Shirley Dinsdale, Judy Splinters and The First Emmy

We won’t bury the lede here. The primary reason you should know the name Shirley Dinsdale (1926-1999) is that she was the winner of the very first Emmy Award. She won in the category of Outstanding Television Personality — the very first person to walk down the aisle and accept her Emmy trophy at the very first Emmy ceremony in 1949. She also hosted the very first children’s television show in Los Angeles.

And yet…that’s trivia, isn’t it? It’s history, but they’re frivolous factoids. The reality is even more remarkable than those remarkable bits of information indicate. The fact that Dinsdale was only 22 years old when she won that Emmy hints at the bigger picture. She was a wunderkind. The San Francisco native been given a ventriloquist doll at the age of five to help her cope with a year-long convalescence (she’d been badly scalded by a falling kettle). She applied herself seriously to learning the skill, and took lessons from professional vents. By the age of 14, she was appearing on local radio with her wooden partner, Judy Splinters, a bratty, saucy character with pigtails. National success came within months. In 1942 she became a regular on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and she also appeared on the programs of Rudy Vallee, Bob Burns, and Nelson Eddy. Still only 19 years old, she toured with the U.S.O. during World War Two, mostly performing at hospitals. By 1949, she had her own NBC television show, which was broadcast in Los Angeles, the Midwest and Eastern markets through 1950. After this, she had local shows in Chicago and New York City. She was so popular that the Ideal toy company manufactured and sold Judy Splinters dolls.

And then in 1953, when she was only 27 years old, Shirley Dinsdale retired from show business, married and raised a family. Given that she was clearly a born entertainer, it seems unthinkable. And yet those early days of live television were an exhausting grind. Working in the medium gave Milton Berle a heart attack! And, well, it was 1953. It was the expected choice for women to make.

The story’s not over, though! When her kids were nearly grown, Dinsdale (now Shirley Dinsdale Layburn) enrolled in SUNY Stony Brook and studied respiratory and cardiopulmonary therapy. This fact reminds me that Paul Winchell once patented an artifical heart device. These two probably had a lot to talk about! In 1973, she became head of the Respiratory Therapy Department of a hospital in Port Jefferson, Long Island. I find the career choice fascinating and, upon reflection, not the slightest bit random. What is a ventriloquist concerned with more than the mechanics of BREATH? The “vent” in ventriloquism MEANS breath, or wind. She probably knew more about how to make efficient use of the lungs than anybody!

Shirley Dinsdale seemed to be on an accelerated timetable, though. She was only 50 when she retired from hospital work, and only 72 when she died of cancer.

To learn more about the variety arts, including radio and television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous