Dale Evans, the Texas stenographer with the melodic voice who became the buckskin-fringed “Queen of the West” and wife of “King of the Cowboys” Roy Rogers, died Wednesday. She was 88.
Evans, a prolific writer of songs and books and an admired Christian lay leader, died of congestive heart failure at her home in Apple Valley, Calif., said Leonard Maltin, a film historian and family friend. She had suffered from heart problems for some time and had rarely appeared at public events since her husband’s death in 1998.
The unlikely celluloid cowgirl starred in tandem with Rogers in most of her 38 motion pictures and in two television series, “The Roy Rogers Show” from 1952 to 1957 and the short-lived musical variety hour “The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show” in 1962.
Evans wrote 25 songs, including the couple’s theme song, “Happy Trails.” Other hits were “Aha, San Antone,” which sold 200,000 copies after its release in 1947, and the Christian-oriented “The Bible Tells Me So,” one of the bestsellers of 1955.
After her conversion to evangelical Christianity during a very difficult time in her life, Evans became a popular speaker and tireless volunteer with Christian groups. Her 17 books dealt primarily with her Christian faith.
While Evans’ fans viewed her as the personification of goodness and saw her life as a shining success, Evans looked at it quite differently. The first half, she once said, was an almost unrelieved series of disasters—and the second half was a triumph over them.
She rated her childhood in Uvalde, Texas, where she was born Frances Octavia Smith to parents of English, Irish and Scottish descent, as “an average one—no stories of hardship to tell.”
“My father wasn’t rich,” she said, “but he farmed and ran a hardware store in Italy, Texas, and I had piano lessons and an allowance--and a lot of attention.”
She entered school at the age of 7, was found to be a bright student, and immediately skipped to the third grade. Later she skipped another grade, and by the time she was 11 she found herself in the eighth grade, collapsing from a nervous breakdown.
In “Happy Trails: Our Life Story,” which she and Rogers wrote with Jane and Michael Stern, Evans said the pressure of moving along too fast caused her to spend that summer in bed recuperating.
She returned to school in the fall but had trouble keeping up with high school freshman activities with classmates three or four years older. Frustration grew, and three years later, at 14, she ran away to marry Thomas Frederick Fox. A year later she gave birth to Thomas F. Fox Jr.
Shortly after the baby was christened, her husband decided he was too young for married life and departed. They were divorced a few months before her 17th birthday.
Rejecting her parents’ offer to adopt the child and support her if she returned to high school, young Frances studied typing and shorthand at a Memphis business school. That led to a job as a secretary at an insurance company.
One of the bosses at the firm heard her singing and promptly placed her before a microphone on a local radio show. Within a few weeks, she was a paid regular at the station.
Frances Smith, neophyte professional singer, moved to Louisville, Ky., for a better radio job, which paid enough to provide a decent living and—to her surprise—prompted a name change.
She auditioned under the stage name Marion Lee, only to be told by the station manager that it was trite. The next morning he informed her that her name would be Dale Evans.
“Dale Evans? Dale’s a boy’s name!” she protested. “And what does Evans have to do with me?”
“First of all,” said her new boss, “the woman I like the most on the screen in silent pictures is named Dale. And as for Evans: Your name is concocted for radio announcers. It is a very euphonious name. It cannot be mispronounced, and it is hard to misspell it. So that is your name, Dale Evans.”
Moving to Dallas to sing on a radio station’s morning program, Evans married Robert Dale Butts, a pianist and arranger she had known in Louisville. They decided to move to Chicago, where Butts landed a job as composer-arranger with NBC.
Evans found a singing job with Jay Mills’ orchestra, which played regularly at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Within months, she was hired as lead vocalist with the Anson Weeks Orchestra and spent the next year on a nationwide tour, which included two months at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Back in Chicago, Evans found herself much in demand. She had a steady day job singing at the Chicago CBS station, plus evening bookings at supper clubs, sometimes as a jazz singer, in the Blackstone, Sherman and Drake hotels.
Joe Rivkin, a Hollywood agent who had heard Evans sing on radio and seen her photographs, sent a wire demanding that she come at once to the West Coast for a screen test. The carrot he dangled was a female leading role with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in the movie “Holiday Inn.”
Rivkin’s first words, by way of greeting the airsick Evans at the Burbank airfield, were: “You sure don’t look like your pictures.”
In the next few minutes, he informed her that she was only 21 years old (the year was 1940 and she had recently celebrated her 28th birthday); that she was not married; and that she was definitely not the mother of a 12-year-old son, whom she was to introduce as her younger brother.
She did not get the role in “Holiday Inn"—which went to Marjorie Reynolds—and her screen test at Paramount was similarly unsuccessful. But while the singer retreated to Chicago, Rivkin took the test footage to 20th Century Fox, which offered Evans a contract at $400 a week. Her career there consisted of two quick walk-ons.
Singing continued to offer more promise than acting. She auditioned successfully for NBC radio’s “Chase and Sanborn Hour.” But in Hollywood, that somehow led her back to a contract with Republic Studios, which cast her in a singing part in the country musical “Swing Your Partner.” During the next year she did nine films—among them “Here Comes Elmer,” “Hoosier Holiday,” “In Old Oklahoma” and “Casanova in Burlesque"—but never gave up the more reliable USO, radio and recording work.
Eventually, Evans was slated for a chance as a female lead. But she wasn’t impressed by Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates’ proposed vehicle—a B Western musical to be called “The Cowboy and the Senorita.”
Her co-star was Roy Rogers, the former Leonard Slye, whom she had first met at a USO performance. The picture got underway, but she remained unimpressed by both her role and her billing.
Nevertheless, the picture was a success. Before 1944 ended, Rogers and Evans had been teamed up in three more Westerns, “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Lights of Old Santa Fe” and “San Fernando Valley.” Evans’ fan mail, while no match for Rogers’ on his way to becoming the No. 1 Western box office star, was achieving respectable proportions.
Despite her screen success, Evans rebelled at being typecast in Westerns. She was having personal problems, too. The continuing conflict between her schedule and that of her husband, Butts, took a toll on the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1945.
Evans accepted a network radio offer as featured singer with Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore. But the radio work proved unsteady, so when Republic asked her to return in 1947, she again saddled up her faithful horse Buttermilk.
Marriage to Roy Rogers
On the last day of 1947, she got another offer she couldn’t refuse—from Rogers, whose wife, Arline, had died of an embolism eight days after Roy Jr. was born in 1946. Evans accompanied the cowboy star on an eight-week tour, performing at rodeos and other events. They were on their horses, waiting in the chute at Chicago Stadium, when Rogers took a gold ring set with a ruby out of his pocket, placed it on Evans’ finger and asked her to marry him.
The marriage proved a long and happy one. In the book “Happy Trails,” Evans described how they worked together: “Roy is steady and dependable; I am hasty and impulsive. He is such a quiet fellow, and he has a way of taking life as it comes. No one has ever accused me of being shy or easygoing. But the differences between us were all to the good; we each had strengths that were good for the other one. When we were together, I felt balanced.”
Despite their solid relationship, their marriage did have its trials. Evans, who withdrew from motion pictures after the wedding, found that Rogers’ children resented her new role as their stepmother. She would later say that this turmoil, coupled with her sense of guilt for how she had raised her son Tom, left her “shaken, frightened, on edge and at a loss for how to handle it.”
Her son, who through his own strong Christian faith had been a spiritual touchstone in her life, suggested that they attend a Sunday evening worship service. The title of the sermon, “The House That Is Built on a Rock,” had a special resonance for Evans. A week later, after much crying and soul searching, she returned to the church and went forward to accept Jesus Christ into her life.
That faith was to be tested shortly after her second wedding anniversary when she gave birth to a child with Down syndrome and a heart defect.
Robin Elizabeth Rogers died just days before her second birthday.
Crushed and frustrated, Evans went back on the public appearance circuit with her husband. This time the crowds of young children who attended the events helped restore Evans and renewed her religious faith. In the years that followed, Evans and Rogers, who became a devout Christian shortly after Evans, offered public testimony to their conversion and beliefs.
Her final picture with Rogers was “South of Caliente,” released in 1951, and it was followed almost immediately by the television series, “The Roy Rogers Show.”
By that time, two more tragedies had affected the combined Rogers-Evans family, which was made up of Evans’ son, Tom; Rogers’ three children from his first marriage, Cheryl, Linda and Roy Jr., known as Dusty; three others he and Evans adopted, Sandy (John David), Dodie (Mary Little Doe) and Debbie (Deborah Lee); and one foster child, Marion.
Debbie was killed in a bus accident in 1964. The next year, Sandy, then in the Army in Germany, died after a drinking binge.
Evans’ son, Tom, whom she had finally—with great relief—publicly acknowledged in 1945 as her son and not her little brother, was married and minister of music at a church in Carmichael.
Rogers and Evans eventually relocated to Apple Valley, where the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum was built. The Rogerses were, technically, retired. But for them both, it was a very active retirement.
Evans continued to write books and songs and to appear with her husband at rodeos and religious meetings. They were co-grand marshals of the 1977 Rose Parade.
Her last performance with Rogers, who died of heart failure in July 1998 at the age of 86, came at a charity benefit a few months before their 50th wedding anniversary. They sang their signature theme song, “Happy Trails.”
She had been scheduled to appear Sunday at the Madrid Theater in Canoga Park at a fund-raiser for the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, but bowed out because of her frail health. Their son, Dusty, and his band entertained, and three of her granddaughters, who bill themselves as the Rogers Legacy, sang “Dale Evans, Queen of the West.”
In addition to six children—Tom, Cheryl, Linda, Dusty, Dodie and Marion—Evans is survived by 15 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.
A public memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Saturday in Hansen Hall of the Church of the Valley Presbyterian in Apple Valley.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be sent to either the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, 15650 Seneca Road, Victorville, CA 92392, or to the Brick Project of Sunset Hills Memorial Park, 2400 Walleu Road, Apple Valley, where Evans will be buried next to Rogers.