Dinnings' Music Revived by Sound of 1 Fan Clapping

Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer.

As the years passed, fewer and fewer people remembered the Dinning Sisters. Lou Dinning liked that. It was easier for her to remain anonymous.

Born with a honeyed, star-quality voice, the Burbank woman also is painfully shy. When she and her younger sisters, twins Ginger and Jean, performed and recorded throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, Lou was torn between her pleasure in singing and her wish for the success to be over.

Lou quit the Dinning Sisters in 1952 and moved from Chicago to the San Fernando Valley, gladly allowing her public persona to fade. She always gave her married name, Robertson, even long after she and her husband had divorced.

"No one has any idea that I was one of the Dinnings, not my neighbors or anyone," the 66-year-old woman said. "I keep it quiet. I like to be left alone. Jean and Ginger love it, they love the notoriety, but I never have."

In Circulation Again

Through the tireless efforts of a Milwaukee man, however, the name Dinning (which rhymes with winning) and the trio's music are in circulation again. Frank Lenger, 59, first listened to the group on a radio show in 1941.

"I was 13, and I was a dyed-in-the-wool Andrews Sisters fan," Lenger remembered. "But when I heard the Dinnings, I said, 'These girls can sing circles around the Andrews.' Their harmony was so much better, and they didn't hit you over the head with it."

Although the Dinnings did not know it, Lenger became their biggest fan. He collected all their records, along with other memorabilia. One cherished item is an autographed photo given to him by Lou Dinning in 1946 after a performance at the College Inn nightclub in Chicago's Sherman Hotel.

"I have no memory of it," Lou says today. Nor did the 63-year-old twins--Jean, who lives near Nashville, Tenn., and Ginger, of Vernon, N.J.--recall meeting Lenger in their heyday.

But those were busy times for the Dinnings. In 1946 they won the Cashbox Magazine Award and placed first in the Billboard poll of jukebox operators. In 1947 they were Billboard's vocal group of the year. In 1948 they had their only million-seller, "Buttons and Bows," which appeared in the Bob Hope movie "Paleface" and won the Academy Award for best song.

"They never had the real popularity that the Andrews Sisters had," said disc jockey Chuck Cecil, whose syndicated radio show "The Swingin' Years" is in its 30th year. "But they had a very close harmony and a very pretty sound. I still play them. My favorite is 'Years and Years Ago.' I think it's their best song. They recorded it with the Art Van Damme Quintet."

Lenger is more effusive in his regard for the Dinnings.

"They were the best," he said. "I fell in love with them because they sang like angels."

After Lou moved west in 1952, Jean and Ginger limped along for a time with their younger sister Dolores (known today as Dolores Edgin, she is a singer on the Nashville edition of television's "Hee Haw"). But the group soon disbanded, and by the 1960s Dinning Sisters records were out of print.

Lenger, however, had struck up a correspondence with Ginger, and he met the sisters at a family reunion. He vowed to get their work reissued and, after "countless" letters to record companies, finally succeeded. In 1982, Capitol Records released "The Dinning Sisters," followed by a second volume two years later. In 1986 a German label, Cattle Records, released a collection of country songs by the trio. A delighted Lenger wrote the liner notes for the second two albums.

His crusade caught the attention of writer Bob Greene, whose story on Lenger and the Dinning revival appeared in the May issue of Esquire.

"The response has been unbelievable," Lenger said. "I've had letters or calls from 56 people who want to be on a Dinning Sisters mailing list."

Lou Dinning is less enthusiastic.

"I'm happy for Frank, because he worked so hard," she said, "and for the girls, because they're excited. But I don't want a fuss. I'm one of those people who couldn't wait to be old so that nothing would be expected of me."

Lou said she forced herself to be outgoing during the group's singing years.

Radio Performers

The Dinnings were under contract to NBC much of their career and kept busy performing on such NBC radio programs as Don McNeill's Breakfast Club, Garry Moore's Club Matinee, the Roy Shields Review and the National Barn Dance. They also had their own daily "Dinning Sisters Show," cut records and performed in a few Hollywood "B" Westerns.

"You'd have thought I was the biggest ham in the world when I forced myself to be that way," Lou said. "But it just wasn't me. I've been shy my whole life, and I just can't tell you why."

Her reticence was apparent at the first-ever Dinning Sisters performance, an impromptu event in the family's Oklahoma farmhouse.

"When Jean and Ginger were very small, 7 or 8, they sang a duet," Lou remembered. "I was even more shy as a child, and if I sang, it was off by myself somewhere. One day Jean and Ginger were singing a song for my brother, Wade, and I guess I was behind a door, and I began singing the third part. It just blended so well."

Victims of Depression

John Dinning, the girls' father, lost the farm in the Great Depression and became a Maytag salesman. The family moved often, living mostly in Oklahoma and Kansas. Lou, Jean and Ginger entered and won several amateur music contest and had a 15-minute radio show in Enid, Kansas.

"We were very dedicated to a career," recalled Jean. "Our ambition always was to be like the Boswell Sisters and later the Andrews Sisters. When we were about 11 we'd go down to a place that was a real dive and put a nickel in the jukebox and play the Andrews Sisters' 'Hold Tight.' Then men would put in nickels over and over while we learned it. Momma would have killed us if she'd known we were down there."

Lou remembered practicing with her sisters while their mother, Bertha, was at the sink.

"We found out if we sang for her, she'd let us out of doing the dishes. So we'd keep singing until she was done washing."

It was brother Wade who drove the girls to Chicago and a successful audition for NBC. The year was 1939. A contract with Capitol Records came a few years later. But although the Dinning Sisters worked regularly and were a critical success, their popularity never rivaled that of the Andrews Sisters. Nearly everyone has a different explanation.

"We could have given it a bigger try," said Ginger. "Sometimes I wish we had. In those days girls were oriented toward getting married. I don't think I ever gave it a second thought that I could choose a career before a family. So when Harry came along, a lot of my attention went elsewhere."

Ginger was 18 when she married Harry Lutke, and the two are still together. They have seven children.

Jack Fascinato, 72, now of Palm Springs, was the Dinning Sisters' arranger during the first half of their career. He has been musical director for Tennessee Ernie Ford since 1954.

"I think the Dinnings were a better act than the Andrews Sisters musically, but they didn't have the movement of the Andrews," he said. "They weren't as qualified when it came to dancing."

Jean believes that the group began to unravel after Fascinato was drafted, and that money problems contributed.

'A Big Mistake'

"Jack was very important," she said, "and when he got out of the service, he wanted 25% of the income. There never was much money, especially then, and we said no. It was a big mistake. We drifted from arranger to arranger and from argument to argument."

Years later Jean wrote a No. 1 pop hit, "Teen Angel," sung by her brother Mark Dinning.

Disc jockey Chuck Cecil thinks the Dinnings were victims of inadvertent bad timing, arriving on the swing scene a little too late.

"They came at a difficult time," he explained. "Most of the groups that were big had already made it."

Lou Dinning shrugs and says that she and her sisters were too "soft."

"The Andrews were fabulous," she said. "They had a sound that really jumped out at you. That kind of thing just wasn't in our makeup."

In the 1950s Lou and then-husband Don Robertson were successful "demo" makers, recording songs for writers who then would play the demonstrations to a music publisher or record company. Their clients included Johnny Mercer and "Guys and Dolls" composer Frank Loesser.

But Lou has long since left that business, and she plans to stay retired. She is less than enthusiastic, for example, about the idea that the Dinning Sisters might record again.

"Frank and the girls are talking about doing it," she said. "If they really want me to, I guess I will. But I sing at our family reunions. That's enough."

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