TV's Smiling Feminist: Dinah Shore
Hello Loyal Listeners! It started off as a pleasant reminder of my childhood, doing a podcast installment on Dinah Shore – the classy lady with the best talk show of the 70s. She was cool and nice. She wore orange. She had something to do with golf. She laughed a lot and had a thing with Burt Reynolds.
This is the perfect fodder for a podcast, right? Listeners, Dinah Shore, who was born in 1916 and passed in 1994, was more of a renegade than her Tennessee accent would have us believe. Piecing together this look at her career and work as a woman pioneer in TV has required more context and research than is normally the case. In other words, FUN!
At Advanced TV Herstory, we look for pioneers, glass ceiling breakers, women who stood or stand with other women. The obvious ones wear shoulder pads the size of umbrellas, the less obvious appear in the form of demure, gracious Dinah Shore.
Before I can tell you what and how she was a renegade, you need to learn a bit of context about Dinah – who was born with the name Frances Rose Shore in Tennessee to Jewish parents. To transform herself to the woman who transitioned from radio stardom to TV, Shore changed her name from Fannie to Dinah, but that’s not all. During her first few appearances in the movies, in the 40s, she had rhinoplasty, filled in a gap between her front teeth and gradually transitioned her hair color from jet black to blonde.
With a hospitable Tennessee accent, degree from Vanderbilt University, lots of singing experience and a marriage to movie heart throb George Montgomery, her life as the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper first in Winchester, Tennessee and later Nashville was not part of her media kit.
Regular listeners of this podcast know that I try to confirm my work with sources. When I roll the credits at the end of each installment, it’s with the idea that there’s a lot of material out there, I just curate and try to fit pieces together. Tracing the more controversial aspects of Dinah’s career are difficult because what is printed or produced is largely vanity work. We’ll get more into just how disappointing I found these sources, but suffice it to say it’s sincere, but fluff - books written in the late 70s and two hour-long documentaries produced in 1999 and 2003.
So we’ll never know to what degree Dinah had to deal with anti-Semitism. And rumors flew throughout her career that she was bi-racial and others that she had a child by an African-American. Google it today and searches fill in those words. Amazing. I’ll say no more.
Dinah graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1938 with a degree in sociology. Since her days in high school and then college, she had developed into a solid stage presence – acting and singing not just in school productions but in night clubs. It only made sense that after graduation, she head to New York.
Her career in New York took off by virtue of a few good breaks in radio. These led to a recording contract and a tour throughout Europe with the USO. Wartime newsreels show Dinah and other radio and movie stars entertaining the troops. You might not recognize her, since these were the years of her dark hair, heavy eyebrows and natural nose.
It was during World War II that she met actor George Montgomery, whom she married in 1943 and divorced in 1962. Their star status put them on A-Lists that formed a network Dinah would later draw upon, once she had the control of TV talk and variety show production.
From radio, she jumped to film – mostly musicals – thus putting her career in direct competition with her husband’s. Okay, this is where it starts to get interesting, both the facts themselves and how they’ve been reported over the years.
Now like I said, not a lot is written or said about Dinah Shore the Progressive, but it is broached in the A & E Biography segment that aired in 1999. It’s narrated by Peter Graves and contains some clips from an important interview with Dinah and George’s daughter, Melissa Montgomery. Let’s set the stage.
Dinah grew up in a progressive home in Tennessee. Her mother had been an aspiring singer who set aside her dreams to raise a family. Dinah presumably never forgot this. Her TV career started in 1951 with short 15 minute long shows and in ’56 she went to a full hour length, sort of experiment. Was America ready for this? And was America ready for the guests – incredibly talented singers – who she wanted to have join her? Daughter Melissa Montgomery shared memories of this time in Dinah’s career.
There’s just one thing to remember. America was a deeply segregated country in 1956 and 1957. And while regional TV shows could cater to Southern or Northern interests, the Dinah Shore Chevy Show – yes she was the first pitchwoman for an automaker – her show was national.
So maybe Dinah leveraged her popularity a bit and chose to be color blind. Chose to seek out performers who were popular around the country – as they were on radio - where skin color wasn’t seen. Again, Melissa Montgomery from the A & E Biography…
As I mentioned, there are two tribute videos on YouTube – the A & E documentary and one produced by the Dinah Shore Living Trust - which is a tribute to the Dinah Shore Show using show clips to drive a biographical account. It’s in that full video that film and TV historian Leonard Maltin appears and, yes in 2003, sort of white washed over what some might see as Dinah’s greatest moment of character – when she defied the sponsors and network in selecting African American performers to appear on her show, alongside white stars like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee. Really Leonard, do you expect us to believe you?
From what I can piece together, Dinah knew she had white privilege and never blinked. Here’s what else was going onat NBC for someone without nearly as much power. The NBC Universal website history timeline reads:
Nat King Cole is first major black artist to have his own network series on NBC. The timeline citation explains – quote - Even with his enormous charm and a stunning array of guests, Cole was unable to overcome resistance to a black headliner from some advertisers and affiliates. Unable to secure a national advertiser, NBC was forced to cancel the program in December of 1957 – end quote.
Jim Davidson has a website www.classictvinfo.com has a solid page on the Nat King Cole Show, including descriptions of episodes that highlight the greatest African American talent in the country at the time. It also is the most detailed account of Madison Avenue’s inability to sell advertisers on programming that featured non-white performers. Davidson quoted this statement from Cole: "Madison Avenue [is] the center of the advertising industry," Cole wrote, "and their big clients didn't want their products associated with Negroes…Ad Alley thinks it's still a white man's world."
Imagine Cole singing with guests like his wife, Maria Cole, Eartha Kitt and Count Basie, with the full force of famed orchestra leader Nelson Riddle. The show aired for more than a year but suffered a low budget – due to advertising challenges and time slot shifting.
This is the context by which we have to apply Dinah’s actions and convictions. Late 50s and early 60s – separate entrances for white performers, separate dressing rooms, whispers with the advertisers, did Nat King Cole have physical contact on camera with one of his white guests? Did Dinah lean in too close to Pearl or Mahalia?
So while there is no smoking gun to say that Dinah’s show, which ran from 1956 to 1961 was threatened or harassed for similar advertising reasons – you can bet SHE never put out a statement calling out Madison Avenue, she nonetheless tested the network by inviting some of the country’s most prominent African American performers to her show. Chevrolet’s decision to drop sponsorship caused the show’s cancellation – but what prompted Chevy’s decision? That answer has eluded me.
The Dinah Shore Chevy Show was a national favorite, earning Shore the 1958 Emmy for Best Continuing Performance (Female) in a Series by a Comedienne, Singer, Hostess, Dancer, M.C., Announcer, Narrator, Panelist, or any Person who Essentially Plays Herself. That category morphed a bit the following year, when she won a 1959 Emmy for Best Performance by an Actress (Continuing Character) in a Musical or Variety Series.
Dinah sort of sat out the latter part of the 60s. She divorced Montgomery and entered into a short-lived marriage with another guy. She was still a well-known name so with the rapidly changing landscape of TV, music and American society, I give her credit for just laying low.
In 1970, Dinah returned to NBC as host of a 30 minute variety morning talk show. She would appear on TV for a full decade in some version of this format, earning an Emmy in 1973 for Outstanding Program Achievement in Daytime for Dinah's Place. That was the name of the show, which, if you were an 8 year old watching while you’re home sick from school, it was just cool to think that a woman older than your mom had a Place, where people like Frank Sinatra just dropped by for coffee & a chat.
Dinah’s Place was nominated or won every year it was on, from 1974 to 1981 in the category of Best Host or Hostess in a Talk, Service, or Variety Series. By the time Dinah signed off from her regular TV gig, she had some serious Emmy hardware on her mantle…. At her Place.
Yup, by the mid-70s, when Dinah was a staple of daytime TV – she was a little bit Oprah and a little bit Martha Stewart – she became romantically linked with emerging heartthrob Burt Reynolds. Yes there was a 20 year age difference between the two – call is a May October relationship which wouldn’t have been given a second thought if the May was say, a 21 year old Mia Farrow with a, hmmm, 51 year old Frank Sinatra. But, listen closely to this clip, not because you never knew about Dinah and Burt, but rather the careful words Burt uses to describe his relationship with and feelings for Dinah.
He’s not exactly effusive. Burt could have been talking about a dear neighbor or mentor. And… in watching these two TV specials, I was also struck by subtle language employed by Pat Boone, the teen heart throb crooner who later became a politically conservative standard bearer. Pat is gracious in his kind words about Dinah – nice words that could have come from an obituary or Wikipedia page. He makes it hard to believe Dinah was one of his favorite people – but then again he never was a very good actor. And to watch the video, much of the time he either leaned away from the camera or sat with his arms folded.
This is Pat’s comment about Dinah’s legacy, followed by her daughter’s. At least one of them was sincere.
Dinah Shore passed away in February 1994 of ovarian cancer. She never made her diagnosis public. Later that year she was inducted, posthumously into the LPGA Hall of Fame as the first non-professional golfer – at the time the Hall was pretty empty. Dinah was only the 13th entry . Again, more context that helps you understand why she was righteous in her feminism.
Back in 1972 – just as Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment (a tip of the hat to the Nixon Administration) were becoming reality, Dinah founded a women’s golf tournament – LPGA sanctioned – that has been held annually at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage California. In 1983, it became a major tournament – which is kind of a major accomplishment in and of itself.
Since 2000, corporate naming rights usurped Dinah’s fingerprint. It’s technically not called the Dinah Shore Tournament anymore . But during the explosion of women’s golf and representation on TV, the Dinah Short Tournament was a TV favorite and resulted in an increase in prize money for golfers. That increase really only meant that the difference between the Men’s and Women’s Prizes was reduced from 3 dollars to 1 to more like 2 and a half to 1. But still, it was measurable, visible progress. She was to golf what Billie Jean was to tennis – making those two sports which otherwise a staple of the country club and giving girls and women the confidence to get out and learn.
Here’s how Dinah described it in a clip embedded in the A & E Biography episode found on YouTube
But there’s always a reminder of how far we’ve slipped. Here’s how two men on the NBC Golf channel described Dinah’s impact on the game of women’s golf. Now mind you, how hard would it have been, how many phone calls would it have taken, to get a woman to be interviewed for these two minutes, to discuss Dinah, on the celebration of what would have been her 100th birthday. Jeeesh.
Few women celebrities’ legacies grew or expanded after their deaths. While you’re thinking hard about that statement, let me rid you of the idea that merchandizing the images of Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn count. They don’t. Legacies are not built on a few inspirational quotes and photos imprinted on drink coasters.
Since 1991, Dinah Shore – or simply The Dinah – has become the largest girl party musical festival in the world. In 2017, it will be held March 29-April 2, to coincide with the major LPGA golf tournament taking place in Palm Springs. I spoke The Dinah’s founder and CEO Mariah Hanson about the event, its growth and its relationship, if any with Dinah Shore.
Hanson has grown the weekend – billed on The Dinah’s website as an effort to create a lesbian world within the city into the largest lesbian event in the world, attracting visitors worldwide. It’s ranked in the Top 10 annual events held in Palm Springs and spans 5 days of intense business for the hospitality sector. Hanson and The Dinah have been recognized by the Regents of the University of California and the state legislature.
Learn more about The Dinah by Googling them. Not just, as Hanson shared, to learn about the event from them, but to track the weekend’s evolution through world wide news items.
So you’re thinking to yourself, so is The Dinah sanctioned by the family? Did Mariah Hanson have to pay naming rights? Do the women who attend the event who were not even teenagers when Dinah Shore passed away, do they have any idea what a total feminist she was?
The answers – because yes I asked the questions are this: Hanson says that the event’s first three years, while Dinah was still alive, she knew about the weekend retreat. At no time then or since has there been any claim or request from Dinah Shore’s family or estate – about anything. No formal agreement.
Hanson’s never polled her attendees about their knowledge of Dinah Shore, which she says now is averaging about 32 years of age.
But in my head, I see Dinah sitting out on her Palm Springs terrace, sorting out her finest moments in show business. What mattered more to her, all those Emmys or staring down NBC? Were the Burt Reynolds years just a media offensive to fend off other rumors? Is that why Pat Boone looked like he’d rather talk about how well his dentist performs root canal? And did she get a glimmer in her eye knowing that women were gathering in her name, in her town, to feel better about themselves during a weekend of community?
We’ll never know.
My sources for this segment on Dinah Shore come from all the usual places. On YouTube you’ll readily find the 1999 A & E Biography episode and the 50 minute video that once appeared on TV called MWAH, The Best of the Dinah Shore Show from 2003, which was produced in part by the Dinah Shore Living Trust. I worked with two books found in the biography section: Bruce Cassiday’s 1979 Dinah: A Biography and Michael Druxman’s Miss Dinah Shore: A Biography. Druxman’s book was largely written in the mid 1970s and reads like it. Because they were written in the middle of her varied career that attracted little negative publicity, neither offer much insight into this woman who we now realize blazed trails and experienced the best and worst of the entertainment industry.
Information about Dinah’s legacy with the LPGA can be found at their website – mainly about scholarships that bear her name. Audio from the 100th anniversary of Dinah’s birth and her impact on the game of women’s golf is found at NBC Sports’ The Golf Channel site. It’s just too bad they didn’t ask a woman to recount this history.
NBC Universal’s website has a fairly high level and quite sanitized timeline. Jim Davidson’s website www.classictvinfo.com all one word proved helpful in piecing together what little is available about TV decision making before the Civil Rights era.
Many thanks to Mariah Hanson, a founder of The Dinah, for being available for the phone call that cleared up some really important questions, putting a capstone of sorts, on Dinah Shore’s legacy as a feminist.
And as always, this podcast sounds good due to the work of the talented David Brown.
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