Remembering Lee Hale

Lee Portrait (descreened)
A portrait photo of Lee Hale used for the jacket of his first tome, Backstage at The Dean Martin Show, co-authored with Richard Neely.

“I wasn’t born in a trunk. I never heard of ‘greasepaint’ or a ‘follow spot.’ But I think I knew from the beginning that I was going to be in show business.” So reads the opening paragraph of The LEE HALE Story, the autobiography of The Dean Martin Show’s longtime Music Director who, we are profoundly saddened to report, passed away last Friday at the age of 96.

One-third of the triumvirate largely responsible for molding Dean’s weekly television program into what many consider to have been the best variety series ever made (the other two being Producer-Director Greg Garrison and of course, above all, Dean himself), Lee Hale, during his long and storied career, amassed a slew of credits and a pile of awards, and gained the respect and admiration of legions of prominent figures in Hollywood.

After a triumphant debut in September 1965, Dean’s weekly variety series had in subsequent outings started to sputter in the ratings, and unhappy with the results, NBC brass fired the program’s original producer, Bob Collier, replacing him with the show’s Director, Greg Garrison, who in turn recruited Lee Hale — the latter having already chalked up a considerable number of professional accomplishments — to bring some fresh musical ideas to the proceedings.

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Lee Hale’s screen credit on a 1972 episode of The Dean Martin Show.

Just prior to coming aboard, Lee had served as Choral Director on a CBS-TV variety series called The Entertainers that, although it lasted only one season, boasted as regulars Carol Burnett and a stellar cast of both established and up-and-coming performers, many of whom — often through Lee’s recommendations — would later become familiar faces to DMS viewers — among them, Bob Newhart, Caterina Valente, Dom DeLuise, Ruth Buzzi, and a young former Miss America contestant by the name of Melissa Stafford.

Even before overseeing The Lee Hale Singers on The Entertainers, Lee had himself been a vocalist with a group called The Manhattans, and as a part of Buster Davis’ choir on NBC’s Bell Telephone Hour. But his love of music, including his knack for composing lyrics and melodies, stretched all the way back to his youth, growing up in Tacoma, Washington and writing musical numbers, first for high school and college theater productions, and then as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II. 

Indeed, his affection for movie musicals of the 1930s and ‘40s, especially the Busby Berkeley-Warner Bros. pictures and MGM extravaganzas like The Wizard of Oz, would eventually yield artistic dividends, presaging and informing his creation and supervision of The Golddiggers and The Dingaling Sisters; his screening and fashioning (along with choreographer Ed Kerrigan) of movie musical finales for the 8th season of the DMS; and the fondness that he shared with Dean, raised during the same era, for vintage songs.

In point of fact, through his work on The Dean Martin Show and Golddiggers series, Lee almost singlehandedly kept alive tunes from The Great American Songbook on regular weekly television between the mid-‘60s and mid-‘70s, enabling those numbers to be enjoyed by an older generation, while introducing them to a whole new one. It was a feat not lost on the great Irving Berlin, who routinely granted Lee permission to use his music on the DMS, even while turning down other shows  — a symbol of recognition in which Lee rightfully took enormous pride.

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A replica of the emblem used to showcase the honoree (or victim, depending on your point of view) on each of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts — in this instance, one created especially for The Golddiggers Super Site’s 2008 salute to Lee Hale.

For The Dean Martin Show, Lee — usually alone but sometimes in collaboration with Van Alexander and/or Geoffrey Clarkson — authored numerous clever jingles and special lyrics, and arranged hundreds of other songs, drawing upon his encyclopedic knowledge of 20th Century popular music. He not only did the same for The Golddiggers and Dingaling Sisters, but also wrote, along with Geoff Clarkson, more than twenty original numbers for those female ensembles.

Due to Dean’s contract that required him to appear only on the actual day of his show’s taping, Lee customarily stood in for the host during rehearsals, thus giving him the opportunity to bond with the likes of guest stars such as Peggy Lee, June Allyson, Florence Henderson, Carol Lawrence and other showbiz luminaries with whom he would go on to develop lasting friendships. Occasionally, he would even be tapped to appear on camera when an extra was needed in a particular scene.

Lee is survived by his spouse (with whom he shared his life for the last 35 years) and coauthor of his first book, Backstage At The Dean Martin Show, Richard Neely, and their beloved dog, Jesse, as well as a niece and several cousins.

To invoke Lee’s own lyrics from a song he wrote for The Golddiggers: Lee, “There’s Nobody Else Like You”…And we’re all the richer for it. May you rest in peace.

55564292_2312579338764428_3184186936759681024_nLee Hale, in his final apperarance in 2018 at the annual Awards Luncheon held by The Professional Dancers Society, on whose board he served as Vice President, is here surrounded by five of the dozens of women he selected and nurtured as performers in The Golddiggers and The Dingaling Sisters. Pictured clockwise from left: Susie Ewing, Lindsay Bloom, Michelle DellaFave, Wanda Bailey, and Rosie Cox Gitlin.

Much more on the life and times of Lee Hale, including tributes penned several years ago by many of The Golddiggers and Dingaling Sisters, can be found in two other articles on The Golddiggers Super Site:

WE Hail LEE Hale

Words and Music: The Lee Hale Story

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3 Responses to Remembering Lee Hale

  1. franciem says:

    This is so well written and Lee so deserves every laud! What an honor it is to have been chosen by Lee Hale as well as being a friend of Lee Hale! Love, Francie Mendenhall

  2. Video Vision says:

    Thank you, Francie. We’d add that another of Lee Hale’s many talents was recognizing great stage presence when he saw it and superb vocal ability when he heard it — which is no doubt why he accorded you so many well-deserved solos during your tenure with The Golddiggers.

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