During his college days, Don Dellair had no thoughts of being in show business. He was going to be a dentist just like his father. “My father and brother were both dentists with nice lifestyles,” Don told me, and I decided—at 18—that I was going for the easy life. Dad had a great practice and was well-respected in the field. I figured I would go to college and eventually take over my father’s practice when he retired. Well, it didn’t work out quite so smoothly. I attended college with pre-dentistry as my major—and flunked every course the first semester.
“After getting that report, my father immediately called and told me to come home, that he wanted to talk to me—and not over the phone. When I got there he asked, ‘Who is paying for my tuition?’ I answered, ‘You dad.’ ‘Then I think I have a right to say something to you,’ he said. He told me that I shouldn’t live his life, that dentistry was something he was good at and enjoyed, but that I should go back to school and try to enroll in theater courses. I did and ended up graduating with honors in theater. My parents couldn’t have been prouder. I was very lucky to have parents that understood their children so well.
“Out of school, I thought I was getting a big break when I met a couple of old-time gangsters through some show business people. I didn’t know they were in the mob—how would I? They were just some guys who said, ‘Hey kid, you wanna make an album?’ I couldn’t say OK fast enough! ‘Take this money,’ they’d say, ‘and go buy yourself a tuxedo, because we’re giving you a spot.’ They got me music and a band, and put the whole thing together for me.
“Once again, my dad came to the rescue, noticing right away what I had gotten myself into. He said, ‘You need to get out of this thing.’ I was crushed and argued that everything was fine, and you know what? It really was. The mob was great to show business people. Gangsters always treated us with respect. Sure, we had to kickback a little from what we made in the clubs or recordings or wherever, but I wasn’t complaining. But he was firm, so I had to come up with an excuse the mob couldn’t argue with.
“It was while I was working in Montreal that my father forced the issue, I had to go to my boss at the time and tell him that my father wanted me to go back to college and study law. My boss said, ‘Your father said that?’ It was like they knew, but they let me out of my contract anyway. By that time I was already known in the recording world, so I immediately got another contract with people who weren’t gangsters. But it was really the mob that started my career.
“It wasn’t long before the agent Carmel Myers invited me to one of her famous soirees at her Park Avenue apartment in New York. She was well-known during the silent film era, playing opposite Rudolph Valentino in All Night Long, and starring as Iras in Ben Hur—as well as making a successful transition into sound movies such as Svengali and The Mad Scientist both with John Barrymore and Marian Marsh. From there she segued into business creating and marketing a very successful perfume line, but she couldn’t stay away from show business. She eventually worked as a talent agent and became known for brilliantly putting people together— which is what she did when she introduced me to Tommy Wonder and Margie Banks.
“She was right. We made a great team with Tommy dancing and me singing. Tommy danced with a life size doll. After awhile—as this dance routine became popular—we wanted a very special doll made, so we went to our friends the Westmore Brothers who did the make-up for Warner Brothers Studio’s and many others. The doll we had had a cartoon face, and we explained to the Westmore’s that we wanted a doll who looked more human, so that when the lights were dimmed the audience wouldn’t know she wasn’t a real girl. They immediately said, ‘We’ll make you one with Ann Sheridan’s face.; They said that because they hated her! ‘We can’t stand her,’ they told us. ‘She’s annoying and she yells and screams at us constantly. We’d love to see you drag her around every night.’ They didn’t even charge us! That doll is now in the Smithsonian Museum.
“We had such a wonderful career and met so many life-long good, good friends. Our act became famous the world over. At one point, Josephine Baker saw us and brought us to Paris. The French loved us and it was a fabulous life. We had a nice apartment that we didn’t even pay for—the show producers paid the rent. Ingrid Bergman and Michele Morgan were our neighbors and had apartments on the same floor we did. The French were lovely—I can’t stress how they embraced us. During the second year we were there, President Kennedy was shot, and our European friends rallied around us as if we had a death in our own family.
“This was around Thanksgiving and we were missing home, so we decided we would have an American Thanksgiving dinner for everyone. Well, what a production that was! You couldn’t go to the corner store and pick a turkey. We had to go to the south of France to a turkey farm to pick out a bird then return later to pick it up. When we went back to get it, Monsieur Matta and his wife presented the turkey to us as a gift and a token for the president that we just lost.
“Try as we might, we had trouble learning the language. Tommy only learned the dirty words from the chorus girls, and I just didn’t have an ear for it. The dancing girls would try to get Tommy into trouble by pretending to teach him some French words, and then tell him to practice by asking the stage manager for something. Well, of course what they taught him was the equivalent of, ‘Fuck you, you asshole.’ I kept telling him not to get sucked into their games, but he always fell for it.
“I can’t blame the chorus girls for this, but once Tommy thought he could go to the vegetable store and order all of the groceries in French. He wanted some beets, so he said what he thought was correct to the Madame about beets and she slapped him. He couldn’t understand why. Fortunately for us, Ingrid Bergman was also in the shop and came to our rescue, saying, ‘Tommy, what did you say?’ He explained he didn’t know what he did wrong and was just trying to buy some beets, then he repeated what he said. Evidently, something very close to the pronunciation of the word ‘beet’ is obscene, but the great Irigid Bergman apologized and set it all right for us with the Madame.
“We were getting ready to renew our contract to work the club in France for a third year when our agent from William Morris told us that we were being forgotten at home and had to come back. So we reluctantly went home and, luckily, we had as many bookings as we could handle. As great as it was in Paris, it was so good to be back home with all of our friends like Hildegarde and Liberace.
“Liberace was a dear, dear soul. No matter what trouble he got into, he was always the kindest, most loving—just an angel of a man. He took care of his mother, and both she and his sister Angie lived with him at his beautiful house in the Valley. His mother was a bit overbearing. One time when we were working the same town, we decided to go out after our shows ended. Well, he said, he had to go home to change first. This is a funny story—when we got to the house he said to give him a minute to change from his TV clothes. We spent the time chatting with Mrs. Liberace, and when he came downstairs she said in her heavy polish accent, ‘Ladislow, you can’t leave me, Ladislow, you can’t go out, you stay here.’ The three of us—Marge, Tommy and myself—just stood there watching this drama play out. He said, ‘Mom I’m just going to dinner with my friends I’ll be back soon.’ But still she said, ‘No, don’t leave me.’ And with that she falls to the ground in a heap! We thought it was a heart attack for sure, because she just went phew and dropped. But Liberace said, ‘Just step over her body and wait for me outside. I’ll be right behind you.’ She apparently did that all the time. He was out in a few minutes ready for dinner.
“Rock Hudson was another dear friend—only we never called him Rock; to us he was Roy. His real name was Roy Fitzgerald. That was the time in show business history when we had so many wonderfully talented people to work with and get to know—Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Johnny Ray, Julie Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Lee Philips, Jules Stein, The Ziegfeld Follies—I could go on, but I’d never stop. It was a great time to work, and I’m lucky to be able to look back and remember how I was a part of it.”
You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents