Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dyer, Robert Neal (Bob) (1909–1984)

by Diane Collins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Robert Neal (Bob) Dyer (1909-1984), radio and television performer, was born on 22 May 1909 at Hartsville, Tennessee, United States of America, son of Heywood Leaman Dies, a poor share-farmer, and his wife Delia, née Bell. Bob’s mother taught him the harmonica, guitar and ukulele. The musically inclined lad did not finish high school, dropping out when he secured a song and dance engagement at a Nashville theatre. At 17 he left home. He spent the next few years hitchhiking around the USA, doing odd jobs when there was no theatrical work. Returning to Tennessee at the beginning of the Depression, he eked out an existence, often performing for showboats and carnivals, before joining the Marcus Show in 1932.

In 1937 Bob Dyer, as he wished to be known, travelled to Australia with this vaudeville troupe. Billed as `the Hill Billy’, he achieved immediate rapport with Australian audiences. Radio and theatre work followed, including a tour with Jim Davidson’s ABC Dance Band. In 1938 he went to England, where he appeared in music halls, and on radio for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Returning to Tennessee in 1939, he was rejected for military service because of a duodenal ulcer. He came back to Australia in 1940 following an offer from Tivoli Circuit Australia Pty Ltd. In July he opened in Melbourne with George Wallace in The Crazy Show. That year Dyer met Thelma Phoebe McLean, known as Dorothy (Dolly) Mack, a 19-year-old Tivoli dancer. He proposed after a nine-day courtship and the couple married nine days later, on 5 September 1940, at St John’s Church of England, Darlinghurst, Sydney. In front of the microphone and camera, and behind the scenes, Dolly was an indispensable partner in his subsequent career. Late in World War II, Dyer toured the South-West Pacific Area with a show for service personnel.

Dyer’s conquest of different entertainment media was remarkable. He achieved wireless celebrity as the host of programs such as `The Last of the Hillbillies’ (1940), `Bob Dyer’s Variety Show’ (1944), `Can You Take It?’ (1946), `Pick-a-Box’ (1948), `Cop the Lot’ (1951) and `It Pays to Be Funny’ (1955). His radio days are especially remembered for his mock rivalry with Jack Davey, though the relentless search for stunts that this broadcast battle entailed was later described by Dyer as `soul destroying’. In 1957 Dyer launched television versions of `It Pays to Be Funny’ and `Pick-a-Box’. The latter continued on Channel 7 until he retired in June 1971. He claimed that the show was the `longest-running continuous prime time TV program in the world’: on radio and then television, the quiz show ran for twenty-three years, fifty-two weeks a year, without a break. Dyer was unusual among radio personalities in transferring so successfully to television. `Howdy, Customers’, his raucous opening line, and his trademark question `The money or the box?’ were recognised across the country. Despite his Tennessee accent, he became a national institution. In the first decades of Australian television, he represented both American dominance and the quest for Australian content within that hegemony.

Although Dyer was a smart businessman and a warm, clever and consummately professional performer, he had none of Davey’s gift for unscripted repartee. His shows were formulaic and carefully planned. The skills learnt in vaudeville served him well since audience participation was crucial to all his shows. He was a good actor whose booming voice contributed to radio success while his imposing physical presence was helpful on television. Dyer attributed the longevity of `Pick-a-Box’ to his ordinariness, but his claims to represent the average Australian were illusory. A wealthy man, he owned luxury homes and pursued an obsession with deep-sea fishing that took him round the world. He and Dolly held numerous world and Australian fishing records, many of their exploits filmed by Dyer, a skilled photographer.

Dyer drew a sharp line between the public and the private. The best-known contestant on `Pick-a-Box’, Barry Jones, described the private Dyer as an `old-fashioned liberal’ who detested racial and religious intolerance. Dyer had been awarded Logies in 1961 and 1968; he and Dolly received one jointly in 1971. That year he was appointed honorary OBE and Dolly was appointed MBE. Shunning publicity after retirement, and heavily bearded, he spent his final years reclusively with Dolly on the Gold Coast, Queensland. He died on 9 January 1984 at Southport and was cremated. His wife (d.2004) survived him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Kent, Out of the Bakelite Box (1990)
  • C. Jones, Something in the Air (1995)
  • People (Sydney), 13 Sept 1950, p 11, 20 Feb 1984, p 4
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 5 Apr 1959, p 29, 15 Jan 1984, p 15
  • Bulletin, 14 Sept 1963, p 13
  • Sun (Sydney), 17 Mar 1971, p 1, 22 Mar 1971, p 3, 23 Mar 1971, p 12, 24 Mar 1971, p 12, 25 Mar 1971, p 12, 26 Mar 1971, p 12
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 11 Jan 1984, p 4
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 22 Jan 1985, p 18
  • series A12508, item 2/2183 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Collins, 'Dyer, Robert Neal (Bob) (1909–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dyer-robert-neal-bob-12449/text22387, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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