ROY  ROGERS  by  Robert  W.  Phillips  -  published  in  1995

Chapter 1

Leonard Frank Sly and Lucille Wood Smith

Chapters 1 and 2 are presented in a chronological format so as to organize logically the hundreds of fragments of information about Roy Rogers (born Leonard Frank Sly) and Dale Evans (born Lucille Wood Smith) that have appeared in public documents, books, and magazine and newspaper articles, as well as in publicity materials and on items of merchandise. Data were also gathered from acquaintances of Roy and Dale, family members, fans and collectors, and other researchers.


Andrew Earlin Sly was born at Portsmouth, Ohio.

Circa 1905

Andrew E. Sly, approximately 22, of Portsmouth, Ohio, and Mattie Womack, approximately 22-24, of Carter County, eastern Kentucky, were wed. 


Mary Elizabeth Sly was the first child born to Andrew and Mattie Sly; she was born in Portsmouth on April 14. The family was living on the river bank on Front Street. 


Another girl, Cleda May, was born to the Slys on January 16. The family's address was 112 E. Front Street. Andrew and Mattie Sly moved from Portsmouth to Cincinnati later that year.


On November 5, Leonard Frank Sly was born to Andrew and Mattie Sly of 412 E. 2nd Street, in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the two-room, red brick tenement building close to his dad's workplace at the U.S. Shoe Co. Dr. J. H. Caldwell, of Newport, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from the Sly home, handled the delivery. Leonard looked very much like his father and had Choctaw Indian eyes. He was proud of Indian heritage all his life. His mother was a petite (under five foot), brown-eyed woman. She had suffered infantile paralysis, but had been able to overcome most of the effects of the disease. She was working in a laundry when she met Leonard's father. Andy, as he was known, worked as a skilled shoemaker in the lasting department of the shoe factory. Another address for the Sly’s in Cincinnati was 1910 Ohio Avenue. By the time of Leonard's birth, his father's employment background included working on the wharves, and being a carnival laborer, an acrobat, and an entertainer on a showboat.


Leonard's dad and his blind uncle Will built a 12 by 50 feet houseboat that friends called "Andy's Ark." On July 12 they traveled back up the Ohio river to Portsmouth, where the Sly’s would live for the next eight years. The sail, which was made from a dozen of Mattie's sheets, was torn to threads by a storm the first day. The water was so rough they had to hitch onto a boat pushing barges up the river. Andy worked his way up the irregular coastline while performing odd jobs, setting out nets for the fishing boats. They docked on the river bank east of Portsmouth's Chillicothe Street.

*Notes to the entire book begin on page 343.

On October 30, a baby girl was born to Walter Hillman and Bettie Sue Wood Smith, at the home of Bettie Sue's parents on Fort Clark Road in Uvalde, Texas. They resided in Italy, Texas, about 35 miles southwest of Dallas, on property owned by the maternal grandparents. The presiding doctor in Uvalde filed the birth record with the county clerk of Uvalde County, showing the infant to be named Lucille Wood Smith. Years later she was given an affidavit sworn by her mother that stated her name to be Frances Octavia Smith and gave her birthdate as October 31. Many years later and far from her birthplace, she would marry Leonard and become Mrs. Roy Rogers. In a 1971 book that she authored, she recalls dreaming as a child that she would one day marry cowboy star Tom Mix.


On March 26, Portsmouth suffered massive flooding for thirteen days that partially submerged buildings and endangered the lives of the city's inhabitants. Andy maneuvered his houseboat through what had once been the streets of Portsmouth, rescuing people from the swirling waters. The Scioto River Bridge was washed away by the devastating force. At one point, the water rose at the incredible rate of two feet an hour.


On December 14, in Roswell, New Mexico, another baby was born, who was destined to become the second wife of Leonard Sly. She was Grace Arline Wilkins, and her parents were Prentice D. and Lucy Cross Wilkins. On December 31, Robert Patrick Brady was born in Toledo, Ohio; he would become one of Leonard's best friends. He would also be a sidekick to Roy Rogers on radio, in film, and on television, as well as appearing in Roy Rogers and Dale Evans separate comic book episodes.


On June 14, Leonard's baby sister Kathleen was born. The family's address was 1216 Front Street.


As the family increased in size and the older girls approached school age, it became necessary for the Sly’s to move away from the river's bank and beach at 1223 Mill Street, a couple of blocks away. The houseboat continued to be the Sly home.


Leonard began school at Union Street. His ambition was to become a doctor. Andy Sly made the purchase of a secondhand Maxwell touring car.


For the first seven years of his life, the houseboat was home to Leonard and his folks. Then Andy Sly purchased several acres from earnings saved while working at the Selby Shoe Co. The family moved again, this time eleven miles up the Scioto River to a farm near Duck Run, Ohio, population fourteen. Leonard was going on eight years old at this time. He helped his dad and uncle build the six-room clapboard farm house in this hilly brush country. There was no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Light on this small farm came from coal-oil lamps. Andy tried to eke out a living from the soil, but he was a city-boy who knew little about farming, and a kick from a mule nearly ended his life. Needing more money for the family, he returned to factory work in Portsmouth. Mattie and the kids held down the farm. Leonard learned firsthand every kind of hard work that went with a farm. Being a doctor, or perhaps a dentist, was the only sort of career that ever crossed Leonard's mind, however. He learned to ride really well on a black mare named Babe, a gift that his dad surprised him with, and he won a race at the Scioto County Fair. The Sly’s were a close family. When Andy was home and mealtime was over, there was always time for music. Leonard's introduction to the movie cowboys was at the Portsmouth Theater, and his favorite cowboy was Hoot Gibson. He occasionally rode Babe to the theater and also saw his dad on these trips to town in case Andy hadn't made it home for the weekend. Leonard rode a horse not only to school and to movies, but also to prayer meetings and square dances.


Meanwhile, the Smith family, including Frances and her younger brother Hillman, moved from Texas to Osceola, Arkansas, a town that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River.


Sometime near this date Leonard hurt his shoulder by falling out of a cherry tree, an injury that would give him problems for the rest of his life. Leonard's first dramatic role was playing Santa Claus in a grammar school play.


For his twelfth birthday, Leonard got his first rifle, a .22 Winchester carbine, but he wasn't permitted to shoot it unattended for another year. Being the oldest kid around, he was called upon to babysit the younger children of neighboring families, one of which lived in the community of Otway, several miles up Duck Run Road. At Otway, Leonard began calling square dances, so well, in fact, that he was a favorite of everyone for miles around Duck Run. When playing for the dances, he used his mom and dad's guitar. They taught him to play at an early age, and he and the girls picked up on yodeling as well, something he would do in fine style the rest of his life. He knew a lot of cowboy songs, and everyone enjoyed hearing him sing. Leonard's teacher, Guy Bumgarner, had a great influence on his character. It was Bumgarner who organized a 4-H club and encouraged Leonard to join the organization. At the age of twelve, Leonard raised a black Poland China piglet (named Martha Washington) to a champion sow for the 4-H contest held at Scioto County Fair. Leonard had another pig named Evangeline, but Martha Washington was the one who won him $5 and a week-long trip to the 4-H Club Congress in Columbus, Ohio. It was in Columbus that he got his first taste of city life, riding for the first time in an elevator in the Neil House Hotel. Another of his teachers had a much less positive impact, and Leonard suffered a lashing with a whiplike cane. Unable to stand the beating, he threw a rock at the abusive teacher.

Circa 1924

Leonard's sister Mary married a man named Johnson and moved to California.


Leonard enrolled at McDermott High School, about four miles down a few winding roads. He was good at sports and learned to play the clarinet during his first two high school years.


There are numerous photographs of Leonard, identified as school year 1926-1927, that show him in either the seventh or eighth grade, but never specify which. It would seem likely that he lost anywhere from one to several grades because there is a photograph of his first school year, 1916-1917, at five to six years of age. In the later photographs, he appears considerably older than any of his classmates. 

April 1: In Arkansas, Frances Smith was fourteen and a half years of age and according to public records filed in the state of Tennessee, she married Thomas F. Fox. These records state that they "went to live in the state of Arkansas," which implies that the union took place in Tennessee, or at least outside the state of Arkansas. There are several published accounts of this marriage. In version (a) she eloped with several other couples, got married to "a youthful sweetheart" in a mass wedding in Blytheville, eighteen miles north of their Osceola home, and called her mother from the home of the groom's mother in Tennessee. In version (b) she and her boyfriend lied about their ages to obtain a license, drove to Blytheville, and got married in the home of a minister. They then drove to her new mother-in-law's home in Tennessee, where she called her mother and announced she was "Mrs. Frances Fox." In version (c) she met her first steady, a "boy from a neighboring town," who was in his late teens. He applied for a marriage license in the area "Gretna Green," lying about his age and hers. They drove to his town, married in the home of a minister, and went to his mother's home in Tennessee, where Frances phoned her mother. In version (d) she ran away and married her "high school boyfriend." Apparently no application or marriage license was ever filed. In versions (a) and (b), Frances moved with her folks to Memphis in late 1927, when she was 15. She had been deserted by her husband twice. On November 28, a son was born to her at Baptist Hospital in Memphis and she named him Thomas Frederick Fox, Jr.


Leonard was still playing shindigs wherever he could. He was still considered one of the best square dance callers in those parts. He met a man who owned a thoroughbred horse farm and was able to improve his horsemanship. Most of his horseback riding was done bareback, as no one could afford fancy saddles and saddles had no place on a farm. He bought a second-hand guitar for twenty dollars at a Cincinnati pawn shop. Leonard's close friends during this time were Lowell Crabtree, a square dance caller, and the boys of the Clell Hiles family.

Leonard left McDermott High in his sophomore year when the family moved to Cincinnati, where seventeen-year-old Leonard labored beside his father in the shoe factory. He worked days and attended school at night. His parents turned the farm over to his married sister Cleda. Leonard, his mother, and his sister Kathleen moved into the small duplex Andy occupied in the city, and he and his dad worked at the U.S. Shoe Factory. Mary wrote often from California, talking of the beauty of the countryside and her letters made the Sly family want to see her and California, as well. That year Kathleen married a man named O'Dell, who came from McDermott.

May 1: According to Tennessee documents, Fox, an Arkansas resident, brought Frances to Memphis "ostentatiously on a visit" and deserted her. She lived with her folks and provided her own and her son's support after this date. In version (a) early in this year (Tommy was a few months old), Frances and her husband moved back to Blytheville. It was here that he left the final time. On Easter, Frances returned to Memphis with Tommy to visit her folks. All versions indicate that her husband wrote to say he wanted a divorce. In version (b), Frances' husband pleaded for divorce in May-June. In version (c), she received a good-bye note from husband. Her folks suggested they adopt Tommy, but she insisted on keeping him and supporting him herself.


Leonard and his folks returned from Cincinnati when possible to visit family and friends at Duck Run. As much as he wanted to be in the city, Leonard missed the open spaces and hunting found in the country. Leonard and his dad hated the grueling shoe factory work, but they were fortunate to have it because that year the country entered into the Depression.

Circa April: Frances Fox enrolled in business school. She was a stenographer at an insurance firm and made her radio debut as Frances Fox. According to Tennessee documents signed by Frances, she filed for divorce on May 4, 1929. On September 24, Frances' divorce from Thomas F. Fox was granted by Judge H. W. Laughlin. Her mother and an aunt, Ruth Massey, provided the court with testimony on Frances' behalf, for grounds of desertion. She was awarded custody of Tom.


The month was June. Leonard had long wanted to go to California. His job had no future, and the time was right for making the move. It was the first time in a while that the household had been excited. Leonard and his father had nearly two hundred dollars saved between the two of them. The 1923 Dodge was packed with their belongings, as well as with Leonard, his parents, an aunt, and the family dog. They pointed the car west. It was an adventure for a boy who had never been far from home, but it became even more so, as the trip was not without incident. After several days on the road, the old vehicle's bearings just played out in Magdelina, New Mexico. No sooner did they get it going again, than it broke down in Arizona. The Sly’s picked up another automobile along the way to use for parts, and towed it along to make the trip. At least part of the way, they also pulled a small trailer. Leonard would manage to hold on to some of these old cars throughout his lifetime. This is the same year that John Steinbeck wrote the novel The Grapes of Wrath, and the photo of the Sly’s making this trek out West looks as though it came right out of the book. Upon arriving in this "promised land," Leonard and his dad drove gravel trucks that Mary's husband owned, hauling to road construction crews. Leonard even managed to do some boxing at 50 cents a round. They stayed with Mary and her husband a while and then returned to Ohio after four months. But almost immediately, Leonard was on his way back to California with Mary's father-in-law. Jobs were scarce all over, including California. On one of the two trips, they were hitchhiking into town after the car had broken down, when a cowboy picked them up. He was the first real cowboy Leonard had met. This is also the year that Leonard acquired his first motorcycle.

On November 29, Frances Smith Fox, age 18, and August Wayne Johns of Mississippi, age 22, applied for a marriage license. They were joined in matrimony on the 30th, by Robert G. Lee, probably a justice of the peace. Chasing the rainbow of a show business career, as she has put it, Frances moved to Chicago with her son Tommy.


On this trip to California, Leonard found work at the Fox Hill Golf Course. In the spring he worked driving more dump trucks (Model Ts), while helping to build a stretch of highway from Newhall to Castaic. His folks sold their Ohio property to some neighbors, the Hiles family, and moved to California. Leonard and Andy worked for the same company, driving trucks, until the company went bankrupt, and then both were out of work again. Andy managed to rent a house close to Mary's, probably at 4044 DePew Avenue in Lawndale. Leonard, his dad, and a cousin Russ Scott found work picking peaches in Tulare. Judging from some published accounts, Leonard picked peaches for the Del Monte Packing Co. in the San Joaquin Valley. Leonard had his twenty-dollar guitar with him, and at night, after a hard day in the fields, he and his dad would get their instruments and entertain the other workers. After the summer, they returned to Lawndale. They had day labor for a while, but nothing permanent. Then Leonard, or "Len" as he was called, became a professional entertainer of sorts. The last thing that Andy wanted was to work in a shoe factory again, but he thought he had little choice. There was an opening for such work in Los Angeles, so he decided to go there. Len turned to the one thing he knew something about and wanted desperately and that was to try to make a living playing music. Len and his cousin Russ Scott played the Arrow Theater on L.A.'s Main Street for two dollars pay. Then he and another cousin, Stanley Sly, got together and billed themselves as the Slye Brothers. Although Western music was popular at the time, the money was low for performers. Roy and Stanley would work a place for a week and then strap their guitars on the handlebars of a motorcycle they had acquired. During the day they looked for labor jobs. They played everywhere they could get someone to stand still (or dance) and listen to them —beach parties, lodges, square dances, and socials of all kinds. They did not have a prearranged payment method worked out with the "house." They played first and then "passed the hat." An agent spotted them after they'd played a square dance and arranged for them to be booked into theaters. The places in which they found themselves performing left a lot to be desired. Soon the agent didn't even show up. After a while, Stanley decided to give up, but Len was more determined. He joined Uncle Tom Murray's Hollywood Hillbillies, where he played for free for the experience. In the summer of 1931, there was an amateur radio show in Inglewood called "Midnight Frolic" that was broadcast every Saturday night from midnight to 6 a.m. Len was urged to audition for the show by his sister, who brought the opportunity to his attention. He played guitar, mandolin, banjo, and sang, but suffered a case of stage fright and was a long way from winning this on-the-air contest. The next day, the manager of a Western group, the Rocky Mountaineers, called and offered him a job as singer/guitarist. The pay was nothing, but they had a weekly radio spot broadcast from Long Beach over radio station KGER, and they could advertise to people who needed a band. Len accepted the offer. He sang lead until an ad was placed in a local paper for a singer. He stayed in the Long Beach area for six months.


While performing in Long Beach, Len met a young woman by the name of Lucile Ascolese of 4025 Robison Avenue in Lawn-dale. Lucile and her girlfriend Opal spent their lunch hour at the Long Beach radio station, watching the Rocky Mountaineers perform. Lucile was attractive, dark-haired, and brown-eyed. Len was soon singing just to her. After a few weeks, he worked his way into the audience to get acquainted. He learned later that Lucile had told her mother that the singer was the man she would marry. Lucile was the only daughter of Joe Ascolese and Vinchinea Mele Ascolese, a respectable Italian-American couple residing in Wilmington, a coastal town near Long Beach. She was a native Californian, was fairly ambitious, and at eighteen years of age was attending high school and the Chicago College of Beauty in Long Beach. At the time, Len was so broke he never considered the idea of dating, so whatever romance there was had to take place in the radio station when he serenaded her. Since he was in
the band making music, she had to be content dancing with others. The Depression was still going strong, and girls didn't expect expensive dates. Sometimes after the shows, Len would go with Lucile to meet her parents. The young couple enjoyed being together, going to the beach, to movies, or just driving around in his 1929 Ford Tudor Sedan that he had purchased for about $150 and was paying for on time I payments.

Canadian-born, former Santa Monica lifeguard Bob Nolan joined the Rocky Mountaineers for a while but then departed. During the time he was with the group, he and Len sang lead duets together. After Nolan left, Len ran an ad in Variety magazine for a lead singer. Missouri-born Vern Spencer answered the ad and joined the group. One member of the group was married and had a small cottage, and this is where they all lived when they weren't per forming. Life was cramped in the small house, as they struggled to make a living with their music. Before long, the Rocky Mountaineers disbanded. Len, Vern, and Bill "Slumber" Nichols joined Bennie Nawahi's International Cowboys, which consisted of them, a Mexican, and a Hawaiian. They were still two years away from anything that smelled of the big time.

A palomino colt is foaled in Santa Cietro, California, near the Mexican border, south of San Diego, and is named "Golden Cloud" by his owner Roy Cloud. He will I soon race at Caliente Race Track, and eventually become Roy Rogers' "Trigger."


According to published accounts, Frances was experiencing health problems in Chicago, mostly due to malnutrition. She was working for an insurance company, still looking for entertainment work, and worrying about her son Tommy. She decided to go back to Texas, where her folks had moved. Upon her arrival, she spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from malnutrition and anemia. According to court documents, her husband was abusive to her and Tommy.


In June of this year, the International Cowboys band played Warner Bros. Theater in L.A., singing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" right through an earthquake. It wasn't long, however, before this group was also history. Len then put together another group consisting of himself, Vern ("Tim"), "Slumber," "Cactus Mack," and "Cyclone" (a fiddler). They called themselves the O-Bar-O Cowboys after an old brand. Lucile had finished high school and beauty college by this point in time. Len's folks met her and decided they liked her. In May, Len proposed to Lucile via a radio broadcast and the song "Hadie Brown" which ends with the line "Won't you be my wife?" Len, 21, and Lucile, 19, were married on Wednesday, May 8, by Justice of the Peace Kenneth E. Morrison in Santa Ana, with William A. ("Slumber") Nichols and his mother, Laura M., in attendance. Lucile's mother gave the wedding band. There was no honeymoon.

After the short wedding ceremony, the band's agent called, and they had to hit the road. The O-Bar-O Cowboys might have lasted a little longer had they not been talked into this ill-fated performance tour. It marked the first of what would be a lifetime of tours for Len. He was interested in making money, getting publicity for the band, just surviving. Len and the O-Bar-O Cowboys departed on a six-week "barnstorming" tour of the Southwest in the Pontiac belonging to fiddle player "Cyclone." They played from the California border across into Texas in such towns as Yuma, Miami, Safford, Willcox, and Lubbock. They were on the road almost two months. The contract wasn't too good and barely supplied them with enough money to cover meals and gasoline. It was a hundred and twelve degrees in Yuma, Arizona, and after playing two shows, they left as broke as they arrived. In Phoenix, the promoter told the city they would be coming at a date far later than they actually arrived. As a result, they had to lay over in Phoenix for almost a week and by the time they were to perform, they were so weak from hunger, they could barely play. They didn't set any box-office records. Miami, Arizona, was a mining town. When the band arrived, the mines were shut down, so everything was shut down. Worse still, they were less than impressed to learn that no one there had ever heard of them. The first thing they did when they hit a town was to go parading down the streets using a megaphone and announcing they had arrived to play. The last thing Len did in this town was to give up his wristwatch to pay the motel bill. Safford, Arizona, was more successful; they netted four dollars each. Then came Wilcox, the hometown of "Cactus Mack." The band members were so excited by all the hoopla that greeted them because of a hometown boy coming back to perform that they went all out, buying a lot of floor wax and having circulars printed up for a square dance. The crowd was large, and "Cactus" was so moved that he decided to stay home. It was the most attention he had gotten in a long time, and he couldn't bring himself to leave it for the hunger of the road again. "Cyclone" decided to give up as well and head back to sunny California. It was with great difficulty that he was persuaded to remain with the band to go on to Roswell, New Mexico. Without him, they would not have been able to go on because he was their transportation. It was June when they arrived in Roswell, and after having blown six tires (hot Arizona asphalt and thin rubber don't mix), they were still ahead of schedule. They stayed in a tourist court in Roswell, talking the manager into a little credit. Money was so scarce, they hunted rabbits and shot hawks in order to put a little food in their stomachs. On the air, they offered to trade a yodeling song for a lemon pie. Grace Arline Wilkins, an eighteen-year-old ash-blonde, about 5'9", ventured to the radio station with her mother and her brother to offer a lemon pie in exchange for a performance of the "Swiss Yodel." Len and Arline became better acquainted when he returned the pie plates the next day.


The members of the band had been assured by the booking agent that folks of the Southwest would appreciate the fine Western music their band made. As was the practice at the time, they would perform on radio a few minutes for free in order to let the audience know where they would be playing in the evenings, and they hoped to pick up a little cash in these performances. It was pretty hard work because they usually had to do the radio slots early in the morning, after playing somewhere the night before.

No one was getting rich out on the road, and the O-Bar-O Cowboys soon went the way of other groups, disbanding after they wrapped up the tour in Lubbock, Texas. According to numerous magazine articles, Len spent a year's time on the Sutherland Ranch being a real cowboy, learning all about tending cattle, branding, roping, etc. after the O-Bar-O Cowboys disbanded. This supposedly was in New Mexico when Len was on the way back to California. When he left the ranch, he had just about enough money clinking in his jeans to get a cup of coffee. After Len returned to L.A., he and Lucile got their first house, a "$30.00 a month furnished duplex apartment on  88th Place." She had been living with her parents. Items received from wedding showers helped them set up housekeeping, and Tim Spencer taught her how to cook. Len did minor radio stints, one after another, and his employment instability apparently affected his life in general. Then, along with Tim Spencer, he joined "Jack and His Texas Outlaws" and performed on Radio KFWB, another no pay situation. At night, Len played cafes with another musician, Curly Hoag, for a dollar a night. Len wanted his old trio to stay together and still believed they could make it in the music business, but Tim Spencer went to work in a Safeway grocery store sacking groceries and Bob Nolan went to Bel-Air Country Club and began caddying. They liked the regular paychecks and meals, but Len talked to them and managed to convince them to make another stab at performing together, just the three of them. 


(Bill "Slumber" Nichols took off for Texas, and "Cyclone" went home to Kansas.) In December 1933, Len, Spencer, and Nolan got together again and joined Jack and His Texas Outlaws, creating a unique, three-part harmony yodeling that gained such popularity that the radio station offered them their own, show. They found a sponsor, changed the band's name to "The Pioneer Trio," and received the fantastic sum of $35 a week pay. Len managed to rent a rooming house at 1453 Tamarind Avenue in Hollywood, a mere two blocks away from radio station KFWB, where they performed on an early morning program. (The WB in KFWB stands for Warner Brothers.) An article featuring their band appeared in Bernie Milligan's column, "The Best Bets of the Day," in the L.A. Herald-Examiner because of their rendition of the song "The Last Roundup." Play and practice is all the group did. They all stayed together in the small house, and they practiced as much as 8-10 hours a day, which was common for musical groups at this time.

Lucile couldn't adjust to life with a musician husband, however. She worked days as a beauty operator, and he kept late night hours performing. She wouldn't let him sleep late. Lucile was pregnant and became very irritable when he attempted to practice, mocking him and creating disturbances to run interference. Len felt his ability was being greatly impaired by her behavior. Lucile was jealous to the point that she couldn't stand for him to dedicate a song to female listeners as he emceed their radio show, and she was reading his mail. According to Len, she falsely accused him of infidelity in front of his friends. 

In the fall of 1933 or 1934, Frances landed a radio job in Louisville, Kentucky, at station WHAS. She performed as "Marion Lee" for a while. For a better-sounding stage name, Joe Eaton, program director, suggested "Dale Evans." At some point between arriving and leaving Louisville, she met and began dating pianist/arranger Robert Dale Butts. Tommy became ill and was sent to her folks' farm in Irene, Texas. By this point, her husband had deserted her at least once.


In California, a radio announcer's slip or intentional introduction of the band as the "Sons of the Pioneers" brought about a name change. He explained that they were too young to be pioneers of anything, and they liked the catchy sound of the new tag. Len and the band played as the Gold Star Rangers in a morning slot on the radio and as the Sons of the Pioneers in the evenings. Soon they received invitations to appear on bigger radio shows with well-known performers such as Jo Stafford. In March of 1934, they began expanding their group by adding a virtuoso fiddler and bass singer by the name of Hugh Farr from Llano, Texas, making themselves a combo. Farr was known for his ability to play both country and jazz. Len's pay was increased to $40 a week, with paydays every Wednesday. The rent was nine dollars a person per week, for cramped quarters. This situation eventually had to take its toll on the marriage, and Len and Lucile began having more marital problems. According to Lucile, Len took her to her mother's house in Wilmington in June, went after a pack of cigarettes, and, instead of returning, sent her a special delivery letter stating he was disgusted with married life and was washing his hands of her. Soon after this episode, however, they were reconciled. About July 12, after another argument, Lucile threatened to commit suicide and gave Len a scare.

A big break soon came about for Len and the band when the group signed with Decca Records. They had their first recording session on August 4.

In the meantime, Lucile went to work for a Mrs. Ward, in Wilmington, for $15 a week, the state minimum requirement for such work. On August 18 or 19 (Lucile's version) or August 9 (Len's version), they split for good. According to a magazine article, they came to a mutual agreement and would remain friends, but divorce proceedings were begun. Apparently Lucile is the one who left, as she had possession of the car and wouldn't give it up, despite Len's demands. According to court documents, Len, on August 25, 1934, told her he had gotten an attorney and was filing for divorce. Lucile got an attorney and filed for separate maintenance on August 29, on grounds of mental cruelty, mentioning a woman "of bad repute in Arizona," name calling, and a flying "glass tray." She wanted Len's Model A Ford Tudor Sedan, $50 a month alimony, and attorney's fees. Len answered her complaint on September 5 and on that day filed a cross-complaint, complaining of mental cruelty because of her accusations and her attitude and behavior regarding his occupation. He also charged that she and her mother had arranged an abortion after he had proudly bragged to everyone of being an expectant father. According to the Modern Screen article, November 1955, their biggest problem was his hours spent with the band in a schedule contrasting with hers and general incompatibility. Lucile was not happy being an entertainer's wife. On September 13, the court recommended that Len pay Lucile's attorney fees, court costs, and $8 a month for alimony, at least until the divorce became final. Len got the automobile. In papers filed September 27, Lucile made it plain that she didn't want a divorce but separate maintenance and alimony instead. Len moved just around the corner into a Hollywood boarding house at 5841 Carlton Way, where he occupied one room. The rent was $7 a week and included two meals.

During this period Arline was living in L.A. and attending business college. Len and she had corresponded since their first meeting.


The band was still playing as the staff band at KFWB. They were performing nearly every night and beginning to see some real money for their work. On December 15, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" hit #13 on the charts. In late 1934, the Sons of the Pioneers recorded several hundred selections for Standard Radio to make records to be sold to radio stations all over the country in syndicated fashion. (These recordings took place until mid-1935.)

During this period Len acquired an automobile that he was reportedly told had previously been owned by Clark Gable.


The divorce trial for Len and Lucile was set for February 25, but apparently one or both of them did not show up. It was reset for, and held on, April 10 and 11. They both appeared with counsel, and the divorce was granted to Len on May 28, but under California law, they had to wait one year for it to become final.


Len and the Sons of the Pioneers appeared with Will Rogers in a Salvation Army benefit in San Bernardino, California, the last show before his death in a plane crash in Alaska. In July, Len received his first fan letter. Len and the band appeared on film together, making their debut in Radio Scout, which was probably a short, and then The Old Homestead, a Liberty picture. Their next appearance was in a Republic film starring Gene Autry that was titled Tumbling Tumbleweeds, after their hit recording. Gene Autry was Hollywood's number one silver screen cowboy at the time. The band worked in another show called The Open Spaces. During mid-1935, the band, which remained on KFWB, added Hugh's brother Karl, a singer/guitarist. The next film exposure for the group came in the form of a short subject film Slightly Static and then Way Up Thar, an educational short. The final film for them this year was Gallant Defender, a Charles Starrett vehicle. The Sons of the Pioneers obtained a contract to play background music for Columbia's Charles Starrett films. 


On December 25. Frances and August Johns separated.


On June 8, in open court, Len received his divorce. He got the automobile but had to pay court costs. Lucile got the real estate they had acquired. On June 10, Len, Arline, and the Sons of the Pioneers were on their way to Texas, where Len and the band performed at the Texas Centennial and appeared in the Autry film The Big Show. But first they made a brief stop in Roswell, New Mexico, where Len and Arline entered the Chaves County clerk's office to apply for a marriage license. On June 11, Len, 24, and Arline, 21, were married by the Reverend D. B. Titus. Arline's parents, Mr. and Mrs. P. D. Wilkins, Jr., were witnesses to the event. The license was recorded in the clerk's office on June 12.

The Texas Centennial was held at the Dallas fairgrounds, a little southeast of the

downtown area. Len and Arline and the group spent six to eight weeks in Texas. Dale Evans also was appearing there, but remarkably, their paths did not cross.

Back in California, Len tried out in a "screen test for Universal Studios as a solo cowboy, when sagebrusher Buck Jones moved to Columbia studios, leaving an empty cowboy slot. A young white-hatted Bob Baker beat Len to the draw, so to speak. Baker achieved a small degree of success, and Len kept his singing job. Probably Len's first appearance on sheet music or a song-book is The Sons of the Pioneers Song Folio #7, published by Cross and Winge of San Francisco. Songbooks were an item continuously connected with his career (see Chapter 12). The Sons of the Pioneers performed on Peter Potter's "KNX Hollywood Barn Dance."

At the end of December, Len had a dangerous bout with pneumonia.

On May 13, Frances Johns appeared in court to file for divorce from August on the grounds of cruelty. August Johns appeared on May 16 and made waiver. On May 29, Judge Humphries granted the divorce. At this time her pay at WHAS was $30 a week.

Keeping the name "Dale Evans," Frances auditioned with Jimmie Jeffries on Dallas' WFAA Radio "Early Bird" program and landed another job. Tommy stayed at the farm, and Dale visited him on weekends. Robert Dale Butts moved from Louisville to Dallas, where he went to work for WFAA Radio as an arranger and pianist.


According to an oft repeated story, Len was in a hat store in Glendale when he heard about a screen test at Republic studios for "singing cowboys" from a hopeful who entered the store. Len was in the store getting his only hat cleaned and blocked. He headed to the studio but had to sneak through the gate in a group of workers returning from lunch. He met producer Sol C. Siegel, who knew him as one of the Sons of the Pioneers and agreed to an audition. Len sang "Hadie Brown" because of the yodeling part. He also sang "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and one other song. This is at least the second time that Len used this song to bring about a change in his life. The screen test with director Joe Kane was successful, but Len was reminded of another contract still in force. At Columbia, he explained his opportunity and was released, provided he found a replacement for his part in the group. Len went to Sunset Beach where Pat Brady, a singer, comedian, and bass player, was appearing at Sam's Place, an after-hours hangout for musicians. Pat accepted the offer and became a singer with the Sons of the Pioneers.

On October 13, Len signed a contract with Republic Studios. Immediately, the studio officials decided that his name was not right for a cowboy and gave him a new name, Dick Weston. Republic star Gene Autry was threatening to walk out if he didn't get a new contract, and Republic used singing cowboy Dick Weston as leverage against him. The Old Wyoming Trail with Charles Starrett was released November 8, with Len singing with the Sons of the Pioneers, his last film credit as Len Sly. Len had a bit part as Dick Weston in the Three Mesquiteers film Wild Horse Rodeo. Variety magazine reviewed his performance in this film, which was released December 6. Len was about to be making $75 a week. On October 19, Len and the group recorded at ARC Records; it was their first recording together in quite a while.


On September 13, Robert Dale Butts and Frances Octavia Johns filed an application for marriage in Dallas, Texas. On September 20, the Rev. A. Paul Dougherty united them in marriage at the Greenville Avenue Christian Church.


Source Material


Davis, Elise Miller. The Answer Is God. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.

Morris, Georgia, and Mark Pollard. Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys. San Francisco, CA.: Collins Publishers, 1994.

Raskey, Frank. Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys. New York: Julian Messner Co., 1955.

Rogers, Dale Evans. The Angel Spreads Her Wings. Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1956.

Angel Unaware. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1953.

Dale-My Personal Picture Album. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1971.

My Spiritual Diary. Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1955.

To My Son-Faith at Our House. Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1957.

Woman at the Well. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1970.

with Jane and Michael Stern. Happy Trails: Our Life Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Roper, William L. Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys. Minneapolis, MN: T.S. Denison & Co., 1971.

Rothel, David. The Roy Rogers Book. Madison, NC: Empire Publishing, Inc., 1987.

The Singing Cowboys. San Diego: A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., 1978.

Rovin, Jeff. Country Music Babylon. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Stowers, Carlton, with Roy and Dale. Happy Trails. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979.

Sword, Elmer. Roy Rogers Hometown Photo Album. Portsmouth, OH: Portsmouth Area Recognition Society, 1982.

Witney, William. Trigger Remembered. Toney, AL: Earl Blair Enterprises, 1989.

Published Interviews

Michael Bane, 1992.

Joan Winmill Brown, 1980.

Tom Carroll, Jerry Osborne, 1991.

Mark Goodman, 1975.

Jackson Griffith, 1991.

Lydia Dixon Harden, 1991.

Bill Kelly, 1981.

Bart McDowell, 1972. 

John F. Maloney, 1979. 

Bill Miller, 1992. 

Neil Pond, 1992. 

David Rothel, 1977, 1987. 

Bob Thomas, 1975.

Recorded Interviews (with Roy Rogers)

Jim Wilson, WIOI, Portsmourth, 1992.

Filmed Interviews

Cincinnati radio, 1992.

"AM-Philadelphia" (TV), 1975, 1981. 

Len Morris, Galen Films, 1992.

"The Republic Pictures Story," AMC-TV, 1991.

Articles by Roy and Dale have appeared in such publications as: American Classic Screen, American Magazine, Christian Reader, Jack and Jill, Screen Guide, and Modern Screen, 1940s-1980s.