Monday, November 29, 2010

Happy birthday, Dagmar!

She was blonde, stood 5’8” and her measurements were 42”-23”-39”…but she was anything but the stereotypical bimbo.  Oh, she was certainly utilized in that fashion—none more so than her early television success on Broadway Open House, a raucous hour hosted by Jerry Lester (on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays—Mondays and Wednesdays had Morey Amsterdam on hand) that was a precursor to what eventually became The Tonight Show.  On Open House, guests came by to schmooze and perform (if they were up to it) and Lester also had a cast of regular performers, one of whom he nicknamed “Dagmar” as a jokey reference to the character of the youngest daughter on the popular CBS comedy-drama Mama.  Dagmar’s initial shtick was to walk in and read goofy poetry with a deadpan expression, but viewers soon learned that the “dumb blonde” was actually bright and quick-witted…which eventually led to friction between Lester and his “creation.”

Dagmar was born eighty-nine years ago on this date in my home state of West VirginiaHuntington, if you go by the IMDb…Wikipedia pinpoints it a little closer to the tiny hamlet of Yawkey.  (Hey, if Dagmar didn't come from the Mountain State chances are you'd be reading about Yakima Canutt or George Walsh.)  Her real name was Virginia Ruth Egnor—“Ruthie” to her friends and neighbors—and after attending high school and business school in Huntington she held down a number of odd jobs, including waitressing and soda jerking.  She married a naval officer named Angelo Lewis in 1941 and moved to New York when he was assigned to the Naval Ferry Command at Long Island.  Adopting the name of Jennie Lewis, she pursued a modeling career…but an audition for wacky comics Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson landed her a speaking part in their stage revue Laffing Room Only in 1944.  She also appeared (as Bubbles the chorus girl) with the legendary Bert Lahr in Burlesque, a show that ran from December 1946 to January 1948.

Dagmar was one of the first personalities in the TV biz to start out as a supporting player only to watch their popularity threaten to eclipse that of the show’s star…which is precisely what happened on Broadway Open House.  Lester soon became green with envy at her success, and their subsequent feud resulted in his walking off the program in May 1951.  Dagmar soldiered on with “Fat” Jack E. Leonard as the new star, but the show had by that time run its course and left the airwaves in August 1951.

The relationship between Jerry and Dagmar was a symbiotic one; Lester left the show to pursue other opportunities but he never obtained the degree of success that he did with Open House…and it went the same way with Dagmar—her late-night talk-variety series, Dagmar’s Canteen, lasted but a few months in 1952 and for the most part her TV exposure was limited to guest appearances on programs like What’s My Line?, Masquerade Party and Hollywood Squares.  She became a fixture on the nightclub circuit and was married twice more (once to character actor Danny Dayton) before returning to those West Virginia hills (how majestic and how grand) in June 1996 to be near her family.  She passed away on October 9, 2001—but for vintage television fans, she was a presence not soon forgotten.  Happy birthday, Ms. Dagmar…and to these notables as well:   

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) – Author of Little Women

Konstantin Shayne (1888-1974) – Russian stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include The Seventh Cross, The Stranger, I Was a Communist for the FBI and Vertigo

Roland Totheroh (1890-1967) – Legendary motion picture cinematographer who worked on all of Charlie Chaplin’s films from his Mutual comedies to 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux

Yakima Canutt (1895-1986) – Legendary actor-stuntman who also worked in the director’s chair, helming serials like Manhunt of Mystery Island, Federal Operator 99, G-Men Never Forget and The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James

Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) – Motion picture choreographer renowned for his intricate, military-style dance routines; his directorial oeuvre includes Gold Diggers of 1935, Hollywood Hotel, Babes in Arms and For Me and My Gal

John Alexander (1897-1982) – Stage, screen and television character actor best known as “Teddy” Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace; his other films include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Horn Blows at Midnight, Winchester ’73 and Fancy Pants

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) – Narnia chronicler

Genevieve Tobin (1899-1995) – Stage and screen actress whose vehicles include One Hour with You, Success at Any Price, The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Petrified Forest

Mildred Harris (1901-1944) – Silent and sound film actress best known as the mother of Charlie Chaplin’s first child; her film appearances include Intolerance, Polly of the Storm Country, Traffic in Hearts and Flaming Love

Kay Johnson (1904-1975) – Stage and screen actress whose vehicles include Dynamite, Madam Satan, American Madness, Thirteen Women and Of Human Bondage; mother of TDOY character actor fave James Cromwell

Luis Van Rooten (1906-1973) – Stage, screen, radio and television actor whose vehicles include Hitler’s Madman, The Big Clock, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Detective Story

Dale Van Sickel (1907-1977) – Actor-stuntman whose métier was B-westerns and serials, where he usually played a thug or henchman; born in Eatonton, GA, a small town where my sister Kat lived and worked for many years before ending up in Athens

Richard W. Bann (1909-     ) – Author, film historian and Facebook compadre whom I suspect is putting everyone on with that birth date

Al Schwartz (1910-1988) – Emmy Award-winning writer-director-producer brother of Sherwood, with whom he collaborated with in radio and television, notably on Red Skelton’s show

Fran Ryan (1916-2000) – Stage, screen and television character actress who was sort of a poor man’s Marjorie Main; she had roles on such TV series as The Doris Day Show, Green Acres and The Wizard but is best known as the woman who replaced Amanda Blake’s Kitty Russell in the last season of Gunsmoke

George Walsh (1917-2005) – Longtime announcer on the radio and television versions of Gunsmoke (“They satisfy…the most”); also worked on Escape, Suspense, On Stage, The Whistler and many other shows

Merle Travis (1917-1983) – Country music singer-songwriter great who also appeared in a few B-westerns including Montana Plains, Roaring Rangers and Galloping Thunder

Frank Reynolds (1923-1983) – Veteran ABC News anchorman/journalist who’s famous for experiencing a slight meltdown during the reporting of President Ronald Reagan’s assassination

Naomi Stevens (1926-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actress who had regular roles on such TV series as The Flying Nun, The Doris Day Show, My Three Sons, The Montefuscos and Vega$

Vin Scully (1927-     ) – Veteran radio and television sportscaster who also narrated the TV sitcom Occasional Wife

Rupert Crosse (1927-1973) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Shadows, Too Late Blues, Ride in the Whirlwind, The Reivers and TV’s The Partners

Diane Ladd (1932-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress whose vehicles include The Reivers, Chinatown, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Rambling Rose and TV’s Alice and Kingdom Hospital

John Mayall (1933-     ) – English blues singer-songwriter

Peter Bergman (1939-     ) – Multi-faceted comedic performer who’s one quarter of the Firesign Theatre

Chuck Mangione (1940-     ) – Composer-musician who was also a running gag on TV’s King of the Hill

Denny Doherty (1940-2007) – Papa

Jody Miller (1941-     ) – Grammy Award-winning country music vocalist whose forte was country music covers of pop hits (He’s So Fine, Baby I’m Yours)

Ed Gorman (1941-     ) – Mystery novelist, blogger and Facebook chum

Felix Cavaliere (1942-     ) – Lead Rascal

Garry Shandling (1949-     ) – Emmy Award-winning standup comedian/actor who achieved TV success with the sitcoms It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show

Joshua Brand (1950-     ) – Television writer-director-producer who created such shows as A Year in the Life, St. Elsewhere, I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure

Jeff Fahey (1952-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Silverado, White Hunter Black Heart, The Lawnmower Man, Wyatt Earp and TV’s The Marshal and Lost

Joel Coen (1954-     ) – Academy Award-winning motion picture writer-director-producer whose oeuvre (in tandem with brother Ethan) includes Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Are Thou?

Howie Mandel (1955-     ) – The only time this man was not obnoxious and annoying was when he was on St. Elsewhere…and even there he had his cringe worthy moments

Devon Scott (1958-     ) – Television ingénue actress whom I remember from the 70s sitcoms We’ll Get By and The Tony Randall Show

Kim Delaney (1958-     ) – TDOY actress fave whose television vehicles include Tour of Duty, Philly, NYPD Blue, CSI: Miami and Army Wives

Cathy Moriarty (1960-     ) TDOY actress fave and Facebook bud whose vehicles include Raging Bull, White of the Eye, Soapdish, Matinee and TV’s Bless This House

Tom Sizemore (1961-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Born on the Fourth of July, Heart and Souls, True Romance, Heat, Bringing Out the Dead and Black Hawk Down

Andrew McCarthy (1962-     ) – Inexplicably popular stage, screen and television actor (my sister Debbie thought he was all that and a bag of chips) whose vehicles include Heaven Help Us, Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Less Than Zero and Weekend at Bernie’s

Don Cheadle (1964-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor whose vehicles include Devil in a Blue Dress, Volcano, Boogie Nights, Crash, Hotel Rwanda and TV’s Golden Palace and Picket Fences

Ellen Cleghorne (1965-     ) – Actress/standup who always made me laugh on such shows as Saturday Night Live and Cleghorne!

I’d also like to take a moment to recognize an anniversary today—seventy years ago on this date, W.C. Fields’ classic comedy The Bank Dick was released to theaters.  But for the story on that, you need to mosey on over to Edward Copeland on Film…Godfrey Daniel!  Mother of pearl!

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quizshowbob said...

"Creek Alley" is my fave M & P tune.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

My personal favorite is Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Coming to the Canyon); I picked Alley because birthday boy Doherty is mentioned in the lyrics.

Scott said...

MST3K fans will remember Dale Van Sickle from...well, at least the credits of the Commando Cody serial Radar Men From the Moon (who don't appear at any point in the serial to actually use radar, but hey, it sounded cool), and Manhunt in Space, a movie stitched together from two episodes of the Rocky Jones, Space Ranger series.

Stacia said...

to those West Virginia hills (how majestic and how grand)


Between Dagmar and Pickles Sorrell (both of 'em, but mostly Joan Shawlee), Morey was associated with some really hot women. There's a running joking about climbing Mount Pickles in my household... but this is a family blog.

And Scott, I love your MST3K footnotes to these posts! (I just saw "Diabolik" for the first time last night. Sniff!)

Scott said...

Ah, thanks, Stacia. Now I feel better about the lavish salary Ivan's paying me.

Diabolik is one of those rare episodes where I actually kind of like the movie apart from all the riffs. It's the only one they did which actually seems to catch that delightfully gaudy but cool Pop-Art/Comic Book feel of late 60s Eurotrash -- the style that films like Operation Double 007, Secret Agent Super Dragon and Pumaman strain for, but fail spectacularly short of.