Martha Raye

Active - 1936 - 1991  |   Born - Aug 27, 1916   |   Died - Oct 19, 1994   |   Genres - Comedy, Musical

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Born to a peripatetic vaudeville couple, Maggie Reed joined her parents' act as soon as she learned to walk, stopping the show with an energetic rendition of "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." After touring in a double act with her brother Bud, she made her Broadway debut in the 1934 revue Calling All Stars, where she was billed for the first time as Martha Raye (at first claiming that she chose the name out of a phone book, she later affirmed that it had been involuntarily foisted upon her by "some idiot" and insisted -- nay, demanded -- that her friends call her Maggie). While appearing as a singer/comedienne at Hollywood's Trocadero, she was selected to appear in Paramount's Rhythm on the Range (1936), in which she introduced her trademark song, "Mr. Paganini."

For the next four years she was Paramount's favorite soubrette, overemphasizing her big mouth and gorgeous legs in a series of zany comedy roles. She also proved to be a convincing romantic lead for Bob Hope (a lifelong friend) in such films as Give Me a Sailor (1938) and Never Say Die (1939). Dropped by Paramount in 1940, she moved to Universal, where she was seen to good advantage in The Boys From Syracuse (1940), Abbott and Costello's Keep 'Em Flying (in a dual role in 1941), and Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin' (1941); during this period she also returned to Broadway, co-starring with Al Jolson (with whom she'd previously appeared on radio) in Hold On to Your Hats. During WWII, Raye and her pals Carole Landis, Kay Francis, and Mitzi Mayfair formed a U.S.O. troupe, performing tirelessly under incredibly difficult and dangerous conditions before thousands of enthusiastic G.I.s; the four actresses later starred in a fictionalized retelling of this experience, Four Jills in a Jeep (1944).

After the war, she essayed her greatest screen role in Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), playing a brash and very wealthy widow whom wife-killer Chaplin can not murder no matter how hard he tries. From 1953 to 1954 she starred in her own weekly TV variety series and continued to appear in night clubs throughout the '50s. In 1962 she starred in her last major film, Billy Rose's Jumbo, opposite Doris Day and Jimmy Durante, and five years later spent seven months in the title role of the Broadway hit Hello Dolly. Indefatigably resuming her U.S.O. activities during the Vietnam war, she became the troops' favorite performer, earning the affectionate nickname "Boondock Maggie," an honorary commission as Marine Colonel from President Johnson, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1969 Academy Awards ceremony. Unfortunately, her activities in Southeast Asia also incurred the wrath of Hollywood's anti-war activists, who unfairly labeled Raye a "hawk" and "warmonger" and did their best to prevent her finding film or TV work.

She was rescued by producer puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft, who cast her as Boss Witch in the 1970 theatrical feature Pufnstuf and as the aptly named Benita Bizarre in the Saturday morning TV series The Bugaloos. Her later work included a Broadway run in No No Nanette, extensive summer stock and dinner theater tours in the stage farce Everybody Loves Opal, supporting stints on TV's McMillan and Wife and Alice, and a cameo appearance in the feature film Airport 79. Among her six husbands were makeup artist Bud Westmore, orchestra leader David Rose, and dancer Nick Condos (her daughter by this marriage, Melodye Condos, briefly pursued a singing career of her own). In declining health for many years (she lost one of her legs to cancer), Martha Raye died at the age of 78, survived by her much younger seventh husband Mark Harris.

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