ROY AND DALE PARTNERS ON THE CELLULOID PLAINS
I grew up with Roy and Dale on the silver screen.
They're heroes to me; they stood for everything right.
Roby Roach, Los Angeles Times reporter,
May 5, 2003
Dale Evans sat alone in Herbert Yates's office. The owner and chief operator of Republic Pictures had requested the actress's presence, and, filled with nervous excitement, she had happily obliged. Yates had just returned from New York, where it was rumored he had taken in the Broadway musical Oklahoma. Dale had been told he was quite captivated with the production, and during her meeting with Yates, he enthusiastically described the play scene by scene.
"Oklahoma is a huge success," he praised. "One I would like to duplicate." She imagined he was going to tell her the studio would be making the film version of the show and they wanted her to play the lead. It would be a dream come true. What the CEO proposed instead caught Dale off guard. "Our Roy Rogers westerns are doing very well," he told her. "I think they could do even better if we had a female lead who could also do some singing. I think you're what we're looking for."
Dale stared blankly back at the executive, her mind reeling. I sing in nightclubs, with dance bands, and on the radio—I'm not right for a western, she thought to herself. "Are you sure you want me?" she finally asked. Yates nodded confidently. The less-than-enthusiastic expression Dale wore did nothing to change his mind. He informed her that the studio would be producing a Roy Rogers picture titled The Cowboy and the Senorita. "You're the Senorita," Yates concluded.
Left alone to consider the opportunity, Dale cast a dazed look around the room. She was under contract with the studio and could not refuse without serious reprisals. I don't even know anything about horses, Dale complained to herself.
By the early 1940s Roy Rogers was Republic's star and the number one Hollywood personality at the nation's box offices. He had been featured on the cover of magazines and invited to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dale recalled her previous encounters with the King of the Cowboys. "Years ago in Chicago, sharing a USO stage and an agent," she remembered.
Roy Rogers was Art Rush's client during the same period of time he represented Dale. She'd ended her relationship with Rush, believing he was too preoccupied with Roy's career. Now, in addition to the fact that B westerns were not the genre she wanted to work in, she was to be paired with a man whom she had been jealous of.
Her back against the wall, Dale decided to commit herself fully to her role as Ysobel Martinez. She felt that by delivering a stellar performance, Yates would be encouraged to cast her in better roles in better films. When she left the executive's office, she was convinced she had devised the perfect plan to end her career in western features.
Roy Rogers pulled his white Stetson hat low over his narrow eyes, shading his face from the hot Southern California sun. The set on the back lot of Republic Studios resembled an Old West town, complete with stagecoaches and livestock. Roy leaned against a hitching post and adjusted the six-shooters on his hips. Gabby Hayes, the Shakespearean-trained actor who had been Roy's sidekick in several films, stood directly behind him. Gabby wiped the sweat off his forehead with a red bandanna and scratched at the beard spread across his face. Roy glanced back at the rough-looking character and smiled.
Gabby grinned a toothless grin while watching a chorus of extras parade past, dressed in western costumes. Cameramen and lighting technicians scurried about, making the final preparations needed to begin the first day of shooting on Republic Pictures' production of The Cowboy and the Senorita.
Roy and Gabby hadn't met their costar yet, although they had been told that it was Dale Evans. "She started out as a singer, too," Roy told Gabby. "I've met her once or twice. I was a little too bashful to say much more than 'Howdy.'"
"Hope our leading lady is going to have a good time with this role," Gabby confided. "I've been saying all along the ladies' parts in these westerns have to be better. Maybe add a little romance, too," he chuckled.
Gabby wasn't alone in his thinking. The popular industry magazine Movie Life had recently conducted a poll indicating that the majority of theater goers wanted Roy Rogers's westerns peppered with a little romance. And indeed, Republic executives recognized the need to make improvements to their B westerns. Half of the movie audience was female, and they wanted to see women involved in the stories. They also wanted to see the King of the Cowboys kiss someone besides Trigger.
The swinging doors on the saloon down the dusty thoroughfare opened, and a beautiful woman with dark hair and a shapely figure exited. She was dressed in a Mexican gaucho costume, complete with a black, wide-brimmed hat. Both Gabby and Roy looked in her direction. "That looks like your Senorita, Cowboy," Gabby chuckled. "Can she ride?"
"Guess we'll find out soon enough," Roy said as he fidgeted with his spurs.
With the crew in place, director Fuzzy Knight began filming. Fuzzy called for quiet on the set, then gave the cue for Dale to spur her horse to the front of the general store, stop, and hop off. It was Dale Evans's first riding scene, and all eyes were on the capable-looking costar. On command the animal broke into a full gallop. Dale bounced around in the saddle as if she were on a merry-go-round and nearly fell off when the horse stopped. The director halted filming. Roy, Gabby, and some of the other crew hurried over to her, laughing. Dale giggled along with them. Roy and Gabby introduced themselves, and the three shook hands. "I can't remember seeing that much daylight between a horse and a rider outside a few rodeos," Roy kidded.
Still laughing, Dale brushed the dust off her clothes, "I sing better than I ride," she said.
"We'll make a good team then," Roy responded. "I ride better than I sing."
By the end of the production, Dale Evans was a pro in the saddle. Roy Rogers commented to movie news reporters that she "never gave her work less than her all."
Dale Evans's acting job in her first film with Roy Rogers brought about the exact opposite response then she'd hoped for from Republic executives. The Cowboy and the Senorita was such a huge success theater managers petitioned Herbert Yates to team Dale and Roy up for another picture. By the end of 1944, the duo had made four more films together. The attention Dale received from fans and professionals alike helped her to see that this career move was for the best. Dale, Roy, and the other cast and crew members got along well. The object of Dale's jealousy had turned out to be a delightful person.
"There is nothing phony about Roy Rogers." She told Movie Play Magazine in 1945. "No hungry ego and nothing to prove. He has a job to do and he does it, sitting easy in the saddle; and what's more, he enjoys doing the work so much his attitude is contagious."
Roy's impressions of Dale were just as complimentary. In 1946 he told the same journal, "She is a person who always looks like she has just stepped out of the shower—real fresh and clean; and she is a good sport, too, carrying her weight in each and every scene and never complaining when she has to work long hours and do stunts that wear us out."
Roy and Dale followed up their hit The Cowboy and Senorita with Song of Nevada. Republic screenwriters duplicated the formula from the pair's first film—writing Dale's part to serve as a contrast to Roy's country ways. In Song of Nevada Dale played an uppity woman from the East who travels west to sell her deceased father's ranch and winds up crossing paths with a down-to-earth ranch hand played by Roy.
Audiences couldn't get enough of the on-screen mix of Dale's sass and Roy's patience. In one year Republic Pictures turned out seven of the popular westerns featuring their new stars. The day's work began at four thirty in the morning and continued until well after sunset. The cast and crew became very close. Indeed, Roy, Gabby, Dale, and the Sons of the Pioneers spent all their waking hours together. When they weren't filming, they were on the road performing at rodeos, country fairs, and theaters.
By the end of 1945, Herbert Yates proclaimed that not only did Roy Rogers continue to be King of the Cowboys, but Dale Evans was now the Queen of the West.
Everyone associated with the production of the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans movies got along very well. They confided in one another, and their husbands, wives, and children visited the set. Roy's wife, Arline, became great friends with Dale, and the Rogers girls enjoyed spending time playing in Dale's dressing room. During school breaks Tom would come by the studio lot to see his mother and end up talking with Roy and Gabby for hours. Years later, Dale would recall, "Making movies week after week, in the studio and on location—seeing the same familiar faces; listening to Gabby Hayes's delightful, funny stories ... we became a family."
Professionally, Dale Evans and Roy Rogers seemed to be on a parallel course. Personally, their lives were quite different. Roy's home life was blossoming. He and Arline had a new home, two beautiful girls, and a third child on the way. In contrast, Dale's marriage to Robert Butts was ending.
Over time Robert, too, had become busy developing his career. He was now scoring movies for Republic Pictures.
The notion of making their jobs secondary to their marriage was never considered. Their work schedules did not coincide, and they were leading separate lives. Divorce seemed inevitable.
In addition to her marital problems, Dale was tormented with guilt over the truth about Tom. As of yet she had not admitted to anyone in the Republic front office that Tom was her son. She ached to correct the public perception of their relationship. She was very proud of Tom. He was now an accomplished musician— writing, arranging, and conducting pieces for his high school orchestra. CBS orchestra leader Caesar Petrillo heard Tom perform a flute recital and told Dale that he had great promise. Dale wanted to do all she could to help Tom pursue his musical ambition.
After graduation, and much to his mother's surprise, Tom joined the army. His induction papers asked for the names of both his parents. He listed Dale Evans as his mother. When news reached Republic, the publicity executives hurried off to verify the claim. This time Dale told the truth. She was instructed to keep quiet about it. "We'll bury the story," she was told, but Louella Parsons unearthed it, revealing the secret to her audience in one of her radio reports. Dale was relieved that she could finally be honest about the matter.
Private information made public about either Roy Rogers or Dale Evans only seemed to endear them to their fans. Ultimately the pair created a total of twelve pictures together from 1945 to 1951 and were the number one box-office attraction in the world. Their individual talents enhanced each other's professional careers, and their friendship enriched each other's personal lives.
For a time it seemed the famous cowboy and cowgirl would ride off into a celluloid sunset and live happily ever after on screen. But their reign at Republic Pictures would soon be over. Storm clouds were looming in the horizon.