BOOTLEG FILES 824: “Once Upon a Tour” (1972 TV special designed to boost the career of Dora Hall).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A brief VHS video release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A music rights clearance issue coupled with an overwhelming degree of obscurity.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Utterly unlikely.
During the 1970s, a series of variety specials turned up on independent TV stations around the U.S. that revolved around a singing-dancing-joking septuagenarian named Dora Hall. If you born after the 1970s passed into the history books, there’s an excellent chance you never heard of Dora Hall. And if you were around during the Decade That Good Taste Forgot, there’s an equally excellent chance that Dora Hall’s name does not ring that proverbial bell.
She was born Dorothy Myrtle Donahoe and her birth is usually attributed to the year 1900, although it was possible she was born earlier. When she was 10, she made her show business debut as part of a vaudeville song-and-dance act. She later performed as part of a vocal trio called The Harmony Maids that reportedly entertained the U.S. soldiers before they shipped out for World War I, but at 18 she retired to marry Leo Hulseman, who worked for the Dixie Cup Company.
Hulseman believed that he could a better job with disposable cups and in the 1930s he started Solo Cup Company. This venture was wildly successful, with Hulseman’s product line running the gamut from the paper cups attached to water coolers to the red Solo cups sold on college campuses and at sports arenas.
By 1962, Mrs. Hulseman wanted to move beyond her station as a mother and grandmother and return to her show business roots. And thanks to her husband’s millions, she resumed her singing career with a series of records under labels that her husband financed. Unfortunately, the newly christened Dora Hall made little impact on the music industry – her only single to chart was a 1962 tune “Hello Faithless” that somehow reached #39 on the Chicago station WLS’ Top 40 list for one week before disappearing into obscurity.
Solo Cup Company tried to bring the musical charms of Dora Hall to the masses by including her 45 rpm records in packages of Solo Cozy Cups. (See the below photo.) But that ingenious gimmick didn’t propel the aging songstress to stardom. In 1972, Hulseman put up $400,000 to produce a one-hour television special that would not only showcase Dora Hall’s singing, but also her dancing and sense of light comedy.
The resulting “Once Upon a Tour” feels like two shows running at once. One show is a typical silly/campy 1970s-style TV special with B-list stars trying to be hip and relevant, and the other show is Dora Hall living her dream of being in the Hollywood spotlight.
“Once Upon a Tour” opens at a bus stop in tiny Prairieville, Kansas, where a bus pulls in for a stop. Rosey Grier is the bus driver and he alerts his passengers that they are stopping for a brief rest – except for one woman sitting by an open window, the bus appears to be empty. Dora Hall runs to the bus carrying a suitcase and proclaiming that she was there to take the bus to Hollywood. As luck would have it, Prairieville is the only stop on the bus, which is heading straight for Hollywood.
Once in the entertainment capital, Dora Hall joins a tour of a television studio. Rich Little is the tour guide and he takes his visitors past rehearsal halls where Phil Harris, Frank Sinatra Jr. and the mononym pop star Oliver are practicing their songs. During the tour, Dora Hall daydreams about appearing with the famous entertainers – she joins the singers plus Little in a medley of songbook standards and 60s pop tunes – and also imagines herself performing in her own solo numbers. And speaking of going solo, an eagle-eyed viewer can spot Solo Cozy Cups placed at various locations throughout the studio.
The genuine surprise about “Once Upon a Tour” is that Dora Hall was genuinely charming and, with the right material, could sell a number with style and pizazz. The peak of the production is a song and dance number that she performs with another old-time vaudevillian, the great Ben Blue. Dressed in Blue’s trademark shabby suit and hat, the unlikely leading lady matches Blue in the dance steps while purring a bluesy number about his supposedly feckless concept of fidelity. It’s a lot of fun.
Sadly, the special keeps putting its cast into segments where they are vocally ill-suited. Dora Hall should not be singing “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hey Jude,” Rich Little should not be tasked with singing “Rocky Raccoon” and Frank Sinatra Jr. should not be steamrolling through “Happy Together” sounding like a second-rate imitation of his father’s distinctive vocalizing. A few comic segments, with Little doing a horrible Dean Martin imitation and Blue leading an incompetent chorus in pop-gospel tunes, is not helped by canned laughter and applause on the soundtrack.
This production was shot in the summer of 1970 and throughout 1971 Hulseman tried to interest the three major networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – in “Once Upon a Tour” with the guarantee that Solo Cup Company would cover the commercial sponsorship for the production. All three networks turned him down, so in January 1972 he arranged for the production to be syndicated to independent stations around the country as a prime time special. During the 1970s, these stations mostly offered old movies, reruns of classic shows, local sports and syndicated talk shows for their prime-time line-up, so having a fully sponsored original variety special – even one as wobbly as “Once Upon a Tour” – was a good business proposition as a one-off happening.
There was no great interest from the public in “Once Upon a Tour,” but Hulseman used his millions to produce several additional Dora Hall specials that were sold into syndication with Solo Cup Company sponsorship during the 1970s. These specials would later be packaged in the early 1980s as VHS videos sold with the company’s disposable cups.
Dora Hall recorded several more records – including a disco collection! – before retiring at the end of the 1970s. When she passed away in 1988, her death went unnoticed by the entertainment media.
Incredibly, some people fondly recalled Dora Hall’s efforts and some of her television work can be found on YouTube in unauthorized postings. Since it is impossible imagine anyone working to clear the music rights to the songs in her specials while restoring the production to a 4K level, these YouTube selections will have to serve as Dora Hall’s thin slice of show biz immortality.
And even more remarkably, black-and-white rehearsal footage for this special can be found, including several Dora Hall songs that were cut from the final offering.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with a new episode every Monday, and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.