ROY AND DALE….LARGE FAMILY
BY JANE AND MICHAEL STERN
In 1949 Roy Rogers thanked readers of Modern Screen magazine for all the letters they had written to Republic Studios insisting that he and Dale be reunited as an on-screen team. "The plan Dale and I made when we married was centered around our home," he wrote. "We decided we'd guide our careers so we could spend as much time as possible together—as a family." It had hurt, Roy said, when the studio separated them as a screen couple, and now he was pleased as punch that they had next-door dressing rooms on location, with a hitching post for Trigger right outside.
In movies, on the radio, and in personal appearances, Roy and Dale had turned into an inseparable team by the late 1940s. Dozens of stories in fan magazines showed them at home with Cheryl, Linda, and little Dusty; and when they moved to television in 1951, they had become America's best-known and best-liked couple, seldom photographed by the press without their passel of kids, who often dressed in matching Western outfits. Children had become an essential part of Roy and Dale's public image. They seemed to draw their energy and inspiration from their own growing family as well as from the worldwide family of millions of little buckaroos who adored them.
Their unabashed devotion to children made their personal tragedies all the more poignant. When Robin was born in 1950, it wasn't only doctors that suggested the little girl with Down syndrome be institutionalized. Studio publicists, who felt that it was their duty to present stars as flawless, suggested that it would be a bad idea for fans to see the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West with anything other than a "normal" child. But for Roy and Dale it was impossible to exclude one of their little ones from their life—public or private—and so Robin was often part of family photo sessions, the one proviso being that her parents could select the pictures so that she always looked good. When Robin was alive, many magazine editors asked Dale to write about the experience of having a Down syndrome child; but she refused to turn Robin into a story, telling them the tale would be told when the time was right. When finally Dale wrote Angel Unaware, she was able to complete the book only when she came to think of it as Robin's, not hers.
For Hollywood celebrities, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were not only unusually family-oriented; they were also startlingly personal. They told us fans all about themselves, and they seemed to want to know about us, too, as if they really cared if we were happy. To kids in the audience of the rodeo, or those who only watched them on TV, it actually seemed that Roy and Dale worried about our well-being—about our safety, our fun, and our souls. By the mid-1950s, when their arena shows always included Roy singing "Peace in the Valley" as Trigger knelt alongside him in prayer, Roy and Dale frequently told little buckaroos in the audience about their own kids at home, and in the summers when school was out, the Rogers kids came onstage right along with them. Like a kindly older brother, Roy told his partners in the audience that they ought not to think of Sunday school as sissy stuff, and that it would be a good thing if they honored their parents and helped people less fortunate than they were. To all members of the Roy Rogers Club he issued this prayer, which was supposed to be read at the beginning of each meeting:
Oh Lord, I reckon I'm not much just by myself. I fail to do a lot of things I ought to do. But Lord, when trails are steep and passes high, Help me to ride it straight the whole way through. And when in the falling dusk I get the final call, I do not care how many flowers they send—Above all else the happiest trail would be For You to say to me, "Let's ride, My friend." Amen
Dale followed up Angel Unaware with a book about her own journey into faith called My Spiritual Diary, and to date she has written twenty books using her own travails and those of Roy and her children as a way of reaching out to readers and helping them get along. Time Out, Ladies!, which was published in 1966, began, 'I write as a mother who has been through the mill, for those now going through it. . . . This is what I've found and experienced in the daily living of one wife and mother, and what God and the Bible have done to help me with it all. I hope it may help you, a little. Anyway, thanks for listening.'
It has always seemed important to Dale and to Roy to make that connection with their audience. In 1979, in the introduction to Happy Trails, the story of their lives they wrote together, Roy explained that his and Dale's autobiography was "the story of a family which . . . had the good fortune to have been adopted by millions of people who were interested in who we are and what we do."
Roy couldn't have been more right in his assessment of the way people feel about him and Dale. When we wrote a profile about them in The Atlantic Monthly in 1993, we got stacks of mail from readers who were delighted to find out how they were doing and what they were up to these days. In almost every case, the person who wrote expressed some deeply personal feelings about the couple and many asked us to pass on their thanks to Roy and Dale for having been so inspirational. We have never known any stars about whom devotees are so openly fond—in the caring, trusting way most of us reserve for feelings about close family.
Perhaps our favorite letter came from Joe Silva, National Foreman of the Buck Jones Western Corral #1, a movie cowboy fan club headquartered in Oregon. Mr. Silva wrote:
I have always been a fan of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Their genuine concern for FAMILY and children is more of what we need in our society today. And this in spite of the heartaches that they have experienced with their own personal problems. They "bounce back" and continue with their good work by immersing themselves in charitable work that involves children because they believe in what they are doing. I have always remembered Roy and Dale on the silver screen riding for justice, but their BIGGER calling is demonstrated in the simple life that they live. I have tremendous respect for them on and off the screen because in the final analysis their reward will be on judgement day. They will both claim their Oscar in heaven, and justly deserved.
—J & M. S.