Dagmar, the voluptuous actress who became an overnight sensation playing the sexy dumb blond on NBC's pioneer late-night show "Broadway Open House" with comedian Jerry Lester in the early '50s, has died. She was 79.
Dagmar, who had been in ill health for a few years, died Tuesday at her home in Ceredo, W. Va.
"She was very unique--there was only one Dagmar and that was Dag," said Milton Berle, who had her on his "Texaco Star Theater" TV show in the late '40s and worked with her in his Las Vegas act in the '50s.
"I don't think she got enough credit for that character she played," Berle said Wednesday. "She played it so naturally, like a dumb Dora but beautiful. She was extra-talented. She could sing, she could dance, she knew how to throw a line and she was a good 'feed,' like a straight woman. She was a pro."
Born Virginia Ruth Egnor in Logan, W. Va., in 1921, Dagmar was one of seven children whose father worked as a coal miner and construction worker. Growing up in Huntington, W. Va., she attended business school for a year after high school and worked in a local drugstore. Married at 20, she moved to New York City during World War II to be with her Navy commander husband.
When he was shipped overseas, she remained in New York and began a career modeling sweaters.
With no previous show business experience, she was hired by the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson as a principal in their Broadway show "Laughing Room Only," in the mid-1940s. Renamed Jennie Lewis, she appeared in a revival of "Burlesque" with Bert Lahr and appeared frequently on early television variety shows calling for an amply proportioned young woman for comedy skits.
Then in 1950 came the career-making "Broadway Open House," a precursor to "The Tonight Show." Lester, a onetime Borsch-belt comic, renamed Jennie Lewis Dagmar for what originally was intended as a onetime bit.
"I supposedly was the band singer, but I never sang," she recalled in 1975. "When Jerry walked out the first night, he said, 'Who's that?' And someone said, 'That's my new band singer, Dagmar.' And he said, 'Does she sing?' And the other guy said, 'I don't know. I'm afraid to ask her.' "
An instant hit, Dagmar read poems and gave lectures--"treasises," she called them in her garbled English--on a variety of subjects.
Wearing low-cut gowns and standing 5-foot-11 in high heels, she delivered her poems and "treasises" in a high voice and with a deadpan, wide-eyed innocence.
To Dagmar, a mushroom was "a place where you make love." The word "singular" meant you're "musically inclined." And the word isolate? "That's when you admit that you are tardy."
She was such a hit that her salary soared from $75 a week to $1,250. She earned $25,000 for two weeks at the Roxy with Berle and appeared at the Paramount Theater with Frank Sinatra. Edward R. Murrow did a "Person to Person" interview with her in her lavish penthouse on Central Park South, and she even appeared on the cover of Life magazine.
Dagmar became so popular so fast that Lester, the veteran performer, resented her overnight success and reportedly attempted to minimize her role on the show. Finally, after a year of friction between the two, Lester left the show, and "Broadway Open House" disappeared from the air soon after.
In 1952, Dagmar returned as host of her own short-lived variety show, "Dagmar's Canteen," and she later served as a panelist on "Masquerade Party."
Although she once received 2,000 fan letters and even recorded a duet with Sinatra, her celebrity was short-lived.
After her initial fling with fame in the '50s, she semiretired but kept a hand in show business by doing a nightclub act and appearing in summer stock.
Dagmar, who never had children, was married three times--to Angelo Lewis, a Huntington businessman; actor Danny Dayton; and bandleader Dick Hinds, a marriage that ended with his death in the early '70s.
After retiring in the '70s, she lived in Newtown and Waterbury, Conn., and five years ago moved to Ceredo, where she lived with her brother, Bob Egnor, and his wife, Barbara.
Family was always important to Dagmar, even during the years when her show-business career took priority.
"She was generous and caring," said her sister Mary Ann Wolf, of Huntington. "When she started making money, we had money."
And contrary to Dagmar's dumb blond image, Bob Egnor describes his sister as "brilliant and very vivacious," someone who "reached out to people and was a good friend to everybody." In her later years in Ceredo, he said, she would occasionally stop by a senior center in nearby Huntington "to talk to seniors and try to cheer them up."
In addition to Bob Egnor and Mary Ann Wolf, Dagmar is survived by two other brothers, Danny Egnor of Huntington, and Jack Egnor of Tubac, Ariz.; and two other sisters, Jean Nichols of Miami; and Tresa Jacobs of Vancouver, Wash.
A memorial service will be held Saturday in Huntington, W. Va.