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by David Westheimer


It was a bittersweet experience.

Watching a vintage video cassette of Dinah Shore performing with a medley of guests, all major artists. Peggy Lee, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Jack Lemmon, Bing Crosby. A diverse, vastly entertaining group with one thing, apart from them all being gifted entertainers, in common.

Like Dinah Shore herself, all have passed on.

I never saw Mahalia Jackson, Bing Crosby or Jack Lemmon in person. Of the others, although I never saw Peggy Lee in person, or Groucho Marx, either, I have tales to tell. While I never saw Peggy Lee in person, I did have some e-mail communication with her website manager while researching a column about Miss Lee for Senior Women. The website manager later wrote me she had read the column to Miss Lee. And though I never spoke with Groucho, I once heard his voice across a not-too-crowded room. It was when I was a TV columnist for the Houston Post. I got a tip he was in Houston registered at the Rice Hotel, a downtown hostelry that was the city’s leading hotel. I knocked on the door of his suite and a little boy, his son, Arthur, answered.

Groucho’s voice called from a bedroom.

“Who is it, Arthur?”

So I told Arthur who I was and Arthur shouted back to his father, “He says he’s a reporter from the Houston Post.”

“What does he want, Arthur?”

“He says he wants to interview you.

”Tell him to go away.”

So I went away.

Pearl Bailey I interviewed in Los Vegas, where she was appearing at one of the major hotels. As we talked, she refreshed herself with libations of white wine and seltzer, explaining that the owner of a club she played had told her she could drink white wine all night without getting a buzz on if she mixed it with seltzer water.

Well, he was wrong.

Dody and I met Ella Fitzgerald by chance. We ran into her in an elevator on an elevator in New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where we were all staying at the time. The lateish sixties, I think. We introduced ourselves and told her how much we admired her work. Then, in the 1980s, when I was in Cedars Sinai for aortic valve replacement, Dody passed an open door on a corridor and saw Miss Fitzgerald sitting up in a hospital bed. Dody went in and they had a nice conversation. Sorry I missed it.

After leaving a Hollywood restaurant with Dody and my ophthalmologist and his wife, I saw a car in the parking lot, one of the three cars of that sort in town, I had read, one of which belonged to Frank Sinatra. Sinatra had just been signed to play Col. Joe Ryan in the film adaptation of my novel, Von Ryan’s Express. So I went back into the restaurant . And there he was, sitting at a table with an imposing, bodyguard-looking kind of gentleman. Who rose to cut me off as I walked toward them. But Sinatra waved him away as I approached to introduce myself. Sinatra was so cordial I went back outside and brought Dody and the others to meet him. And Sinatra got to his feet when I introduced the ladies.

A real gentleman, I thought. But not entirely. For the movie, he said, “They are going to shoot the book.” They didn’t. They shot Col. Ryan. In the novel, he was very much alive at the end.

I interviewed George Burns in his suite at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston when he and Gracie Allen played the Shamrock. Gracie was in the suite, too, but didn’t say much. He didn’t feed her any lines. He was as witty offstage as on. And he taught me the correct way to light a cigar:

Don’t put one end to your mouth. Just rotate the tip in the flame until it glows. Then you may start puffing. I don’t know if it works for cigarettes. I haven’t smoked one since I was 12 years old. If my doctor hadn’t ordered me off cigars years ago, I would still be lighting them George Burns style.

I was better acquainted with Dinah Shore that I was with any of her guest performers. I interviewed her several times and she knew my name and the paper I worked for. But she remembered that about just anybody who interviewed her. (Oveta Culp Hobby never forgot who anyone was, either). I’ve already written in Senior Women about a dessert binge Dody and I experienced with her, her press agent and various NBC folks at Hollywood’s Brown Derby. After lunch, when dessert menus were passed around, Miss Shore said, “Let’s have a circle nosh.” She explained everyone was to order a different dessert, take one bite, and pass it to the one his or her right. Which we did.

She was known for the gorgeous gowns she wore on her shows. When she wanted to deduct the cost as a business expense, Internal Revenue decreed that if she could sit down in it, it wasn’t a costume and therefore not deductible. If she couldn’t sit down in it, it was a costume and therefore deductible.

Maybe a good circle nosh made a gown less sittable-down in.


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