Dinah Shore's death ends five decades of cheer on the air

February 25, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic The Los Angeles Times Syndicate contributed to this article.

With her honey blond hair, cheery songs and good-night kiss for the cameras, Dinah Shore embodied the optimism of 1950s' America like no other television star of her era. She was the small screen's version of Doris Day, the woman as girl next door. And she kept bringing us the sunshine into the '90s.

Television lost one of its brightest stars yesterday when Ms. Shore died in her Beverly Hills, Calif., home after a short bout with cancer, just five days before her 77th birthday. By her side were her ex-husband, George Montgomery, and her two children, Melissa Ann Hime and John David Montgomery.

"Hollywood has lost its greatest and only real angel," said actor Burt Reynolds, with whom Ms. Shore was romantically linked throughout the '70s and '80s. "Dinah is what God meant when he strived to make perfection. She was the sunshine in my life and millions and millions of others."

Ms. Shore's career started in radio, but she went on to do nearly everything there is to do in television -- winning 10 Emmys along the way, more than any other performer before or since. She had a prime-time network variety show in the '50s, specials in the '60s, a morning talk show in the '70s, a syndicated cooking show in the '80s, and a cable TV show in the '90s.

Yet she may be best remembered for the jingle that opened and closed her first show -- "See the USA in your Chevrolet." It was as perfect a marriage of pop culture and commerce as TV had seen at the time. And it still echoes in our ears today.

Born Frances (Fanny) Rose Shore in Winchester, Tenn, in 1917, she started singing at school dances when she was in high school. By the time she was a freshman at Vanderbilt University, she was singing on WSM radio in Nashville. In 1938, she went to New York and radio station WNEW, where she landed a contract singing on Eddie Cantor's show.

By 1943, the New York newspapers were calling her "The Female Crosby." Her version of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" sold 450,000 copies that year. In 1944, Gen. George Patton gave her a pair of pearl-handled revolvers after she sang for his troops in Europe.

"I sang loud at first," she said of those early days on radio. "I sounded like the 5 o'clock whistle. . . . But I was learning little by little how to put across a song and make people feel I was singing to them."

That illusion of intimacy is what made Ms. Shore so right for TV -- a new medium that was all about close-ups, tight camera shots and the powerful sense that performers were talking one-on-one with viewers.

"The Dinah Shore Show" debuted on NBC in 1951. It was scheduled in a way that's hard to imagine today. It aired twice a week, and each show was only 15 minutes long. The shows split the 7:30 to 8 p.m. time period with the NBC Nightly News, which also ran just 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes of world and national news, there was Dinah singing "See the USA." Her vivacious Southern charm and folksiness was, by scheduling happenstance, a perfect female yin to the male yang of nightly news circa 1951.

In 1957, the show expanded to an hour and was renamed "The Dinah Shore Chevy Show." It remained on the air until 1963. But she and Chevrolet parted company in 1961 in a messy public divorce.

General Motors said it wanted to place its ads for the line of 1962 cars in a TV "format that would reach younger audiences." She countered by saying that the company thought of her "more as a sales gimmick than a performer."

She also said she thought it was no coincidence that Chevrolet decided to drop its sponsorship of her show just two months after she and Montgomery were divorced in a dispute that included charges and countercharges of adultery. They had been married 18 years. Her second marriage, to Maurice F. Smith in 1963, lasted just a year.

That was to be her last marriage, although she did have the highly publicized relationship with Mr. Reynolds, a man 20 years her junior. They remained friends until her death. Two years ago, Mr. Reynolds appeared as a guest on an interview show starring Ms. Shore for cable's The Nashville Network, where they talked openly about their affection for one another.

Ms. Shore talked openly about most things in her life. In the '50s, when nearly all prime-time TV stars were Protestant, Ms. Shore spoke proudly about being Jewish and often quoted the Talmud to interviewers, asking, "If I am for myself only, what am I?"

"I think my career has been on a pretty even keel. I never have tried to be absolutely the hottest thing in the business," she said recently.

"One big trick for survival that I've learned is never to bring home your job.

"There's a lot of living to do. I don't permit my working to interfere with life."

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