QUEEN OF THE WEST #1
From the book “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
Happy Trails” with Carlton Stowers 1979
For as long as I can remember I've been hearing and reading about people who are "trying to find out who they are." They think they've had problems. Consider this: Until not too many years ago the only evidence I had of my birth was an affidavit from my parents assuring any and all who cared to know that I was bom Frances Octavia Smith on October 31, 1912, in the home of my grandparents in Uvalde, Texas. That was good enough for me, and the people down at the driver's license bureau and the passport authorities and the man down at the grocery store who cashes checks for me.
But in 1954, when Roy and I were preparing to travel to England, I was unable to find the affidavit. I immediately wrote to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Texas to finally request a copy of my birth certificate. It came back with the surprising news that I had been born on October 30 instead of October 31, and that my name was Lucille Wood Smith. Take your choice.
My mother, who was the only lady I ever knew who could call someone a card-carrying crazy and do so in a Christian manner, later insisted to me that the record-keepers in Texas were obviously not to be considered reliable and that there was absolutely no question in her mind that I was named Frances Octavia. I figure a mother should know better than a dusty old file cabinet, so, for the record, Frances Octavia Smith it will be. As far as the birthdate goes, my mother admitted she wasn't sure. Since I'd spent a great deal of my adult life dealing with jokes about being born on Halloween, I've stuck with October 31, despite the fact that it makes me a day older. Or is it younger? No matter; I figure when you get my age it really doesn't matter anyway. I just go along and, with the help of God and a little Max Factor, try to look the best I can.
Which, to be truthful, isn't nearly as important to me today as it was at one time in my life.
I have no stories of childhood poverty to tell. While my father was by no means a wealthy man, he fell into that comfortable middle-class range as a farmer and owner-operator of his own hardware store during my younger days. I always had a new Easter dress, and was given piano lessons, an allowance and, quite honestly, what amounted to an improper amount of attention inasmuch as I was the first child born to Walter and Betty Sue Smith.
Although my parents farmed near Italy, Texas, I was born in my grandfather's home in Uvalde—the home town of former Vice-President John Nance Gamer and actor Dana Andrews, as well as the infamous Newton Gang, a collection of brothers who gained nationwide fame—and fortune—by pulling off a record-setting million-dollar train robbery near Chicago in the early twenties.
If that doesn't legitimately qualify it as a social melting pot, I don't use the same yardstick you do.
It was I who, at the roaring age of three, decided one Sunday morning that all gathered at our little Italy Baptist church would be witness to my gospel solo debut. I swished my skirt down the aisle, burst into song, and would later be rewarded by a trip with my father to the nearby fire station, where he made every effort to convince me he was a firm believer in the "spare the rod, spoil the child" school of thought. I got the same message when, upon coming to the realization that the birth of my younger brother Hillman was a major distraction from me, I ran away from home—all the way to the pig pen out back where, in mud up to my Dutch bob, I told my woeful tale to a newly born litter of pigs.
We moved to Osceola, Arkansas, when I was seven, my father having heeded the call of his brother who told him stories of wonder about the bountiful cotton crops a man could raise there. He had failed to mention the occasional floods which broke down levees, turning roads and cotton fields alike into seas of mud, or of how crop-killing boll weevils flourished and mosquitoes sometimes darkened the late evening sky.
The first year was neither financially rewarding nor joyous to the Smith family, but my father, a hard worker who wasn't the least bit hesitant about butting heads with challenges, saw to it that the next year was more productive.
Having already been taught the basics of reading, writing, and math by my mother, I entered school at age seven. After half a year in the first grade, I was advanced all the way to the third. I would later also skip the seventh, thus arriving at the eighth grade at the ripe age of eleven. And I promptly had a nervous breakdown which made it necessary to spend an entire summer vacation in bed.
Trying to keep up with a group of kids several years my senior, I had pushed myself too hard. I was, Mother would remind me years later, a child who never went about any activity at a normal speed. For me it was full throttle or not at all.
Which was the main reason my piano instructor finally came to the end of her patience and left our home one afternoon in the middle of a lesson. "Mrs. Smith," she said before leaving, "I'm wasting my time and your money. Your daughter is too much of an improviser to ever learn to play properly. She won't practice the scales or the pieces I assign to her."
The routine tedium of running up and down the scales didn't appeal to me in the least, so I had spent my practice time improvising my own compositions. Even with the lack of an instructor (aside from the help my mother would give me), I continued to play, learning by ear the kinds of songs I could also sing. Which is exactly where my musical abilities are today.
As a youngster, I spent a great deal of time impulsively rushing into things long before I was emotionally ready to deal with them. I regularly attended church with my parents, but my motives were more social than spiritual. It wasn't until our church held its annual revival, inviting a guest preacher whose hell-fire and brimstone sermons got my attention, that I gave religion any serious thought. Having decided I did not wish to spend my eternity in either the darkness or the fire he so eloquently described, I walked the aisle and was baptized a couple of weeks later. I was ten at the time, reaching out in fear but not really prepared to dedicate, to hand my life over to the Lord.
By the time I was twelve and a freshman in high school, I was anxious to participate in all the activities my generally-older classmates were enjoying—the parties and the public dances held on weekends at the courthouse. Without question, the most fascinating discovery I had made up to that time was boys. I looked older than I was, acted older—certainly felt older—and therefore was regularly distraught when Mother wouldn't readily allow me to accept the offers of dates which came with enough frequency to keep my already healthy ego properly inflated.
Will, however, finds a way, and I finally succeeded in persuading my mother to attend the dances as a chaperon. Soon I was dancing every dance.
It was at one of those weekly dances a couple of years later that I met an older boy from a nearby town and fell head over heels in love. In his late teens, he was handsome, fun-loving, and was soon telling me that he loved me. Now that I was allowed to date, we went everywhere together. He became the focal point of my whole life, a state of affairs which greatly concerned my mother. First, she suggested we see a little less of each other. I ignored her. Finally, in desperation, she told me I was not to see him anymore. I did anyway. I was, after all, fourteen years old, and quite capable of making decisions on my own. If my romance had to become a sneak-around affair, so be it.
One evening I was supposed to attend a school play rehearsal and then go on over to a girlfriend's house to spend the night. It was the last my mother would hear of me for three days.
Lying about our ages, my boyfriend had obtained a marriage license. On the evening I was supposed to be practicing for my role in the play, we drove eighteen miles down the road to Blytheville, where we were married in the home of a local minister. Then we drove on across the border to Tennessee, where we spent our honeymoon weekend in the home of my new mother-in-law.
While I had no second thoughts about the boy I had married, concern over the grief I knew I had caused my parents gnawed at me. Knowing that Mother would be frantic, I called her long distance to announce that Frances Smith was now officially Mrs. Frances Fox.
The silence that followed was deafening.
Once the shock had passed Mother asked that we come back to Osceola so that I could at least finish high school, a suggestion I unfortunately rejected. We returned home, living with my husband's father and step-mother.
I would soon share in my parents' disappointment at my new life. Or at least experience disappointments of my own. Twice in the first six months of our marriage my husband left me. When my parents decided to move to Memphis I went with them, hoping my new husband would soon follow.
He was there when, at age fifteen, I gave birth to our son, but shortly thereafter he left for the third and final time. All of my things and the baby's things had been left in my aunt's and uncle's garage, and in a few long days came the final communication from the boy I had planned to spend my life with. A letter arrived, talking of a need for freedom, of being too young to be tied down to a wife and a child. I was heartbroken.
Another year would pass before I could bring myself to file for divorce. At age seventeen, a bitter divorcee, I found myself running everywhere and getting nowhere. Totally disillusioned, I struck out in all directions, literally daring anyone to knock the sizable chip from my shoulder. All I succeeded in doing was hurting myself and others, never realizing what an emotionally immature and insecure—and selfish—person I was. In a way that really made no sense, I was trying to rationalize my feelings of guilt and failure, to justify my wrongdoing.
I declared independence against the world. Mother, quietly aware of the darkness I was walking in, offered to adopt my child. I wouldn't even consider it. There would be, henceforth, only one man in my life that I would trust. Tommy Fox was my son, I loved him dearly, and it would be I who took care of him.
To properly do so, I realized, I had to find a job. Because of my high grades in high school a Memphis business school allowed me to enroll without benefit of a diploma. Somehow, somewhere, I would find my success and build a life for my young son and me. Despite the scars, I was still a dreamer; certain castles could be built thereon.
The typing and shorthand I learned in business school would, I felt, hold me in good stead, but my aspirations leaned more toward the creative. I could Write short stories, sell them to magazines, and thereby never have need for leaving my son to the care of others. As a fiction writer I was a thundering failure, receiving nothing but rejection slips for my efforts.
I tried song writing. Considering myself a reasonably objective judge, I tossed my first several efforts where they belonged. But once having written one I was pleased with, I took it personally to a Memphis music publisher and sang it to him. It had possibilities, he told me; leave it and he would get back to me with some kind of decision. That decision was evidently never made, since I've yet to get his call. I have to point out, though, that several months later, in a record store, I heard a song which, except for a few slight alterations and the name of another composer affixed to it, was the one I had sung. Score another point for experience.
I decided to limit my creative efforts to the singing I had begun doing in church, and took a job with a bus company for twelve dollars a week. That lasted three weeks. I left the day an insurance company offered me a secretarial job at better wages. My salary would be fifteen dollars a week.
I have to admit that I wasn't the most devoted accident report typist they ever had. Few aspiring songwriters, I imagine, would be. One afternoon while my boss was out of the office I set my work aside and tried to work on a song I had been writing, singing to myself as I went. The song died with the slamming of the door and my employer suggesting that perhaps I was in the wrong business. Certain that I was very shortly going to be picking up my paycheck, I wondered if the position with the bus company was still open.
Instead, my boss complimented me on my singing and asked if I would be interested in singing on a radio show which the company sponsored on a small local station. That next Friday night, with visions of grandeur dancing in her head, Frances Fox made her radio singing debut, doing a song titled "Mighty Lak a Rose." Of course there was no pay involved, but that didn't matter.
In those days you were permitted to dedicate your songs to anyone you wished. My first dedication was to my son Tommy.
When the station asked me if I would become a regular on the thirty-minute request program, I was certain I was on my way. I worked at the insurance office by day and prepared for my career as the songbird of the South by night. Soon I was being invited to entertain at civic luncheons, banquets, and occasional parties. Generally the pay was a meal and a handshake, but occasionally I would receive five or ten dollars which would make a considerable difference in the Fox family budget.
So, too, would the fact that in a few short months I had graduated from the thirty-minute request show on one of Memphis's smallest stations to a show on the largest station in town.
In 1930, live radio was big. Memphis, however, was far from the mainstream. Success as a radio personality was reached only after one had performed on one of the powerful Chicago stations which reached far and deep into the heartland of America.
Four years in Memphis, I felt, was experience enough. So what if the Chicago papers were full of stories about a roaring depression which was putting thousands out of work, that the Charles Lindberghs' baby had been kidnapped, and that the unsavory likes of such as Al Capone and John Dillinger were reportedly roaming the streets. I typed up my last insurance report and Tommy and I headed for the Windy City.
And proceeded to very nearly starve to death. My experience and small successes in Memphis impressed not a single radio station, club manager, or big band in Chicago. Again desperate, I finally managed to locate another secretarial job, only to find out that fifteen dollars a week in Chicago wouldn't even stretch as far as twelve had in Memphis. Expenses included rent, a fee for a babysitter to watch Tommy when he returned from school, coats to protect us from a chill factor we had never before known, and food. All too many times, there was precious little of the latter in the house.
For almost two years I beat my head against that wall— still stubborn, still ambitious to a fault, still holding my grudge against the world like a shield. Even though it frustrated me to admit it, I was getting tired and more lonely than I had ever been.
One cold morning as I bundled Tommy up to send him off to school, thinking of him going his way, me mine, and neither of us really having anyone else in our lives but each other, it occurred to me how really alone we were.
I had been to see a doctor earlier. After examining me, he told me I was suffering from acute malnutrition. Enough was enough.
Setting my so-carefully-guarded pride aside for a moment, I wired Mother and Dad, who had by then also left Memphis in favor of a farm back in Italy. We needed money, the wire said, to come home.
A few days in the hospital, a lot of good home cooking and bed rest, and I was feeling like a new person, ready to get back into the fray which had, at times, looked like a titanic battle against so many windmills.
Not long after, I obtained a job at radio station WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky as a female vocalist on the staff. Mother, by now resigned to the fact that her daughter was intent on chasing rainbows, wished me well and suggested that Tommy stay there on the farm with her and Dad and my younger brother Hillman. Despite the fact that Tommy loved the farm and the attention of his grandparents, I refused her offer. I wanted him with me.
The program director at the Louisville station gave me two things upon my arrival—the first well-paying job I had ever had, and a new name. Dale Evans, he said, would be easy for the announcers to say, and was almost impossible to mispronounce or misspell. It suited me. In fact, I was more than a little thrilled over the idea of having a stage name. It went with the business as I understood it, was one of the games the real professionals played. To me it was a sign that I was headed in the right direction.
For the first time in a long time all was well. The good times would not last long, however.
One afternoon as I returned home from work, the lady who had been staying with Tommy told me he had been vomiting all day. Later in the evening he began to complain of pains in his arms and legs. A rush of fear shot through me, because an outbreak of polio in the area was reaching epidemic proportions.
I rushed my son to the hospital, praying to God all the way that he had not contracted the dreaded crippling disease. Frantic, I prayed prayers filled with rash promises as the doctor examined Tommy. "Lord," I said, "If you will see to it that those tests turn out negative, I'll do anything you want me to do. I'll forget about show business. I'll read my Bible every day and I'll pray and be faithful to you. I promise to put you first in my life."
Even to this day I am thrilled to say that the tests turned out negative. I'm ashamed to say, on the other hand, that all those wonderful promises I made in my agonizing hour of need lasted for about two weeks.
The threat of serious illness to my son had frightened me, though, making me even more aware of how much I cared for him. Shortly afterwards, I heard the bad news that the child of a friend of mine had been seriously burned in a home accident while his mother was away at work. I was unable to put it out of my mind. The same thing, I kept hearing myself reminded, could happen to my son.
And there was still the threat of the polio epidemic, which caused me constant fear. It was, I finally decided, not a proper place for a growing boy.
Soon we were on the train, heading back to Texas and the clean, healthy air of the cotton farm.
How Tommy loved that farm, with its wide-open spaces and chickens to chase and rocks to throw, and warm, friendly townspeople to get to know. In short order he was the picture of health.
I began searching for a job a little closer to home. With neither an abundance of jobs for singers nor much need for secretaries in a tiny farming community, I traveled to Dallas where I obtained a job as singer on WFAA's Early Bird program.
I finally agreed to one of my mother's suggestions, allowing Tommy to stay in Italy while I lived in Dallas, returning to the farm on the weekends.
Big changes, it seemed, were finally taking place. I had a good job, Tommy and I were both healthy and happy, and it was good to be back near my parents and Hillman. There were, however, even bigger changes to come.
Robert Dale Butts, a pianist and orchestra leader I had dated occasionally while living in Louisville, called to tell me he was leaving his job with plans to make his way to California. He had thought perhaps he might see what the job possibilities were for a man of his talents in Dallas on the way. If something worked out and he stayed for a while, he said, would I be interested in seeing him?
Of course I would, I told him.
He wound up playing the piano and serving as arranger for WFAA, and I wound up doing something I had never thought I would do again. After we had dated regularly for a year, I married him in the late 1930s.
We decided to move to Chicago to try to further our careers. If first you don't succeed, and all that . . .
We started looking for jobs. After a year, R. Dale landed a job as a composer-arranger at NBC. I registered with a number of booking agencies and began auditioning constantly. The economy of Chicago was in much better shape than it had been on my last visit, and soon I was invited to join the Jay Mills Orchestra, which played regularly at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. It wasn't, to be certain, one of those instant stardom stories. I was very much second string, in fact, since another female singer handled all the soft ballads which were obviously favored by the majority of the ballroom clientele, and I was limited to strictly jazz numbers.
At least I was getting noticed, however, and to my delight I was asked to audition for the job of lead vocalist with the Anson Weeks Orchestra which was playing the Aragon Ballroom at the time. I was hired, and for the next year toured the country; we did one-night stands in every city in the Midwest and on the West Coast you can name and some you probably can't.
Twelve months and thousands of miles later, I was ready to go home, kick off my shoes, and spend more than an occasional day here and there with my son and husband. A job opened on the staff of a Chicago station and it was given to me.
The fact that I was no longer on the road by no means meant that I was entertaining any thoughts of slowing my work pace. That brass ring was now in view, and I was still chasing it with an obsessive vengeance. I worked for the Chicago-based CBS station by day and in supper clubs by night. My stages were in the Blackstone, Sherman, and Drake hotels, even in the fabled Chez Paree Supper Club.
My debut at the latter was, to put it mildly, a disaster.
Ray Bolger and Ethel Shutta were headlining the show, bringing down the house nightly while I could count on one hand the number of people in the audience who were applauding my efforts. I was crushed.
Then one evening after our last show, Ray and Ethel came into my dressing room for a heart-to-heart talk. Bolger, as straight-talking as he is funny, said, "Dale, you've got a great voice, but your material is working against you. You've got to have some songs that will get the people's attention, make them stop and listen. Maybe some original stuff would help. Do you have a writer?"
I admitted that I had written some songs myself but had never done any of them on the stage. He suggested an impromptu audition there in the dressing room.
A couple of nights later I introduced my "Will You Marry Me, Mr. Laramie?" a novelty tune I had written to commemorate the fact that it was Leap Year, with Ray Bolger playing the role of a stooge as I sang. The audience loved it.
I also worked with people like Fran Allison, who would rise to great fame as part of the Kukla, Fran, and Ollie team; I even did a recording session with a group of western singers who, for reasons which interested me not in the least, called themselves the Sons of the Pioneers.
Then, just to be sure I had all the bases properly covered, I began doing another show for a local station called "That Gal from Texas." My husband's schedule was equally hectic— we were both very career-oriented, as you've no doubt by now realized. Thus there would be days on end when we would have a chance only to say "hello" and "good-bye" as we passed enroute to our own individual pursuits.
Tommy was ready to enter junior high school, growing into a fine young man. I spent as much time with him as my crazy schedule would allow, making sure that we attended church regularly. I wanted everything for him, including a solid foundation of Christianity and faith. It was, alas, something I had yet to realize I needed for myself as well as my son.
All in all, I thought, I was progressing quite nicely. The money I was earning would enable Tommy to attend a fine college when the time came; my career was expanding to a point where I was enjoying at least some degree of fame. The little ol’ country gal from Texas wasn't doing badly at all and was feeling pretty satisfied.
And then, out of the blue, came a call from Hollywood.