DYER, ROBERT NEAL (‘BOB’) (1909–84)
Almost unique in achieving national celebrity across both radio and television, Bob Dyer was one of the most successful American entertainers to work in the Australian electronic media. Born to a poor sharecropping family in Tennessee, he left home at 17, finding intermittent work as a hillbilly singer. Dyer first visited Australia with a vaudeville troupe in 1937; he returned permanently in 1940.
His ascent to media stardom began on commercial radio. In 1940 he hosted The Last of the Hillbillies, and his many programs included Bob Dyer’s Variety Show (launched 1944), Can You Take It? (1946), The Atlantic Show (1946), Pick-a-Box (1948), Cop the Lot (1951) and It Pays to Be Funny (1955). In each of these programs, the audience skills learnt in vaudeville served him well.
With the advent of television in Australia, Dyer launched both Pick-a-Box and It Pays to be Funny in the new medium. Though only Pick-a-Box survived, it became early Australian television’s most spectacular success story. In a medium then dominated by imported Westerns, crime dramas and situation comedies, Dyer pioneered the more cheaply produced quiz show as staple Australian content for commercial television. Unlike similar overseas productions, the program ran without a break. From February 1957 until March 1971 (when Dyer retired), Pick-a-Box screened once a week on the Seven Network, 52 weeks a year.
Unlike Jack Davey (to whom he was linked in a famous if contrived radio rivalry), Dyer was not an instinctive comedian. An engaging manner, unfailing professionalism, resonant voice and imposing physical presence all aided his television career. Dyer attributed his success to a carefully crafted persona as one of the ‘gang’, and his unashamed lack of general knowledge encouraged audience identification with the quiz program. Viewer loyalty was matched by the longevity of Dyer’s commercial backers. He boasted that from 1948 to 1971 he had only ‘two soaps and two oils’ as sponsors.
Dyer’s trademark accent never prevented his recognition as a ‘national identity’. Nor did his considerable private wealth prevent him fostering an image of appealing ordinariness. In this he was enormously aided by his 30-year marriage to Dorothy (‘Dolly’) Mack (1921–2004). Originally a dancer, Dolly was also Dyer’s business partner and on-screen assistant. Dyer was one of the first winners of the Gold Logie and was appointed OBE in 1971. After retirement, the public man became noted for his reclusiveness.
REFs: B. Dyer, ‘My Life’, Sun (Sydney), 17 and 22–26 March 1971.