Tag: women’s history

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

Continued from Part One

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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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.