5) Gracie Allen
Allen was a bright and intelligent comic talent who was successful at playing Gracie Allen, one of radio’s greatest screwball characters. She began working with George Burns in vaudeville before moving on to a few films, but it was in radio she made her mark. Through the mid-late 1930s to the 1940s, they starred in a comic variety show where Gracie sang as well as doing sketch comedy. Then they starred in a sitcom that lasted seventeen years over radio and television.
Gracie had perfect comic timing and delivery like no one else on the radio. While she and George were good, she played well off nearly any guest star or hapless character. She was also behind two of the greatest radio promotions. In 1940, she “ran for President” on the Surprise Party Ticket and did a tour of dozens of radio shows to promote her candidacy. In 1948, she played off husband George Burns’ put-on lack of singing talent to visit every CBS show she could find (including The Adventures of Philip Marlowe) in order to find one that would let him sing.
The most amazing thing about Gracie Allen was that through her decades as one of America’s greatest entertainers, she suffered stage fright, but she showed her courage by fighting it and left behind a legacy as one of the true all time great comedic talents.
4) Gertrude Berg
Berg was one of those radio pioneers who created a lasting legacy. Her program The Goldbergs began in 1929 and would run over radio and television until 1956. The program was a comedy soap telling the real-life struggles and travails of a Jewish family living in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. The program became beloved by millions and with its humor and heart brought a slice of life that many Americans simply didn’t know existed. Throughout the show’s 27-year run, Berg remained the friendly and unchanging face of one of the golden age’s most successful enterprises.
3) Kate Smite Kate Smith
Smith was one of radio’s most enduring personalities. Her first radio program Kate Smith Sings began airing in 1931. Her last program left the air in August 1958. During her time on the radio, she hosted variety programs, singing programs, and a daily talk show. Her show would provide launching pads for such great stars as the Aldrich Family, Abbott and Costello, and Jackie Gleason. Smith’s signature song was her rendition of “God Bless America,” which she first introduced in 1938. Her beautiful voice and genial manner makes her one of golden age’s must-listen-to stars.
2) Dinah Shore
Shore came to stardom on Eddie Cantor’s Time to Smile program in 1940. Soon, she had her own show for Bristol Myers in 1941 and would be a much sought-out performer leading shows for Birds Eye frosted foods, Ford, Philip Morris, and Chevrolet. She was one of America’s most popular singers throughout radio’s golden age. Her popularity made her a guest star for programs from Lights Out to Burns and Allen. She was one of radio’s most popular and talented personalities and a true star.
1 ) Virginia Gregg
Gregg was many things over radio. She landed recurring roles most often playing detectives’ girlfriends and girl Fridays. She was Nicki Porter to Lawrence Dobkin’s Ellery Queen, Claire Brooks to Bob Bailey’s George Valentine, she was Helen Asher to Dick Powell’s Richard Diamond, and then she was Betty Lewis to Bailey’s Johnny Dollar. She was also Miss Wong, the Chinese Girlfriend of Ben Wright’s Hey Boy on Have Gun Will Travel.
As impressive as these numerous recurring and ongoing roles were, it barely touches on the depth of what she contributed. She was a true artist, a character actress par excellence. She could play a dozen femme fatales opposite Jack Webb’s Pat Novak for Hire, but also old ladies, heartbroken mothers, busybodies, and little girls.
Virginia Gregg was the type of professional that radio depended on. She could be counted on to play any role and play it to the hilt. Jack Webb on Dragnet could call on Gregg to be tough as nails, quirky, or heartbroken, and she’d do it. During the Yours Truly Johnny Dollar serials, Gregg appeared regularly. One week she’d play a girl gone wrong, the next she’d play a big and rowdy Irishwoman who ran a dive.
Certainly Gregg wasn’t the only actress who could do this. But she was one of the most prolific, and she was the best. Without her performances, the Golden Age of radio wouldn’t have shined near as much. Radio without Virginia’s Gregg’s contributions isn’t worth thinking about.
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