Author Archives: Don Meyer

About Don Meyer

Retired non-profit administrator

Ravensbruck

Last week’s message ended with a teaser of sorts. I chronicled my initial investigation into a literary mystery involving two different accounts of life in the notorious women’s prison camp established by the Nazis during World War II called Ravensbruck. The narrative conflict, or more precisely an omission, occurred between Corrie ten Boom’s personal experience as a prisoner and a novel featuring the true life plight of Polish women, who were operated on at that same prison and became known as the Rabbits.

Corrie made no mention of this particular group, subjected to the agony of a scientifically bogus experiment. Her omission prompted me to speculate on a tendency I believe exists when Christians like Corrie “testify” about horrendous experiences, sanitizing the truth so as not to offend their audience. The differences in the two books also prompted the thought that it might be worthwhile retelling Corrie’s story by incorporating other narratives in order to provide a larger context against which Corrie and her sister Betsie’s time in prison could be appreciated.

To do this, I needed to know more about Ravensbruck, which I found in the book I hinted at but did not reveal at the end of my previous blog – just to add some drama and make my message a real page turner, with the turn coming a week later. An online search produced this beneficial result, which served to amplify my awareness about the malevolence that existed in this infamous camp. The book I discovered was Sara Helm’s 2016 work, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.

The Helm’s book is primarily based on face-to-face interviews she had with women who survived the ordeal. It is an exhaustive, compelling, nightmare inducing work, which was just what I needed to solidify my desire to rewrite Corrie’s palatable account and let others know what it is truly like to maintain one’s spiritual principles, while residing in the demoralizing confines of a man-made Hell.

One example of what you learn from reading outside the ten Boom box concerns the induction process at Ravensbruck. Corrie’s version in The Hiding Place is brief and non-offensive – although I did hear her expound on this in slightly more detail when I heard her speak at a conference. Helm is far more explicit. The wretchedly demeaning process included standing naked in the presence of male soldiers making crude and abusive comments, while the women were examined for lice in both their head and public hair. The infected were subjected to being body shaved in the presence of their enemies.

Corrie’s crime of omission can easily be forgiven. Helm says the history of Ravensbruck was nearly lost because the survivors stayed silent for two reasons. The first was deeply personal. They did not want to relive the experience by answering questions from those salaciously intrigued by their plight. Second was the belief that the conditions were so incredibly macabre that no one would believe them even if they did speak out. Corrie did speak and write, but her stories were modified by a sense of decorum; hers and ours. Corrie’s account has an innate protective quality about it, protecting us from the sadistic ways of all that is evil. But this approach, I believe, is a mistake because it is misleading.

It’s time Christians learn to tell a complete and honest story despite the perceived delicacy of their primary audience, other Christians. We do ourselves and others a disservice by minimizing the difficulties and even the potential terrors at hand when we recite Jesus’ words to “pick up your cross and follow me” without acknowledging the full scope of the threats this entails. Following can be painfully lethal and we need to do our best to be equally painfully honest about such a possibility. Sugar coating should be taught as the eighth deadly sin.

My screenplay, In My Father’s House, is a work in progress. The setup is the merging of Corrie’s personal account with Helm’s history. The goal is to present a more comprehensive context in which to understand what Betsie and Corrie endured in the face of a bestiality few of us can imagine. Such an approach could legitimately earn my script an X rating for its graphic portrayal of conditions in Ravensbruck. I would not be surprised or ashamed if it did.

In My Father’s House

Writing about my writing has given me the pleasure of celebrating, in a sense, my own imaginative achievements, marketable or not. It has also provided me with a topic that allows me to draft web log messages and post them weekly in accordance with my own self-imposed deadline. There is a joy in keeping one’s promise to one’s self, which has the unique value of maintaining one’s faith in the pragmatic use of optimism.

I closed last week’s message with the logline of my current work in progress a feature length screenplay entitled In My Father’s House. And as with my series on Angel Unaware, my goal now is to reveal the backstory and the process of another personally compelling project.

This is another true story as is Angel Unaware, which concerned the decision made by Dale Evans and Roy Rogers to keep and raise their daughter Robin at a time when the common practice was to have a child born with Down syndrome committed to an institution. The focus of In My Father’s House is on two sisters, Betsie and Corrie ten Boom, whose Christian ethics prompted them to aid in the protection of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War Two.

My introduction to their story occurred the first time I heard Corrie ten Boom speak at a Christian conference some fifty-plus years ago. My recall, given the expanse of time between then and now, is not the best but I believe it was at this event that I first learned about her book, The Hiding Place. Written in cooperation with Elizabeth and John Sherrill, the book provides wonderful insights into the ten Boom family, how they came to be involved in the Dutch underground, their arrest and imprisonment, and the ultimate costs for living with respect for their convictions.

Corrie wrote other books providing further details about her experiences. These include In My Father’s House, A Prisoner and Yet, Tramp for the Lord and Prison Letters. The popularity of her work resulted in the film production of her book, The Hiding Place, in 1975. It starred Jeanette Clift George as Corrie, Julie Harris as her older sister Betsie and Arthur O’Connell as their father Casper.

After that Corrie’s books remained on the shelf, for me at least, where they gathered dust until I read a book review in the Wall Street Journal. I believe the year was 2016 and the book was The Lilac Girls, written by Martha Hall Kelly. The centerpiece of her novel was the ordeal suffered by a select group of Polish women in Ravensbruck, the Nazi prison camp for female political prisoners. These women were operated on in a tortuous experiment, which left them physically maimed and visibly impaired. The damage to their legs earned them the sobriquet of the Rabbits for the way they limped or hopped about the camp.

Reading The Lilac Girls brought to mind my earlier absorption of Corrie ten Boom’s writings. I was stumped in trying to remember if she and Betsie were also imprisoned in Ravensbruck. And if so, why did I fail to remember any mention of the Rabbits in The Hiding Place? It only took a quick glance at Corrie’s table of contents to see that, yes, chapter thirteen was entitled Ravensbruck. Betsie and Corrie were there. It took a reread of that chapter and the next to realize the omission of something that qualifies as being truly horrific and worth mentioning, if for no other reason than providing the greater context of human suffering within which the light of God’s love was revealed by these two devout and faithful women.

Kelly’s account of the camp was far worse than what Corrie ten Boom described. It solidified my personal belief that we, as Christians, often sanitize our testimonies in order not to offend the sensibilities of our Christian audience. At the same time it prompted in me a greater appreciation for what Corrie and her sister Betsie endured as they strove to live their lives in keeping with the spiritual principles learned at home in the nurturing shelter of their family.

This did not lead to a firm resolve on my part, but the seeds were sown for writing a retelling of Corrie and Betsie’s experiences, this time with an infusion of historic depth to provide an honest counterpoint to a story of faith and sacrificial love. The problem was how to uncover that history without making a career out of the pursuit. The answer came in the form of another book, another female author, and a host of malevolent revelations about the Nazi prison system and the specific horrors of Ravensbruck.

This new read made my commitment sure of writing a screenplay merging Corrie’s discrete account with a more detailed and objective history of this notorious but little remembered prison camp for women. And the project must be a screenplay for a feature film, because what I discovered deserves to be conveyed in a visceral, visual display. You won’t want to miss it.

Loglines

I am giving myself an easy task to fulfill in writing this week’s message. It addresses another challenge I encountered in submitting my screenplay, Angel Unaware, to a script writing contest; drafting the requisite logline. The problem is that I was totally ignorant of what a logline is.

My remedy, as in all things pertaining to script writing, was to consult The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Piecing together his various statements I found a logline to be a concise summary of the script (concise meaning one sentence), containing four components; character, action, opposition, resolution. It is a simple formula but as with all formulas pertinent to the creative environs, it must be stated in a provocative manner. It is, after all, meant to be the hook, which prompts the reader to delve further into your masterpiece.

My management brain is always lurking beneath these creative endeavors. It tells me from my experience drafting mission statements about the nature of concision. I learned long ago to eschew the normal attempt to write lengthy, noble sounding mission statements in order to keep it brief, eight words or less being the proposed best solution. And once again there is a formula to follow. This one entails action verb, direct object and outcome. For example, my mission in following the requirements of the screenwriting contest was to: write a logline that pops.

Another point of intrusion by my management mentality relates to writing grant applications. An effective appeal uses the jargon of the donor. Applied to the script writing contest this meant knowing the character of the competition’s sponsor and being aware of the words they use in stating the guidelines for participation. Forearmed with all this knowledge, I drafted my logline for the contest sponsored by MovieGuide.

MovieGuide is a Christian organization. Their contest is called the Kairos Prize. In classical Greek the word kairos was used to indicate a moment in time when a decision had to be made to insure an idea’s success. It was in fact considered to be the supreme moment for a person to act and it was taught by the philosophers that a truly informed person “rarely misses the expedient course of action.” Similarly in the orthodox tradition there is a moment before the Divine Liturgy begins when a deacon whispers to the priest, Kairos tou poiesai to Kyrio, “It is the supreme moment for the Lord to act.”

Submitting my screenplay for consideration by the judges of the Kairos Prize was certainly my supreme moment to act as a script writing novitiate. Here is my logline for Angel Unaware as submitted to this specific contest.

Faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior transformed Dale Evans’ celebrity status from Queen of the West to pioneering advocate for those with developmental challenges. This is her story.

As you know, if you’ve been following this series of messages, my script did not make the first cut of being a semifinalist. Since I did not pay the extra fee to receive a critique of my work, I am clueless about the nature of my failure. But that is inconsequential to this message about drafting a longline that produces favorable results. And in a contest where there is a guarantee that every script will be read at least once, the effectiveness of any given logline is subject to doubt as the hook is not needed, when compared to a cold sale to a producer or agent. Still….

My second contest submission for Angel Unaware was to ScreenCraft. Their competition is promoted as family oriented, with an invitation to submit scripts that are faith based, but not necessarily Christian. This more secular arena prompted a rewrite of the logline as compared to the version submitted to MovieGuide. I considered my protagonist, Dale Evans, from the view point of what might appeal to a more jaded audience – the audience being that elusive producer or agent with a strong profit motive. Here is the version submitted with my script to the ScreenCraft competition.

Teen mom, abused wife and unemployed actress describe the life of Dale Evans before she gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome and discovered the presence of an angel unaware.

I won’t know if my work has fared any better with ScreenCraft than it did with MovieGuide until they announce their choices for quarterfinalists. This occurs February 1. In the meantime, I am working on another script. Here is the logline to my next screenplay with the working title In My Father’s House.

Arrested for hiding Jews, Dutch sisters Betsie and Corrie ten Boom lived the virtues learned in their father’s house to bring the light of God’s love into the darkness of a Nazi contrived Hell.

You can decide if this attempt at a concise summary of the story fulfills my logline writing mission and bodes well for my future as a writer of feature films.

The Process

We are near the end of my self-indulgent reminiscing about my recent exploits as a writer of screenplays. Acknowledging my failure to even make the cut as a semifinalist in a script writing contest has put new life into my prior commitment to draft and post a weekly blog. Life does have small rewards to divert us from our disappointments.

The final steps in the process of writing my screenplay was to take all of the research gained from the sources listed in last week’s message and construct a meaningful story formatted in a professional screenplay style. The laborious way in which I began this process was to transcribe the pertinent passages from each source into a single extensive compilation. It was essentially a document of quotes.

One difficulty I had to contend with at the outset was the lack of significant information that would help me establish a credible chronology for all of the events mentioned in my compilation. It was informative to see how a strict sense of timing was non-essential to the other writers. But when your professional career is one of accountability, as mine was, a need for exactitude will easily collide with another’s casual and entertaining storytelling technique. I found it frustrating.

Since I was using multiple sources, each one describing the same events, my compilation contained a significant amount of redundancy. I stopped adding material when this document reached eighty-nine pages and 45,000 words. I knew I had too much information for a two-hour script. The value to accumulating an excessive amount of material, though, was in the depth it provided to my awareness of each character due to the wealth of information generating much needed background and context.

The next step was to eliminate the duplications (even triplications) in the compilation in order to create a concise narrative I could read through as if it were a manuscript written by one person. Merging accounts minimized my act of plagiarism. The reduction also helped to refine my placement of events in a credible sequence even though I lacked sufficient details to say with full assurance that I got it right. My resolution was to focus more on creating a rational story arc as opposed to a legitimate history. Still this level of editing resulted in a fifty-nine page Word document of more than 29,000 words.

From here I created a loosely designed script in Word, which still had too much information. My goal was to get down to 21,000 words before importing the document into the newly acquired Final Draft script writing software. This meant the further deletion of scenes, which were not germane to the primary storyline. Another method for reducing the word count was the consolidation of characters and events as explained in a previous message. At this point the page count didn’t matter but I was way over my goal with a document of nearly 25,000 words.

There was a time constraint affecting my work as I was trying to meet a drop dead deadline for submitting my script to a contest sponsored by MovieGuide. So I acquiesced to the length of my script and imported it into Final Draft. The software did misinterpret some of the formatting in my Word document. This I corrected on my first read through and was pleased with the appearance of a professional looking script.

I landed at 130 pages, which was the max allowable by MovieGuide without paying an extra fee due to length. I’ve subsequently thought of further cuts I could make in anticipation that anyone interested in the script would prefer a 120 page limit. Unless you are Damien Chazelle, whose credits allow him the luxury of writing/directing a three hour movie like Babylon, two-hours is the industry standard for the rest of us. Angel Unaware would clock in at a more modest two hours and ten minutes as currently written.

The experience documented in these past several messages has been enjoyable if only for the discovery of a little bit of movie star history and the discipline of writing a feature length script. The disappointment of not qualifying as a semifinalist in the MovieGuide contest has been mitigated by yet another discovery; I found another contest, this one sponsored by ScreenCraft. February 1 is the date given for announcing their choices for quarterfinalists. I have another chance at screen writing success. Until then I will have to find another topic to write about in order to stay with my commitment of posting weekly messages, while avoiding an unwanted encounter with anxiety as I await the decision from ScreenCraft.

The plot thickens.

Sources

It’s not a pleasant way to start a new message, but I promised to share the news about the progress of my screenplay, Angel Unaware, when I heard anything from the contest judges. I did, yesterday, and I didn’t – make the cut that is. The semifinalists were announced sans yours truly. Despite the disappointment, I need to finish this series about writing my screenplay if only to remind myself of the steps in the journey.

When the thought first occurred to me to write a screenplay about Dale Evans and her decision to raise what in the 1950s was considered to be a “damaged” child, I was on the road so had little chance to access any resources other than what I could find on the internet. There are small dividends in doing this kind of initial research.

My first source was Dale’s obituary published in the February 8, 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The obit was pretty lengthy and gave me several factual points to verify later as did that ubiquitous online fount of knowledge we know as Wikipedia. The true treasure of that source was in the Wiki’s footnotes, providing a fair sized list of published sources I hoped to locate when I got home. Here I was fortunate to find that my local library system had a sufficient line of these books to help me gather the necessary material needed for my project.

My first read was Dale’s own book – and the heart of my screenplay of the same title – Angel Unaware, published by the Fleming H. Revell Company in 1953. The story is a fanciful rendering of a conversation between God and Dale’s daughter, Robin, in which the child relates the accomplishments of her two-year mission on earth. It presents the case that a child with Down syndrome can foster in others the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Dale would always claim that the words were not her own; she merely recorded what God told her write of Robin’s story.

My next find through the library was Happy Trails: Our Life Story, published by Simon & Schuster in 1994. The authors are presented as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans with Jane and Michael Stern. The book’s format provides a combination of biography and oral history. Each section begins with a brief biographical statement written by the Sterns followed by a lengthy oral history provided by either Dale or Roy. The first person aspects of this account allowed for a greater assurance that the information came from the people who actually lived the events. Whether their memory of things forty years on was truly accurate is somewhat subject to question.

The Stern’s book led me to another great find written two decades earlier by Carlton Stowers. His book, Happy Trails: The story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, was also written in cooperation with Dale and Roy. Published by Word Books in 1979, it has the advantage of being fresher in their minds, while covering a shorter time frame. Comparing this with the material in the Stern’s book did reveal some slight discrepancies in the narrative, which is fairly common when studying history. When in doubt, I went with Stowers’ version of things on the premise that the earlier work was more reliable.

Next up was Cowboy Princess written by Cheryl Rogers-Barnett and Frank Thompson. Cheryl is the Rogers’ oldest daughter. Her book was published by Taylor Trade Publishing in 2003, which is after Dale’s passing in 2001. The fact that her parents were deceased likely helped her out them on a few minor points from the previously published material. Her version of events did confirm most of what was written, but the few departures from the other texts served to shape a few key events included in my screenplay. Her biggest reveal, though, was not included. She confirmed some peoples’ suspicions that there were two Triggers. One was the original big, beautiful and fast golden palomino you see in all the close-ups of Roy’s movies and television shows. The second was a slightly smaller and younger version of the horse, which did all the fancy tricks we saw on the big screen and TV.

Roy Jr., known as Dusty, also wrote a book about his childhood entitled Growing Up With Roy and Dale. Published by Regal Books in 1986, his collaborator in the storytelling was Karen Ann Wojahn. Like his older sister, Dusty made a few clarifications to the Rogers’ saga, but no great or glaring departures from what was previously written. In fact I would say that he and his sister were unanimous about their parents’ integrity. Both affirmed the truth about their parents being true to their public persona. What we saw in the movies and The Roy Rogers television show was what the children experienced at home. The Dale and Roy we saw in public were the same people in private life – a rare feature for Hollywood celebrities.

Another important find was King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West, written (or more accurately compiled) by Raymond E. White and published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2005. The biographical information was rather scant. What White’s book did offer was a detailed listing of every verifiable public appearance, performance and publication involving Dale and Roy. This resource helped me place some of the material gleaned from the other books into a better understanding of the chronology and the professional context of events included in my script. I felt better about the sequence of my story arc thanks to this book.

Dale’s own final foray into autobiography occurred two years before her death. Dale Evans Rogers: Rainbow on a Hard Trail was initially published by Revell in 1999. The authorship was attributed to Dale Evans Rogers with Norman B. Rohrer. The edition I found in the library was a reprint by the Thorndike Press in 2001 with an introduction by Joni Eareckson Tada. The focus on this book was Dale’s later life and the challenges of surviving Roy. Still there were a few choice tidbits to be applied to the script and I shamelessly used a portion of the title as a line of dialogue at the end of my script.

I should also mention that I did read a portion of Dale’s book The Woman at the Well published by the Fleming H. Revell Company in 1970. What this book provided more than anything was Dale’s no nonsense examination of her own life, which some friends objected to for its self-deprecating honesty. I tried my best to infuse my screenplay with Dale’s courageously blunt attitude.

My final discoveries were two books I purchased since they were not available through the library. The first was Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans written by Theresa Kaminski and published by Lyons Press in 2022. This most recent addition to the Evans’ life story was helpful in adding details missing from the other biographies. Kaminski’s bibliography indicated a much greater reliance on documentary evidence as opposed to the oral histories common to my other sources. The information she provided helped me to refine my own version of Dale and Roy’s story.

 The second book I discovered late in the process was The Angel Spreads Her Wings written by Maxine Garrison and published by the Fleming H. Revell Company in 1956. Garrison’s book focuses on the impact of Dale’s book Angel Unaware. Her insights were gained first hand as a member of Art Rush’s staff, Art being Dale and Roy’s agent. As with Kaminski’s book, Garrison’s personal revelations helped to clarify some vague points made in my other sources. She also provided me with a great line I used as dialogue for Dale regarding peoples’ expectations that the only writing a celebrity knows how to do is sign an autograph.

There is one more title I would like to share, which I discovered after finishing my screenplay and submitting it to the MovieGuide competition. The title is Happy Trails: A Pictorial Celebration of the Life and Times of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans by Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian. It was published in 2022 by Trafalgar Square Books. I add it to my list of sources simply to show that peoples’ interest in the Queen of the West and the King of the Cowboys has not waned some seventy years after their television show ended. It is proof to me that any story about Dale and Roy is marketable.

And by the way; though my script failed to impress the folks at MovieGuide, I have submitted it to another contest, this one sponsored by ScreenCraft. I think Dale and Roy would be pleased with my sense of perseverance in the face of adversity. It is the cowboy way after all.

Consolidations

I am in the midst of chronicling my recent attempt to write a screenplay with the goal of submitting it to a competition sponsored by MovieGuide. Partial success came in the form of meeting the deadline for submission. The subplot of writing this series about writing the screenplay is intended to help pass the time while I wait to find out if further success is attainable, namely by making the cut as a semifinalist. That announcement won’t take place for another week or two, so it helps to keep the web log series going, filling my mind with something other than anxiety.

The screenplay is about Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, two of my childhood heroes. The focus of my story, though, is not about their celebrity status. What prompted me to feature them in this manner is a true-life episode in their lives, which touched my family’s, thereby inspiring me to reveal through a movie script the drama of being family in an unscripted reality.

Dale and Roy’s only natural born child was a little girl named Robin Elizabeth, a child with Down syndrome. Dale’s doctor advised them to institutionalize their new born daughter in keeping with the conventional wisdom of the day. The loving parents defied convention and welcomed Robin into the full embrace of their family for the brief two-year span of her life. Dale’s response to Robin’s death would help to shape people’s perception of children like Robin and others whom society deems to be less than normal.

My commitment to writing a faithful account of Dale and Roy’s decision to keep and raise their daughter immediately met a significant obstacle to faithfulness. A screenplay is typically written for a two-hour production, which limits the scope of the story. The number of people and events actually involved in any real life saga can simply overwhelm the attempt at a faithful recreation. A writer must therefore make some concessions to eliminating the clutter by ignoring a strict chronology and consolidating events and people. Here are my major concessions to efficiency in storytelling.

Doctors are key to Dale and Robin’s care and there were many of them involved in Robin’s diagnosis and treatment. I reduced the number to three; Dale’s obstetrician, Robin’s pediatrician and the head of pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic. I also reduced the number of ailments Dale and Robin endured. Dale was anemic, which I did mention. Her Rh negative blood type was important to the story as was her contacting Rubella during her pregnancy. I chose not to show her fall down a flight of stairs while pregnant. It struck me as too much drama for a story already overloaded with health issues.

Dale and Roy’s oldest daughter, Cheryl, wrote in her memoirs that Robin contracted polio during the last weeks of her life. This was affirmed by her brother Dusty. But neither Dale nor Roy ever mentioned it so I left it out. I also shortened the life ending episode, which saw Robin endure a series of convulsions over an extended period of time, during which she was given coffee enemas in order to “stimulate” her internal systems. I shortened the time frame, included one convulsion and nixed the enemas – too messy.

Robin had multiple live-in nurses, most of them unnamed in the available sources. Here again I made an executive decision to keep it simple and retained the most prominent of them, a woman named Claudia Jones. She impacted the family more than any others by insisting that Robin needed to be in a warmer climate than that afforded by the Rogers home in the Hollywood Hills. This motivated Dale and Roy to find a new home in Encino and for Dale to insist that a separate structure be built on the new site, where Robin and Claudia could live in relative peace from the Rogers busy and exuberant household, while still participating in family meals and prayer time. The move and subsequent construction made the cut.

Dale had three different agents during her early career. Roy had only one, Art Rush, who eventually took over Dale’s contract as well. He is the only agent mentioned in the screenplay. Art served as Roy’s best man when Dale and Roy married. Art’s wife, Mary Jo Mathews, was Dale’s matron of honor. Mary Jo became my surrogate for Dale’s many other female friends, keeping the cast small and allowing me to use Mary Jo as the confidant to whom Dale reveals her innermost thoughts.

Another consolidation was the use of the Sons of the Pioneers as Dale and Roy’s only backup band, even though Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage were more prominently featured in Roy’s movies and personal appearances. Roy was a founding member of the Sons of the Pioneers and it is the band most people my age associate with him. But it also allowed me to make consistent use of Pat Brady, Dale and Roy’s sidekick on the television show, who was also a sometime bass player for the Sons of the Pioneers.

Keeping the list of characters to a manageable number helped to declutter the storyline to suit my own sensibilities. I get lost watching movies with large casts, especially when actors look alike. My feeble brain and eyesight are easily confused by the similarities. Writing my own screenplay allowed me to minimize the confusion by consolidating people, places and events. Then there is the flipside.

Certain celebrities are commonly associated with Dale and Roy. Gabby Hayes and Andy Devine are prime examples; members of a larger western themed entourage of people cast in various roles in Roy’s movies and television show. Trigger, Pal (Dale’s movie horse), Buttermilk (Dale’s television horse) and Nellybelle all make appearances in the script because they resonate with people my age, whose emotional attachment to Dale and Roy encompass the animals and props. All are used to advance the story in what I hope is the best possible way.

Above all was my desire to maintain a credible story arc with a clear resolution to the hero’s journey. For me, Dale is the hero of this story, hence my practice of stating her name first instead of the usual convention enshrined in their film and television credits. We will see if the contest judges are swayed by my presentation. Stay tuned. I will let you know their decision as soon as I know it.

Act Three

Writing these weekly messages has given me an excellent opportunity to revisit the challenges of writing a screenplay on a topic loaded with strings attached to my childhood memories. This emotional infusion from the past enlivened what might otherwise have been the mundane pursuit of historical data for the creation of content and my self-education in the proper formatting of a script. Passion can confer fidelity on desire.

My script chronicles a seven-year story arc following the emotional journey of Dale Evans Rogers, wife of western hero Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys. The Dale and Roy pairing both onscreen and off was purely platonic until the death of Roy’s wife Arlene. Roy proposed to his costar a year later and the two were married on New Year’s Eve 1947.

The joy to be anticipated from this type of celebrity romance was quickly undermined by the resentment openly expressed by Roy’s oldest daughter towards her new step mom. Then there was Dale’s career troubles with Republic Studios, which saw her replaced as Roy’s playful nemesis by younger actresses. Act One of my little drama starts with Roy’s proposal to Dale on horseback at a rodeo and ends several months later with the birth of Dale and Roy’s only child, Robin Elizabeth Rogers, in August 1950.

This second chance at bliss was also thwarted with the news that Robin was a Down syndrome baby. Conventional wisdom in the 1950s encouraged parents to commit such a child to an institution before an emotional bond between mother and child had sufficient time to form. The supporting rationale was that the child would receive “professional” care for the duration of its brief life expectancy. Dale, with Roy’s blessing, defied convention and took her daughter home to be a vibrant member of the Rogers’ household.

Act Two follows the parallel challenges of caring for Robin and attempts to maintain Roy’s career. The B-western genre, which made Roy a Hollywood star, was on the decline. William Boyd and Gene Autry made the move to television. Roy soon followed with the wildly successful Roy Rogers Show of which I was a devoted fan. A myriad of doctor visits, however, did not produce the same type of happy ending for Robin’s health issues. Her funeral service took place on her second birthday, an ominous and difficult anniversary, especially for Dale.

Act Three focuses on Dale’s grieree focuses on Dale’f. Here is where I felt I had to be extremely careful in how I portrayed her reaction to her daughter’s death. Dale, herself, bared her soul in interviews and in her own writings in later years. I chose to use her own words as often as possible, when writing dialogue or directing the action. It would have been too easy otherwise to portray her as mimicking the clichés of grief in a poorly written script.

My one significant departure from Dale’s own account was the absence of tears. Again it would have been too easy to subsume Dale’s torment beneath a non-stop cycle of weepy depression. I chose to keep her articulate through an episode in which she literally shunned her deceased child. Dale refused to look on Robin following the child’s passing. She insisted that the casket be kept closed during the funeral service. She would later rebuke herself for her cowardice and for forcing Roy to make all the funeral arrangements on his own. To keep the portrayal of Dale honest, I included these elements in the screenplay sans the torrent of tears she admits flowed too often, which – if included – could obscure the critical elements in the storyline.

Out of this grim scenario came an event, which allowed Dale to gain a sense of meaning in Robin’s short life. She wrote the book, entitled Angel Unaware, in which she described a fanciful conversation between Robin and God shortly after the completion of what Dale termed Robin’s earthly mission. Dale went even further in her representation of authorship by claiming she simply took dictation. It was Robin’s story from first to last.

The process of finding a publisher is faithfully included in the script. It borders on the miraculous and I kept the story as close to Dale’s own account as possible so as not to glamorize the sequence of events as being tantamount to Moses talking to a burning bush. Keeping it credible allows skeptics room for coincidental rationalization.

Dale’s decision to assign all the royalties from book sales over to the National Association of Retarded Children, now known as the ARC, was transformational. The NARC was in its earliest stages of development. Their promotion of Angel Unaware drove sales thereby generating revenue for the organization. Dale’s book subsequently became an international bestseller.

There’s more to Act Three, but why spoil the ending for you? I am sure you are anxiously awaiting the movie to come to a theater near you or – more likely these days – to be streamed on your device. I will say that the screenplay has a happy ending, though not of the happily ever after type. Life just doesn’t offer us that form of bliss. Life keeps it real.

Act Two

In October I submitted my screenplay, Angel Unaware, to a writing competition sponsored by MovieGuide. The challenge to me was twofold. First I had to research my subject well enough to tell a compelling story. Second was the need to learn the formatting rules to craft a professional looking script. The first challenge I met through my local library and on-line sources. The second was met with the purchase of The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier. I guess the third challenge I met was meeting the submission deadline, which I did with a few days to spare.

Trottier advises the writer to view a screenplay as a three act construct. Last week’s message acknowledged the mental anguish this fostered in me as my prior work as an administrator prompted me to view the organizations I managed as a seamless whole. Trottier, being my guide in all things script writing, prevailed in my thinking, so I drew convenient lines of demarcation in the story. And if you’ve followed the previous messages in this series, then you know the story is about Dale Evans and her impact on a grassroots movement to improve the opportunities for people with physical, emotional and intellectual challenges of their own.

Act One begins with Roy Roger’s proposal to Dale in the most appropriate setting, The Roy Rogers Rodeo, which took place in Chicago in the fall of 1957. It ends with the birth of their daughter in August 1950. This latter event, which should normally be viewed as joyous, was a time of great stress. Little Robin Elizabeth was born with Down syndrome, a condition often labeled as Mongolism because of the shape of the child’s eyes. The prevailing wisdom was to have such children put into an institution where they could receive “professional” care during their brief life expectancy. Dale and Roy defied that wisdom and saw Robin as God’s gift to them and their family. Their decision to take Robin home is my big event to the transition from Act One to Act Two in keeping with Trottier’s advice.

The substance of Act Two spans another two year period. During that time Dale and Roy saw many doctors in search of the best possible help for Robin. In addition to her overt symptoms of Down syndrome, Robin also had a heart condition. The sources I had access to never defined this condition in true medical terms, but it was apparent that it was a progressively deteriorating condition.

Robin’s presence changed the Rogers’ household for the better. Previously tense relationships were transformed as the power of love became increasingly apparent to everyone. It was during this time that Dale wrote the song, which ultimately became synonymous with Dale and Roy’s western persona, Happy Trails. A new conflict arose, however, with the arrival of a nurse to care for Robin while Dale was on the road making public appearances with Roy. Mother and nurse were immediately at odds over the proper manner in which to care for Robin. Running parallel to that little drama was the cancellation of Roy’s movie contract with Republic Studios.

Dale and the nurse did reconcile. Roy moved into television, following the example of his B-western cowboy contemporaries William Boyd, of Hopalong Cassidy fame, and Gene Autry. And while Roy’s career problems culminated in a happy ending, Robin’s health and happiness did not.

Dale and Roy’s other three children came down with the mumps at the same time. Robin was kept in isolation to avoid contact with her siblings, but to no avail. Robin came down with the mumps, which digressed rapidly in a series of convulsions, which in turn led to encephalitis. Her heart simply could not endure the stress. The end of Act Two and the transition into Act Three came with the housekeeper’s two-word announcement to the desperate parents that “She’s gone.”

Act Three concerns the aftermath of Robin’s death – the challenges to Dale and Roy’s faith in a loving God and the search for meaning behind a tragic event. The title to a C. S. Lewis book, A Grief Observed, could easily serve as the theme of my third and final act. It reveals the true character of our celluloid heroes and provides the answer as to why I regard Dale’s story as one worth telling. Stay tuned.

Act One

This year I wrote and submitted to a writing competition a screenplay about Dale Evans. In the aftermath of this seven month project, I decided to use my experience with this new form of expression to kick start my dormant commitment to write a weekly blog. Writing about writing allows me to evaluate my work by drafting a coherent statement for others to read and – if successful – to understand the what and the why of my effort.

My preceding messages in this series shared a little bit of insight into how Dale’s life touched mine in a way that had little to do with her Hollywood celebrity. Personal tragedy and the faith which sustained her influenced my mother, which in turn shaped in part how mom raised my brothers and me. I was as unaware as any angel of this sequence and its significance on our family when I was a child. Looking back now, from the perspective of a white-haired survivor, I can better appreciate what motivated mom in how she dealt with us.

But that is not the point of the screenplay. Dale’s emergence from the valley of the shadow of death is, especially as it served as a catalyst in altering society’s perspective about people born with various physical and intellectual differences from what we consider the norm. Mom’s tenuous connection with Dale inspired me to share Dale’s story in the most appropriate manner concerning a prominent movie and television personality, a script. Writing the screenplay allowed me to close the loop of influence from Dale to mom to me and back to Dale. It’s been a precious journey.

Screenplay’s have their own format of which I was totally ignorant at the outset. I started writing anyway as the desire to tell Dale’s story exceeded the depth of my ignorance. Word processing is very flexible. My document took on the look of a short story with paragraphs resembling one-liners. I knew to separate dialogue from narrative, but that was about the limit. It was a start, which allowed me to pursue my goal while waiting to overcome my professional deficiency as a writer. This deficit, though, had to be remedied if I had any hope of meeting the submission standards for the writing competition sponsored by MovieGuide.

The source of my deliverance from screenwriting ignominy was The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. His book met my expectations and then some. All the formatting rules were there, though cumbersome to replicate in a Word document. My resolution to create some efficiency in the process was to purchase screenwriting software, Final Draft being the most highly recommended. What a marvel. We misers miss out on a lot since we fail to see the value of investing a little in order to receive a meaningful return on our investment. Fortunately I played against type and spent the money to gain some literary success.

Trottier’s advice inspired me to analyze my story from more than a mere formatting perspective. His key word was structure, which has as much to do with technique as it does with the placement of the words on the page. My first challenge was to conceive of my story as having three parts – beginning, middle and end – with major events or turning points, providing a bridge between segments. This goes against my past management philosophy, which emphasized looking at the organization I managed as being of one seamless piece. Segmenting was not in my methodology. For a business organization, whose name is intentionally derived from the word organism, everything works but not in linear sequence. You strive instead for a state of perpetual unison. To write my screenplay I jettisoned the old mindset for the new.

Then there was the need for a catalyst – the singular event that launches the main character into a quest to reestablish their equilibrium. And overall was the awareness that movies and television are visual media. The challenge becomes one of show versus tell. Again this posed an innate conflict with my management experience, where reporting on performance might include charts and graphs, but the emphasis was on verbal and written elucidation for the purpose of suasion. I did my best to follow Trottier’s advice in this as in all other things of movie wisdom.

Making use of Trottier’s premise that all screenplays have three parts or acts, Act One for my screenplay, Angel Unaware, follows Dale’s story from the night Roy proposed to her at a rodeo appropriately enough  in the fall of 1947 (the catalyst) to the birth of their daughter, Robin Elizabeth Rogers, in August 1950. The big event, which launches us into Act Two is the decision to defy the doctor’s well-intentioned, though unacceptable recommendation, to have Robin committed to an institution. This was common practice in the day for an infant like Robin, who was born with Down syndrome. The prevailing wisdom was to make a severe separation at the outset so that the parents, particularly the mother, would not develop an attachment to a child who would ultimately drain the family of its emotional strength and potentially its financial resources.

To convey the depth of Dale’s emotional commitment to her daughter, I did my best to create a visual aspect of the scene to supplement the dialogue. In a gesture of intimacy between Dale and Roy, I crafted a moment where a vulnerable Dale, lying in her hospital bed, draws Roy close by grasping the lapel of his western jacket. This gesture, by the way, foreshadows a similar one (another Trottier device), which takes place at the end of Act Two.

With Roy close, Dale whispers her plea for Robin’s benefit. This entails a brief revelation of her backstory, which is the topic of last week’s message, and her own decision to abandon her career for Robin’s sake. Having Roy stoop down to hear his wife’s plaintiff cry, requires him to stand up straight to express their resolution to the doctors, “We’re going home. The three of us.”

This visual/verbal combination is our entrée into Act Two, which is next week’s message.

Whatever Happened to Francis Octavia Smith?

The person we Boomers know and love as Dale Evans was born Francis Octavia Smith on October 31, 1912 in Uvalde, Texas. Her transformation from obscure small town girl to prominent Hollywood celebrity in the 40s and 50s is a little known story publicists did their best to keep hidden, for good reason. It did not fit the profile of a wholesome heroine suitable for the likes of the King of the Cowboys. 

Francis’ education began at home. She credited her parents with teaching her “letters” and “numbers” before she entered school at age 7. As a result young Francis was promoted directly into the third grade. She was advanced again and by age 11 started the 8th grade. Her status as an academic prodigy ended there. The stress of her school work and the lack of a supportive, age appropriate peer group caused a nervous breakdown that year. She spent the following summer in bed recuperating.

Francis loved music. Her precocious nature, however, drove her to play her own improvised melodies instead of the assigned scales. Her rebellion drove her poor teacher to proclaim that young Francis was wasting her (the teacher’s) time and her parent’s money. That ended the lessons.

Francis attended church with her parents. An itinerant evangelist came to town, who presented the message of salvation in such a dramatic and straightforward way that it frightened her. She wrote many years later, “That evangelist opened the gates of hell and I had a good look at it; I was so thoroughly frightened at the prospect of spending eternity in such a miserable and terrifying place that I reached out desperately for the hand of the Savior.”

Francis reached, but it was more a gesture of desperation to avoid the flames than a heartfelt embrace of the faith, hope and charity she would later celebrate in song. The problem with complete submission is that it struck Francis as confining, a loss of personal control. She admitted that “…being gregarious, aggressive and self-assertive, and with a consuming zest for colorful adventure, I still had a notion that God might hold me back from something I wanted to do on my own.”

God did not hold Francis back from being persuaded by an older classmate to elope. Francis was 14 when she made that fateful decision, easily ascribed to a promiscuous nature. At 15 she gave birth to a son, named for his father, Thomas Fox. And at 16 she was divorced. Tom senior said he made a mistake and abandoned his child bride and infant son. Francis would later say of the child, “The marriage turned out to be a dismal failure – but God sent me a son who did not become a failure. My boy Tom was to become the shining light of my life.”

Francis married a second time about a year later. This marriage proved to be worse than her elopement. The divorce records reveal the cause for the separation to be spousal and child abuse. Young Francis went from being abandoned to being battered. The mature Dale Evans was open about her troubled past except for this one tragic episode. She never talked or wrote about this second marriage, which gives us some inclination of just how bad things were for her and her son.

Undeterred, Francis pursued her dream of becoming a Broadway musical star. Her humble beginning took place at radio station WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky as a staff singer. The station manager didn’t care for her real name or her own chosen stage name, Marian Lee. Overnight she became Dale Evans. The Dale was in honor of the station manager’s favorite silent screen heroine, Dale Winter. The Evans, he claimed, gave the name a euphonious sound. “It could roll easily off the lips of radio announcers.”

Dale Evans found a slightly improved fame by moving to Chicago to perform wherever she could land more promising gigs. Poverty ensued. It also brought her husband number three. A Hollywood agent heard her sing, however, and brought her west to audition for the Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire movie Holiday Inn. It wasn’t Broadway but it was a musical.

The agent was appalled when he met Dale. She was too old, 28, and too married. Her fashion sense did not fit the Southern California lifestyle. Worst of all, she had a child. The makeover she underwent before meeting the movie’s casting director required Dale to lie excessively. She dropped seven years off her age, conveniently avoided any reference to being married, had her hair, makeup and clothes done up in an acceptable fashion and passed her son off as her younger brother.

The amusing part of this façade is that Dale finally put her foot down when the agent told the casting director that Dale could dance with the likes of Astaire. Dale outed herself on that one point, but not the rest. It cost her the opportunity to audition for the part that eventually went to Marjorie Reynolds. She did, however, get a contract with a movie studio, while continuing to sing at nightclubs and on radio.

The deceit about her age, marital status and motherhood continued with other makeover requirements thrown in for good measure. She went to a spa to lose weight, had her teeth capped and took elocution lessons in order to drop her Texas accent. Pinup quality photos were taken to help publicize this promising young starlet. But her acting did not impress anyone and her prospects in Hollywood appeared dormant until that fateful pairing with a popular western hero, Roy Rogers, in the movie The Cowboy and the Senorita.

This was not the beginning of a romance. Roy was faithfully married to his second wife, Arlene, and they had two children. Arlene died as a consequence of giving birth to their third child, Roy Jr., aka Dusty. That was early November 1946. Dale and Roy were married a year later on New Year’s Eve 1947. Wedded bliss did not automatically follow. Louella Parsons publicly revealed the truth about Tom Jr. being Dale’s son instead of her younger brother. And Roy’s older daughter, Cheryl, resented Dale’s intrusion to the extent that she demanded to be sent to a boarding school at age seven. Roy complied.

A different type of transformation was needed in order for Francis Octavia Smith to find the happiness she sought in a supportive, loving family. Spiritual in nature, the makeover was internal and brought about the change she needed to solidify a loving nature in all of her relationships. Little Francis finally came of age as the Dale Evans we all saw and admired on The Roy Rogers Show. This was also the Dale Evans who graciously endured a series of tragic events in her second life, which were too improbable for any of her B-western or television scripts.

Still, it is worth the attempt to tell part of this story and my screenplay, Angel Unaware, focuses on one of those events; the birth of Dale and Roy’s daughter, Robin Elizabeth Rogers, a child with Down syndrome. She is the angel of the title, whose two-year mission on earth inspired a book and now a screenplay.