Dale Evans is a versatile work-horse of a
singer-dancer whose maternal sexuality
complements Rogers9 boyish charm.
Phil Hardy, The Western Film Encyclopedia, 1988
Herbert Yates sat behind his enormous desk, puffing on a cigar. A cloud of smoke hovered above his head before wafting out an open window. He leaned back in his giant leather chair and concentrated on the frustrated actress in front of him. Dale Evans paced back and forth, not yet saying a word. Finally, she arrived at the reason she had come to see him. "I've done nine westerns for you, Mr. Yates," she said firmly. "And you still haven't put me in a musical comedy." He took another drag off his cigar as she reminded him of the promise he had made her.
From the start of their association, Dale had made it clear that she wanted to perform in shows like Annie Get Your Gun and Meet Me in St. Louis. Yates kept promising Dale that he would put her in such a film if she would commit to doing one more Roy Rogers western.
Now her contract with Republic was coming up for renewal, and his offer remained the same. "After just one more Roy Rogers western," he told her.
Dale left the studio head's office prepared to quit. She had achieved a generous amount of attention riding the range with one of the most famous cowboys ever, but she'd had enough of the dust and tumbleweeds, gunplay, and getting fourth billing after Trigger and Gabby Hayes. "The heroine in a Western is always second-string," Dale told reporters with the Los Angeles Times in the fall of 1947. "The Cowboy and his horse always come first."
Audiences, however, felt her part in the Roy Rogers pictures was critical. When word reached the viewers that she was considering leaving to fulfill her stage ambitions, they flooded the studio with letters. One letter from the Roy Rogers Fan Club had three thousand signatures affixed to it.
Dale's appreciation for such support was not her only incentive to stay on with Republic. Yates threatened the entertainer with legal action should she choose not to fulfill her contract. Realizing such action might be too costly, she did as the studio asked. Before her contract ran out she appeared in ten more Westerns. But in 1946, afraid of being type cast and convinced she wasn't necessary to the success of the Roy Rogers films anyway, she decided to walk away from the popular franchise and Republic.
RKO Studios, one of Hollywood's premier motion-picture corporations, was set to film a grand musical featuring Eddie Cantor and Joan Davis. Upon hearing that Dale was available, they quickly signed her to play the role of the production's ingenue. The movie, Show Business Out West, was the type of sophisticated musical Dale longed to be a part of. It was to be her breakout performance.
Although the title suggests otherwise, Show Business Out West was in fact a departure from the cowboy serials Evans was known for best. Her career had taken a new turn, but her marriage continued on the same old course. Dale Evans and Robert Butts divorced within months of her musical premiere.
Dale Evans's main focus had always been her career. The spiritual side of her life, which would eventually become the driving force in all she did, had not yet been defined. She knew the Lord had been gently calling to her, but ambition divided her attention. Dale's parents had been a strong Christian influence in her life. Her mother made sure her son Tom was raised in the faith. Over the years he'd grown into a dedicated believer. He proved to be a moral compass for his mother, agreeing to go along with the decision to keep their relationship a secret, but refusing to speak the lie himself.
"Christians don't lie," he had respectfully told her when he was twelve years old.
Dale and Tom had attended many Sunday services together over the years. Tom was very involved in the church's weekly activities. He used his God-given musical talent to serve. Dale admired his dedication and at times had felt the desire to honor the Lord with the skills he had granted to her, but could not bring herself to fully commit. Tom prayed that his mother would come to know the Lord as he had and that the desires of her heart would change. For now, however, Dale would continue to fill the void in her life with work.
Roy Roger's life was crowded with family, friends, and fans. By the start of 1946, he was one of the most famous men in America. Children and parents alike admired and respected the humble actor. Boys wanted to be him; girls wanted to marry him. Despite the fame and fortune, Roy never lost sight of what was most important to him. His daughters and loving wife were the light of his life. His world was lacking nothing, and just when the singing cowboy thought he was happier than he'd ever been in his whole life, Arline gave him news that added to his joy. The couple were to have another child.
Roy talked excitedly about the baby on the way in between shooting two more westerns for Republic. He shared his longing for a son with Gabby. "I'd like to have a boy," he told him. "Kind of balance things out on the home front," he added with a laugh. Roy got his wish. He and Arline did indeed have a son.
On October 28,1946, the headlines scrolled across many major newspapers and emanating from the wire services read, The king has a prince. Photographers flocked to the hospital to get a picture of the proud father posing with his namesake—Roy Rogers Jr. Mother and Father nicknamed their addition Dusty.
Roy took time off from filming Helldorado to spend time with his wife and children. "There was no way I could remember dialogue while I was thinking of my new little fella," he later confessed. Roy stayed by Arline's side for several days. His excitement over the new family member was infectious.
After nearly a week of his round-the-clock hospital stay, Art Rush managed to coax Roy down from the clouds to venture outside. Art felt a round of golf would help ease Roy back to earth. But on the morning of November 3, Art's phone rang very early. His wife, Mary Jo, answered the call. The voice on the other end was broken, frantic, and unrecognizable.
She handed Art the receiver, and he tentatively asked who it was. "Art?" came the voice on the other end. Although the caller was crying and upset, he knew immediately it was Roy. "Arline is dead," he said. Art hung up the phone promising to be by his friend's side as soon as he could.
Roy's preparations for his golf outing had been interrupted by an urgent call from the hospital. When he arrived on the scene, he found his wife's room crowded with doctors and nurses. Arline had several tubes and wires hooked up to her body—she was pale and unconscious. She had suffered a massive brain embolism from a blood clot. Roy gently took her hand and stayed with her until the end. And then, almost as if in a trance, he left her room, phoned Art, and headed outside to wait for him.
Roy was in a fog as he exited the hospital. Tears filled his eyes and streamed down his face. He found his way to his car, and leaning against it, stared down at the ground, remembering Arline's peaceful expression as the nurse pulled the sheet over her face. Boys and girls on their way into the hospital with their parents noticed the grieving actor. With pen and paper in hand, they hurried over to Roy seeking an autograph.
When Art pulled into the parking lot, he spotted the forlorn cowboy amid a group of excited children. Through crying eyes he was scribbling down his name on the scraps of paper the children passed in front of him. As Art approached the group, he could hear Roy in a feeble voice wishing the fans, "Happy trails."
Almost as though sleepwalking, Roy drifted through Arline's funeral and burial consumed by despair. The question of how he was going to raise two little girls and a baby son on his own resounded inside his head. With the help of a live-in assistant Roy was able to take care of his children while maintaining a rigorous work schedule, but his low salary at Republic meant he was forced to take on singing gigs to help pay for the additional help his family needed.
He filled the void in his life left by Arline with volunteer work at children's hospitals. Entertaining terminally ill and handicapped children helped ease the pain of his broken heart. In the first year after Arline's death, Roy made more than 800 personal calls to sick boys and girls. His tireless efforts in helping so many youngsters while raising his own three little ones prompted the Boys Clubs of America to name him Father of the Year.
Jimmy Durante, the entertainer known for his long, bulbous nose, flashed Dale Evans an approving smile as she serenaded a studio audience with her rendition of "People Will Say We're in Love" from the musical Oklahoma. After months of waiting for production to begin on the role that was to change the course of her motion-picture career, RKO had scrapped Show Business Out West.
Dale took a job as the featured singer on the Jimmy Durante-Gary Moore show while waiting for the chance to be cast in another film. She enjoyed working with the comics, but was becoming increasingly discouraged with her agent's inability to secure her a part in a musical. Just when she was about to give up hope that she'd ever have the opportunity to achieve recognition as anything other than one of Roy Rogers's sidekicks, Republic Studios came calling again. This time the company offered her a contract to appear in a slate of dramatic features.
Dale signed for a second time with Republic and was soon in production opposite Doug Fowley in a film titled The Trespasser. Her part in this screen adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's book was a departure from her most popular film work to date. Instead of cowboy boots and fringe-lined skirts, she wore long gowns and was adorned in jewels.
Her character, Linda Coleman, was a young starlet romantically involved with a struggling middle-age musician. Reviewers were less than kind in critiquing Dale's dramatic debut, and the film as a whole did not fare much better.
Despite the disappointing reviews, Republic executives assured Dale they were looking for another project for her to star in. The fact that they still had faith in her talent was reassuring. In the interim she decided to embark on a singing tour and headed off to Atlantic City for her first performance.
The Steel Pier was packed on the night Dale Evans opened in 1946. Fans of the songbird's music and films flooded into the elegantly decorated club. Dale filled the stage with her captivating presence and inspired voice. Upon finishing her first set, she bowed to the applause of the audience and thanked them for their generosity. Staring out over the crowd before her, her eyes lit on two familiar faces in the front. Although dressed in a business suit, the trademark squinty eyes and handsome features left no doubt that this was Roy Rogers. Art Rush sat beside him, and the pair were cheering Dale's work. "It was like seeing friends from back home," Dale said. She hurried off stage and joined the pair at their table.
"I was in New York doing a show when I heard you were down here," Roy told her. "I talked Art into driving down to see you." The three talked excitedly, catching up on old times, discussing show business, children, and tragedies.
It had been two months since Arline Rogers had passed away. Roy had continued on as best he could, but behind the pleasantries and public persona was a lonely, dispirited man. Dale conveyed her sympathies again over Roy's loss. She reminded him of how much she'd always thought of Arline and offered to help in any way she could.
"The kids are doing nicely," Roy offered. "I just bought us a ranch near Lancaster, California. I call the place Sky Haven," he said proudly. Dale, for her part, bragged about Tom and his music career in the army. "He's a wonderful man," Dale boasted. "A wonderful Christian." Roy and Dale ended their long conversation with plans to meet the following night for dinner. She could tell Roy had something else on his mind he wanted to discuss.
The film duo spent a pleasant time together, eating and talking non stop. Roy had a lot to say about the welfare of his three children. He was worried about the effect time away from them was having. Dale could appreciate his struggles as a single parent. She had wrestled with the same concerns herself at one time.
Their conversation eventually shifted to lighter fare, and the couple reminisced about their days filming westerns. "The movies we did together were good," Roy admitted. "An awful lot of people liked us working as a team." After pausing for a moment he gently got around to the question that had been hanging over their meeting: "Why don't you come back?"
It was a kind, sincere invitation but one Dale felt she had to decline. She had graduated from saddles and sagebrush to serious actress and felt that the results of her efforts were just starting to be realized with the release of her first film. In her estimation more cowboy movies would only set her career back. Roy didn't press the issue. The two said good-bye and went their separate ways. Roy returned to California to begin shooting his twenty second western, Springtime in the Sierras, and once Dale's singing tour was complete, she went into production on a film called Slippy McGee.
Slippy McGee turned out to be an even bigger disappointment than The Trespasser, making a successful transition from cowgirl partner to contemporary actress had proved nearly impossible. Critics were harsh, and audiences weren't attending the films.
Fans wanted Dale Evans to get back in the saddle again and ride with Roy Rogers. Republic was inundated with letters demanding she be put back in the westerns. The studio executives agreed that Roy Rogers pictures weren't the same without Dale Evans.
With two box-office flops to her credit, Dale was forced to reevaluate her career. Roy's generous offer to rejoin him in another series of B westerns intrigued her. After a lot of thought, Dale set up a meeting with Herbert Yates and told him that she'd like to "ride the range" again.
The first motion picture Roy Rogers and Dale Evans reteamed to appear in was Susanna Pass. The camaraderie on the set among the stars, Gabby Hayes, and the Sons of the Pioneers was warm and loving. The mood of optimism and confidence the cast and crew possessed translated well onto the screen. Theatergoers turned out in droves to see Rogers's and Evans's latest film. By mid-1947 Roy Rogers was again among his field's top ten box-office moneymakers. Dale Evans had made the list as well.