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.