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.

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