DALE EVANS queen of the West #2
From the book “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans - Happy Trails” - 1979
There were times when I dreamed of one day advancing to doing musical comedy on the Broadway stage, but Hollywood and the movies had never entered my mind.
Then a wire arrived signed by an agent named Joe Rivkin, explaining that he had heard me on the radio, liked my voice, and suggested I send some photographs of myself. I found the whole thing amusing. This five-foot-two, hundred-and-twenty-something pound, green-eyed, auburn-haired twenty-eight-year-old didn't exactly have to wear a grocery bag over her head when appearing in public, but didn't, to her way of thinking, have the classic looks of the next Harlow or Garbo. I had a good laugh over the whole deal and forgot about it.
Then a second wire came: Paramount is looking for a new face for female lead in 'Holiday Inn." Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire to star. I showed it to the program director at the radio station, assuming he would find it as amusing as I did. "What do you have to lose?" he said. "Send the guys the pictures; see what happens."
What I figured would happen was that he would take one look at the pictures I had borrowed from our publicity department and decide not to waste any more money on telegrams. Three weeks later, however, yet another wire arrived. It said, Come at once.
Like the man said, what did I have to lose? It was a long shot, a fantasy which would doubtless be short-lived, but after talking it over with my husband and Tommy I boarded a plane for my first cross-country trip by air. I arrived looking and feeling more like Hilda the Witch than Dale Evans, Starlet-to-Be. No sooner had the plane left the ground than I developed a throbbing earache. A charter member of the white knuckles flying set, I didn't sleep a wink. Long before we landed in Los Angeles I was thoroughly convinced the whole trip was a bad mistake.
Joe Rivkin, waiting for me when I arrived, would no doubt have agreed. Though in years to come we would develop a strong friendship, we got off to a shaky start.
"Are you Dale Evans?" he asked, the tone of his voice making it quite clear that he was hoping to high heaven I wasn't. Having told him that, yes, I was, his facial expression didn't change a bit. "Well," he finally said, "you sure don't look like your pictures." So there I was in Hollywood—nerves, nausea, earache, lack of sleep, and all—wishing very much that I was anywhere else on the globe. Joe Rivkin, no doubt, was feeling the same.
As he drove me to the Hollywood Plaza where I would be staying, he went over my appearance like a man judging a livestock show. He didn't like the lipstick I was wearing; neither the color nor the style of my hair suited him; and the sight of a wedding band on my finger almost caused him to run off the road. "How old are you?" he finally asked.
"Twenty-two," I lied with great bravery.
"As of right now," he replied, "you're twenty-one . . . and single. Understand?"
The games were beginning.
Once at the hotel, he ushered me hurriedly to the beauty salon, advised the operator of the direness of the situation and gave specific instructions on what he wanted done to me in the time remaining before we were to be at Paramount Studios. I felt fortunate at that point that the hotel lobby did not include the office of a plastic surgeon.
With a lighter shade of lipstick, hair tinted and hanging freely, and enough make-up on to hide seven years of age, I finally met Joe in the lobby. The trauma of the trip behind me, I was feeling somewhat better, and was stylishly dressed in a dark dress, white gloves, and the only fur I owned.
"Who died?" Joe asked. At that moment I was thinking how grand it would be if it had been him.
"In Chicago," I testily notified him, "this is considered tasteful dress for a luncheon appointment."
"In Hollywood," he countered, "it is tasteful for funerals and trips to the old folks' home." Obviously, things weren't working out for him. "But never mind, we're already running late."
The scene in the office of the Paramount casting director did little to improve the situation. Joe had given me one of those "let me do the talking" speeches on the way and was, as a matter of fact, doing quite nicely in his sales pitch, until the director asked me if I could dance. Joe quickly fielded the question as he had done most of the other ones: "This girl dances like you wouldn't believe."
That was enough. It was time for me to have a say. "Sir," I said, "I'm a pretty fair ballroom dancer, but that is as far as it goes. Frankly, I can't even do a time step." In the vernacular of the day, that ripped it.
If looks could have killed, the one the casting director dealt Joe Rivkin would have cast an even darker pall over the conversation.
While my career as the female lead alongside Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire ended before it ever got beyond the talking stage, it was finally decided that I should stay on and take a screen test anyway. They made it sound like a salvage job, but I agreed and was told I would do a scene from Blue Angel with MacDonald Carey playing opposite me. That brightened the spirits of my new agent.
But I dampened them again shortly thereafter. In a sudden attack of honesty I told him there were a few things he ought to know before the lark went any farther. "Look," I said, "the truth of the matter is I'm twenty-eight years old, not twenty-one or twenty-two. And I have a twelve-year-old son who lives with me."
I thought he was going to be ill. After several minutes of silence he suggested sending Tommy away to school. I wasn't buying. More silence. "If things work out and you are signed to a contract," he pleaded, "this could be very important for you, so I want you to consider it carefully before you answer. You're very young to have a son that old, right? So bring him out here with you and we'll pass him off as your little brother."
The idea was absurd. Hollywood was absurd. The thought of my being offered a contract by Paramount was absurd. So naturally I said, "Okay, I'll go along with it if Tommy will."
For my screen test, Edith Head of the wardrobe department fitted me out with a dress she had created for Barbara Stanwyck, and I played the scene as nearly as the studio drama coach had told me to during our week of sessions. Then I sang a couple of songs on camera, my "Will You Marry Me, Mr. Laramie?" and "I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do," and was done with it. I was quite ready to get back to Chicago and on with my career.
It would be three weeks before I heard from Joe. Once again, his opening remarks were far from flattering. Para-mount's scouting report had read something like this: good voice, no dancing ability, needs to lose some weight. In view of the fact Joe Rivkin had seen to it that I lost twelve pounds during the time I was on the West Coast preparing for the screen test, I did a slow boil. "Mr. Rivkin," I said, "I didn't care for your movie business any more than it evidently cared for me, so I guess we're about even. Thank you very much for calling."
As I was preparing to hang up, he literally yelled into the phone. "There's more," he said, "I've got something else to tell you. Paramount isn't interested, but Twentieth Century-Fox has seen your screen test and is ready to sign you to a one-year contract."
The news, which he no doubt thought glorious, drew no response from me. When no reply was forthcoming, he opted to fill the silence himself. "Dale, they're willing to pay you four hundred dollars a week. That's got to be about three times what you're making singing there in Chicago."
Who says agents don't tell the truth? He had his figures almost to the penny. I told him I'd think about it and get back to him.
Suddenly Hollywood seemed to offer a lot of possibilities. In addition to the salary they were offering me at Twentieth Century-Fox, a move to California might also afford my husband the opportunity to realize a dream of his own. For a composer-arranger there was no place better to be than in Hollywood.
The hard part was trying to explain to a twelve-year-old boy whom I had tried very hard to teach honesty that it would be necessary for his mother to tell people he was actually her younger brother. "It sounds silly to me," he said, "but you can do it if you want to. I will not lie about it myself; I am a Christian"—and he was.
I called Mother to tell her the news, and suggested she accompany Tommy and me to California while we searched for an apartment and settle in. Leaving my husband behind to finish out his contract with the station in Chicago, I was back on the plane, white knuckles and all, headed West to goodness knows what.
My mother brought along only one word of instruction from Dad back on the farm. "He said for me to tell you," she reported, "not to let anybody kiss you on the screen and don't show your legs."
If anyone had wanted to kiss me on the screen during my tenure with Twentieth Century, he would have had to do so in one big hurry. I had a grand total of two walk-ons, neither of which demanded great acting ability.
Shortly after I arrived, it looked as if my career was going to get off with a bang once I was past the traditional preparatory ritual of being shuttled off to a health studio to lose another pound or two, getting a tooth here and there capped, and paying frequent visits to the studio dramatic coach. And of course there was a need to take yet another screen test.
Finally, however, it was announced that my road to stardom would begin with a college musical to be entitled Campus in the Clouds. World War II shot it right out of the sky. When the war broke out, just a few weeks before we were to go into production, the Twentieth Century executives decided to scrap the picture. They determined that it was not a proper time in American history to try to sell the public on the idea that college life was carefree and full of song. I had to agree with their decision, but was by no means pleased with it. That, I'm afraid to say, was how Dale Evans was in those days. What right did World War II have starting up just at the time I was preparing to take the motion picture business by storm?
Executives at the studio told me not to worry, that they would soon have something else for me. They did—everything you could imagine but doing movies. I took some dance lessons and was placed under the tutelage of a very elegant and famous British voice coach named Flossie Friedman. By the time we were finished she must have known very well how my piano teacher back in Osceola felt. The first reading she had me do, Rudyard Kipling's poem "If," sent her into a mild shock. I can still hear her voice, saying, "My dah-ling, you must be kidding. That accent is absolutely horrible. I'm afraid we shall never be able to eradicate it." She was one hundred percent right. Even today it's alive and doing quite well, thank you.
While I was admittedly disappointed with the fact that I was doing precious little movie work, I was doing a great deal of singing, traveling around to the various training camps to entertain. My brother Hillman was, at the time, in the Air Corps, and it didn't take me long to outrank him, since the Air Force had made me an honorary captain for my entertaining efforts. I was also recording a lot of songs that were being shipped overseas.
In all, I think I did something like six hundred shows for the USO and the Hollywood Victory Committee. R. Dale accompanied me on as many of my trips as his schedule would permit, playing piano for me. We were on the go so much, in fact, that it didn't seem like we ever had much chance to properly convert the Spanish-style house in which we were living into a real home.
But I was learning a great deal which I was certain would serve me well whenever—if ever—my time came to do the work in movies I had been hired to do.
While I wasn't on the screen, I was working alongside some of Hollywood's biggest names at the military training camps, marveling at the professional manner in which they approached performances in settings far removed from sound studios.
Once, I was working with Pat O'Brien and Marlene Dietrich at a camp in northern California. The conditions were the worst you could imagine, yet Miss Dietrich prepared herself as if she were going on stage at the Palace—false eyelashes, slinky black sequin gown, the whole bit. When she and Pat went out there on stage they gave it everything they had. And the soldiers knew it.
That, I think, was the first time I realized the obligation real entertainers feel toward their audience. It was one of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned.
I was beginning to wonder, though, if I was ever going to get the opportunity to put such lessons to use. With my contract having about run its course, I began to get nervous. Complicating matters was the fact that Joe Rivkin, my agent, had entered the Armed Forces in special services and was now stationed at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas. When I began to hear the rumors that Twentieth Century-Fox was planning to bid me farewell when my year's contract was up, I called Joe and asked what he thought I should do.
As a matter of fact, I had already taken the situation into my own hands to some degree, quietly doing a screen test for MGM in hopes of landing a part in a Kay Kyser film they were planning, but nothing had come of it.
Once again it was sinking in on me that I belonged on radio, so I asked Joe if he could recommend a Los Angeles agent who could be of help to me in that field. If I wanted to see another movie, I could buy a ticket.
The man he recommended was Art Rush, who—wouldn't you know it—had never had a female client in his life. Still, after I had contacted him, he agreed to come by the house one evening and listen to me sing. Bringing along his wife Mary Jo, herself once an actress, he listened and, to my good fortune, liked what he heard. "I have to admit to you," he told me later, "that I did not arrive at your house with a great deal of optimism. But I like the way you sing. So does Mary Jo. I'll see what I can do about setting up a radio audition."
The news did not come too soon. Without notice, I officially became history to Twentieth Century-Fox as soon as my contract expired.
To this day I am amazed at the success Art Rush has enjoyed in the business. A soft-spoken, gentle man of strong Christian persuasion, there is not the slightest trace of hard-sell apparent in his manner. Yet his track record spoke for itself. It had, in fact, been Joe who told me that Art was the only other agent he would recommend because of his unquestioned honesty. That, in retrospect, was one of the biggest things Art Rush had—and still has—going for him.
In short order he called to tell me of an audition he had arranged. NBC's "Chase and Sanborn Hour," starring Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy, as well as Don Ameche and Ray Noble, was in need of a female vocalist.
I knew I had the job the minute that crazy puppet Charley McCarthy began whistling through his wooden mouth. I smiled, Edgar Bergen smiled, Art Rush smiled. A few days later I signed a contract.
Professionally speaking, I was again doing well. Personally, however, I was struggling with some big problems.
For starters, I was sick of living the lie about my son. It was an absurd thing I was being a party to—and forcing him to be a party to as well. We never discussed the matter, but I knew that deep down he was unhappy about the role he was being forced to play. When, for instance, the studio had sent out photographers to do some pictures of me at home, he appeared, almost as if on cue. Once I was invited to a Christmas party to which everyone was to bring their children. I took Tommy with me, but introduced him around as my brother. Sitting in the stands at a football game, watching him perform as a member of the school band at halftime, I wanted so badly to tell someone, anyone, that my son was out there playing the flute, that I could have screamed.
All I did was remain silent. And I hated every minute of it.
Tommy was also enthusiastically involved in the church, getting spiritually stronger with every passing day. We attended the Hollywood First Baptist Church regularly, and the sermons had begun to cause me great concern. On one particular Sunday morning the minister, Dr. Harold Proppe, spoke of those people with God-given musical talent who refused to honor the Lord by putting those gifts to use in the church. I felt his remarks were aimed directly at me, as if there were no one else in the congregation.
Following the service Tommy looked at me with those searching eyes of his. He said nothing but, it occurred to me, he knew a lot.
I was finding out a few things that I hadn't previously known about as well. Like, for instance, the power wielded by executives of major radio networks and ad agencies. On two different occasions one such executive connected with the "Chase and Sanborn Hour" in New York asked me to have dinner with him. Both times I declined because of prior engagements. And in the fall of 1943 my option was not renewed.
I was in search of a job, and once again my agent was out of pocket. From the first time I met Art Rush he had regularly told me of the successes and promising future of a singing cowboy client of his. Quite obviously proud of this man named Roy Rogers, Art seemed unable to carry on a conversation of any duration without mention of his name. When I was singing at Edwards Air Force Base in Lancaster, California, sharing the stage with the Sons of the Pioneers, Art had made it a special point to introduce me to his protege. No skyrockets went off; no bells rang. Roy Rogers seemed to me to be a rather shy, mannerly cowboy with reasonably good looks and a nice singing voice. Nothing more, nothing less.
The truth of the matter was I had heard about all I wanted to about Roy Rogers from my agent. He was doing quite nicely in his career. Fine, Art, but what about Dale Evans who has (a) lost her movie contract and (b) been given her walking papers by NBC radio?
When the latter took place, I immediately placed a call to Art. Sorry, his secretary informed me, he was enroute to New York to handle some business for Mr. Rogers. I did a slow bum and counted the days until the world's greatest Roy Rogers fan got back to town.
In a manner best described as less than diplomatic, I informed Mr. Rush upon his return that inasmuch as he seemed to be so busy handling the affairs of his already-successful singing cowboy and Nelson Eddy and didn't have time to properly aid me in getting my roller-coaster career straightened out, it might be best that we go our separate ways. I left him little room for argument.
Danny Winkler, a longtime friend of Joe Rivkin—in fact, he had encouraged Joe to contact me originally after having heard me on radio when I was still in Chicago—became my third agent and immediately set about to redirect my career toward the movies.
With, I was later to learn, a little help from Art Rush. While playing golf at the Lakeside Country Club one afternoon, Art had learned from Armand Schaeffer, an executive at Republic Studios, that they were planning production of a musical and were in the market for new faces. He quickly dug out the screen test I had done for Paramount and had Schaffer take a look at it.
Winkler took the ball from there and in short order I was signed to a one-year contract with Republic. Not as impressive as the seven-year deal Roy Rogers had at the time, mind you, but I was in no position to be choosy.
Two weeks later I was into rehearsal for a movie entitled Swing Your Partner, working with Lulu Belle and Scotty (who had made big names for themselves on the "National Bam Dance") and Vera Vague of "The Bob Hope Show." It was,
in every respect, a "country musical" if ever there was one, but it was a musical and it was a movie in which I did more than walk on and off the set. Not exactly Academy Award stuff, granted, but it was a promising start.
I soon vowed never to criticize anyone who talked of how hard movie people worked. I was meeting myself coming and going. During the next year I did nine more films—including the likes of Here Comes Elmer and Hoosier Holiday—and must have toured every Army base in the southwestern United States. In my spare time I was in the recording studio.
Republic renewed my contract, a bit of good news I wanted to personally share with Mother and Dad. So while on a singing tour of Texas military bases, I stopped off in Italy for a few days. To my delight, even my parents were now showing signs of excitement about my blossoming career. And it didn't hurt my ego a bit when the studio called me during our visit, telling me to return to Hollywood immediately to begin rehearsal for yet another musical. I did an immodest shrug and told the folks good-bye, saying, "That's Hollywood."
I arrived to find that the picture had been canceled. And my confidence was not such that I wasn't quite nervous when word reached me that Herb Yates, owner of the studio, wanted to see me.
Having just returned from New York where he had attended a showing of the smash Broadway production of Oklahoma! he enthusiastically described the play, applauding it scene by scene. Sitting there, I allowed my fantasies to take over. Perhaps Republic Studios was thinking of doing a film version of the play and perhaps . . .
It was not a fantasy which lasted long.
"Our Roy Rogers Westerns have been doing quite well," Yates continued, "and I think they could be even better if we had a female lead who could also do some singing. I think you're what we're looking for."
His was not the most exciting proposal I had ever heard. B-Westems were directly opposite from the way I wanted my career to go. And why me? The closest thing to a Western I had done was a small role as a saloon singer in a John Wayne shoot-em-up.
"Mr. Yates," I said, "are you sure you want me?" It was more a plea for reconsideration than a direct question.
He was sure. "Rehearsals for The Cowboy and the Senorita will begin next week," he said. "You're the senorita."