TRUE STORIES — Dean ‘Gus’ Dittmann: Broadway to Hollywood
Note: This is the last in a series of three columns on the life of Gus Dean Dittmann. — J.T.K.
P.T. Barnum is often quoted as saying, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
This did not hold true for Gus Dittmann. His last name was misspelled in more than half the printed material I found in my research — from actual programs for plays, to promotional materials, to newspaper articles — as Ditman, Dittman, or Ditmann.
So in his case the Barnum quote would be reversed to, “I don’t care how you spell my name as long as you say good things about me.” Which, of course, they did.
Indeed, even his preferred stage name went through some evolution over the years. He started out as Gus Dittmann, but, as he told Bob Friskel in a K.C. Kansan newspaper article, he went to Dean because his New York agent thought Gus or G.D. “sounded like a garage mechanic.”
Later in his career he brought Gus back, going by Dean ‘Gus’ Dittmann. Longtime friends and family continued to call him G.D. throughout his life.
Dittmann’s health took a negative turn in the late 60s as he developed diabetes. A Christian Scientist, he refused treatment and ended up in a diabetic coma. He credited is niece, Diane, for convincing him to use insulin and manage his diabetes. Nonetheless, the disease caused him to lose part of a foot in the early 80s. Diane said it was the primary factor in him losing a great deal of weight — at one point down 180 pounds from his high of 300.
Over the years Gus pondered what he might have done had he not pursued show business. Here’s what he told the Springdale, Ark. newspaper in 1984:
“There was a time when I thought about offering ‘Funerals by Dittmann,’ he told the reporter. “At that point, I was a supply minister for the Methodist church and was working part-time in a funeral home. I also sang at funerals. I could have done the whole service actually — the preaching, embalming, flowers and singing.”
Dittmann was in Springdale visiting his sister, Connie Koffler, whom he credited with much of his success, calling her “a pioneer woman when it comes to my career.”
The article mentions his roles in “The Music Man,” “Reuben, Reuben,” “Sunday Man” and “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, his touring in “Hello, Dolly” and performances for the Kings of Norway and Sweden. At this point, he’d performed for three presidents — eight times for Harry Truman.
In 1973 Dittmann moved to Los Angeles. The 1984 article mentioned his appearance there in movies and television, including “The Devlin connection” with his best buddy Rock Hudson, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Ann Margaret and Treat Williams, and a starring role in “The CBS Children’s Mystery Theater.”
Although an award-winning veteran of the stage, Dittmann told the Springdale newspaper he still had to audition. “No matter how much you’ve done in the past you still have to go and fight the competition.”
As for television, he related that, because episodes are shot over a 10-day period, it becomes paramount to get a ‘take’ right the first time. He found working with the cast and crew of “Cheers” very rewarding (He played the Justice of the Peace that performed Sam and Diane’s ‘almost’ marriage in one episode and, in a later one, a faux wedding to help Sam keep his bar).
He told the newspaper that Broadway had been “very kind,” but that he planned on finishing his career in T.V. and film.
As his roots were in Frontenac and he attended K.S.T.C., Dittmann made frequent trips back to Southeast Kansas. I mentioned in an earlier column that he returned to star in “Udell’s Printer ‘76” for Pittsburg’s Centennial.
Just last week I received phone calls about two other visits; the first from a K.S.C.P. 1965 Homecoming Queen candidate. She shared how thrilling it was that, as the coeds were introduced on the old Carney Auditorium stage, Dean Dittmann greeted and twirled around them while singing, “Standin’ on the corner watchin’ all the girls go by,” the hit song from his Broadway role in “The Most Happy Fella.”
The other was from Janeil Bryan who was his driver when he returned in 1965 to assume the role as narrator for “King David,” which was staged by the Pittsburg Centennial Choir, The PSU Symphonic Choir, and the Oratorio Orchestra.
This visit was likely one of his last as he passed away in1989, at 57, in Los Angeles of a stroke. Memorials were held both there and at Frontenac’s Methodist Church, after which a private burial was held at Highland Park Cemetery in Pittsburg.
Reflecting on that 1985 visit, Janeil said that, despite all his notoriety, he was very down to earth, saying he represented the demeanor and values of our area well.
As an example, she told me that after watching her put a welcome bouquet of flowers in his room at the Holiday Inn, her daughter, Andra, decided to make him her own welcome bouquet – of dandelions. Bryan said that he certainly appreciated the bouquet from the florist … but that he was visibly moved by the dandelions.
Note: Please join Carole Jean Didier Bowman and me as we share history, show photos and lead a discussion about Gus ‘G.D.’ Dittmann at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 4th at the Frontenac Town Hall. — J.T.K.