Dora’s World: Remembering Dora Hall, Queen Of The Vanity Record

The prolific and pointless musical career of a woman with limited talent but unlimited resources.

As you probably know, we at The Reprobate are particularly fond of unique musical talents, and in these times of digital distribution and home recording setups, there are plenty to choose from. But back in the 1960s, it was a lot harder for ‘unusual’ talents to get their music out to the masses – record labels were a lot fussier about the likely financial returns that a recording might provide and while individual taste might make us think that some atrocious recordings were released by major labels, they at least had to pass a certain degree of approval – from the record-buying public, if no one else. To bypass this particular system, you generally needed to have a large disposable income – or, more likely, to be married to someone with a large disposable income who was always going to support your hopes and dreams.

Enter Dora Hall and her husband Leo Hulseman. Dora wanted to be a singing star, and Leo wanted to make her happy. The fact that Dora was a good way past the first flush of youth – certainly beyond the point where one might sensibly consider launching a pop music career – and perhaps lacked that certain something needed to break big in the showbiz world was not going to be allowed to get in their way, and so from 1963 until the end of the 1970s, Dora was bought a curious artificial celebrity by her doting husband.

Leo was the CEO of the Solo Cup Company, a business that specialised in the world of disposable plastic cups. Today, that would make him some sort of environmental monster, but back then it was big business – because who in the right mind would want a cup that you had to wash and reuse when you could just throw one away? Disposable cups gave Leo the money to launch an equally throw-away career for his wife.

Now, let’s make one thing clear – Dora was no Florence Foster Jenkins. She could just about hold a tune, and even though most of her recordings have a curious off-key shoddiness to them, that seems to be as much down to the production and the session musicians who were – let’s assume here – not the cream of the crop. But Dora was born in 1900, and while she had a brief career with a singing troupe as a teenager, had given up her career in the early 1920s when she married. Quite what possessed her to decide to make a comeback in her mid-sixties remains a mystery, but unsurprisingly, record labels were not exactly fighting to sign her up after hearing her warbling, drained-of-all-essence covers of recent hits. Step forward devoted hubby Leo with his vast – and seemingly very disposable – fortune. Why leave that money to your sixteen grandchildren when you can instead piss it all away on your wife’s vanity projects? Hell, I admire the shamelessness of it all.

Leo set up a bunch of record labels as fronts – Rainbeau, Premore, Calemo and Cozy – that existed almost entirely to release his wife’s recordings. Oddly, the labels did have at least one other performer signed to them, possibly to give the impression of being real businesses rather than vanity presses, but if Larry Taylor had hoped that signing to Cozy was the first step to chart success, he was going to be disappointed. Radio stations were wary of vanity recordings, banned from accepting payola to play records and oddly not very interested in an obscure grandmother performing lacklustre cover versions of show tunes and old pop hits. But no matter, because Leo had his own way of getting her recordings out to the public.

For years, Dora’s records were given away with packs of Solo Cups. Hapless customers were suckered in with the promise of a “top tune record” – no artist mentioned, but who doesn’t want a free pop seven-inch? Some discs were supplied with the package itself, others needed to be sent away for – but hey, it’s worth the cost of a stamp for a free gift, even if the result is the most astonishing version of Satisfaction or Daydream you’re ever likely to hear. What people thought when they played these records is hard to tell, but I doubt many rushed out to their local record store in search of more of the same.

In theory, this was all money down the pan for Leo and his business, but what price a wife’s happiness, eh? In any case, the cost of recording and pressing the records must’ve been a drop in the ocean compared to what came next.

The interesting thing about celebrities – actual, famous celebrities – is that for all their mouthing off and claims of artistic integrity, there is very little that they won’t do for money. Even the wealthiest never quite seem to have enough, hence the TV commercials, public appearances and endorsements. Famous people will do pretty much anything if you pay them enough. They’ll even appear on vanity TV specials starring a woman in her seventies that no one has ever heard of. We know this because that’s exactly what a lot of celebrities did from 1971, when the first Dora Hall variety special was made.

Leo, as it turned out, also co-owned a Culver City TV studio where celebrity TV specials were shot. Well, if it was good enough for Raquel Welch, it was good enough for Dora. Once Upon A Tour was a musical spectacular in which Dora appeared alongside second division celebrities like Frank Sinatra Jr, Rosey Grier, Oliver and Rich Little, all of whom had to pretend that she was one of their famous pals and not some eccentric pensioner who they had presumably met for the first time on the day of the recording.

Unsurprisingly, the networks were not remotely interested in this musical spectacular, but syndication came to the rescue, as product-hungry local stations snapped it up. The fact that the show was effectively given away to them probably helped too. Nevertheless, flushed with this success, more Dora specials followed: Moments With Dora, Secret Sleuth, Rose on Broadway and Dora’s World among them. Each would come complete with special offers on her recordings, and from what we can see of them today, every one of them was painfully bad with Dora delivering dialogue as effectively as she delivered rock lyrics. But why take my word for how good these were? Watch Dora’s World for yourself.

By the end of the 1970s, Dora had reached the end of the line – the era of the TV variety special was over and – more importantly – Dora was just too old to maintain even the pretence of being a star. She did briefly enter the infomercial world around 1979, where she offered free VHS copies of her specials with collections of disposable cups – an offer most people found surprisingly easy to refuse. Vanishing back into the obscurity that she arguably never left to begin with, Dora Hall died in 1988. She left behind some 22 LPs – including the soundtracks to her TV specials and a lot of discs with the word ‘hits’ in the title- and an extraordinary 133 singles. Her work has yet to really become collectable – though there was a fan club of sorts, the website for which no longer seems to be online.

DAVID FLINT

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