By Ron Rodman
For Black History Month, I wrote about an American Television pioneer: Nat “King” Cole, who was the first African American to host a television show. Since many have dubbed March as “National Women’s Month,” I focus on another pioneer of early television, Dinah Shore.
American television of the 1950s was a haven for white male artists and hosts. African Americans were scarce on TV, appearing only as guest artists on musical variety shows. Women television artists fared no better. Of the many female singers active at the time (Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney, Judy Garland, and numerous others), the only woman singer to host her own TV show was Dinah Shore.
Frances “Fanny” Rose Shore was born on 29 February 1916, in Winchester, Tennessee. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, she moved to New York City to pursue a singing career. Her first job was as a singer at WNEW, a radio station in New York, where she sang with Frank Sinatra who was hired around the same time. During one show, she sang “Dinah,” and a DJ who couldn’t remember her name called her the “Dinah girl.” The name stuck, and she used it for the rest of her life. She sang and recorded with Xavier Cugat’s band, and recorded her first big solo hit, “Yes, My Darling Daughter” in 1941.
With her radio and recording successes, she was signed to host her own radio show, “Call to Music” in 1943. That same year she appeared in her first movie, “Thank Your Lucky Stars” starring Eddie Cantor. She became immensely popular, touring to entertain US troops during World War II and recording several hit records. Shore also appeared in musical films throughout the 1940s, including Belle of the Yukon (1944) and Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).
Like many radio stars, Dinah Shore made the move to television. In 1951, she made her television debut on The Ed Wynn Show, and also made a guest appearance on Bob Hope’s first NBC television special. These appearances resulted in NBC assigning her own regular TV show, The Dinah Shore Show in November 1951. Like many programs at the time, the show was given two 15-minute time slots during the week. In 1956, Chevrolet sponsored Dinah to host two one-hour specials, and their success led to Dinah Shore’s Chevy Show, a regular musical variety show that ran from 1956 until 1961, running in a Sunday evening time slot on NBC.
Shore’s success on the show can be attributed to her conservative vocal choices and middlebrow sensibilities. She, like many TV stars of the decade, was content to sing “standards” and “Tin Pan Alley” songs that were familiar to the TV audience. In particular, she was noted for her famed signature theme song, the catchy Chevrolet jingle, “See the USA in your Chevrolet,” accompanied by her closing gesture of a sweeping smooch to the audience.
The song was helped by the fact that its sponsor was an “all American” car, and the lyric: “America’s the greatest land of all,” also affirmed the conservative TV audience’s sensibilities. After the Chevy Show, Shore went on host three daytime television programs: Dinah’s Place (1970 to 1974), the 90-minute talk show Dinah! (1974 to 1980), and Dinah and Friends (1979 to 1984).
Her TV career ended in 1991 after a two-year run on cable TV’s The Nashville Network with the talk show, A Conversation with Dinah.
Dinah Shore achieved much success in her television career, winning the Emmy Awards for Best Female Singer (1954-55), Best Female Personality (1956-57), and Best Actress in a Musical or Variety Series (1959). However, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show rarely entered the top 20 ratings during its run, as it ran against CBS’s General Electric Theater hosted by Ronald Reagan, which regularly won the time slot (Reagan also had a better lead-in with The Ed Sullivan Show).
Besides TV, Dinah Shore was an avid golfer, and supporter of women’s golf. She founded the Colgate (and now Nabisco) Dinah Shore Tournament on the LPGA tour. Dinah Shore passed away on 24 February 1994 in Beverly Hills, California, after a brief battle with ovarian cancer.
Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts on music and television.