It’s 1952. Across America, families crowd around their boxy TV sets, staring at the snowy black-and-white screen as Dinah Shore strolls onstage in a shimmering Hollywood gown, while a harp trills through a few introductory arpeggios. At the age of 36, the beautiful and talented brunette-turned-blonde is already a household name. She floats past a giant photo of a 1953 Chevy Bel Air and launches into song.
The sponsor spot for her TV program may not have been the highlight of her long singing career, but the lilting melody of “See the U-S-A—in your Chev-ro-let” became a background theme song for American travel throughout the 1950s.
Thanks to the time-machine present tense of film, you can still catch many glimpses of Dinah Shore, BA’38, on DVD, on YouTube and elsewhere online—and for good reason. In a survey of the top 50 stars in the history of the medium, TV Guide has placed her at No. 16. In immortalized moments from her long series of TV programs, you can watch Shore swinging with Pearl Bailey, holding her own with Ella Fitzgerald in a rollicking blues medley, and looking so happy she makes even Perry Como appear glum. Shore seems relaxed, comfortable, gracious. Of course, she had spent most of her life in front of a microphone or camera or both.
By the time she achieved iconic status on television, she had already conquered every other entertainment medium. When she died of cancer in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1994, she left behind three separate stars at various places along the Hollywood Walk of Fame—for recording, for radio and for television.
The year Dinah Shore was born, a new word that would play an important role in her future was just beginning to be heard: “jazz.” In 1916 the Original Dixieland Jass Band formed. The next year they changed “Jass” to “Jazz” and produced what is con-sidered to be the first jazz recording, the lush and rousing “Livery Stable Blues.”
Frances Rose Shore was born March 1, 1916, in Winchester, Tenn., southeast of Nashville near the Alabama border. Her parents, Solomon A. Shore and Anna Stein, were first-generation Russian Jewish immigrants. The adult Dinah attributed much of her hard work and eagerness to be accepted to her successful businessman father, and her love of music and sports and a desire to make a name for herself to her mother, an aspiring opera singer.
At the age of 18 months, Frances, nicknamed “Fanny,” contracted polio. The primary treatment then, nearly four decades before Jonas Salk would introduce a vaccine, was rehabilitative massage and hot packs. Fanny survived the fever but wound up with a paralyzed right foot and leg. For several years her parents massaged her leg and helped her regain use of it. As Fanny improved, struggling on despite tear-inducing pain, her mother introduced her to swimming, ballet and tennis. Not only did Fanny triumph over polio, but she became a competitive athlete—and yet no one in the family would speak of the disease. Shore attributed much of her lifelong inferiority complex to the awkward whispering of relatives and family friends.
When Fanny was 6 and her sister, Bessie, was 14, their father bought a share of a department store in Nashville and moved the family there. Fanny began to perform. “The unfortunate thing about me,” she once admitted, “was that I suffered from a desperate desire to be loved, but I was pretty unlovable. I was constantly singing, dancing and showing off in a desperate bid for attention and to prove I could do it.” But she genuinely excelled. In 1934, when she graduated from Hume-Fogg High School, she was voted Best All-Around Girl.
Then she enrolled at Vanderbilt as a sociology major. Not only was she a member of Alpha Epsilon sorority, but she served as its president and competed on its fencing team. She joined the arts and German and French clubs, the Glee Club and the Masque Club, and she became president of the Women’s Student Government Club. When she developed a crush during her sophomore year, it was naturally on the captain of the football team.
Although her mother hated popular music and her father worried that she had very little talent, Fanny began singing twice a week on a five-minute show called Rhythm and Romance on Nashville’s WSM radio. Its theme song was the 1926 standard “Dinah,” which she sang softly instead of as the usual rowdy stomp. Having always hated her nickname because it was also the nickname for a certain body part, she began calling herself Dinah. The summer before her last year at Vanderbilt, she auditioned in New York for radio stations, bands and agents. She had little success until a producer at NBC summoned her to Rockefeller Center. As the accompanist played the piano, Shore opened her mouth and produced no sound—not one note. She fled in tears.
Only after her Vanderbilt graduation in 1938 did Shore try New York again. Her father refused to advance any money, and she moved from a cheap hotel to a cheaper one. She permitted herself 35 cents per day for food. Finally, she was invited to sing for free on WNEW radio—alongside an arrogant pretty boy named Frank Sinatra. Knowing she needed the experience, she accepted. She never again performed under any name except Dinah Shore.
In auditions she was turned down by Tommy Dorsey, who didn’t like her bobby socks and sloppy joe sweater, and by a pastrami-chomping Benny Goodman, who would only listen during his lunch break. In January 1939 she was hired to sing for Leo Reisman’s orchestra at Brooklyn’s popular Strand Theater—for a princely $75 per week. Xavier Cugat heard her and asked her to record one of his songs, paying her $20.
She signed a recording contract with RCA Victor in the summer of 1939. After she sang at the New York World’s Fair, the Daily News described her voice as “smooth as silk.” Following one performance of “Memphis Blues,” its composer, the legendary W.C. Handy, walked up to Shore with tears in his eyes and thanked her. Soon she saw her name headlining on Broadway. Eddie Cantor asked her to sing regularly on his radio program. Then her 1940 recording of “Yes, My Darling Daughter” sold an astonishing half million copies—her first major hit among a string of more than 80 charting songs during her career. Her rendition of “Buttons and Bows” was the most popular song of 1948.
Shore began appearing in movies, starting with 1943’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, which also featured Errol Flynn’s only recorded musical number and a mind-boggling spectacle of Bette Davis doing the jitterbug. Fourteen other film appearances would follow. Also in 1943 she began her 20-year marriage to actor George Montgomery, with whom she had a daughter; later she adopted his son from a previous marriage.
By 1950 Dinah Shore was a big enough star to be picked by Bob Hope to appear in his first NBC special. Soon NBC signed her to her own program, sponsored by Chevrolet, which appeared twice a week—only 15 minutes long, filling out the half hour after the news. The Dinah Shore Show ran for 12 years, eventually as an hour-long program. Shore won an armful of Emmy Awards in the ’50s, for everything from Best Singer to Best Actress in a Musical or Variety Series. In the 1960s, already at an age when many female performers were being replaced by starlets, she was on top of her profession, and in the ’70s she was even involved in a famous romance with hunky actor Burt Reynolds, who was 20 years her junior.
Dinah Shore became familiar to a new generation in 1970 as host of Dinah’s Place, one of the first variety talk shows on television. It ran for four years and garnered two more Emmys. Another talk show followed—Dinah!—from 1974 to 1980, with yet another Emmy win. Shore ended her TV career on The Nashville Network with Conversations with Dinah, which ran from 1989 to 1991.
After Walter Cronkite appeared on her program in 1975, he remarked that he had never been interviewed better by a journalist and that he had never met anyone who had done more homework before an interview. Even late in her career, the woman who had been told she couldn’t sing, who had survived polio to dance, whose movie career had collapsed only to be replaced by television, was still working hard to get things right.