ROY ROGERS AND DALE EVANS
ADDING TO THE FAMILY
At Harringway Stadium in London some 40,000
children were on hand to see the King of Cowboys
and the Queen of the West. I heard them roar like
young lions and watched them bow their heads in
meek silence like lambs. I watched them powerfully
sway—towards good—I like to think by a cowboy
film star who preaches the cowboy code. "I'm the
happiest cowboy in Hollywood because five years
ago I found the Lord."
Hedda Hopper, Los Angeles Times,
December 19, 1954
Hundreds of people flooded into a Hollywood television studio and took their seats. Curtains were drawn across the set for the This Is Your Life television show, but that didn't stop the eager audience from carefully watching for signs of movement underneath the closed drapes. A recording of the program's theme music serenaded the crowd for a few moments, and then announcer Bob Warren opened the show with thanks to its sponsors and an introduction of the show's host, Ralph Edwards. Edwards took center stage, bowed to the audience, and began the program.
Shortly after introducing Roy Rogers, who thought he was on the program to honor a friend in the ministry, he revealed to the entertainer that he was the subject of the broadcast.
Rogers was indeed surprised.
Tears stood in his eyes as he heard the voice of a young boy named Rusty reminding him of a call he'd made to Seattle. Rusty had been hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer and was defying strict orders by his doctors to eat the food served to him and get plenty of rest. Rusty's father contacted Roy, hoping that a word from the boy's hero might help the situation. Roy talked with the youngster and promised that if Rusty obeyed his doctor's orders, he could come visit him at his ranch and even ride Trigger. That was just the incentive the boy needed. True to his word, Roy did have Rusty as a guest at his home once he was dismissed from the hospital. A few years had passed since that event, and now Roy was reliving the experience with the healthy boy whose disease was in remission.
Rusty was just one example of thousands of children's lives Roy had personally touched. The telling of his life's story included anecdotes about friends and family and the things Roy had done for sick, lonely, and poor children. Edwards's narration of Roy's influence on his family and fans was emotional even for him.
When Roy was joined by his parents, Dale, and his own children at the end of the broadcast, Edwards was visibly moved by the outpouring of affection for the modest matinee idol. Ralph later shared that in all the years This Is Your Life was on the air, the single person whose life was most requested to be showcased was Roy Rogers.
Roy and Dale were always surrounded by children, whether it be their own or the world's. The couple said they often felt like babysitters. "Moms and dads can drop their kids off at one of our movies and be sure they won't see anything bad," Roy bragged. Even though Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were clearly beloved, though they had a devoted following, successful careers, and a loving family, they languished in moments of grief over the loss of their youngest child. Two months after Robin passed away, Roy felt it was time to ease their pain with another baby.
They were completing a series of one-night performances in the Midwest when Roy suggested adopting another child. "I just want Robin," Dale lamented. Roy missed their daughter, too, but he was convinced they needed to shower their affections on an orphan baby. While on tour in Texas shortly after Robin died, the couple had visited Hope Cottage, where Roy and Arline had once found Cheryl.
During their time there Roy and Dale had seen a three-month-old Choctaw Indian girl whose name was Mary Little Doe. They held the baby for a few moments, allowing themselves to be taken in by her big smile and big brown eyes. Roy suggested now that if Mary Little Doe was still there, they should adopt her. He phoned Hope Cottage and was told Mary had not yet been placed. Roy immediately spoke for her. Mary's adoption went through quickly. By the time the paperwork cleared, Dale had come around: She wanted this baby so badly, she ached. Plans were made to pick up Mary after they finished their last show on the tour.
Roy and Dale happily prepared for their final performance, excited about the new little girl who would soon be in their lives.
The pair waited in the wings of the Gardens in Cincinnati, ready to make their entrance. Both were decked out in full western gear and greeted handicapped boys and girls with passes to meet the famous duo. Roy focused his attention on a frail-looking five-year-old boy dressed in a corduroy suit and a cap. He bent down in front of the lad and gave him his friendliest smile, extending his hand. The boy hesitated only a moment before giving Roy a hearty handshake and offering him a "Howdy, pad-nuh," in his best cowboy drawl.
Roy and Dale were instantly taken with the youngster. He had a spark that was undeniable. His foster mother told the couple that his name was Harry and shared with them his tragic past. He'd been abandoned twice and suffered from rickets and curvature of the spine as a result of malnutrition. His body was scarred with cigarette burn marks and poorly healed broken bones. After seeing the glow in Harry's face once Roy sat him on Trigger, the pair knew they had to have him for their own.
Roy and Dale returned to California with two new additions to their family. They called the baby Dodie and renamed Harry, John David Rogers, calling him Sandy for short. Linda and Cheryl took to Dodie and Sandy quickly, but Dusty was reluctant. He was six and quite suspicious of this "new kid" clinging to his parents. In time the boys became fast friends, keeping their parents on their toes at all times.
Sandy proved to be a wonderful companion to a spirited Dusty, who'd had only sisters to keep him company. They shared everything: toys, clothes, a room, and a penchant for mischief. Whether it was having dirt-clod fights with the kids next door, switching the mail in the neighbors' boxes, or stripping the rubber off the dashboard of their father's boat, they did everything together.
Roy spent hours with the boys, camping, fishing, hunting, and wrestling. The three would wallow around on the floor, bumping into furniture and occasionally knocking things off the walls. The boys carried on in the same manner when their father wasn't around, too. Dale would scold them and warn them to stop, but often they wouldn't listen to her.
One day in the fall of 1953, the noise in the Rogers home was deafening. Dusty had taken a running leap at Sandy, and the two had fallen backward over the couch in the living room. End tables and chairs lay on their sides or pushed out of place, and the floor was covered with papers, comic books, and magazines. The brothers giggled happily as they chased each other around, grabbing at one another's legs. "Enough is enough," came an admonishment from Dale down the hall. The boys halted only long enough to grab a few pillows off the divan and begin batting one another over the heads with them.
"Knock it off," their mother advised again.
"Aauugh! Aauugh!" shouted Dusty. Sandy repeated the sound, only louder, as the pair launched into a playful screaming match.
"I said stop it!" Dale urged her sons, her voice raised to be heard over their ruckus.
Sandy jumped on Dusty's back, and the two hit the floor with a thud. They rolled across the rug, leaving broken knickknacks in their wake.
KABLAM! KABLAM! KABLAM! KABLAM! KABLAM! KABLAM! Dale had raced into the room and fired a stage pistol, loaded with blanks, into the air. The sound reverberated throughout the house. The boys stopped in their tracks, petrified, afraid to make another move. "I said stop it," Dale whispered. Sandy and Dusty didn't say a word; they simply stared back at their mother, wide-eyed and nervous. Dale took a deep breath and, as loud as she could, shouted, "Now be quiet!"
Like a tough, no-nonsense sheriff from the Old West, Dale turned on her heels and sauntered out of the room. The siblings exchanged a terrified look and ever-so-gently took a seat on the floor. They decided it might be best to remain quiet for at least a few hours.
Depending on the individual personal appearances Roy and Dale committed to do, the spouses alternated keeping the home fires burning while the other was out. Wherever the two performed, they left a lasting impression on their audiences. Mixing their personal beliefs with their professional careers, they hoped to teach their children and their fans how to live in this world as Christians. It was a position many young admirers wrestled with. Just before Roy performed at a rodeo in Houston, for instance, he received a letter from a boy who described the ridicule he was going through for following his beliefs. He told Roy that he liked to go to church, but some of his friends called him a "sissy" for doing so. After talking it over with Dale, Roy decided to answer the young man's letter publicly. Charlie Evans, a reporter from the local newspaper, was at the scene of the Sunday matinee when Roy addressed the audience and recorded the event in the Houston Chronicle for all to read:
One of the best sermons we have ever heard was delivered Sunday. And it wasn't from the pulpit of a church. It was from the center of the Coliseum rodeo area, delivered by cowboy star Roy Rogers. At the Sunday matinee Rogers asked how many of the youngsters in the stands had been to Sunday school or church that morning. Then he advised, "All you little cowboys and cowgirls out there, be sure to go to Sunday school. You might hear some of your little friends say it's sissy to go to Sunday school. But don't you believe 'em. Going to Sunday school is the best way in the world to get started right in life," Roy told the youngsters.
When he had finished, we heard a couple of youngsters sitting next to us talking. "You see, we better start going to Sunday school again. Roy Rogers said for us to." And we can imagine many others thought the same thing.
Roy and Dale's ability to reach children of all ages, and their worldwide fame, prompted Billy Graham to invite the couple to participate in an overseas crusade he was hosting. With Trigger in tow the pair set off for a tour of Europe to meet, minister to, and entertain the hundreds of thousands of fans they had across the ocean. The theaters were sold out before they left the States.
ROY ROGERS SHOT AND KILLED DURING LONDON PERFORMANCE.
Art Rush reread the headline across the telegram. He swallowed a lump welling up in his throat. It can't be, he said to himself. He quickly made his way to the telegraph office aboard the Queen Mary and demanded wires be sent to confirm the news. Art and his wife, Mary Jo, were en route to meet Roy and Dale in Glasgow when word of Roy's untimely death reached them. "There must be some mistake," he told his wife.
Several hours after receiving the first telegram, Art was relieved to learn the truth: During opening night Roy had been hit by birdshot cartridges loaded in one of the actors' guns. He and Trigger had been hurt, but not seriously. After the accident Roy rode to the microphone, blood streaming down his face, and addressed the anxious crowd. "They've been shooting at me for twenty years, and this is the first time they hit me," he joked.
Roy and Dale received warm receptions at every stop on the tour. Fans were on hand to greet them in England, Ireland, and Scotland. While the pair were in Scotland, they took time to visit children's hospitals and orphanages. Homesick for their own children, the trip was as much for them as it was for the ailing, lonely youngsters.
In Edinburgh the Rogers met and fell in love with a thirteen-year-old girl living at the Dunforth orphanage. Her name was Marion Fleming—a petite teenager with a fine singing voice. After she entertained Roy and Dale with an old folk song, the pair knew they had to have her as their own child. A few months and a fair amount of legal wrangling later, Marion became a part of the Rogers family. The couple relished their growing family. "We're either going to have to stop visiting orphanages or buy us a hotel to live in," Dale told Roy.
The Roy Rogers Show had become hugely successful. Every Sunday night at six thirty, families across America gathered around their television sets to watch Roy and Dale defend the town of Mineral City against cattle rustlers and crooks. With the help of good friend Pat Brady, his feisty jeep, Dale's dog Bullet, and of course Trigger, the Wild West was well on its way to being tamed.
In 1956 Photoplay Magazine proclaimed the program to be "America's version of a morality play." According to the same publication, more people saw one episode of The Roy Rogers Show than the film Gone With the Wind before it was on television. When asked why they felt their program was a hit, Dale responded, "It's our heritage. People in the East years ago moving West, searching out the West. There's something about the West."
On more than one occasion, the Rogers children joined their parents on stage at the opening or close of their televised broadcasts. Dressed head to toe in cowboy gear, Cheryl, Linda, Marion, Dusty, Sandy, and Dodie would race out of the wings to their parents waiting in front of the cameras. It was evident to everyone watching that there was an abundance of love in the Rogers family.
That sincere expression of affection, combined with viewers' love of the West, kept The Roy Rogers Show on the air for more than six years. Boys and girls everywhere tuned in for half an hour each week to ride the range with Roy and Dale and become a member of their family.
In June 1955 Roy and Dale brought another child in their home. She was a three-and-a-half-year-old little girl, half Korean, half Puerto Rican, with big brown eyes and short brown hair. World Vision, a Christian group that helps orphaned children in third-world countries, arranged the adoption of the child the Rogers named Deborah Lee. Roy and Dale were sure Debbie would be a delightful addition and a perfect companion for Dodie, who was the same age. Once Debbie learned to speak English, the two girls were inseparable. All was right in the Rogers home as the 1955 holidays fast approached.
A beautifully trimmed tree stood in the living room of the Rogers home, numerous brightly colored packages surrounding it, and seven stockings hung over the chimney. Lit candles ensconced with greenery were scattered about the festive holiday decorations. Everything was picture perfect and in keeping with all you might imagine the King of Cowboys and the Queen of the West's Christmas setting to be.
It was late at night when a candle on top of the television in the corner of the room began smoking. Burned down to nothing, the hot wick set fire to the TV set and quickly consumed it in flames. In a matter of moments, the fire spread to a nearby piano and burned through the floor. For the moment the Rogers family lay sound asleep upstairs, unaware of the potential danger.
Cheryl was the first to find the room on fire. She calmly phoned the fire department, then got her parents and the children up and out of the house. A light rain soaked the frightened family as they watched the firemen tackle the inferno. Before they could gain control of the blaze, the kitchen, living room, and dining room would be left in charred ruins. The family celebrated Christmas in the den. The smell of burned wood, slow-cooking turkey, and evergreen filled the air. Everyone was safe and well, and that fact overshadowed any inconvenience they had to endure.
Late in her life Dale Evans would tell Yesterdayland Magazine, "When I was a little girl I used to say when I grew up I was going to marry Tom Mix and I was going to have six children. And I really do think that I overdid myself, 'cause I married Roy Rogers…. I think big families are wonderful and together can withstand fire, flood, anything. We need more big families in this nation—where people band together in a common good."