Raye, Martha

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Raye, Martha

(b. 27 August 1916 in Butte, Montana; d. 19 October 1994 in Los Angeles, California), star of stage, screen, radio, television, and nightclubs noted for her distinguished service to the military.

Raye was born Margy Reed to the vaudevillians Peter Reed and Maybelle Hooper Reed. Two years later a brother, Douglas, nicknamed “Buddy,” was born, as well as a sister, Melodye, a few years later. According to one of her biographers, her earliest memory was of the sound of applause echoing backstage for her mother and father. At three years old, Raye performed with her parents. From that time forward, she had no other ambition than to be a performer, and there are no records that she ever attended school.

Between 1919 and 1929 she performed with the Benny Davis Revue, the Ben Blue Company, and the Will Morrissey Company. She made her New York debut at the age of eighteen singing in the pit with the Paul Asch Orchestra at the Paramount Theater and later appeared at Keith’s Eighty-sixth Street Theater, which was known for introducing vaudeville acts. “But you need a new name, for good luck,” her mother told her. Opening a telephone directory, they came up with Martha Raye. Raye was canceled after only one performance at Keith’s, but she appeared in clubs in and around New York. She began going nightly to Fifty-second Street to sing with Louis Prima and his band at the Famous Door. The Broadway producer Lew Brown was looking for a fresh face to open in his upcoming musical, Calling All Stars, and signed Raye to do the show.

Calling All Stars opened in New York at the Hollywood Theater in December 1934, then moved to Boston. Although not successful in New York, the show lasted long enough for Raye to find other avenues for her talents as a singer, dancer, and comedian. She appeared in Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook Review at the Winter Garden and then began singing in nightclubs in Chicago and New York. Along the way, she met Jimmy Durante and performed with him at the Casino de Paris in New York, where they were known as “the nose and the mouth.”

Her big break came in 1935 in California after a guest appearance at the Trocadero in Hollywood, where the Paramount film director Norman Taurog signed her up for her first movie, Rhythm on the Range. The movie starred Bing Crosby and featured Raye singing “Mr. Paganini,” which became her signature song. She appeared in fifteen films for Paramount from 1936 to 1940.

While her professional life was often successful, her personal life was not. While working on the Paramount lot, the twenty-year-old Raye met and married twenty-one-year-old makeup artist Hamilton “Buddy” Westmore. Three months later they filed for divorce. In 1938 she married the composer, arranger, and orchestra leader David Rose, but thirty-one months later, in 1941, they divorced. Fewer than five weeks after divorcing Rose, she married Miami Beach hotel executive Neal Lang, but they divorced and she married dancer Nick Condos. On 26 July 1944 Raye gave birth to her only child, Melodye Condos. By 1954 she had divorced Condos and married dancer Edward Thomas Begley. She divorced Begley in 1956 and married policeman-bodyguard Robert O’Shea. Mark Harris, her last husband (whom she married in 1991), survived her. Although she and Condos divorced, he remained her personal manager until his death in 1988.

In her fifty years in show business, Raye performed in nightclubs, radio productions, theaters, movies, and television. She made twenty-six films, most memorably Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 with Charlie Chaplin and Billy Rose’s Jumbo in 1962. She appeared in numerous Broadway productions including Hold On to Your Hats in 1940; the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 1958; Hello, Dolly in 1967; and No, No, Nanette in 1972. She toured in productions of Calamity Jane, Bells Are Ringing, Solid Gold Cadillac, Call Me Madam, Everybody Loves Opal, and others. She starred in her own television show (1955–1956) and was featured in the series McMillan and Wife (1976–1977) and Alice (1982–1984). She also made countless television guest appearances.

Raye was devoted to entertaining military personnel, from World War II through the Vietnam years. The biographer Jean Maddern Pitrone observed that for Raye, serving the military was not a role but “a thorough immersion of self on behalf of a greater cause.” Raye died of pneumonia after a series of strokes at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was seventy-eight. She is buried at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with her “troops” from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. She was interred in her Green Beret uniform, under a simple tombstone engraved “Martha Raye—Civilian.”

Raye won many citations during her lifetime, most notably the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1969 for “devoted and often dangerous work in entertaining troops in combat areas almost continuously since World War II.” In 1993 President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor possible for an American civilian.

Noonie Fortín, a Vietnam-era veteran, wrote Memories of Maggie: Martha Raye, A Legend Spanning Three Wars (1999). Jean Maddern Pitrone’s Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye (1999) is a full-length biography. Raye is referenced in Anthony Slide’s The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville (1994). She wrote the foreword to A Piece of My Heart: The Stories of 26 American Women Who Served in Vietnam (1985). An obituary is in Variety (24–30 Oct. 1994).

John Kares Smith