“My brother and I laughed a lot as kids. We came up in the middle of the Depression, and neither one of us knew we were poor. We had nothing, but we didn’t know it.” -Dick Van Dyke
Dick Van Dyke is a person who seems to constantly exude and create joy wherever he goes. He possesses a career that has spanned decades, has written several books, performs in an a cappella music group, and still “keeps moving” at–as I write–age 90. As far as I’m concerned, Dick Van Dyke is nothing short of a national treasure.
Dick Van Dyke was born on December 13, 1925, in West Plains, Missouri, to stenographer Hazel Victoria a stenographer, and salesman Loren Wayne Van Dyke. However, he grew up in Danville, Illinois, and is the older brother of actor Jerry Van Dyke.
Among his high school classmates in Danville were Donald O’Connor and Bobby Short, both of whom became successful entertainers in their own right. One of Van Dyke’s closest friends was the cousin of Gene Hackman, a future Oscar-winning actor, who also lived in Danville in those years.
Van Dyke’s mother’s family was very religious, and briefly considered a career in ministry while he was growing up, although a drama class in high school convinced him that his true calling was as a professional entertainer. In his autobiography he wrote:
I suppose that I never completely gave up my childhood idea of being a minister. Only the medium and the message changed. I have still endeavored to touch people’s souls, to raise their spirits and put smiles on their faces.
Even after the launch of his career as an entertainer, he taught Sunday school in the Presbyterian Church, where he was an elder, and he continued to read the works of various theologians, whom he has said helped explain in practical terms the relevance of religion in everyday life.
Van Dyke left high school in 1944, his senior year, intending to join the United States Army Air Forces for pilot training during World War II. However, he was denied enlistment several times for being underweight, but was eventually accepted for service as a radio announcer before transferring to the Special Services and entertaining troops in the Continental United States.
During the late 1940s, Van Dyke was a radio DJ in Danville, Illinois. In 1947, Van Dyke was persuaded by Phil Erickson to form a comedy duo with him called “Eric and Van—the Merry Mutes.” The team toured the West Coast nightclub circuit, performing a mime act and lip synching to old 78 records. They brought their act to Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1950s and performed a local television show featuring original skits and music.
In 1948, while appearing at the Chapman Park Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, he and the former Margerie Willett were married on the radio show Bride and Groom. They had four children: Christian (Chris) (born 1949), Barry (born 1951), Carrie Beth (born 1952), and Stacy (born 1954). They divorced in 1984 after a long separation.
Van Dyke’s start in television was with WDSU-TV New Orleans Channel 6 (NBC), first as a single comedian and later as emcee of a comedy program and was followed by several other network television appearances. In the late 1950s, one of Van Dyke’s friends from the Army was working as an executive for CBS television and recommended Van Dyke to that network. Out of this came a seven-year contract with the network. Van Dyke worked as the anchorman for the CBS morning show during this period, with Walter Cronkite as his newsman.
In November 1959, Van Dyke made his Broadway debut in The Girls Against the Boys. He then played the lead role of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, which ran from April 14, 1960 to Oct 7, 1961. In a May 2011 interview, Van Dyke noted that when he auditioned for a smaller part in the show he had no dance experience, and that after he sang his audition song he did an impromptu soft-shoe out of sheer nervousness. Gower Champion, the show’s director and choreographer, was watching, and promptly went up on stage to inform Van Dyke he had the lead. An astonished Van Dyke protested that he could not dance, to which Champion replied “We’ll teach you.” That musical won four Tony awards including Van Dyke’s Best Featured Actor Tony, in 1961.
From 1961 to 1966, Van Dyke starred in the CBS sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which he portrayed a comedy writer named Rob Petrie. Originally, the show was supposed to have Carl Reiner as the lead but CBS insisted on recasting and Reiner chose Van Dyke to replace him in the role. Complementing Van Dyke was a veteran cast of comic actors including Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Jerry Paris, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Richard Deacon, and Carl Reiner (as Alan Brady), as well as 23-year-old Mary Tyler Moore, who played Rob’s wife Laura Petrie. Van Dyke won three Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and the series received four Emmy Awards as Outstanding Comedy Series.
Van Dyke began his film career by playing the role of Albert J. Peterson in the film version of Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Despite his unhappiness with the adaptation—its focus differed from the stage version in that the story now centered on a previously supporting character—the film was a success.
That same year, Van Dyke was cast in two roles: as the chimney sweep Bert, and as bank chairman Mr. Dawes Senior, in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). For his scenes as the chairman, he was heavily costumed to look much older, and was credited in that role as “Nackvid Keyd” (at the end of the credits, the letters unscramble into “Dick Van Dyke”). Van Dyke’s attempt at a cockney accent has been lambasted as one of the worst accents in film history, cited by actors since as an example of how not to sound. According to Van Dyke, his accent coach was Irish, who “didn’t do an accent any better than I did”, and that no one alerted him how bad it was during the production. Still, Mary Poppins was successful upon release and its enduring appeal has made it one of the most famous films of all time. “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, one of the songs that Van Dyke performed in Mary Poppins, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the Sherman Brothers, the film’s songwriting duo. Van Dyke received a Grammy Award in 1964, along with Julie Andrews, for his performance on the soundtrack to Mary Poppins.
Many of the comedy films Van Dyke starred in throughout the 1960s were relatively unsuccessful at the box office, but he also starred as Caractacus Pott (with his native accent, at his own insistence, despite the English setting) in the successful musical version of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The film co-starred Sally Ann Howes and featured the same songwriters and choreographers from Mary Poppins.
In 1969, Van Dyke appeared in the comedy-drama The Comic, written and directed by Carl Reiner. Van Dyke portrayed a self-destructive Silent film era comedian who struggles with alcoholism, depression, and his own rampant ego. Reiner wrote the film especially for Van Dyke, who often spoke of his admiration for silent-film era comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and his hero Stan Laurel. Van Dyke once recalled:
When I was a kid, I loved all the silent comedians – Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin. And I used to imitate them. I’d go to see a Buster Keaton movie and come home and try things out I’d seen. I learned to do pratfalls when I was very young.
In fact, Stan Laurel gave Dick Van Dyke tips on how to imitate him when impersonating him. Laurel and Van Dyke became friends until Laurel’s passing. Dick Van Dyke delivered the eulogy at the funeral service.
From 1971 to 1974, Van Dyke starred in an unrelated sitcom called The New Dick Van Dyke Show in which he portrayed a local television talk show host. Although the series was developed by Carl Reiner and starred Hope Lange as his wife, and he received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, the show was less successful than its predecessor, and Van Dyke pulled the plug on the show after just three seasons.
Van Dyke’s film work affected his TV career: the reviews he received for his role as D.A. Fletcher in Dick Tracy led him to star as the character Dr. Mark Sloan in an episode of Jake and the Fatman, then in a series of TV movies on CBS that became the foundation for his popular television drama Diagnosis: Murder. The series ran from 1993 to 2001 with son Barry Van Dyke co-starring in the role of Dr. Sloan’s son. Van Dyke continued to find television work after the show ended, including a dramatically and critically successful performance of The Gin Game, produced for television in 2003 that reunited him with Mary Tyler Moore. In 2003, he portrayed a doctor on Scrubs.
A 2004 special of The Dick Van Dyke Show titled The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited was heavily promoted as the first new episode of the classic series to be shown in 38 years. Van Dyke and his surviving cast members recreated their roles; the program was roundly panned by critics. In 2006 he guest-starred as college professor Dr. Jonathan Maxwell for a series of Murder 101 mystery films on the Hallmark Channel. In between these television endeavors, Van Dyke also appeared as the title role in the first Broadway revival of The Music Man.
Van Dyke became a computer animation enthusiast after purchasing a Commodore Amiga in 1991. He is credited with the creation of 3D-rendered effects used on Diagnosis: Murder and The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. Van Dyke has displayed his computer-generated imagery work at SIGGRAPH, and continues to work with LightWave 3D.
An a cappella enthusiast and honorary member of the Barbershop Harmony Society, Van Dyke has sung in a group called “Dick Van Dyke and The Vantastix” since September 2000. The quartet has performed several times in Los Angeles as well as on Larry King Live, The First Annual TV Land Awards, and sang the national anthem at three Los Angeles Lakers games including a nationally televised NBA Finals performance on NBC.
Van Dyke returned to motion pictures in 2006 with Curious George as Mr. Bloomsberry and as villain Cecil Fredericks in the Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum. He also played the character again in the third film, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014).
Dick Van Dyke is still a beloved figure in his hometown and all over the world, but he remains especially attached to his Danville roots. His high school, Danville High School, still stands at 202 E Fairchild St in Danville, Illinois.
Dick first returned to Danville in March 1963, at the height of his success on The Dick Van Dyke Show. A downtown parade held in his honor attracted thousands. He paid a visit to Danville and his former high school, where he reconnected with his drama teachers.
Jerry returned to Danville several times in the early 1970’s. On October 4, 1971, he came to present “Jerry Van Dyke and His Hollywood Friends,” a benefit for the Danville Tennis Club held at Danville High School. The performers — all friends of Jerry — included actors George Lindsey, Maggie Peterson, Denver Pyle, and Danville native Gene Hackman.
In 1973, Jerry and his family actually moved back to Danville for a brief time. Saying he “didn’t like what California was doing to [my] kids,” he moved into a large home on Logan Avenue with his wife and three children. But Jerry’s work forced them to leave the area after only a year.
In May 1988, Dick and Jerry joined Danville natives Donald O’Connor, Bobby Short, and Gene Hackman for a benefit to raise money for the city’s Fischer Theatre.
Because Van Dyke never officially graduated from high school due to his attempts to enlist in the army, he received his high school diploma on during a 2004 visit to his old high school. The school staged the musical Bye Bye Birdie in the same year. Van Dyke returned to the school, and learned one of the numbers “Put On a Happy Face“ alongside the students, performing both nights of the show. The full newsletter highlighting this occasion may be viewed here.
In May 2011, Danville High School officials invited Dick to attend the re-naming of their auditorium in his name. The dedication of the Dick Van Dyke Auditorium occurred following the staging of the “Moments Musical,” and though Dick was unable to be there in person, he attended virtually via Skype.
Dick Van Dyke continues to be humbled be the generations of vans who adore him. He says, “I cannot tell you what it means when children recognize. This is about the third generation for me. And when kids that small recognize me, it really pleases me, very gratifying.”
Dick Van Dyke’s involvement in his high school as a student is well documented in the Danville yearbook.
The McDonald’s at 109 S Gilbert St in Danville, IL, takes note of its town’s stars. Dick Van Dyke is etched in glass and also memorialized on a bronze star.
While Dick Van Dyke moved out of Danville, his home at 930 N. Hazel St fell into major disrepair over the years and was slated for demolition.
However, as of October 2015, Van Dyke stepped in to save his childhood home, with plans to restore the two-story structure and have it become the headquarters for the Dick Van Dyke Foundation. His foundation will provide scholarships to accomplished young performers. The foundation hopes to quickly expand its reach to provide support to young singers, dancers and actors across the country.
In a combined effort to assist with the progress happening at the Walt Disney Birthplace and Center for Early Childhood Creativity and Innovation and to kick off the Dick Van Dyke Foundation’s formation, Dick Van Dyke returned to Danville in June 2016. He performed with his a cappella group, as well as with his wife, at Danville High School on June 24th. To learn more about Van Dyke’s performance in Danville visit the following link. Two days later, Van Dyke, his wife, and his a cappella group visited the Walt Disney birthplace in Chicago, singing a rousing rendition of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
Currently his official website shares the following information regarding how to help with his foundation:
We are very proud to announce the official launch of the Dick Van Dyke Foundation for the Performing Arts. With your help we’ll inspire the next generation of great performers and save the adorable boyhood home of Mr. Van Dyke himself. Be a dandy vandy and join the project by texting “GIVE” to 949-537-2235
Dick and his wife Arlene were also present in Danville when a “Keep Moving” sign was dedicated to Van Dyke, referencing the title of his latest book. The sign stands across the street from Danville High School.
Two days later–on June 26th, 2015–Van Dyke, his wife, and his a cappella group traveled to Downers Grove, Illinois, for an event at the Tivoli Theatre, entitled “A Night of Magic with Dick Van Dyke.” I was lucky enough to attend this event as a VIP guest.
A family had undertaken the effort of creating their very own Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The car was present during Van Dyke’s return to Danville, and he rode in the car as part of a hometown parade. The same car was parked outside of the Tivoli Theatre, with a life of admirers circling the block.
Upon entering the theatre, I visited with representatives from the Dick Van Dyke Foundation and the Walt Disney Birthplace. Presently, the Dick Van Dyke Foundation has just begun its efforts to restore the home and create a center for children and teens who are artistically inclined. The Walt Disney Birthplace is almost ready to open, save for some work that needs to be finished on the interior.
I received the following items before I took my seat: a framed photocopy of a self-caricature Dick Van Dyke completed, a Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastix album, a signed copy of Keep Moving, and a program from the event. Audience members slowly took their seats and enjoyed melodies of songs that Dick Van Dyke had popularized. These were played on the Mighty Wurlitzer by David Rhodes with great enthusiasm, as members in the crowd, young and old, sang along.
Afterwards, Danville-based speed painter John Jansky amazed the audience with painting portrait on the spot. As audiences watched, they were left to guess what the painter was painting. After a short while, they realized that it was a painting of Dick Van Dyke as Bert–only it was being painted upside down! As Jansky turned his portrait right-side-up for the big reveal, audiences were astounded. This painting, along with another that also featured Van Dyke in his role as Bert, were auctioned off at roughly $2000 a piece to benefit the Dick Van Dyke Foundation. The lucky winner took home the painting, and got a picture and kiss from both Dick Van Dyke and the respective artist.
Soon enough, the man of the hour arrived to the sound of thunderous applause, and performed with the Vantastix. He was introduced by Todd Regan, Executive Director of The Walt Disney Birthplace and The Dick Van Dyke Foundation. Regan also publicly thanked Dina Benadon and Brent Young, the couple the currently owns the Walt Disney Birthplace and has decided to restore it and make it a museum for all to enjoy. Regan also publicly acknowledged the mayors of Danville and Downers Grove, who were also present at the event.
After performing several different songs from Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bye Bye Birdie, and beyond, Dick was interviewed by his wife, Arlene Van Dyke.
With her, he discussed his goals for his foundation, citing that, “Art and music are often removed from the curriculum due to budget cuts.” He thinks that schools do not see a livelihood behind the arts, but they have clearly worked out in Van Dyke’s amazing career.
When watching Van Dyke perform a song with great panache and execute a perfect two-step in the process, one can hardly believe that he is 90 years old. But Van Dyke delights in this fact.
“I’m an animated character!And yet, I’m three years older than this theatre.”
Van Dyke also recalled the hardships he encountered while growing up, recalling, “I was five years old when the stock market crashed. We lost everything.”
Although decades have gone by since Van Dyke’s humble beginnings and appearance in Mary Poppins, his link to Disney is still profound.
“On my 90th birthday, Disneyland gave me a party. You wouldn’t believe it. Chimney sweeps everywhere!”
But what is Van Dyke’s philosophy to life and secret to success?
“Keep a positive attitude. That, and exercise. Keep moving. In fact, that’s why it’s the title of my book. The publisher didn’t seem to like my original title–What to do While Circling the Drain. But in all seriousness, find something to do, love, and hope for.”
Audiences were encouraged to donate to the Dick Van Dyke foundation before Dick Van Dyke sang some closing songs.
But the highlight of my day was meeting the man himself. When I asked him how he felt about all of the appreciation he was getting, he mentioned he felt like Santa Claus with so many friends and fans in attendance, wanting to meet him. I can attest that Dick Van Dyke is as warm, friendly, and positive as you would expect him to be. He also happens to have the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen!
On my way out of the theatre, I was just in time to see Dina Benadon and Brent Young stepping into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with their young son. The owners of the car encouraged the little boy to get behind the wheel, and even spread Chitty’s wings out for the family.
Near the end of his interview, Van Dyke reminisced about Walt Disney’s vision, noting that, “There’s only one Walt. He wanted to reach out to the child in everyone. I think that we were both children looking for our inner adults.”
His wife, Arlene, aptly responded with, “I may be biased, but I think that you exude the spirit of Disney himself.”
I cannot agree more.