Smith, Kate (1907–1986)
Smith, Kate (1907–1986)
American singer who was a symbol of U.S. optimism and patriotism throughout the mid-20th century. Born Kathryn Elizabeth Smith in Greenville, Virginia, on May 1, 1907; died in Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 17, 1986, of complications from diabetes; daughter of William and Charlotte Smith; had one sister, Helena; educated in local schools; never married; no children.
Began singing and dancing in childhood at church socials and, during World War I, in army camps in and around Washington, D.C.; appeared in first vaudeville musical (1926) and embarked on a 50-year singing career on stage, in films, and on network radio and television; a tireless campaigner for charity causes, was also an outspoken proponent of American virtues, symbolized by many recordings and renditions of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America"; forced to retire because of health problems (mid-1970s); made few public appearances thereafter.
Americans from coast to coast were huddled around their radio sets one winter's night in 1943, during the bleakest period of World War II. They weren't listening to war news; rather, they had tuned in to a war-bond variety show hosted by a strong-voiced woman whose songs, chatter, and cheery encouragement meant more to them than anything even President Franklin Roosevelt could say. On that single broadcast on CBS radio, Kate Smith would raise more money for the war effort than any other performer throughout the war years. Her voice was as familiar to Americans as the ample figure and wide-open face that beamed out at them from phonograph album covers, from magazines and newspapers and, if they were lucky, from the stage of a nearby theater or auditorium. She attracted a daily radio audience of some 25 million, singing in a powerful, resonant voice or sharing plain advice on meeting life's problems head-on; she had everything from racehorses to flowers to bombers named after her; and her many performances of "God Bless America" were so stirring in their patriotism that many mistook it for the new national anthem. Even President Roosevelt wasn't immune, choosing to introduce her to the king and queen of England in 1939 by saying, "Your Majesties, this is Kate Smith. This is America."
By her own definition "just a plain, simple woman," Smith carried a nation through 50 years of depression, war, and social upheaval with her unflagging optimism and a voice that conductor Leopold Stokowski once told her was a gift from God. But Smith's parents must have wondered if their daughter even had a voice for the first few years after her birth in Virginia in the spring of 1907. William and Charlotte Smith did not hear a peep out of little Kathryn Elizabeth for nearly four years; but she finally began singing and talking at the same time, as if both were equally natural to her.
"For as long as I can remember," she once wrote, "my greatest desire in life and my most complete happiness has been to sing," although she had no formal musical education and was unable to read music. She pointed to her family's church singing every Sunday as an early influence, along with the experience of singing for a visiting group of French World War I heroes, to which they responded with great enthusiasm and affection. A third factor, Smith said, was the Charleston, the dance that was all the rage in the early 1920s, when she had reached her teens. By then, she was singing and dancing in church socials and for groups of World War I veterans, and would always bring down the house with the dance that had become a symbol of the roaring '20s. The stage became her home, and applause her sweetest music. "The crowd cheers, applauds, stamps its feet, yells friendly greeting," she said. "My heart fills to bursting. They like me! They know me!"
The audience's affection may have had a tinge of surprise, too, for at first glance, Smith did not appear to be the type to break into an energetic dance routine. By the time she was 20, Smith had assumed the physique described in those days as "strapping," generous in girth and robust in proportion. But during her early career, she would be known as much for her light-footed hoofing as for her singing, and she was talented enough at both for Broadway producer Abe Erlanger to notice her in a Washington vaudeville revue in 1925—a job she had taken after dropping out of the nursing school in which her parents had insisted she enroll after high school. He offered her a part in his upcoming Broadway show, Honeymoon Lane, playing a character called Tiny Little, a slapstick role trading on her ample figure that earned her many laughs but little attention as a serious singer. Nevertheless, she stuck it out and even toured with the production before recording several songs from the show for Columbia Records, which were the first of some 3,000 records she would make over the next 50 years.
Similar parts in other vaudeville shows followed which, although small, caused enough stir for Warner Bros. to make a short film, Kate Smith: Songbird of the South, at its Manhattan studios in 1929. Such shorts were the music videos of the day, used as filler between full-length features in movie theaters. In her first film, Smith sang "Carolina Moon" to such effect that Warner's advertised the Vitaphone release with the slogan, "If a Vitaphone act could take encores, you'd have to play this one all night." But Smith's next stage appearance nearly drove her from the business. She played opposite Bert Lahr in George White's Flying High and was subjected to Lahr's constant, ad-libbed, on-stage jabs and jokes about her weight, in which he encouraged the entire cast to take part. Lahr, soon to become familiar to millions as the Cowardly Lion in MGM's The Wizard of Oz, refused Smith's pleas to stop making fun of her, even on the night when Kate knew her grandparents would be in the audience. In later years, a more repentant Lahr claimed that Smith's inexperience on stage had been stealing his laughs, but what Smith was really stealing from him was the show. The critics praised her more than they did Lahr, although even the best of them couldn't resist mentioning her formidable physique. "Kate Smith is sitting on top of the world; nothing else would bear the weight," was a typical comment. Despite the $450 a week White was paying her, Smith was preparing to quit the show, and the stage. "There was no getting away from the fact," she later said, "that those who remembered me at all thought of me as a fat girl first and, second, as a singer." But one night, someone walked into her dressing room who saw things the other way around.
At the time, Ted Collins was a recording executive with Columbia Records, and what he saw on stage was a vocal artist with immense potential. Collins took matters in hand, getting Lahr and the rest of the cast to stick to the script, and proposing to become Smith's manager when the show closed. It was the beginning of a professional friendship that would last for 40 years and turn Kate Smith into a national institution.
I have a hunch that microphone will become quite a pal of yours, Kathryn.
—Manager Ted Collins, after Kate Smith's first radio show, 1931
Collins knew that Smith's future was in radio and records, not in the theater. By 1931, she had the first of many recording contracts with Columbia; had been introduced to national radio audiences on Rudy Vallee's "Fleischmann's Hour," the most popular show on the air at the time; and by spring of that year, had her own show on CBS three times a week, on the first of which Smith introduced what would become her theme song, "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain." Smith herself had written the lyrics as a poem, which Collins had musician friends set to music. The first show—the first, in fact, of over 15,000 radio broadcasts—went out nationwide over CBS on April 26, and Smith later confessed to a bad case of nerves waiting for the network connection light to turn green. She wasn't even sure how to begin the show, so Collins suggested just a simple hello. Thus was born another of Smith's trademarks, the "Hello, everybody! This is Kate Smith!" which opened every show from then on, along with her equally simple "Thanks for listenin'!" at the end. The program became so popular that CBS expanded it to five days a week, until it went off the air two years later when Smith's contract ran out. By then, she was earning $3,000 a week. All the while, she kept up a nearly constant recording schedule, played a host of charity fundraisers, did several more one-reelers for Warner's, and appeared in her first feature film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast, in which Bing Crosby, perhaps with tongue in cheek, referred to her as "America's greatest singer." Her segment of the film was shot on a New York soundstage to accommodate her radio schedule, but when her program went off the air, Paramount offered her a starring role in a film to be shot in Hollywood. Smith found herself heading West for the first time in her life.
Originally calling it Moon Song, Paramount decided to rename the picture Hello, Everybody! to capitalize on Smith's radio success. The studio again accommodated Smith's radio schedule (she was still doing guest spots, even though her own show was off the air) by building a studio especially for her on the lot, and made sure she wined and dined with the stars. But Smith was not impressed. "There is … a lack of sincerity," she would later write of movie people. "Friendship, or what passes for it, is bestowed lightly on anyone in a position of importance." At a dinner given especially in her honor, attended by the likes of Clark Gable and Randolph Scott, Smith found herself mentally looking for the exit and "wishing for an apple, a glass of milk, and a good book." Deciding that Hollywood was not the milieu for a hometown girl, Smith finished the picture but asked Collins to get her out of her contract for future films—the only time in her professional life she broke such an agreement.
Back in New York, Collins swiftly got her a one-week's engagement at the Palace on Broadway, headlined as Kate Smith and her Swanee Revue, which went on the road after its Broadway run as one of the last great touring vaudeville shows. Now Smith was in her element, spending much of 1932 and 1933 trooping from town to town, meeting everyday Americans—rather than self-centered Hollywood stars—and reveling in the magic of the road; a magic, she said, that had nothing to do with bright lights, fancy parties, and artificial frivolity, but with "sharing things with old friends and making new ones; of work well done, and the reward of applause, which is like no other music." The tour crisscrossed the country for months, giving Smith her first real experience of the country whose virtues she would propound so eagerly in the coming years. She went on sleigh rides in Minneapolis, played golf in Texas, and went deep-sea fishing off the coast of California.
By the time the tour ended late in 1933, Smith and Ted Collins had formed a management company, Kated, Inc., to manage her own career and those of other vaudeville artists. The two partners split the proceeds down the middle, and the arrangement would earn both of them a prosperous return—an estimated $50 million for Smith alone during her career. Collins had lined up a radio schedule that would keep Smith on the air nearly constantly for the next 20 years. Renewing her contract with CBS, she went back on the air in 1934 with "The Kate Smith Matinee Hour," followed by "Kate Smith's All-Star Revue" in 1935 and "Kate Smith's Coffee Time" later the same year, sponsored by the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (better known as A&P) which reported a 25% increase in coffee sales. "Coffee Time" was Smith's first show to use a live studio audience, along with another innovation thought up by Collins—a segment of the show he called "Command Performance," which honored acts of heroism by real people and rewarded them with cash prizes. The response, and the number of entries for the awards, grew to such proportions that the segment had to be phased out and the fund Smith had set up for the prizes turned over to the Red Cross. During each "Coffee Time," Smith would also interview sports stars, military heroes and other personalities.
In addition to her radio shows, Smith continued a tireless round of charity appearances, raising money for everything from cancer research to tree-planting schemes. Although some critics saw these appearances as nothing but free publicity for her, Smith paid them no mind. Depression-era Americans loved their Kate, and relied on her to lift their spirits with a song and a cheerful word of advice. "I like to feel that I'm making people a little happier, especially people who are ill or in trouble," she said, and purposefully selected a repertoire of uplifting, sentimental songs that would be enjoyable and understandable to the widest possible audience. In 1938, on a show dedicated to the Armistice that had ended World War I 20 years before, Smith introduced the song that became hers and hers alone—"God Bless America." Collins had gone to Irving Berlin for something to mark Armistice Day, and Berlin produced the stirring paean evoking American majesty and might that Smith would sing on 65 consecutive shows and perform scores of times in numerous recorded versions until her retirement. The song earned millions in royalties, which both Smith and Berlin donated to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America; and when Berlin's original manuscript of the song was discovered in Las Vegas in 1990, the Kate Smith God Bless America Foundation put it up for auction, using the $295,000 it brought to good purpose for its many charitable activities.
In the same year that "God Bless America" swept the nation, Ted Collins introduced yet another innovation for Smith—a show on which she never sang at all. "Kate Smith Speaks" began as a 15-minute chat show during which Smith dispensed her own brand of homespun wisdom, offered her favorite recipes as well as ways to deal with "excess avoirdupois," and pronounced her opinions on a number of issues. With Hitler about to invade Poland and throw Europe into chaos, she spoke out against the cruelty of war; she mustered support for a new series of child-labor laws then under consideration in Washington; and she urged women to step outside the home and get involved in government affairs "so that they may use whatever influence they have in their community to work towards better health conditions, greater education, and other improvements which relate directly to youth and to the home." "Kate Smith Speaks" was on the air every day for 13 years, and became as much a part of the day as the lunchtime soup and sandwich.
During World War II, it seemed as if Smith were everywhere but on the front lines. She raised some $600 million for the war effort through bond drives, entertained the troops in training camps around the nation, sent them off with a hearty wave from the docks, and cheered them up when they were sent home, injured, to hospitals. She and Ted Collins went wherever the Defense Department wanted them, often paying their own way, and broadcast "The Kate Smith Hour" live from any location. Her most popular records were issued during the war, from "White Cliffs of Dover" to "When You Wish Upon a Star." She was called "radio's Statue of Liberty," and it seemed only natural that she should be awarded the Patriotic Service Cross when the war was over. Around 1952, Smith was voted in a Gallup poll one of the three most popular women in the world, sharing the honor with Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth II .
The 1950s brought a new entertainment medium, and Smith did not miss a beat, appearing on NBC-TV's "The Kate Smith Hour" in 1950 in addition to keeping her radio commitments. By 1952, she was on radio or television a total of ten hours a week, rehearsing the rest of the time and continuing her charity appearances—a schedule grueling enough that doctors warned her she risked a stroke if she continued, especially since her "excess avoirdupois" now reached well over 200 pounds. Heeding their advice, she and Collins decided to take 1954 off. Smith spent the time recuperating at Camp Sunshine, the home she had built on a small island in New York's Lake Placid, while Collins rested at his own newly built place on the mainland. Both could be seen zipping around the lake in Smith's speedboat, Sunshine I. The hiatus stretched into the next year when Collins had a near-fatal heart attack and Smith vowed to stay at his side.
She returned to the air in 1956 with a revival of "The Kate Smith Hour," this time on ABC, and a radio show once a week for Mutual that began in 1958. In 1960, she left ABC for CBS, where she and Collins mounted "The Kate Smith Show" on Monday nights at 7:30. But the show was canceled after only one season, leaving Smith with no television presence at all, out-side of guest appearances. As usual, Collins had an idea.
The sold-out Carnegie Hall concert of November 1962, backed by Skitch Henderson's orchestra, is still talked about in pop music circles. It was as if America were discovering Kate Smith all over again. "Her voice has lost none of its robust resonance," wrote critic John Wilson. "Her delivery was easy and effortless, her tone mellow and smooth, and she can still belt out a powerhouse climax." Offers started pouring in, for films, television, and personal appearances. Smith accepted as many as she could, even appearing once with a full-leg cast after a fall that fractured her ankle. But the revival of her career was cut short when Ted Collins suffered another heart attack in May 1964 and died. Devastated by the loss, Smith announced she was taking six months off and went into seclusion at Camp Sunshine. "He was my manager, my partner, my devoted friend," Smith said of him. "Unselfishness and loyalty were deeply ingrained in this kindly, outgoing, laughing, generous man."
For the next two years, little would be heard from her. Health problems began to appear, starting with double pneumonia shortly after Collins' death. This was followed by another fall later that same year and, eventually, news that she had been stricken with the diabetes that had plagued her father. Smith took comfort from close friends and family, and from the spirituality that had always been the foundation of her natural optimism. She embraced the Catholic faith in 1965 and would remain a devoted adherent for the rest of her life. Her private meeting with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1966 was, she said, the high point of her life, as well as the only time she ever left her beloved United States. By 1967, she felt sufficiently restored to tell an interviewer, "It's no good to stop. If you have it in you to keep going, keep moving on, then that's what you've got to do." Smith had decided it was time to move on.
That year, she re-emerged with a reissue of many of her bestselling records, then with personal appearances on television and on the stage. In 1969, she starred in her own nationally syndicated television special, and sang "God Bless America" to a crowd of 350,000 gathered in Washington in 1970 for "Honor America Day." Her final TV special in 1973 was another syndicated show carried by 160 stations, "Kate Smith Presents Remembrances … and Rock," which numbered among its guests The Supremes ; and among her final recordings that year was a version of "Smile" that she recorded with rock pianist Doctor John. But her most unexpected new audience was the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team which, suffering through a discouraging season, substituted the national anthem with one of Smith's rousing versions of "God Bless America." They found themselves in the Stanley Cup playoffs that year, and actually won the Cup the next year, with Smith cheering them on from the bleachers.
During the nation's bicentennial year, Smith was admitted to a New York hospital for a respiratory illness, but unexpectedly lapsed into a diabetic coma from which she emerged with her eyesight impaired and her mental abilities reduced. Declared legally incompetent in 1979, Smith was moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lived as an invalid with her sister. Still, she summoned enough strength to travel to Los Angeles in the spring of 1982 to receive a special Emmy Award for her contributions to television. In the fall of that year, she went to the White House to receive the nation's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, from President Ronald Reagan. "Kate always sang from the heart," he said, "and so we always listened with our hearts."
Kate Smith died in June 1986 and was buried in her beloved town of Lake Placid. It seemed as if one of the best parts of America had passed away with her, but Smith wouldn't have stood for the mournful postmortems. "I guess my creed is to get as much good, clean, wholesome fun out of life as you can," she once wrote, and that is exactly what she did.
Pitts, Michael. Kate Smith: A Bio-Bibliography. NY: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Slonimsky, Nicholas, ed. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 8th ed. NY: Schirmer Books, 1992.
Smith, Kate. Living Life in a Great Big Way. NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1938.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York