The Golden Age of Radio’s Ten Most Important Women, Part One

10) Martha Wilkerson (aka GI Jill) 

During World War II, many worked to build the morale of soldiers who found themselves in danger thousands of miles from home and none did more than Wilkerson. When the war launched, many programs were made for soldiers, often featuring celebrity hosts. One such program was G.I. Jive. Early episodes feature such professionals as Frank Nelson and Donna Reed. However, they would be replaced by an unknown who would quickly become known to forces overseas as G.I. Jill. Recorded in Los Angeles, Jill’s warm and friendly voice was a big slice of home to war-weary soldiers. She was the ultimate girl next door. She made the perfect counter to Japanese efforts to undermine morale in the person of Tokyo Rose. With superior records and a winning personality and her recordings of her fifteen-minutes-daily GI Jive show and her half-hour Jill’s All-Time Jukebox, the axis didn’t have a chance against WIlkerson. Her recordings continue to be beloved by Old Time Radio fans to this day.

9) Cathy Lewis

Cathy Lewis was a prolific character actress She had recurring roles on programs like Michael Shayne Private Detective with Wally Maher, My Friend Irma, and The Great Gildersleeve. Perhaps, her most well-known program was the series On Stage in which she starred with her then-husband Elliot where she took on a variety of meaty roles. She was invaluable as a character actress, making numerous appearances on anthology programs like Suspense, Romance, and The Whistler. With more than 3000 appearances, Cathy Lewis’s place as one of radio’s most important women is well-earned.

8) Mercedes McCambridge

Orson Welles called her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.” McCambridge was a rare talent. Her big starring role came as radio was in decline.  Starting in 1951,  she starred as a tough and smart female attorney who solved crimes and got justice for her clients.  In 1952, she was recognized as radio’s favorite dramatic actress by Radio TV Mirror Magazine.  McCambridge frequently appeared on Lights Out and also had many appearances on The Mercury Summer Theater, the Great Gildersleeve, and Inner Sanctum.

For my money, the best showcase of her talent was in Studio One,  CBS one hour drama showcase produced by her then-husband Fletcher Markle. She began in November 1947 with the lead in Kitty Foyle. McCambridge became a regular on Studio One returning each week with a new role from an ambitious opera singer to the bored and disgruntled wife of a broken down businessman, McCambridge took all parts, always proof of the old saying that there are no small parts-only small actors, and she was a talented and dedicated actress through and through. Her voice was like none other in radio, a wonderful instrument that’s been keeping fans entertained for decades.

7) Jeanette Nolan

Her friend True Boardman said Nolan was a remarkable actress who could play any female role from the Queen to a widow to a seductress. Her first major role was on Tarzan in the 1930s. Nolan was best known for her old lady roles. Ironically enough, Nolan was in her 20s and 30s while playing most of these dowager roles. She helped to hold some of radio’s great shows together. Producer Norm Macdonnell used her as part of a stock company that appeared often on Gunsmoke, Fort Laramie,and the Adventures of Philip Marlowe. She also made frequent appearances on Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Suspense, and the Cavalcade of America.

6) Claudia Morgan.

Morgan was the definitive radio Nora Charles. She played the role from 1941-50. What made this remarkable was that the program had seven different runs over four different networks with four different leads. Through it all, she was the indispensable ingredient in this long-running series, maintaining a unique play on Mrs. Charles that was in many ways stronger and more forceful than Myrna Loy’s screen-presentation.  Morgan’s portrayal of Mrs. Charles was so good, when NBC decided to start another husband-wife detective show, she was picked to play Mrs. Abbott on The Adventures of the Abbotts. The new series ran only one season. Morgan played Jean Abbott the whole season while three actors portrayed her husband and official lead Pat. Beyond her most iconic role, Morgan also had a notable role in several radio soap operas, including The O’Neills and The Right to Happiness. 

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