Hubby Spent $ 400,000
So now Dora Hall is featured in a TV show
By Joseph Finnigan. TV GUIDE, Aug. 21-27, 1971.
"And now ladies and gentlemen, 'Once Upon A Tour,' starring Dora Hall."
"Who's Dora Hall?"
"Dora Hall is Leo Hulseman's wife, that's who. And she's a singer."
"And who's Leo Hulseman?"
"Leo Hulseman owns the Solo Cup Company, has millions of dollars, and can spend it any way he wants to, including buying his wife a TV special for her very own."
And that's exactly what Mr. Hulseman did. He rented studio space from NBC, hired a crew of technicians, a producer, director, and a cast that includes Frank Sinatra Jr., Phil Harris, Rich Little, Oliver, Ben Blue, and Rosey Grier. Backing them were a 13-piece orchestra and 10 dancers. Add to that Mr. Hulseman's wife Dora Hall--a blonde grandmother of 16 grandchildren--and you have "Once Upon A Tour," a Walter Mitty-type fantasy about a little lady from Prairieville, Kan., who visits Hollywood and becomes a TV star.
You also have a bill estimated at more than $400,000, which Leo Hulseman gladly picked up.
Miss Hall's TV debut at an age when most ladies are gawking around Sun City was the talk of NBC when they were taping the show. Nobody seemed to know much about the charming lady who was singing up a storm on Stage Four, but there was a rumor, subsequently denied, that she was getting the TV special as a birthday present from her husband. When you own a cup company, houses in Chicago and Los Angeles, and play polo for a hobby, rumors pop up naturally.
So I went over to NBC to catch Dora's act. When I arrived she was singing "Blue Suede Shoes" and was dressed as pretty as Dinah Shore in a blue and gold ankle-length coat and pantsuit.
I also found Leo Hulseman, a gruff but friendly man. He was in the control booth overseeing the action. Occasionally he would bark out orders to the director, such as, "Tell her to hold that mike up, she's dropping it down." Or he'd criticize a camera angle: "You've got Sinatra's back there."
Mr. Hulseman--everybody called him Leo--is what baseball managers would call a "take-charge guy."
Once a production assistant came to Leo with ominous news that Phil Harris was threatening to walk off the show if he weren't finished by 6:15. Leo, who has been described as a tough polo player despite his 70-plus years, doesn't like threats. He said, "Does Phil Harris's contract say he has to leave by 6:15?" "No," the production man said. "Well, if he doesn't finish this show, he doesn't get paid," Leo snapped.
From time to time, others associated with the production dropped by the booth to speak with Leo.
Sandy Dvore, the artist and film-title maker, talked with him about hiring a still photographer. Comedian Harvey Lembeck was there for a while. Actor Sidney Miller came in too. He stood around while Phil Harris was singing, and said, "Phil's singing off key."
Nobody paid any attention, so Sidney repeated himself and went away. Phil continued singing off key, finished his song, and left at 6:15.
During a break in the taping, I asked Leo what was going on. "Well," he said, "I'm in the plastic-cup business and we're gonna spend considerable money in TV adverstising. So we thought we'd make our own TV show." He said it with the assurance of a man who'd been making TV specials all his life instead of manufacturing drinking cups. It never seemed to cross his mind that he might have a $400,000 disaster on his hands. The whole idea of spending that kind of money on an unknown singer--even if she's your wife--would frighten any veteran Hollywood producer. Howard Hughes didn't even do that for Jean Peters!
Leo's wife and star, Dora Hall, never sang in a television special before, although she traces her modest show business career back to the years before World War I.
"I've been entertaining since I was 3 years old," she said over lunch in one of those fancy Beverly Hills restaurants that are graced by the stars. "During World War I, I entertained troops and later went on the Pantages circuit. Toured constantly with three girl singers in a group called Harmony Maids."
However, her career as a Harmony Maid hit a discordant note in 1920. "I got tired of living out of a suitcase," she said. "I quit when I married Leo." They were married 45 years ago, and besides those 16 grandchildren, they also have two sons who keep an eye on the cups when Leo's out galloping the polo fields.
Ten years ago, Dora decided on a show-business comeback, "because I don't want the rocking chair to get me." Her idea was that she would make records to be distributed with packages of cups. So, over the years, she made children's records, sang teen-age tunes adn recorded a collection of "Today's Great Hits." "The records were put in packages of cups," she explained. "And there was also a card in there asking the buyer if he wanted to join the Dora Hall Fan Club."
It was an interesting idea--now, says Dora, her fan club has 41,500 members.
With Dora's recording career going well, the cups selling, and the fan club growing, a TV special was the next logical step. Husband Leo was the one who had the idea for "Once Upon A Tour."
"I thought it was a great idea," recalled Dora. "I was nervous at first, but I got over that when my husband said I looked like I was having the time of my life."
Once the show was taped, Leo's agents offered it to the networks. NBC thought about buying it as a one-night replacement for Andy Williams, but nothing came out of that plan. Still, Leo was unperturbed. "If the networks don't take it, we'll have it syndicated," he said. And that's exactly what he did.
He went to a syndication company and got it distributed to about 150 stations around the country for airing in August and September .
As for sponsors, don't worry about that. Leo's company has launched an advertising and promotion campaign for the show. Much of the money will be spent for advertising on the program: the rest for promotion. And there will be other advertisers buying time on a local basis.
Now that Dora Hall has established herself as something of a TV star, especially one who doesn't lack a sponsor, there's talk of a syndicated series which would have her as the central figure for musical travelogues.
Of course, much of that depends on Leo. Hollywood's rumor mongers might have thought that the special was a gift for his wife, but to Leo, though, it was definitely not a gift. "This is strictly business," he told me. "If she doesn't come off, we get someone else."