Francis, Arlene (1908–2001)

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Francis, Arlene (1908–2001)

American television personality and actress. Born Arlene Francis Kazanjian in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1908; died in 2001; only child of Aram Kazanjian (a portrait photographer), and Leah (Davis) Kazanjian ; attended grade school in Boston; graduated from the Academy of Mount St. Vincent, Riverdale, New York; attended Finch School, New York; attended the Theater Guild School for a year; married Neil Agnew (a movie executive), in 1935 (divorced 1945); married Martin Gabel (an actor-producer), on May 14, 1946 (died 1979); children: one son, Peter Gabel.

A popular television personality of the 1950s, Arlene Francis might have inherited her flare for performing from her maternal grandfather, a Shakespearean actor who taught her to recite. After displaying a talent for dramatics in school plays, she attended the Theater Guild School for a year. Her father, possibly hoping to lure his daughter away from the stage, then opened a gift shop for her on Madison Avenue, but Francis turned it into a meeting place for her friends, and it closed in less than a year. After a brief turn in Hollywood and a name change, she returned to New York where she took bit parts on radio and on Broadway. Her first major stage role was in George Abbott's All that Glitters (1938), followed by featured roles in Orson Welles' Mercury Theater production of Danton's Death (1938) and Maxwell Anderson's Journey to Jerusalem (1940). Her early radio assignments also included serials and appearances with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and George Burns and Gracie Allen . She also did soundtrack commentary for fashion newsreels.

In 1942, Francis landed the role of Natalia, a Russian lady sniper, in Joseph Fields' comedy The Doughgirls, which ran for a year and a half. For several years, she continued on Broadway and on the radio, where her show "Blind Date" became popular and was later transferred to television. In 1954, she was selected over 30 other actresses to host the "Home" show, a daytime television program for women, the first NBC show to be broadcast in color; she was also the first woman to guest-host the "Jack Paar Tonight Show." Francis became best known, however, as a regular panelist on "What's My Line?" (CBS-TV), a game show on which a panel of celebrities guessed the occupations of various contestants by asking them questions. The success of the show caught her by surprise. Its charm, she later recalled was "its simplicity." Francis briefly had her own television show, the "Arlene Francis Show," and hosted a radio program, "Arlene Francis at Sardi's." As late as 1981, she was co-hosting the "Prime of Your Life" on WNBC-TV, New York.

Francis was married to Neil Agnew, a movie executive, for ten years. They divorced in 1945, and she married actor-producer Martin Gabel, with whom she had a son, Peter, in 1947. On their first wedding anniversary, Gabel presented her with a diamond heart pendant, which she wore so constantly that it became her trademark.


Brown, Les. Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1977.

Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1956. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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