When television began to dominate American lives in the 1950s, it made possible an unprecedented phenomenon: fame untethered to accomplishment. Well-known people would be booked for the endless stream of talk, variety, news, and game shows (and other types of programs, such as dramas and comedies, where they might have cameos or guest shots), but they would often be presented in a context that didn’t necessarily communicate who they WERE. In almost every case, the fame did originate in actual achievement, but we seldom saw these people showcased in a manner that valued, respected, or often even acknowledged that. Great artists like Orson Welles or Truman Capote were folded in to a format where they were apparently about as important or significant as the other people on the bill with them, which might be some self-help author or a teenager having their first rock ‘n’ roll hit. In some cases the personality swallowed up the talent so that you always thought about the former and rarely the latter. Two good examples are Liberace and Charo, both excellent musicians, but invariably talked about in terms of their wardrobes and their mannerisms, and seldom their art. In light of this peculiarity of the medium, it was inevitable that there would arrive on the scene personalities who were JUST personalities. It’s astounding to think how revolutionary this development is. It’s like the dollar being unpegged from the gold standard. Someone could just be famous for being themselves, by virtue of the fact that they were on television. One of the first and biggest examples of this development was the personality known as Dagmar (Virginia Ruth Egnor, 1921-2001).
I hasten to point out that Dagmar was NOT untalented. She became a skilled sketch comedienne, singer, and dancer, but she learned these things on the job. Her main inherited asset was that she was gorgeous. She was a pin-up and fashion model from West Virginia and (under the name Jennie Lewis) she was cast in Olsen and Johnson’s Broadway show Laffing Room Only (1944-45). Basically she was a sight gag in black-out sketches, very much a staple of burlesque. In fact her next job was in the Broadway show Burlesque (1946-48) with Bert Lahr, doing much the same kind of thing. In 1950 she was in her last show on the Great White Way, Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath, the cast of which also featured Joyce Randolph of The Honeymooners.
In 1950 Jerry Lester booked her for a sketch on his show Broadway Open House. Her character was named Dagmar. The routine was so popular she became a regular on the show and Dagmar became her professional name. Basically the bit was that she was a “dumb blonde” in a low cut gown who came out and read a poem or delivered a lecture while people laughed at her and ogled her body. Dagmar rapidly became the star of the show, with remuneration to match (from $75 an appearance to $1,250). Lester quit in disgust. With Dagmar as host, the show only lasted one month. In 1952 she briefly had her own show Dagmar’s Canteen, on which she bantered with Korean War servicemen. This too was short-lived.
But that was okay. Because Dagmar appeared on ALL the shows as a guest, for two decades. She was on The Ken Murray Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Saturday Night Revue with Jack Carter, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Arthur Murray Party, The Jack Paar Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Mike Douglas Show, among others. She was on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow, and was on the cover of Life Magazine. She starred in a 1951 TV movie about her own life, The Dagmar Story. And she made personal appearances. Early on, in the days of presentation houses, she was paid $25,000 to appear with Milton Berle at the Roxy, and she performed with Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theatre. Later, she played nightclubs and performed in summer stock.
Dagmar retired from show business in the early 1970s. By then, the medium which had long forgotten Broadway Open House had also forgotten her. But in terms of legacy, I think a case can be made that she and her evening gown cast a long shadow.
To learn more about the history of variety entertainment, including TV variety which Dagmar ruled in the early 1950s, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,