DALE EVANS - CHICAGO TO HOLLYWOOD
Dale embodied the credo of the West as much off-screen as she did on-screen. Katharine Ross, actress
A well-dressed crowd filled the tables surrounding the stage at the Chez Paree Theater Restaurant in downtown Chicago. The Chez Paree hosted spectacular musical shows, featuring famous dance bands and promising, entertainers struggling to make a name for themselves.
The orchestra leader motioned to the musicians before him, and they began to play. The enthusiastic night owls recognized the tune and directed their attention to Dale Evans, gliding out of the wings and following the spotlight to the center of the dance floor. She began to serenade the audience with a song she had written and had made popular, "Will You Marry Me, Mister Laramie? Will You Marry Me Today."
Ray Bolger, the long, lanky dancer-comedian, tapped over to Dale and flashed an infectious smile her way. Dale sang and Ray, pretending to be Mister Laramie, danced to the music. At the conclusion of their act, the restaurant patrons erupted with applause.
Dale's voice and Ray's fantastic gyrations were well received at ballrooms, nightclubs, and hotels throughout the Midwest. Dale credited Ray with helping her find her niche in the market. He advised her to perform some of her original songs, "so people would think of you when they heard it." Previously she'd been lost in a sea of female entertainers singing the same ballads, but people responded favorably to her music and to her act with Ray. The success of "Will You Marry Me, Mister Laramie?" helped lead Dale Evans to the break she had been working toward. Bolger added levity to the song, pantomiming accepting her marriage proposal.
Before Dale's three-week engagement at Chez Paree, she had performed with myriad band leaders. From life on the road with Anson Weeks's orchestra to nightclub dates singing New Orleans-style jazz with Fats Waller, she had spanned the eastern part of the United States perfecting her trade. She had worked with some of the finest talent in the industry. Her dream of a Broadway career provided the incentive she needed to spur her on.
At the end of the Laramie number, Dale and Ray would hurry off stage. Returning moments later to take another bow, Dale would sing an encore if the audience was particularly appreciative.
The reception she received one night caught the attention of the head of the Columbia Broadcasting Network. Chicago station WBBM needed a staff singer, and Dale was offered the position. Her fellow employees referred to her as "That Girl from Texas," which was also the name of the program she would host there. Her duties at the station included work not only as a vocalist, but as an announcer and songwriter as well. She serenaded her listening audience with the popular melodies of the day, original songs she'd penned herself, and Spanish numbers for the large contingency of Mexican Americans who tuned in.
Dale Evans was fast becoming a recognizable name in the Windy City. She was sought after for public appearances and commercials. She auditioned to endorse a wide range of products from soap to car batteries. In one such audition she crossed paths with the Sons of the Pioneers. The first meeting between Leonard Slye and Dale Evans barely registered for either one of them, but a course had been charted for the two to meet again.
Early in 1942 Hollywood agent Joe Rivkin wrote a letter to the 5-foot-2-inch, green-eyed, twenty-eight year-old Dale, requesting photographs of the ambitious entertainer. Rivkin had heard her sing on the radio and was impressed with her voice.
At first she laughed off the notion. She didn't think she had the "right look" for movies. It wasn't until a second invitation arrived that she took the idea seriously. The telegram she received read, "Paramount is looking for a new face for female lead in Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire to star. Joe Rivkin." The WBBM program director persuaded her to send Rivkin a few pictures. Dale reluctantly did so, believing the matter would be laid to rest once the agent saw the photographs. Three weeks later Rivkin sent word for her to come to Hollywood at once.
Dale descended the airplane steps and scanned the faces of the waiting people at the terminal window. She shaded her eyes from the bright California sun and rubbed her ears. The high altitude of the flight had given her a terrific head and ear ache. Somewhere over Denver she had become nauseated, and although she had been on the ground for fifteen minutes, the color had not yet returned to her cheeks. Joe Rivkin would not catch her at her best.
She spotted the anxious agent pacing the tarmac. Rivkin's eyes studied the green complexion of the woman before him and frowned. "You certainly don't look like your pictures," he informed Dale. Still feeling ill, Dale followed the disappointed man to his car and the two hurried off toward Hollywood.
While en route to the studio Rivkin criticized her hair, nose, makeup, clothes, and weight. He listed the improvements she would need to make to secure a job in motion pictures.
Dale wasn't well enough to disagree with Rivkin's suggestions. He pulled his car up fast in front of the Hollywood Plaza where Dale would be staying. Any thoughts she had of lying down for a moment to calm her stomach were quickly dispelled. Rivkin led her to the hotel beauty parlor and instructed the stylists to "work their magic" on the suffering starlet.
Once Dale was coiffed and beautified, Joe took her to where the screen test would be filmed. His final instructions before introducing her to the casting director were to "lie about your age." Instead of twenty-eight, she was to say she was twenty-one.
The casting director assaulted Dale with a series of questions. Her answers were quickly interrupted by Joe, who stretched the truth on every occasion. Dale could tolerate such behavior only up to a point. When he told the director she was a talented dancer, she finally broke in. "Sir," she began. "I can't dance. I can't even do a time step."
Rivkin was furious with Dale. Her confession cost her the chance to be considered for the part in Holiday Inn. Impressed by Dale's honesty and spunk, however, the director consented to give her a screen test to be used in casting other available roles the studio might have. Joe's spirits brightened a bit with the news.
Dale spent two weeks preparing for the screen test, and the determined agent monitored her every move casting the deciding vote on everything from audition scenes to the wardrobe selection. Dale's screen test included her singing a couple of standards, along with a short dramatic performance opposite actor Macdonald Carey. The stress of Joe's scrutiny of her every move finally caught up with her during the filming. She unleashed her frustration on Macdonald and when the scene called for her to slap the thespian she did so as hard as she could—leaving a handprint on the actor's face. She was mortified. At the conclusion of the filming, she was at her breaking point. She decided to confront Joe about the Hollywood experience thus far. She told him she wasn't going to be a part of any further deception—and that included being dishonest about her talents.
Caught up in the moment, she confessed to the stunned agent that she had a teenage son. Rivkin stared blankly back at his young protegee.
His mind reeling from the assault of information, Joe suggested that if Dale was hired by Paramount, she should keep the news of her son a secret. She steadfastly refused. Paramount Pictures rejected the entertainer.
Dale returned to Chicago, convinced that a career in motion pictures was not possible for her. The memory of the unsuccessful experience got lost in the daily routine of caring for her husband and son and singing engagements. Then, three weeks after she had left Los Angeles, Joe Rivkin phoned to tell her that Twentieth Century-Fox had seen the screen test and wanted to sign her to a one-year contract. Her pay would be $400 a week. The offer interested Dale. With that kind of money, she could put Tom through college when the time came.
"Send your teenage son away to school while you're out here," Joe advised Dale.
"If Tom can't come with me to Hollywood, we'll stay in Chicago," she firmly replied.
Rivkin was persistent and suggested that if she was adamant about bringing Tom with her to the West Coast she should tell people he was her younger brother instead of her son. The idea made Dale uncomfortable, but ultimately she decided it was a sacrifice she had to make in order to provide for her husband and son and realize her dreams.
So Dale Evans bade farewell to the Midwest and headed to Hollywood to begin what she hoped would be a lucrative film career. The studio executives ushered their newest addition to a variety of health clubs and salons. One was geared toward helping Dale lose a few pounds, another straightened and capped her teeth, and a third updated the style and color of her hair. She was given speech and elocution lessons and was required to do another screen test.
Finally, Dale was given her first starring role, and in a film that would give her a chance to show off her musical abilities: a college musical called Campus in the Clouds, A whimsical look at university life. Dale was thrilled with the opportunity, and slowly the reservations she had about the motion picture industry began to vanish.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The start of World War II impacted everyone's lives and businesses. Twentieth Century-Fox decided that frivolous movies would now be inappropriate. Campus in the Clouds was one of the first films scrapped from production. Dale's big break was shelved.
With the war in full swing and service-men in need of entertainment to boost morale, the Hollywood Victory Committee and the USO were formed. Some of Hollywood's most promising stars—Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, James Cagney—began performing at military camps up and down the California coast. Dale was invited to be a part of this program, and she eagerly agreed to serve.
When he could, Robert would accompany Dale on the road to various shows, playing piano and doing spot jobs for her act. Both Robert and Dale had demanding entertainment careers that kept them apart for long periods of time. The marriage was beginning to suffer as a result.
Dale shared the stage with many types of performers: jugglers, actors, dancers and even western bands. While touring Northern California, she crossed paths again with Leonard Slye and the other members of the Sons of the Pioneers. The group was a favorite among the servicemen and servicewomen.
Dale's film career faltered during the first year of the war, but her singing career was thriving. Unfortunately, Joe Rivkin was not available to capitalize on her success. Rivkin had joined the army and was stationed in Texas. Without his help, Twentieth Century chose not to resign Dale once her contract was up. In the year she had been with the studio, she had appeared in only two walk-on roles.
In addition to her professional struggles, Dale was wrestling with personal problems. She and Robert were drifting further and further apart, and Tom seemed distant as well. He had agreed to play the part of her younger brother, but he wasn't comfortable with it. The lie conflicted with the Christian values he had learned in church and Sunday school. The issue struck a nerve with Dale. She didn't like being deceitful, either—it left her feeling cold and empty. She attended church every Sunday but failed to carry her faith with her once the service ended. She decided the time wasn't right to focus on God or redeeming herself in the eyes of her son. "Once I become successful" she promised, "I'll devote more attention to my son and my faith."
Dale concentrated on saving her fledgling career. A frantic call to Rivkin yielded the name of an agent friend of his. "Art Rush can get you back on the radio," Joe assured her. The prospect of returning to the radio sounded appealing to Dale. She always felt appreciated there.
Art Rush was a soft-spoken man with a strong Christian base. Before becoming a Hollywood agent, he had pursued a career in the ministry. He had a reputation for being honest and for representing many talented up-and-comers— including Leonard Slye. Dale and he met and formed an instant bond. Art agreed to take on the young singer as a client and in no time had secured an audition for her at NBC.
Dale landed a job at the network as a vocalist on the Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. It was Charlie McCarthy who secured the position for her during the audition by whistling approvingly at the singer while Edgar Bergen gave a pleased grin. The shows producers offered her a contract within a few days of her appearance on the set.
Dale's return to radio was short-lived. After repeatedly spurning the advances of one of the network's executives, she was dismissed from the show. Discouraged and out of work, she phoned Art Rush. Rush's secretary told Dale that he was busy with another client. "He's heading to New York to handle some business for a cowboy with the Sons of the Pioneers," the secretary shared with her.
Dale was furious. When Art returned to Los Angeles, she decided to lighten his workload. "I figured since you don'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," she announced to Art.
Dale's new agent, Danny Winkler, knew her work from her days in Chicago. Two weeks after signing with Winkler, she was offered a one-year contract with Republic Pictures and was set to star in a musical called Swing Your Partner. She hoped this role would open a window of opportunity on the Broadway scene. To be a part of a big, sophisticated production like Oklahoma had long since been a dream of hers. As she rehearsed the musical numbers for Swing Your Partner with the show's stars, she smiled proudly. She was convinced working at Republic was a promising start.
TO BE CONTINUED