More Than a “MWAH!”: The Career of Dinah Shore
By John C. Alsedek:
When you’re a kid, there are so many older celebrities for whom you don’t have a point of reference because you’re not seeing them in their heyday, you’re seeing them as special guests on The Tonight Show or Family Feud. Maybe they tell some jokes, and you can suss out that they’re a comedian. Maybe they belt out a show tune, and you figure they’re a singer. But if they’re just sitting on a couch chatting with Johnny Carson and Ed
McMahon . . . yeah, no point of reference.
And boy, was Dinah Shore a perfect example of that. Ten-year-old me recognized that she was famous for something, but I had no idea for what. All I knew was she was a pleasant-looking blonde lady who blew kisses to the audience and had a golf tournament named after her. I was constantly confusing her with Doris Day and Nanette Fabray and, honestly, I was okay with that; she wasn’t in fifties sci-fi movies or on The Twilight Zone, so she was totally outside my area of interest anyway. And that’s unfortunate, because now that I know more about Dinah Shore’s career, the more I realize that she was a whole lot cooler and accomplished than I ever realized.
The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Dinah was born Frances Rose Shore on February 29, 1916, in Winchester, Tennessee. Struck by polio as a child, she recovered due to the extensive care given by her mother but was left with a deformed foot and a limp. Though she was self-conscious about the limp, "Fanny" nonetheless was involved in sports and was a cheerleader in high school and later in college. Upon graduation, she enrolled at Vanderbilt University, emerging with a degree in sociology in 1938.
But she never put that college education to formal use, for she was determined to become a singer, a passion she’d been pursuing with her parents’ encouragement since she was a child. Moving to New York City, she auditioned for work at radio stations and with orchestras, including those of Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Tommy Dorsey. It was at this time she picked up her stage name; disc jockey Martin Block referred to her as “the Dinah girl” (a reference to a popular song of the era that Shore sang in auditions) because he couldn’t think of her name, and "Dinah" stuck.
Hired as a vocalist at WNEW (where she frequently performed with another burgeoning star, Frank Sinatra), Dinah’s career took off like crazy in 1940. She became the featured vocalist on NBC Radio’s The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, which became so popular that it got moved from Sunday afternoons to primetime on Mondays. This led to a recording contract with RCA Victor and then to a regular gig on Time to Smile with the popular Eddie Cantor; Shore later credited Cantor for teaching her self-confidence and the art of comedy. She made her film debut in Cantor’s 1943 Thank Your Lucky Stars and would go on to do a half-dozen other major studio productions between 1943 and 1952; her last starring role would be in Paramount’s Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick.
But Dinah’s true stardom would come on a much smaller screen.
By the early 1950s, Dinah Shore was a major star. A favorite of U.S. troops during World War II, her singing career had skyrocketed, with songs like "I’ll Walk Alone," "Blues in the Night," and "You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To" hitting the top of the charts. In the postwar years, the hits would keep on coming, including "Buttons and Bows" (the #1 song of 1948) and the holiday classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside." She’d also established herself as a major player in radio, starring on several shows of her own (including 1948’s Call to Music) and doing literally hundreds of appearances on other programs, both as a singer and an actress; perhaps the best-remembered of the latter is an episode of the great anthology series Suspense, "Frankie and Johnny."
So, as the new medium of television started looking for programming to fill its rapidly expanding schedule, Dinah was an obvious choice. After doing guest spots on programs such as The Ed Wynn Show and The Bob Hope Show, she got her own NBC series in November 1951. The Dinah Shore Show was an immediate hit with both viewers and critics, who were enamored with its stylish simplicity; it’s also at this time that Shore began her trademark “Mwah!” to the audience at the end of each episode. In 1956, the program went from 15 minutes to an hour and became The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, which was one of the earliest programs to be shot in color. With its signature jingle “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” The Dinah Shore Chevy Show was even more popular than its short-form predecessor, propelled by Shore’s innate likeability, good-natured humor (such as introducing guest star Tennessee Ernie Ford as “Tennessee Ernie CHEVROLET”), and willingness to let her guests be at the forefront. A great example of this are the appearances of African-American singing legends Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, where she both had great rapport with her guests and complemented them wonderfully in duets—they’re a lot of fun, and I’d recommend looking them up on YouTube.
By the late sixties, the world was changing, and Dinah Shore could have been seen as a relic of those earlier times; she hadn’t had a regular TV show since 1964, and her musical output had dropped off to just the occasional album for Capitol Records. But instead, she . . . I was going to say "reinvented herself," but Dinah really didn’t do that at all. It feels more like what happened was that people rediscovered what they’d loved about her in the first place. In 1970, she began a two-decade run on daytime television with NBC’s Dinah’s Place, which would later become the syndicated Dinah! The format was ostensibly a talk show, but she used her charm to get her guests to open up and show off talents that the general public had no idea they possessed, such as Frank Sinatra making his homemade pasta sauce and Ginger Rogers turning clay pottery. Her show had one of the more eclectic guest lists on national television—I mean, where else could you see a reminisce with Bob Hope or Jimmy Stewart one day and a rock performance by David Bowie or Iggy Pop the next?
Shore was busy away from television as well, and in ways that fit in a more feminist-oriented time. An excellent golfer herself and a big supporter of women in the game, she helped create the Colgate Dinah Shore Golf Tournament (today known as the Chevron Championship) in 1972; held in Rancho Mirage, California, it quickly became one of the top events in the LPGA. Dinah was also frequent tabloid material due to her long-running romance with actor Burt Reynolds, who in a nice twist from the usual "older man/younger woman" Hollywood story was twenty years younger than Shore.
Dinah! went off the air in 1980, and the then-65-year-old Shore began taking it a little easier, though she still did occasional guest spots, such as on Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, where she did a hilarious bit involving her singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" over Pee-wee’s picturephone. But Dinah still had one more show left in her, and that show was A Conversation with Dinah, which ran on the cable network TNN from 1989 until 1992. The half-hour series consisted of one-on-one interviews with the likes of Reynolds, Sinatra, Hope, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan—the first TV interview Reagan had given since leaving the White House in 1989.
Dinah Shore passed due to complications from ovarian cancer on February 24, 1994, just a few days before her 78th birthday. But she left a varied and substantial legacy behind, including 80 charted popular songs, four decades on national television, eight Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a Golden Globe, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and an honorary spot in the LPGA Hall of Fame.
You know something else Dinah did waaaaaaaay back in the day, even before she’d graduated from Vanderbilt? She was involved in the experimental television broadcasts from W2XBS in New York City! We’ll be taking a look at TV’s infancy next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.