Evelyn Dall: American actress, singer and dancer who enjoyed her greatest successes in the West End and on British screens

Tom Vallance
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:22

The vivacious American actress, singer and dancer Evelyn Dall made her name in the UK around the time of the Second World War. Dance-band enthusiasts admired her breezy personality and vocal sonority.

On screen, partnering comics Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley, she was a decided asset, and her West End musicals included Cole Porter's Something for the Boys, in which she played the role originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman. Askey wrote in his autobiography: "She was the original American blonde bombshell, and a real dolly girl she was too."

She was born Evelyn Mildred Fuss in the Bronx, New York, in 1918, and her father was a postal clerk. She later said: "I developed into one of those pesky little kids that will stand up and sing, though no one wants to hear them." At 15, she became part of a vaudeville act called Fields, Martin and Dall (The Sidesplitting Funsters), performing an eccentric ballroom-dancing routine in which the three would come to blows, with Dall being tossed around by the men. "I hit them and they hit me. Folks liked that kind of thing then. I didn't find it so hot, though. After six weeks I was so black and blue that I had to quit."

She made her radio debut in 1934, and the same year was cast in Billy Rose's Revue at the Casino de Paris in New York. The noted arranger and vocal coach Al Siegel then offered Dall a personal contract and coaching and arranged for her to join the cast of the Monte Carlo Follies. The show opened in Monte Carlo in 1934, then travelled to Paris before a triumphant engagement in London. During this time, newspapers reported that Dall's boyfriend was Victor de Rothschild.

Dall returned to Broadway as a featured player in the socially conscious revue Parade (1935), in which Dall had two solos, "I'm an International Orphan" and "Selling Sex", but the show was considered heavy-handedly propagandistic, and it ran for only 40 performances.

In 1934-35, Dall appeared in several Warner Bros "shorts" filmed at their Vitaphone studio in Brooklyn. In August 1935, she was performing a cabaret act when she received the cable that would change the course of her career. Bert Ambrose, whose dance band was one of the most popular in the UK, had seen her in the London version of Monte Carlo Follies, and had been impressed. When his vocalist was unable to tour, he cabled Dall asking her to replace her. She accepted, and the day after she arrived was singing with the band at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, getting a huge ovation for her rendition of "South American Joe".

She had previously attracted notice for her flimsy, almost transparent costumes, and, according to the saxophonist Billy Amstell, provocative attire was a factor in her immediate success. "She was a lovely, very attractive girl, with a beautiful face and fair hair and a lovely figure. When she ran on stage her boobs bounced up and down and wrong notes kept coming from the band. Ambrose couldn't make out what was going on. She must have been one of the first females to appear on stage without a bra – the boys in the band were taking their eyes off the music to look at her."

After she appeared and broadcast with the band in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Birkenhead Advertiser reported a deluge of mail asking about "Ambrose's new singer, who has taken the country by storm." Describing her as "a platinum blonde with the most expressive blue eyes I have ever seen," the reporter stated, "She dances as well as she sings. The amount of energy that's packed into her small body is amazing."

Dall made her first recording with Ambrose in September 1935, and the following year recorded the infectious "Organ Grinder's Swing", which became one of her signature numbers. In 1936 she featured on a cigarette card. Dall's first British film was Soft Lights and Sweet Music (1936), a revue notable for including some of the best variety acts of the day.

In 1936 Dall married Albert Holmes, the manager of Ambrose's band, not for love, but so she could continue to work in the UK. It had the second advantage of camouflaging Dall's ongoing affair with Ambrose, who was married with children. Dall was earning £50 a week at the time and living alone in a flat in Marble Arch. Some commentators have suggested that Dall's affection for the band leader never faltered, and that she eventually returned to the United States because he would not divorce his wife.

Dall's next film was Calling All Stars (1937), another revue-style film. Sing as You Swing (1937) had a tenuous plot about a radio station putting on an all-star variety show to combat its competitor; Dall was top-billed. In the lively Kicking the Moon Around (1938) she was a record-shop assistant with musical ambitions who falls in love with a millionaire (Hal Thompson) whose gold-digging fiancée tries to sabotage Dall's nightclub debut.

In 1938 Dall was invited to Buckingham Palace. The Duke of Kent had heard her at the Café de Paris, and asked Ambrose to bring her with the band to the Derby Ball, prompting a newspaper headline, "Girl Croons Before 1,000 Palace Guests".

Dall's first West End musical was Present Arms (1940), starring Arthur Askey, with music by Noel Gay, including a duet for Dall and the comic Max Wall. It ran for 204 performances, after which Dall played in pantomime, starring in Robinson Crusoe in Edinburgh. He Found a Star (1941) was a minor musical, but King Arthur was a Gentleman (1942), starring Askey as a soldier obsessed with the Arthurian legend, gave Dall some good opportunities to display her talents, particularly in a barrack-room song and tap number, "Actions Speak Louder Than Words". Miss London Ltd (1943), also starring Askey, was even better, but Time Flies (1944) was her most popular film, in which she and comedian Tommy Handley enter a time machine that sends them back to Elizabethan times.

On stage, Dall had a personal success in Something for the Boys, which opened in 1944 at the London Coliseum, but critics objected to the fanciful libretto (one character receives radio broadcasts through the fillings in her teeth) and it ran only seven weeks. Follow the Girls (1945) also with Askey, was a greater success, and Dall's hilarious rendition of "I Wanna Get Married" was a show-stopper.

In October 1946, Dall returned to the US, travelling as "Mrs Holmes" on the first post-war passenger voyage of the Queen Elizabeth. Accompanying her were Ambrose and Bobby Cohen, an American golfer and ex GI she had been seeing in London. Back home, Dall met Cohen's best friend, Sam, whom she married in 1947.

Dall was happy to retire to raise their two children, settling in Miami. In 2006 she moved to a nursing home where, at a party to celebrate her 88th birthday, she described the inmates as "a bunch of old farts". Her nephew, Don, told the historian and Dall archivist Grahame Newnham that Dall frequently reminisced about her time in the UK, which he thought was the happiest of her life.

Evelyn Mildred Fuss (Evelyn Dall), actress and singer: born New York 8 January 1918; married 1936 Albert Holmes (marriage dissolved), 1947 Sam Winter (died 1974; one son, one daughter); died Phoenix, Arizona 10 March 2010.

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