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Farewell, Dolly Dyer

Senior Australians were saddened to learn that Dolly Dyer, a much-loved star of radio and early black-and-white television, died from a stroke on Christmas Day, aged 84.

For my wife and me it was a personal loss, as 50 years ago Dolly and her famous American-born husband Bob Dyer were our friends. As public relations officer for the oil company sponsoring their national show, BP Pick-a-Box, I was closely associated with them for several years.

I watched every weekly episode being produced (four shows were recorded at a time) at the Channel 7 studios in Epping, wrote publicity stories, and made a long series of two-minute newsreels for inclusion in the show. Bob edited these, adding his own commentary, in a tiny studio in the basement of the Dyers' harbourside home at Beauty Point, in the Sydney suburb of Mosman.

Bob once drove 10 miles from Beauty Point to our home in Gordon to give us a fine Emperor bream which he had caught off the Barrier Reef, packed in ice, and brought back to Sydney in the boot (trunk) of his car. Next day our four young sons and their grateful parents enjoyed a marvellous dinner of fish and chips.

Bob was born Robert Dies (that name would have been a kiss of death on the stage) in a famous show business city, Nashville, Tennessee. Changing his name to Bob Dyer, he became a banjo-playing comedian, and visited Australia shortly after the outbreak of World War II, to appear in a stage show at the Sydney Tivoli Theatre. He was billed as The Last of the Hillbillies.

He fell in love with one of the Tivoli's beautiful long-legged showgirls, teenager Dolly Mack. Before long, Bob persuaded her to marry him (in 1940). He needed little prompting to decide to spend the rest of his life in Sydney, where, with Dolly's quiet help, he found fame and fortune.

Pick-a-Box began in 1948, as a radio quiz show. When TV belatedly reached Australia, Bob and Dolly successfully transferred to the new medium in 1957, and Pick-a-Box soon became one of the nation's top TV productions. It ran for 900 shows.

Two Pick-a-Box quiz champions became national figures because of their repeated prizewinning ability and interesting personalities - Frank Partridge VC and Barry Jones, who can now add AO (Officer of the Order of Australia) to his name.

Frank Partridge was the youngest person to have been awarded the Victoria Cross (the highest British and Australian bravery award) in World War II . In July 1945, at the age of 20, he was involved in a desperate battle in Bougainville. Although wounded by three enemy bullets, he took out a Japanese machinegun nest single-handed.

After the war, Frank lived with his father on a remote banana plantation carved out of the bush around Macksville, on the New South Wales north coast. Self-taught, he read hundreds of books in the evenings by lamplight, and acquired a knowledge of a wide range of subjects, which he put to good use as a Pick-a-Box contestant.

He won valuable prizes week after week. His quiet, drawling voice, retiring personality, and amazing memory endeared him to TV viewers throughout the country.

"He has an amazing mind," Bob once said of him. "There's something of an Abe Lincoln in him - the rugged individualist, self-taught with a great desire for learning."

Tragically, Frank Partridge was killed in a road accident in 1964, only 13 months after he had married a former Army nurse, leaving a three-month-old son, Lachlann. Frank's memory is perpetuated by the name of the Frank Partridge VC Public School and a park in Macksville, and the Frank Partridge VC University Scholarship Scheme.

The only person who managed to defeat Frank Partridge on Pick-a-Box was a knowledgeable young Victorian schoolteacher named Barry Jones, who proved to be an unbeatable quiz champion, starring in the show for several years.

Bob pitted him against The Brain of Britain and other quiz champions imported from New Zealand, South Africa, Finland and other countries. Barry beat them all. By then, he was a national hero.

A few years later Barry Jones gained degrees in arts and law and doctorates in science and literature.

He entered Victoria's State parliament as a Labor member in 1972, and graduated to become a Federal politician from 1977 until 1998. He was Minister for Science from 1983 to 1990 and national president of the Australian Labor Party from 1992 to 2000.

In January 1998, he was deputy chair of the Constitutional Convention and in February 1998 became a "national treasure," one of 100 people the National Trust named as Australian icons. Barry Jones Bay in the Australian Antarctic Territory, and Yalkaparidon jonesi, a rare extinct family of marsupials, were named for him.

Today, Dr Barry Jones, A.O. has nearly completed writing his autobiography, A Thinking Reed, which is sure to include interesting anecdotes about his friends Bob and Dolly Dyer.

In 1971, the Dyers wrapped up BP Pick-a-Box for the last time. They were awarded a special Gold Logie to mark their contribution to the TV industry over 15 years.

Moving to Queensland, Bob and Dolly spent happy days big-game fishing from their luxury cruiser Tennessee II, named in memory of Bob's birthplace. "Bob and Dolly Dyer, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman are just a few of the well known personalities who have fished for the black marlin in Cairns" says the Fishing Cairns website.

Bob died in 1984. Dolly chose to remain out of the spotlight. Sadly, in failing health, she spent her last years in nursing homes, first on the Gold Coast and later in Gympie.

To this day, my wife Jerry believes that Dolly was the brains behind Bob, and was responsible for much of his success. Whether that's true or not, big bluff Bob always listened attentively to advice quietly given to him by his petite, unassuming and charming wife.

Farewell, Dolly. We're so sad that you have gone.

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Story first posted February 2005

Copyright 2005

Eric Shackle

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