Dale Evans was always a reluctant cowgirl.
Even now, after nearly 40 years with Roy.
Roy Rogers is sitting in the presidential suite, the white Stetson pushed back on his forehead for the photographer, his feet in patent-leather cowboy boots, wearing a western suit and string tie and loaded down with western jewelry. Beside him, Dale wears a simple cream suit, a violet blouse, violet-tinged flower pinned to the suit, in heels, not boots.
They are here for the Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend, here just a few days after one of their old friends was shot. Roy Rogers and Ronald Reagan go back a long way. They were movie cowboys in the same era, with six-guns on their hips. It was a simpler day, when violence was fantasy, and good reigned over evil. And so they became friends and political allies of a sort. The day before the '66 elections, when Reagan was running for governor of California for the first time, they toured the state, Roy and Ronnie waving their white cowboy hats together.
Roy still lives that image. Dale does not.
"I never wanted to be a cowgirl," she said.
"Oh, now, Mother," Roy said, and he leaned across in front of her to make his point. "Once she learned to ride and once she met me, she liked being a cowgirl."
She slapped him on the thigh.
For years, the billing was the same:
Roy Rogers, Trigger, Gabby Hayes and Dale Evans.
In later movies, that changed a bit. Dale moved ahead of Gabby.But from beginning to end, she was second to Trigger, a fact that she laughed about in public.
"But I wasn't laughing inside," she said.
Art Rush, their agent and friend of 41 years, sat up in his chair.
"I didn't know that," he said. "I didn't know that bothered you."
"Who'd want to be billed behind a horse?" she demanded.
"Well, Mother," Roy said, soothing her, "Trigger was there first."
"You know," Roy said, "it took me four or five years before they let Trigger get on the bill at all."
He had fought hard for that. "I told 'em any cowboy worth his stuff owes half of what he gets to his horse." He was up and pacing now. "Who thinks of a cowboy and not his horse?" The absurdity seemed obvious to him. Forty years later, and it made him mad.
"I still sign Trigger's name with mine on the autographs," he said.
"Yeah! Right below my name. Owe him half."
Dale leaned over to make a point for him, it being her turn now to soothe him.
"Trigger did ride better 'n any horse that ever lived," she said.
Roy nodded his head for emphasis. Roy and Trigger are still together, in a manner of speaking. Trigger is stuffed (as is Roy's dog, Bullet) and stands, rearing on his hind legs, in their museum in California. A few years ago, Roy said he was thinking of having himself stuffed and mounted up on Trigger when he died.
"When they made me a blonde," Dale said," "I know why you did that. You wanted you hair the same color as Trigger's tail.'"
He was a big guy, about 6-4, Roy figures, and when he saw Roy walking through the museum, as Roy often does, the man did a perfect double take. "Suddenly, he come running over at me, and I didn't know whether to run or get ready to fight or what, and he picked me up like I was a little kid, hugging me, holding me up off the ground, and the tears were just streamin' down his face. He said, 'I don't care if I am cryin', I've been wanting to meet you since I was a little boy.' And he had a wife and a boy and a couple of girls standing over there. The oldest girl must have been 13 or 14, and he's just huggin' me, still holdin' me up in the air and I began to cry, too, just seein' how much it meant to him."
He was a cowboy before he was Roy Rogers.His name was Leonard Slye and he was riding a mule by the time he was 7. He had his own horse a couple of years later. He even had the look of a cowboy, his puffy eyelids sagging over his eyes until they were slits, presumably from years of looking squinty-eyed into the western sun.
Dale was different.
Dale was a singer. She toured the country with Anson Weeks Orchestra, sang at the Aragon Ballroom, and the Blackstone and Drake hotels in Chicago, and at the famous Chez Paree Supper Club. When she went to Hollywood, it was to try out for the female lead in "Holiday Inn," with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. She wanted Broadway.
Instead, Republic Pictures stuck her in horse operas with this singing cowboy, Roy Rogers, and then went in and demanded out. "I'd had my fill," she said. She told Republic's boss, Herb Yates, that she was prepared to quit. He told her, first, she was under contract. Second, she would take the roles assigned to her. Third, if she walked out, there was the threat of legal action, which could be costly.
She did 10 more westerns.
The westerns made her a star, a star of lesser magnitude than Roy, certainly, for Roy Rogers was the "King of Cowboys." He was the No. 1 western box office attraction for 12 years. But she was billed as the "Queen of the West," and it wasn't until the '50s, until Gail Davis starred in the television serial "Annie Oakley," that Dale even had any competition as America's Cowgirl.
Her name was Frances, the daughter of Walter and Betty Sue Smith of Italy, Texas. Her father owned a hardware store and farmed. She was precocious child who drove off her piano teacher in one sitting. She fell in love at 14 and ran away and married a boy of 17.He left her twice in the next six months, and left again for good shortly after she had their child, Tommy. She was 15. She had dreams, though, that no skittish boy of 17 could knock out of her. She worked as a secretary and wrote songs in her spare time. Then she began singing for a small radio station in Memphis, then a bigger station in Memphis. Then she went off to Chicago for fame and fortune, taking Tommy with her. They lived on $15 a week while she searched for a job -- for the big break -- as a singer. Two years later, she was suffering with acute malnutrition, and she took Tommy home to Texas, only to be married a second time and to come back and try again in Chicago. This time she made it as a singer, getting help from Ray Bolger. A talent scout heard her on the radio. She got a wire from Hollywood: Paramount was looking for a female lead for "Holiday Inn." Send pictures.
Then another wire: Come immediately.
When she got off the plane, the agent was waiting for her. The look on his face told her that he was expecting something different.
"You sure don't look like your pictures," he said.
He hurried her off to have her hair and face remade.
"How old are you?" he asked.
She lied. She cut off six year.
"Twenty-two," she said.
"From now on, you're 21," he said.
She didn't get the part, and when she finally told the agent the truth, that she was 28 and had a 12-year-old son, his legs went weak. She would have to tell everybody that Tommy was her little brother. She said okay. She lived that lie for years. It wasn't until after the war, after 19 movies with Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, after another divorce, after Roy's wife, Arlene, died unexpectedly -- it wasn't until then that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans got hitched.
Never, though, in any of their pictures was there any romance.
"I never did the mushy stuff, no sir," Roy said. If he even looked as if he might kiss Dale, he'd get a jillion letters, as he puts it, from little boys, protesting. The little boys, it turns out, had crushes on Dale.
"I never got any letters from them then," she said, "but I do now. I get letters from men saying they were in love with me when they were little boys."
Once, during the filming of "Don't Fence Me In," they shot a test kiss and looked at it in the rushes. This was 1945.
"They said no," Dale said. "Too risky."
During the presidential campaign, one of Ronald Reagan's favorite stories was how he and Nancy knocked on the door of a farmhouse. A man came to the door and looked at them, but there was not the usual sign of recognition in the farmer's face. Reagan thought he'd give him a hint.
"I'm running for president of the United States."
"I come from Hollywood, California."
The man shook his head. "Don't reckon I know you," he said.
"Well, my initials are R.R."
Suddenly the man's face split into a big grin. He turned and hollered at his wife.
"Come quick, Mama! Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are here! They're runnin' for president!"
Back about 20 or 25 years ago, Roy himself was asked to get into politics. Roy just shook his head. Roy always was just a cowboy. Then they came to Dale. Dale gave it more consideration than had Roy, but, even then, there wasn't much of a question.
"I knew my cowboy wouldn't like being the husband of a congresswoman."