ROY ROGERS - DALE EVANS - A BIOGRAPHY
Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss
In 1944 Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lit up the screen in THE COWBOY AND THE SENORITA, making their names-and lives-inseparable. It was the start of a fifty-six-year partnership that included thirty motion pictures, a long-running hit television series, and a family of nine children.
The Cowboy and the Senorita tells the heartbreaking yet ultimately triumphant story of the "King of the Cowboys" and "Queen of the West." In this new, authorized biography, the Rogers family shares the inside story of these beloved Western heroes, detailing Roy's and Dale's struggles and rise to stardom, the lives of their children, their professional triumphs, and the personal tragedies that befell their family.
Over their long careers, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came to represent truth, justice, and the American way. Their story will take you back to a simpler time, when wholesome entertainment ruled Saturday matinees and the good guys wore white hats both on and off the screen.
It's been said that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans had a more positive influence on the youth of America during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s than any other famous couple in the country. They were heroes to millions of boys and girls—heroes to my brothers and sisters and me as well, but mostly just Mom and Dad.
Over the last sixty years there has been a lot written about my parents and the impact they had on children of all ages. I consider it a testament to their generosity and talent. They remain such beloved western icons that people desire to know more about their lives and, more importantly, the source of their strength in times of great sorrow.
The pages in this new book tell the story of my parents' lives and times in such a way you'll feel you were with them—experiencing their struggles and successes firsthand. Many of the photos have rarely been seen before and will take you back in time. The quotes from fans and celebrities who admired my folks are insightful and endearing and make me very proud. My parents were ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. They provided a lifetime of inspiration for myself and millions of moviegoers. Their legend continues.
Thousands of fans visit the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum every year, hoping to relive a simpler time when honest and fair-minded films ruled Saturday matinees and the good guys were good guys both on and off the screen.
—Roy "Dusty" Rogers
A stunning young woman in a long, white gown strolled out onto a balcony to take in the full moon of a clear, California sky. Soft music drifted out of the spacious hacienda behind her and mixed with the light breeze that stirred her brown mane. A handsome cowboy followed after the striking lady, singing to her about the night, the stars, and love. She joined him in song, every verse echoing her sentiments about the romantic celluloid moment they found themselves in.
It was a sweet introduction for the two musical actors. Portraying a bashful, but courageous, cowhand and an independent damsel in distress, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lit up the screen in the Republic feature The Cowboy and the Senorita. It was the first film the two appeared in together, one that marked the start of a fifty-six year partnership, both professionally and personally.
Roy and Dale made twenty-nine more movies together, produced and starred in a ten-year hit television series, raised nine children, and enjoyed fifty-two years of marital bliss.
The Cowboy and the Senorita, released in 1944, made their names and lives inseparable.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are every bit the heroes
America and the movies made of them.
To me, they stand as the example of the best things
to come out of Hollywood.
A hot sun hovered over more than 8,000 people crowded into the Texas A&M stadium in College Station. Shoulder to shoulder they sat eagerly awaiting the arrival of the King of Cowboys and the Queen of the West. A tidal wave of cheers filled the air as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans trotted their famous rides into the center of the arena. Over their long career in film and television, the two had come to represent truth, justice, and the American way. They were rare celebrities— adored by fans of every age and walk of life.
The excited onlookers jumped to their feet, applauding and shouting. Roy reared back on his horse, Trigger Jr., and waved his Stetson hat at the appreciative audience. Dale blinked away the tears that had welled up in her eyes. It was 1979; more than thirty years had passed since they'd first ridden the range in a series of B-rated westerns.
Since 1938 cowboy lovers had flocked to the theaters to see their pictures, in the process making them the number one box-office draw for twelve years, from 1943 to 1955. Now in their late sixties, the couple had not lost their popularity. They relished the praise of the fans who remembered the time when they ruled the silver-screen West.
The two senior citizens, dressed in matching red, white, and blue spangled western outfits, led their horses to the front of the stands and walked them along the railing. The applause was sustained, and the pair were bombarded with enthusiastic shouts of "We love you, Roy and Dale!" Children stretched their arms out in the hope of shaking hands with the singing cowboy or touching his palomino.
Roy Rogers looked healthy and trim. He sat in his saddle as if he were born there, flashing his familiar smile and squinting eyes over the grateful faces as he strode by. Dale beamed proudly, the lights dancing off her beautiful alabaster skin and cotton-candy gray hair. The cheers from the crowd subsided briefly as Roy and Dale's theme song spilled out of the loudspeakers placed overhead.
Almost as though it had been rehearsed, the massive amateur chorus of onlookers broke into song. "Happy trails to you ..." Tears streamed down Roy's and Dale's faces. They tried to join in singing, but both were so moved by the outpouring of affection they couldn't utter a note.
LEONARD - HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
It's hard to imagine there had been another
life, when a boy called Leonard and a girl called
Frances were children; playing, running . . . with no
thought of becoming heroes to millions of kids who
Clark Gable, actor
A barefoot rider spurs his midnight-black mare down a dirt road. The horse kicks up a trail of dust. Its hoofprints leave an imprint on the rolling hillside. A strong breeze blows across the soil and begins the work of erasing them.
The seventeen-year-old horseman, Leonard Slye, is focused on a distant farmhouse ahead. A whirlwind of dried brush and dirt encircles the building. Thunder rumbles overhead. Dust is caked in the lines of Leonard's handsome face, around his squinty, blue eyes; it powders his clothing. He handles the mare effortlessly. Rider and horse have come a long way.
Leonard hops off the horse before he pulls it to a stop in front of the white, two-story home. His face holds a worried expression. He races up the stairs leading into the house and throws the door open wide. He skips several steps as he bolts up the rustic staircase to the second floor. From the narrow hallway he can see his father, Andy, lying on a bed. His mother, Mattie, stands over the ailing gentleman, mopping his sweaty brow with a damp cloth. Leonard eases his way toward the room. His strong legs buckle slightly under the weight of overwhelming concern for his father.
Andy's chiseled features are sunken into his head a bit, and his skin is pale. His appearance is a far cry from the robust, energetic man Leonard remembers growing up with. Almost as if he senses his son nearby, Andy turns his tired face toward him and smiles. He weakly waves the teenager into the room. Leonard wastes no time getting to his side. "Did you let them know at the factory I wouldn't be in today?" Andy asks. Leonard nods.
Mattie places a hand on her son's shoulder and gives him a reassuring pat. "He's going to be all right," she says confidently. Leonard looks up at his mother, his worried expression lingering.
Mattie turns and hobbles over to a washbasin on the far side of the room, the hinges on the leg brace she wears creaking slightly as she walks. Polio crippled her when she was a child, but it never slowed her down. Leonard always admired her for that.
He watches Mattie tend to Andy, moved by the devotion and love she has for his father. "Go on now," she coaxes her son. "This farm won't run itself." Leonard does as she asks, glancing back at the pair as he leaves the room. The couple smile warmly at one another. It's a picture of his parents Leonard will hold in his heart forever.
Leonard was the third of four children born to Andrew E. Slye and Mattie Womack Slye, and the only boy. Born on November 5, 1911, in Cincinnati, Ohio, his early years were happy ones, filled with adventure, hard work, and love. His sisters doted on him, and his parents encouraged him in all his endeavors.
Leonard had a remarkable way with animals. He trained his pet skunk, groundhogs, and his horse to perform amazing tricks. He raised chickens and pigs, entering his prize livestock in various farm shows and receiving championship ribbons for his efforts.
He had a particular soft spot for hurt or injured animals. He would mend their broken bones and nurse them back to health. His desire to heal extended beyond four-legged creatures. From the age of eight, he aspired to be a doctor. It was a dream he initially shared only with his mother.
Leonard inherited his ability to dream big from his father. Andy dreamed of escaping the mundane routine of working at the United States Shoe Company where he had been employed for a number of years. He saw himself as an adventurer, a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. He dreamed of exploring the world with his family. When Leonard was still a baby, Andy and his brother built a houseboat and traveled down the Ohio River. The Slye family lived on their floating home for eight years. Eventually, however, Andy realized that his children needed more room to run and play than the deck of the barge had to offer. He decided to dock the boat in Portsmouth, Ohio, and then set his sights on a owning a farm.
Andy returned to the shoe factory in order to earn the money needed to buy a homestead. In 1919 Andy bought a ten-acre farm 12 miles outside Portsmouth, near the country town of Duck Run.
Because Andy knew no other trade than shoemaking, purchasing a farm was a gamble. He and Mattie decided he should keep his job at the factory until the farm could make money. He spent the week in town, returning home on the weekends. In his absence, Leonard, his mother, and his sisters would run the place.
Leonard worked hard and assumed the responsibility of being the man around the house while his father was away. "At the age of seven I had to learn farming, and experience is the best teacher," Leonard would later recall. "We had an old mule and I learned to plow with him. I was so little I had to reach up, to get a hold of the plow handles."
Andy came home on the weekends and helped his wife and children gather eggs, muck out the stalls, and tend to the livestock. The family would relax in the evenings around a potbellied stove and entertain one another singing songs and playing musical instruments. Leonard's parents played the mandolin and the guitar and taught their children to play as well. Leonard was a quick study. He had an exceptional voice and mastered the instruments with ease, going on to learn the clarinet.
Caring for the family farm and keeping up with his schoolwork proved to be overwhelming. In Leonard's junior year of high school, he abandoned the notion of being a doctor, dropped out, and went to work at the shoe factory with his father. Mattie was troubled by his decision and urged him to reconsider. "I don't want you wasting away in a factory," she told him. "It makes a man tired and sick in his spirit. It's a prison sentence to men with big dreams." Leonard knew only too well what she meant. He had watched his father's pioneer spirit dwindle from a flame to a flicker holed up inside a noisy workshop cutting leather for shoe soles. Andy longed to be outside on his farm. Leonard was no different. But his desire to earn a living overshadowed his fondness for the great outdoors.
In an effort to satisfy his mother's wishes for him to earn his high school diploma, he enrolled in night school. He wore himself out trying to keep up with the job at the factory, maintaining the farm, and studying. He fell asleep in class one evening and was so embarrassed by the experience he gave up night school altogether.
Leonard was then able to spend more time at home with his father, and his heart broke for the man. He felt Andy's failing health could be attributed to the monotony of his factory chores. One night Leonard stole into his father's room to talk to him about an idea he'd been mulling over. He was convinced there was a better way of earning a living and had considered quitting his job in favor of playing guitar for square dances. Maybe even moving out of the area to pursue his dream.
Leonard sat next to his father and smiled down at him lying in bed. "Pop," he began. "I've saved up ninety-one bucks, and you ought to have about a hundred, I reckon. What d'you say we quit the factory and drive out to California to visit Mary?" Mary was Leonard's sister; she lived in Lawndale with her husband. "She's said it's fine country," Leonard added. "We could probably get jobs out there."
Andy raised himself up on his elbows and smiled a smile as big as the horizon. The mere notion of such a trip worked as an elixir for his soul. Mattie looked in on the two, now chattering away about the possibilities that lay ahead for the Slye family.
Within a month Leonard, his parents, and two of his sisters were traveling the narrow concrete highways toward California.
The woman who would become a key figure in his life and career was not far behind. She would be heading west from a small town in the Texas panhandle.
A YOUNG FRANCES
Lights from a giant marquee over a dilapidated movie house in Gretna Green, Texas, pierced through the dark street stretched out before the building. Black letters over the bright, white sign read, riders of the purple sage starring tom mix and where THE WORST BEGINS STARRING RUTH ROLAND.
An anxious group of nine- and ten-year-old boys and girls raced up to the box office and exchanged their nickels for a ticket. Clutching their prize, they hurried into the theater. From the lobby they could hear that the cartoon had already started. A cranky usher dressed in red, military-style garb tore the children's tickets and pointed them in the direction of the screening. Hurrying past the refreshment stand, they nearly ran headlong into a teenage girl named Frances Fox, standing just outside a phone booth.
Frances was an attractive young lady with dark features and a slim figure. She was so preoccupied she barely took notice of the excited children as they burst through the theater doors.
She reluctantly stepped inside the phone booth. She sighed a long, heavy sigh and blinked away a tear as she picked up the receiver and deposited coins into the machine. Frances timidly asked the operator to connect her to the Smith residence in Uvalde, Texas. It rang twice before anyone on the other end picked it up.
The frail voice of an older woman answered. Frances said nothing for a moment. She was too nervous to speak. "Mother?" she finally asked.
"Oh, thank God. Frances is it you? Are you all right?" came the response.
Frances assured her mother that she was well. Her mother confirmed what the teenager already knew: Her parents had been worried about her. It was Monday, and their fourteen-year-old daughter had been gone all weekend.
"I have good news," Frances blurted out. "I'm married." An awful, throbbing silence passed between them. Walter and Betty Sue Smith were shocked at their first child's admission.
When they'd last spoken with Frances, she had told them she was going to a play rehearsal at school and then spending the night with a girlfriend. Now their only daughter had eloped. Frances went on to tell them that she and the boy she had been secretly seeing had driven across the state line into Tennessee and tied the knot.
"We want you to come home," Betty Sue softly urged. "We'll work this out and you can go back to school." Frances was a junior in high school with exceptional grades. "You can graduate in another year."
Frances said no. "All I want now is to be a good wife and to start a home of my own," she explained. Another wave of silence fell over the mother and daughter.
Betty Sue had been afraid this would happen. She'd thought Frances was too young to date at thirteen, but she'd agreed to let her attend courthouse dances while acting as her daughter's chaperone. It was at one of those dances that Frances met her first steady, a boy in his late teens who was now her husband. Walter and Betty Sue had realized the two were spending too much time . together and forbade Frances from seeing him, but the pair were determined to be together.
Frances's early rebellion was not driven by an unhappy home life. "I had a wonderful childhood," she would later recall. "I never lacked attention and I loved that." Instead she attributed her impetuous actions to being young and madly in love.
Franees Octavia Smith was born on October 31,1912. Her father was a farmer and the owner-operator of a hardware store. Her mother was a homemaker. Walter and Betty Sue were musically inclined. Walter sang gospel songs, and Betty Sue played the piano. They nurtured their two children's love for music. Frances and her brother, Hillman, had fine singing voices. Frances made her singing debut at the family church at the age of three. It was then that she began dreaming of being a performer. In addition to being talented, she was very bright. In a short time Frances had skipped several grades in school. By the time she was twelve, she was a freshman in high school.
Walter and Betty Sue believed their children were capable of great things. They were disappointed that Frances had sidelined her creative aspirations to get married.
Betty Sue said of her daughter, "Frances is too impulsive; she means well, but she rushes into things before she thinks them through."
Frances and her new husband, Thomas Fox, moved in with his parents in Blytheville, Arkansas. He went to work for his father, but the pair had a difficult time settling into domestic life. Tom was restless and left her twice in their first six months of marriage. She was miserable and pregnant when Walter and Betty Sue relocated to Memphis and invited Frances to move in with them.
She agreed, hoping her husband would follow after her and their unborn child. When their son, Tom Jr., was born, he was by her side. But he would soon leave again, and this time for good. Days after his abrupt departure, he sent a letter to Frances telling her their marriage had been a mistake and that he was too young to be tied down to a wife and son. He wanted a divorce. No amount of pleading from Frances would change his mind.
Frances's parents offered to help her raise her baby and to help her get back on her feet. Heartbroken and feeling very much alone, she agreed, but strongly objected to her parents' suggestion that they adopt her son. "He was the shining light of my life," she would say. "Tommy Fox was my child, I loved him dearly, and it would be I who would take care of him."
It wasn't until a year after her son was born that she could bring herself to file for divorce. At seventeen she was a single mother in search of a way to provide for her boy. Her stellar grades enabled her to enroll in business school without a high school diploma. But while a job in the corporate world would put food on the table, her ultimate career goal leaned more toward the creative. She wanted to sing and write music. Until such an opportunity arose, she provided for herself and her son as a secretary at an insurance company— a secretary who wrote music in her spare time.
Frances sits alone at her desk at work. It's lunchtime, and everyone is out of the office. A blank accident claim form is waiting in the typewriter for her to fill out. She sits with her fingers poised over the keys, humming.
Her eyes shift from the form to a picture of her baby on the corner of the desk. She hums louder as she glances out the window at the mountains in the near distance, then breaks into a chorus of a song no one but her has heard before. She snatches up a nearby piece of paper and jots down the lyrics. She reads over the tune and begins singing what she's written.
"There's a ceiling of blue above, and some trees peaceful as a dove. No wonder that people love hazy mountains ..."
She smiles to herself. For a moment she sees beyond her hardships and is at center stage, singing for an audience, her parents, and her little boy.
TO BE CONTINUED