Queen of the West Wednesday, Chapter Three (with a nod to Gilmore Girls)

Chapter Three. “I Can’t Get Started”: Struggling for Singing Stardom

The late 1936 move to Texas, where Frances’s parents lived in Ellis County, near the town of Italy, proved the right thing for nine-year-old Tommy Fox.

Dale Evans Dr.

(A more recent image of a street in Italy named for Dale Evans.)

At the end of 1936, Frances Fox/Dale Evans was still chasing stardom, was still determined to have it all: a fabulous career and a happy home life. But every time she thought she found true love, something went wrong and the relationship failed. Dale’s decision to move from Memphis back to her home state of Texas reflected her sense of responsibility to her son. She believed Tommy would thrive on her parents’ farm, and she was right.

Career-wise, Ellis County offered nothing for Dale Evans. Her parents agreed to take care of their grandson while she moved forty miles north to Dallas, where radio station WFAA hired her as a singer. It was a good job in a sizeable market. Dale also regularly appeared as a featured vocalist with two local orchestras.

Sometime in 1939, Dale Evans probably made her first recording, the Vernon Duke/Ira Gershwin tune “I Can’t Get Started.” Her career had picked up, she was well-known locally, but there was no sign yet of the stardom she longed for.

I Can't Get Started

The song has been recorded by numerous artists over the decades, though it’s most closely connected to Bunny Berigan and his orchestra (it was their theme song in the 1930s) and jazz singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

It’s Fitzgerald’s recording that is heard in the season two finale of the television show Gilmore Girls, which aired in May 2002. The episode is also called “I Can’t Get Started.” Sookie St. James, the fabulous chef and best friend of Lorelai Gilmore, is planning her wedding and contemplating playing the song at the beginning of the ceremony.

Lorelai tries to convince Sookie that it might not be the best choice, that the lyrics are depressing and morbid. It’s “about a woman who can’t make her relationship work, whose life is filled with emptiness, regret, and pain.” Sookie’s response? “Who listens to the lyrics?” And “I Can’t Get Started” plays at her wedding.

Sookie cared for the music more than the lyrics, and she also may have picked up on the underlying message of the song. (Luckily she also understood that Lorelai almost always gives bad advice.) After getting stuck, no matter for how long, you get unstuck and start to move again. Dale Evans knew that. Even when she became impatient, when she thought it was taking too long to achieve her goal, she moved forward. Closer to stardom.

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(Dale Evans, before she was Queen of the West.)

 

Queen of the West Wednesday, Chapter Two

Chapter Two. The Sweetheart of Song: Becoming Dale Evans

With one dream dashed, another was about to come true.

Well, that’s a pretty short first sentence! When combined with the chapter title, it’s clear that it didn’t take too long for Frances to become successful enough as a singer that she needed a stage name. The chapter delves into what it took to make that happen.

For her debut performance, Frances sang “Mighty Lak’ a Rose.” Written in 1901 by lyricist Frank Lebby Stanton (who later became Georgia’s first poet laureate) and pianist/composer Ethelbert Nevin, the sentimental piece, utilizing a white interpretation of Southern Black dialect, imagined a Black “mammy” caring for a white baby. The song was a hit during the early twentieth century, performed and recorded several times by different vocalists. Later on in the century, singers dropped the dialect. Here’s Petula Clark’s 1955 version.

Frances still lived in Memphis when her singing career started. She dedicated the song to someone very special during that first performance, which was carried over the radio airwaves. In the 1920s, radio rapidly developed into the most modern and popular news and entertainment source in the country. More and more Americans bought at least one radio.

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(The Brox Sisters, popular Broadway singers, listen to their radio in the mid-1920s, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Frances thought she had it made in Memphis radio. But it was 1929. The stock market crashed not long after her debut, dragging the United States into the Great Depression, and forcing Frances to alter her plans. It would take her a while longer to become Dale Evans.

A Tale From 2912

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs in the house my parents bought when they got married in 1956.

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(2912, sixty years after it was built.)

On Saturday mornings, when we were young, my siblings and I got up early, sprawled out on the family room floor, and turned on the television. It was cartoon time. How long we got to watch depended on when my parents woke up and if they decided there was something more productive we could or should be doing with that time. Still, we could usually count on an hour or more before we might get pulled away.

(This isn’t us. It’s a Getty image. We were two girls, two boys, and almost always in pajamas.)

It was hard to get four children to agree on what to watch. Most of the time, though, it was probably three, because our youngest brother wasn’t born until 1963 so he didn’t get much of a say. Our sister, the eldest, probably had the most authority over the channel dial.

There was so much to choose from in those years that stretched from the mid-1960s to the end of the decade: Mighty Mouse, Casper (the friendly ghost), Underdog, The Jetsons, and even The Beatles. We could all usually agree on Batman, The ArchiesScooby Doo, Where Are You?, and of course, Jonny Quest.

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(Mighty Mouse–here he comes to save the day.)

We loved the commercials, too, because that’s where we got the scoop on the latest toys and breakfast cereals. Sometimes we would dash into the kitchen and get bowls of cereal to eat while we watched the rest of the cartoons. My favorite was Cap’n Crunch. But cereal could cause a problem, especially if we poured milk into the bowl, because of the spill factor. It could create a mess.

So the best Saturday cartoon mornings were the ones when we had Pop-Tarts. These deliciously sweet breakfast pastries came out in 1964, though I can’t remember when my mother first bought them. But the brown sugar cinnamon ones were the best, first the unfrosted kind, one of the original flavors, then the frosted after 1967.

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(Yes, they really were so popular that Kellogg’s initially couldn’t keep up with the demand. And I remember that diagonal crease for breaking them in half.)

Cartoons and Pop-Tarts. That’s how I remember those Saturday mornings. But every once in a while, we broke the cartoon tradition and turned on a live-action program, usually at my suggestion. And the show I wanted to watch? The Roy Rogers Show, which co-starred a woman I never forgot, not even long after those blissful Saturday mornings in front of the tv with my siblings ended. Dale Evans.

The Roy Rogers Show Beginning and Ending - Television Dale Evans - YouTube

The Launch of Queen of the West Wednesday

Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans is due out on April 15, 2022. Every Wednesday until then, I will post the first sentence from a chapter (or two) of the book, to provide just a taste of what’s in this first-ever biography of this twentieth-century entertainer.

So, here we go: Chapter One. “My Heart is Down Texas Way”: Young Frances

In the bright April spring of 1928, fifteen-year-old Frances Fox set out on a sixty-mile trip from Blytheville, Arkansas, south to Memphis, Tennessee.

 

She was not Dale Evans yet, but a teenager originally from a small town in Texas trying to figure out how to get everything she wanted from life. Frances thought Memphis held the key. With a population near 250,000, this modern city offered railway lines, trolleys, indoor electricity and plumbing, and a vibrant nightlife focused on music, one of her passions. Would Memphis be the place where Frances would start her singing career?

 

My Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2021 (and an announcement)

My preference for nonfiction continues to be driven by my academic training as a historian (with a specialization in American women’s history). I gravitate toward serious narrative nonfiction written by women about women–and I’m especially interested if those female subjects are not well-known historical figures. My nine top nonfiction books of 2021 (read in that year, but not necessarily published in it) reflected that. All nine were by women about women, including two memoirs. As a bonus, because I hate to present fewer than ten, I also included two others that I liked very much.

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(Portrait of a woman by Adelaide Labille-Guiard c. 1787)

These four were especially wonderful:

Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. The unforgettable, haunting story of Milwaukee native Mildred Harnack.

Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. A National Book Award winner.

Julie Flavell, The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America. Provides a much-needed, different perspective on conventional military and political history.

Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. An insightful and incisive reminder of the limitations of the Nineteenth Amendment.

This book went back to the roots of the women’s rights movement:

Dorothy Wickenden, The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights.

Two books that will keep you on the edge of your seats:

Catherine Prendergast, The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Shook America.

Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos.

Two thought-provoking memoirs:

Rebecca Carroll, Surviving the White Gaze.

Jacqueline Winspear, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.

Also not to be missed, especially because they recover important people and events largely forgotten:

Scott Borchert, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America.

Marcia Biederman, A Mighty Force: Dr. Elizabeth Hayes and Her War for Public Health.

Now, for my announcement!

My latest book, Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans, is due out in April. To encourage you all to think about reading the book (and recommending it to your friends, family, mail carrier, etc., and maybe even pre-ordering it), I will be launching Queen of the West Wednesdays on February 2. Every Wednesday, I will post the opening sentence of a chapter (or chapters–I’ve got to fit them all in by mid-April!) and explain just a little bit of what was happening in Dale’s life.

So pull on your favorite boots over these next Wednesdays and join me!

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(Pink rhinestone cowboy boots, worn by Dale Evans, from the collections of the University of Pennsylvania.)