Debbie. Then a year later in 1965, Sandy died accidentally while on duty with the army in Germany, and the next summer Dale and Roy toured Vietnam entertaining the troops. Later Dale wrote of her son in Salute to Sandy.

Dale and Roy appeared on TV for many years, as well as 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.

Roy died in July of 1998, and after her own health failed with a stroke, and heart problems, Dale passed away on February 7, 2001. Yet while Dale may be gone, the many Down children and adults who actively participate in American society are part of the her legacy. 

(Cheryl Rogers-Barnett and Frank Thompson, “Cowboy Princess: Life With My Parents Roy Rogers and Dale Evans” – Taylor Trade Publishing, Laniham, MD – 2003)

~*~

A native of Kansas City, Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College, Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).

 

 

 

 

 

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