A destitute comedic actor and night club singer prays to the saint of hopeless causes and makes a vow to build a shrine to St. Jude if he should be blessed with success. Years later, the entertainer fulfills his vow by becoming the founder of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital where miracles happen everyday. What a plot for a movie! But that’s the Danny Thomas story, and I was privileged to know him and to witness his vow come true.
In the 1940s, Danny Thomas worked steadily on network radio shows as a comedic character actor. Film roles during the early 1950s in The Jazz Singer with Peggy Lee, and I’ll See You In My Dreams with Doris Day propelled Danny into television where he enjoyed great success with Make Room For Daddy, The Danny Thomas Show that had a 13-year run (1953 to 1965).
Producing his show at Desilu Studios where Lucille Ball was filming her iconic series, I Love Lucy, Danny partnered with legendary television producers Sheldon Leonard and Aaron Spelling to co-produce three landmark television series: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad. Danny is credited with discovering Mary Tyler Moore in 1961 when he recommended to Carl Reiner that she be cast in the Dick Van Dyke Show. Danny also produced three television series for Walter Brennan—The Real McCoys, The Tycoon, and The Guns of Will Sonnet, and he continued to work in television through the 1980s.
My personal connection to Danny Thomas was facilitated by Peter Decker. In the 1970s, before I left my home city of Norfolk, Virginia, Pete and Bess Decker were my best friends. Pete was a criminal attorney, humanitarian, and a talented musician and singer who lived to receive every honor that a grateful city and state can award an individual. When Pete and I got together, he was already on the Board of Governors and Directors of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis that Danny, a fellow Lebanese, had founded in 1962.
As Pete’s friend, I joined the Board of Directors for St. Jude of Southeastern Virginia, and I served as secretary at our meetings. Through this 20-member board Pete organized a regional telethon and other events that over a 50-year period of his service raised tens of millions of dollars for St. Jude, a hospital dedicated to the treatment of sick children regardless of race, religion, or the ability to pay.
The focus on cancer and other catastrophic diseases in children paid great dividends in 1996 when two doctors from St. Jude’s Immunology Department were recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for key discoveries in how immune systems function to kill virus-infected cells.
Peter Decker made over 500 appearances with Danny Thomas in concerts, telethons, and other fundraising events for St. Jude. As a singer, Pete made records with the Pat Curtis Orchestra that were sold to benefit St. Jude. Pete and I performed impromptu together in clubs where musician friends would invite us on stage, and I even wrote a cabaret act for us that we performed with the Pat Curtis Jazz Band. I was surprised, however, when Pete asked me to record a song for the Southeastern Virginia St. Jude telethon.
To diversify the telethon entertainment, Pete wanted me to do a big band pop standard, and he provided a recorded Nelson Riddle orchestral arrangement of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.” I sang the song with the recorded accompaniment in a recording studio and later lip-synced the song in a television studio taping against a uniform St. Jude telethon backdrop. During the telethon, Pete could introduce me, and I would appear on tape as if I were actually on stage. I accepted, however, that my performance was little more than late-night telethon filler.
A few weeks after the Norfolk telethon, Pete called me to say that my tape performance of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie“ had been chosen for the master telethon talent reel that would be provided to St. Jude telethons produced in more than a dozen markets where the same stage backdrop would be used. In a sea of rock and roll, I was the quiet romantic crooner alternative. I waited in vain to be discovered, but Pete and Danny appreciated the effort.
The recording of my St. Jude performance was reprised at our middle daughter’s wedding. As a surprise to me, the bride danced with her father to his recording of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.“ Only the family was in on the plot. I remained the mystery singer.
The most time that I spent with Danny Thomas was at a small dinner party given for Danny and Phyllis McGuire at the Deckers’ home in Norfolk. Phyllis was still a statuesque beauty who you will remember as the lead singer of the McGuire Sisters. After the trio won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts television show competition, they produced a succession of hit records on the Coral Records label. With number one hits like “Sincerely” (1954), “The Theme from Picnic“ (1956) and “Sugartime“ (1958), the group had 30 chart hits over a 16-year period. The McGuire Sisters appeared on all of the top television variety shows during the 1950s and 1960s and even made the cover of Life Magazine. On tour for St. Jude with Phyllis McGuire, Danny, in his early 60s, welcomed the chance to relax at the Deckers.
The last time that I saw Danny Thomas was at his home in 1975 or 1976 where he hosted a reception following the final day of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (1970 to 1984). Danny was an avid golfer, and two PGA tour events bore his name. I was in Memphis on business as the Associate Publisher of Holiday Magazine, and was thus available to attend. Entertainer Jimmy Dean, famous for his hit record “Big John” and later for his breakfast sausage, was a memorable guest. My former boss, George Crump, who owned country music radio stations, had once held Dean’s management contract, so we had a common connection.
Just like everything else in the life of Danny Thomas, St. Jude was the focus and financial beneficiary of the golfing event. If St. Jude himself had anything to do with Danny’s great television success, the blessing has been repaid exponentially at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I am so glad to have been a witness to Danny’s and to Peter’s devotion to a great work of life.