FRANCES SMITH BECOMES DALE EVANS
She was feisty, daring, could hold her own
against any band of bad guys and looked good
enough to leave them dreaming of her at night,
and what a voice. . . .
Cybill Shepherd, actress
A winter storm blanketed the already saturated Chicago streets with snow. Icy winds blasted through the loose insulation around the windows in Frances Smith's tiny, one-room apartment. She forced a smile at her five-year-old son, Tommy, pulled him to the kitchen table, and served him a meager breakfast. He lapped up every bite happily. Frances pushed her hair off her tired face and choked back a tear. Her skin was pale, making the dark circles under her eyes all the more pronounced. She was tempted to sample her son's meal, but decided against it. She was hungry. It was 1931, and the country was in the midst of a depression; everyone was hungry. Frances was determined her child would not go without food even if it meant she had to give up a meal or two to make that happen.
After a four-year stay in Tennessee, Frances felt a move to Illinois was necessary. She hoped to advance her singing career in Chicago performing on one of the powerful Chicago stations that reached far and deep into the heartland of America. While in Memphis she had managed to go from singing on a thirty-minute request show to hosting a program on the largest station in town. If she could conquer Chicago, she'd have it made.
Music spilled out of a radio in the corner of the room, the tunes occasionally interrupted by newscasts announcing the closure of another bank or stories about desperate stockholders jumping out of windows. It was a trying time for everyone. Frances sought to comfort herself with that truth, but it was no use. Tommy finished his meal and entertained himself with a few of his toys. She watched him play as she dressed for work at the Goodyear Company, where her duties included filing, taking dictation, and answering phones.
Frances made twenty-five dollars a week. More than half of her income went to pay for Tommy's sitter; the other half went to pay for rent and food. Often there was precious little in the way of groceries in the cupboards.
However dismal the world was around her, she pressed on, clinging to the dream that she could change their lives for the better.
Frances seized every opportunity to audition as a performer at various clubs around town but had no luck. Club owners and talent scouts weren't that impressed with her Memphis accomplishments. She'd been in the city for two years and nothing seemed to be working out as she had hoped. As her weak fingers fastened the buttons on Tommy's coat, she pondered how alone they truly were. She held him close to her and reminded him how much she loved him and always would. Tears were standing in her eyes. Tommy knew something was wrong. He studied his mother's face. She looked faint.
Frances was very ill. Earlier in the week she had been to see a doctor, and the diagnosis was acute malnutrition. She had been warned that if she didn't take care of the condition, she could die. "When do I stop beating my head against this wall, Tommy?" she asked him rhetorically. The thought of getting on the train to go to work exhausted her. "I came out here to crack Chicago," she confessed. "But Chicago has cracked me." She decided right then to wire her parents and ask them for help.
She vowed to herself that once she was well she'd get right back in the game—nothing would deter her for long.
Frances's parents, Walter and Betty Sue, met their daughter and grandson at the train. It had been a long, hard trip back to Italy, Texas, where her mom and dad had relocated a few years prior. Frances looked miserable. Betty Sue scooped Tommy up with one arm and squeezed her daughter's neck with the other. Walter was happy to see them come home as well. Frances was unsteady on her feet, dizzy from hunger. Her mother and father took her straight to the hospital. After a two-week stay she went to her parents' home to continue recuperating.
Three months would pass before she would be on her feet again. She spent that time in bed resting. From the upstairs window of the farmhouse, she watched her son playing with the animals and enjoying the sunshine. As the healthy glow returned to Frances's cheeks, so did her desire to continue her singing career. She set her sights on musical comedies and Broadway. To start, she settled for a job in radio and Louisville, Kentucky.
With Tommy in tow Frances made the move and began work at station WHAS as one of their featured singers. She was well paid to sing popular tunes like "Shine On, Harvest Moon" and "You Are My Sunshine."
She had auditioned for the staff position using the stage name of Marion Lee. The program director disapproved of the stage name and quickly renamed her. "Your name is now Dale Evans," he informed her. Frances was aghast. "That's a boy's name!" she fired back. "And what does Evans have to do with me?" He explained that the name Dale was from a silent-movie actress he admired and the name Evans just had a nice ring to it. "It will be easy for the announcers to pronounce and impossible to misspell," he concluded. She couldn't argue with that. Frances Smith left the director's office Dale Evans.
Monday through Friday at six thirty in the morning, announcer Joe Pierson would step up to the microphone and introduce Dale and the five-piece band she was singing with. "And now help me welcome Honey and the Flapjacks," he would say. Dale shared the stage with many aspiring entertainers from that time, musicians who regularly played at the Grand Ole Opry. Some days the halls of the station would be flooded with ambitious performers and their instruments, guitars and fiddles as far as the eye could see lining the walls leading into the studio. Surrounded by talent and promise, Dale Evans believed she was finally on her way, but her hardships continued.
After the end of another long, hard workday, Dale hurried home to her son. She sighed as she eyed the stairs leading to their third-floor apartment. She was tired, and they seemed to go on forever. The lady who looked after Tommy stood at the top of the landing waiting for Dale. She looked worried and was wringing her hands.
"What's wrong?" Dale asked. The sitter swallowed her hysteria and told her that Tommy was ill. "He's been vomiting most of the day," she explained. "His arms and legs have been hurting him so bad he just screams with pain." A thought pierced Dale's heart like a dagger. Could Tommy be suffering from polio? Kentucky was experiencing a polio epidemic that had killed or crippled hundreds of children. Dale's face turned white. It can't be, she whispered to herself.
The two women hurried inside the apartment and into Tommy's room. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he rubbed his arms. Dale rushed her son to the hospital. The doctor's agreed with Dale's suspicions and advised that Tommy be tested for polio.
Dale waited outside of the examination room for word about her son's condition. A spinal tap was ordered, and Dale waited for the results in the hospital chapel.
"Lord," she pleaded, "I'll do anything ... 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," she cried. Waiting for the test results was agonizing. When the doctor finally told Dale the news that Tommy did not have polio and would be all right, she sobbed for joy.
With Tommy safely back at home, life returned to normal. Despite her best intentions, however, Dale gradually strayed from the bargain she'd made with God. She was fiercely devoted to her son and her career, but it would take another grave experience for her to see that Tommy was entitled to more attention. Dale's neighbor's daughter had been playing around a pile of burning leaves when the hem of her dress caught fire. The girl's mother arrived home from work just in time to see her engulfed in flames. She tried to save her daughter, but it was too late. The child died en route to the hospital. Dale feared something like that happening to Tommy in her absence. After careful consideration, she decided to relocate her family to the place Tommy had been the happiest.
Walter and Betty Sue again welcomed their daughter and grandson home. Tommy was in his element. He thrived on the wide-open spaces and the extended family that showered him with affection. Feeling much more secure about her son's welfare, Dale set out to look for work. She found employment at WFAA radio in Dallas as the lead singer for a band that performed on The Early Bird program.
The Early Bird show featured a variety of acts from orchestras to comedians, and Dale entertained the live studio audience with renditions of popular tunes like "Mockingbird Hill" and "If I Only Had a Nickel." Listeners enjoyed her singing, and in a short time she had created a following. Her regional popularity was given a boost in August 1938 when she appeared on the cover of Rural Radio Magazine. Offers for work poured in. She accepted engagements to sing at posh dinner and country clubs and at hotels with full orchestra. And then a gentleman came calling....
Robert Butts was a pianist and orchestral arranger who had become interested in Dale when they met in Louisville. He was making his way to the West Coast via Dallas when he phoned and asked if Dale would see him when he was in town. She happily agreed.
Robert was immensely talented, and Dale mentioned his musical abilities to the manager of WFAA. Not long after his arrival, Robert was hired on as a pianist and arranger for the station.
Dale lived in Dallas during the week and traveled to Italy on the weekends to spend time with Tommy, her brother, and her parents. For a year and a half, Dale managed to make time in Dallas and Italy for outings with Robert. In December 1939 Robert proposed, and Dale accepted. The two were married and decided to move to Chicago. She was convinced that, given another chance,, she could make her mark there, but this time she gave in to her parents' request and left Tommy with them.
Chicago wasn't as cold and unforgiving as Dale remembered it from before. Robert was hired as a composer-arranger for the NBC radio affiliate. Dale joined the Jay Mills Orchestra and sang jazz numbers for guests at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. She was becoming a recognizable voice in the area and was a much-sought-after jazz vocalist for many bands—a fact she found comforting once she realized the Jay Mills Orchestra was the wrong job for her.
Night after night Dale would sit off to one side of the stage watching as the other vocalist with the Jay Mills group serenaded the dignified clientele with beautiful ballads. The audience showered the other vocalist with applause that transcended the polite response Dale received for her jazz numbers. The high-society patrons who frequented the hotel along the lakeshore appreciated the effort but were clearly unsatisfied. So was Dale. When she was offered a chance to audition for Anson Weeks's popular orchestra, she jumped at the chance. Weeks had played for and recorded with some of the most famous singers of the day. Bing and Bob Crosby, Carl Ravazza, and Kay St. Germain were among the many artists who worked with the Weeks orchestra. Dale was offered the job as Anson Weeks's lead vocalist and she immediately accepted. She prayed the move would lead her to Broadway.
TO BE CONTINUED