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Also Known As: The Big Mouth, Margaret Teresa Yvonne Reed, Martha The Mouth Died: October 19, 1994
Born: August 27, 1916 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Butte, Montana, USA Profession: actor, singer, comedian, vaudevillian

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Few entertainers would embrace a nickname like "The Big Mouth," but singer-actress Martha Raye was a very good sport. Of course, what some considered a physical detriment was ultimately a key source of her power as a singer and appeal as a comedienne. She first earned significant attention on Broadway and was soon part of the talent roster at Paramount, where Raye became the go-to girl for loud and obnoxious characters. The majority of her motion picture credits came in rather disposable fare, but there were occasional gems, notably the anarchic comedy classic "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) and Charlie Chaplin's superb dark farce "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947). In later years, Raye worked mostly on the small screen and toplined her own vehicle, "The Martha Raye Show" (NBC, 1954-56). One of her most lasting contributions was as a tireless USO entertainer. Over the course of three wars, Raye travelled extensively and sang for thousands of American soldiers. She also gained a degree of new recognition as the ubiquitous spokeswoman for Polident Denture Cleaner from the 1970s on. Unfortunately, her life out of the spotlight was often troubled and she went through seven marriages and a suicide attempt before enduring...

Few entertainers would embrace a nickname like "The Big Mouth," but singer-actress Martha Raye was a very good sport. Of course, what some considered a physical detriment was ultimately a key source of her power as a singer and appeal as a comedienne. She first earned significant attention on Broadway and was soon part of the talent roster at Paramount, where Raye became the go-to girl for loud and obnoxious characters. The majority of her motion picture credits came in rather disposable fare, but there were occasional gems, notably the anarchic comedy classic "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) and Charlie Chaplin's superb dark farce "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947). In later years, Raye worked mostly on the small screen and toplined her own vehicle, "The Martha Raye Show" (NBC, 1954-56). One of her most lasting contributions was as a tireless USO entertainer. Over the course of three wars, Raye travelled extensively and sang for thousands of American soldiers. She also gained a degree of new recognition as the ubiquitous spokeswoman for Polident Denture Cleaner from the 1970s on. Unfortunately, her life out of the spotlight was often troubled and she went through seven marriages and a suicide attempt before enduring some truly sad final years. Whether belting out a standard like "That Old Black Magic" or doing sketch comedy, Raye was a larger than life personality who loved to perform and that energy and enthusiasm made her a favorite with the public for more than five decades.

A native of Butte, MA, Martha Raye was born Margaret Teresa Yvonne Reed on Aug. 27, 1916. Both of her parents were vaudeville entertainers, so it was no surprise that by age three, Raye was joining them on stage. She and her brother were soon spun off into their own act called "Margie and Bud," and Raye's grandly ebullient stage presence became apparent. Show business was Raye's primary occupation, so it led to her going through life largely illiterate as she never finished grade school. After several years of singing in various venues and on Al Jolson's radio program, Raye made her Broadway bow in the musical revue "Calling All Stars" (1934-35), where she performed such ditties as "If it's Love" and "He Just Beats a Tom Tom." Impressed by the large mouthed Montana girl's vocal skills and comedic possibilities, Paramount gave Raye a screen test and she knocked them out with "Mr. Paganini" a.k.a. "If You Can't Sing It (You'll Have to Swing It)," which Raye would adopt as her signature tune. Now under contract, she made her first screen appearance in the Bing Crosby musical Western "Rhythm on the Range" (1936), singing that very same tune. She was also in similarly lightweight fare like "The Big Broadcast of 1937" (1936), "Artists & Models" (1937), and "College Swing" (1938), and was reteamed with Crosby for "Waikiki Wedding" (1937) and "Double or Nothing" (1937). That year, she wed makeup man Bud Westmore, a union that would last a bit more than 12 months. It was the first of no less than seven trips down the aisle for Raye, who had no better luck with husband No. 2, composer David Rose. He stayed by her side for two and a half years before leaving her to marry Judy Garland.

Raye's film career continued apace in the likes of "The Farmer's Daughter" (1940) and "The Boys from Syracuse" (1940), and she returned to Broadway opposite Jolson for the hit musical "Hold on to Your Hats" (1940-41). She also popped up as twins in the Abbott & Costello outing "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941), while Olsen & Johnson's "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) was a suitably loony adaptation of the Broadway smash where she sang the incredible "Pig Foot Pete." Raye also joined many entertainers of the time by donating her services to the USO and travelling overseas to entertain American troops. While the majority of her fellow performers did this only during the Second World War, such duties later became an important part of Raye's regime and her reputation was enhanced greatly by such generosity. In between flights into various combat areas, she found time to join pin-up queen Betty Grable in the Fox musical "Pin Up Girl" (1944), where Raye belted out "Yankee Doodle Hayride" and "Red Robins, Bobwhites and Bluebirds." She appeared opposite another blonde beauty, Carole Landis, whose book about her time entertaining the troops overseas inspired the popular wartime film "Four Jills in a Jeep" (1944), which co-starred Kay Francis and Mitzi Mayfair.

She also married her fourth spouse, dancer Nick Condos. At nine years, it proved to be Raye's longest-lasting union and also produced her only child, Melodye Raye Condos. The sole remaining movie that decade, "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947), was also the finest one Raye ever appeared in. A later credit to its brilliant director-star Charlie Chaplin, the blackly comic "Bluebeard" tale cast Raye as a detestable battle axe who somehow manages not to fall victim to Chaplin's titular wife murderer. The comic tone was at its wildest during Raye's screen time and her broad style and boundless energy were utilized to excellent effect. Again displaying the enthusiasm and intent to serve, Raye traveled overseas to visit American servicemen fighting in the Korean War. Like many entertainers with similar backgrounds, Raye also made occasional guest appearances on the new medium of television and was eventually granted her own program, "The Martha Raye Show" (NBC, 1954-56). The 90-minute presentation mixed song and dance numbers with sketch comedy bits featuring such guest stars as Edward G. Robinson, Cesar Romero and Buster Keaton. The show was cancelled after two seasons and that, couple with the end of yet another marriage, prompted Raye to attempt suicide in 1956 with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Raye opened the 1960s with a pair of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her accomplishments in movies and on television and co-starred as a fortune teller in the Doris Day circus musical "Billy Rose's Jumbo" (1962). She also began to stop by "The Red Skelton Show" (NBC/CBS, 1951-1971) and spent much of the 1960s gracing various variety programs and game shows. In 1967, Raye joined the cast of the Broadway blockbuster "Hello, Dolly!" (1964-1970) as one of several actresses who took over the role of Dolly Levi from original star Carol Channing. She also continued her practice of entertaining American soldiers, this time fighting in the battle against North Vietnam. Raye's indefatigable dedication in this area was recognized in 1969 when she became a recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. She was one of many celebrities recruited to cameo in "The Phynx" (1970), a youth-oriented misfire that was written off by Warner Brothers as a disaster and barely released. A better vehicle for her acting style came with the feature film version of "Pufnstuf" (1970), in which Raye raised the rafters as the Boss Witch. In addition to that television spin-off, Raye joined the cast of another Sid & Marty Krofft children's program, "The Bugaloos" (NBC, 1970-72), which told of a fairy-like group of singers whose existence is threatened by Raye's villainous Benita Bizarre. An unusual concoction even for these producers, the program consisted of 17 episodes that ran on and off over two years, but failed to develop the cult following enjoyed by other Krofft productions. She also had a final run on Broadway in "No, No Nanette" (1971-73) as a replacement for Patsy Kelly in the role of Pauline.

During this period, Raye also became a spokeswoman for the denture cleanser Polident. Stating that she had discarded her old nickname of "The Big Mouth" and was now known as "The Fresh Mouth," Raye's jovial commercials were a television staple right through the 1980s and the campy spots helped to raise her profile. In 1974, she was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild and began to intermittently guest on "McMillan & Wife" (NBC, 1971-77) and the hit sitcom "Alice" (CBS, 1976-1985). Her career as an actress was drawing to a close by the end of the 1970s, with her final film being the all-star flop "The Concorde Airport '79" (1979). On a more auspicious note, Raye's last TV appearance was as The Duchess in an elaborate TV-movie version of "Alice in Wonderland" (CBS, 1985), which also featured the likes of Donald O'Connor, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Imogene Coca, among other legends.

Sadly, the closing years of Raye's life were rife with tragedy. In 1988, she experienced the first of several strokes and was soon confined to a wheelchair. In 1991, she married her seventh and final husband, Mark Harris, who was more than 30 years her junior and had only met her a few weeks earlier. The union caused no shortage of controversy, with detractors convinced that he was simply using Raye for her money. She also returned to newspaper headlines after filing an unsuccessful lawsuit against Bette Midler, stating that the actress' movie "For the Boys" (1991) was based on Raye's life without permission. In one of the few bright spots during this time, Raye was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in gratitude for her extensive contributions to the country's war effort. Meanwhile, additional health crises eventually caused the loss of both of Raye's legs and she also displayed the effects of Alzheimer 's disease. The combination of these ailments and cardiovascular disease eventually took their toll and Raye died of pneumonia on Oct. 19, 1994. Her marriage to Harris led to a souring in the relationship between Raye and daughter Melodye Raye Condos, who was left out of her mother's will. The majority of Raye's $3 million estate went to Harris and she was buried with full military honors at Fort Bragg, NC.

By John Charles

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
2.
 Wisecracks (1991) Herself (Archival Footage)
3.
 Concorde--Airport '79, The (1979) Loretta
4.
 Pufnstuf (1970) Boss Witch
5.
 The Phynx (1970)
7.
 Jumbo (1962) Lulu
8.
 Monsieur Verdoux (1947) Annabella Bonheur
9.
 Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) Martha Raye
10.
 Pin Up Girl (1944) Molly McKay
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1916:
Entered parents' vaudeville act at age three
1919:
Toured extensively in vaudeville as Bud and Margie with the Benny Davis Revue, the Ben Blue Company and the Will Morrissey Company
1931:
Worked as band singer and comedienne with Paul Ash's Orchestra at age 15 (date approximate)
:
Joined Boris Morros's Orchestra as a band vocalist with whom she played the Paramount Theatre on Broadway
1934:
Made NY debut at Loew's State Theater
1934:
Made Broadway debut in the revue Lew Brown's "Calling All Stars"
1934:
Made film debut in short subjects
1935:
Appeared on Broadway in "Earl Carroll's Sketch Book"
1935:
Was discovered by Paramount while working as a nightclub singer in Hollywood
1936:
Feature film debut opposite Bing Crosby in "Rhythm on the Range"
:
Toured with the USO during WWII
1947:
Played most acclaimed film role in Charles Chaplin's black comedy, "Monsieur Verdoux"
1948:
Made London debut in variety show at the Palladium
1950:
TV debut in "Anything Goes" on "Musical Comedy Theater
:
Was alternating host on TV series, "All Star Revue"
:
Starred on "The Martha Raye Show"
1967:
Took over the title role of Dolly Gallagher Levi from Ginger Rogers in the long-running Broadway musical, "Hello, Dolly!"
:
Toured annually in Vietnam until the American withdrawal in 1974
:
Played the housekeeper in the NBC TV series, "McMillan", starring Rock Hudson
:
Was featured as Carrie Sharples on CBS sitcom "Alice"
:
Became TV spokeswoman for Polident denture products in the 1980s
:
Began to suffer a series of strokes in the late 1980s
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Professional Children's School: New York , New York -

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Bud Westmore. Makeup artist. Married in 1937; divorced in 1938.
husband:
David Rose. Conductor, composer. Married in 1938; divorced in 1940.
husband:
Neal Lang. Hotelier. Married and divorced in 1941.
husband:
Nick Condos. Dancer. Married on November 11, 1942; divorced on June 17, 1953; died in 1988.
husband:
Ed Begley. Dancer. Married on April 21, 1954; divorced on October 6, 1956; born c. 1924; dancer in the chorus of her TV show; not to be confused with the Oscar-winning character actor.
husband:
Robert O'Shea. Former patrolman, bodyguard, private detective. Married on November 7, 1958; divorced c. 1962; was 28 at time of marriage; O'Shea sued Raye for fraud claiming she had promised him $60,000 to induce him to marry her; marriage was dissolved soon after.
husband:
Mark Steven Harris. Singer, hairdresser, show business promoter. Married on September 25, 1991 in Las Vegas after a three-week courtship, remarried at the Friars Club on December 28, 1991; born c. 1947; took over management of Raye's business affairs after marriage; son of Max Bleefield and Rebecca Glitzer; worked for texile company in NYC; formerly married to Gwenn Susan Husak from 1971 to 1983 with whom he had three daughters.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

father:
Peter Reed. Vaudevillian. Irish immigrant song-dance-comedy trouper billed as Reed and Hooper, "The Girl and the Traveler".
mother:
Mabel Hooper. Vaudevillian.
brother:
Bud Reed. Born in 1918.
sister:
Melodye Reed. Born in 1920.
daughter:
Melodye Condos. Musicians' union representative. Born 1945; father Nick Condos; estranged from Raye; in 1991 sued for conservatorship of Raye and for her 25 percent of Raye's income from her Polident commercials (Raye videotaped a will, bequeathing the bulk of her estimated $2.4 million estate to Mark Harris, and leaving $1--as in previous wills--to daughter).
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Take It From Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye" University of Kentucky Press

Contributions

danny52 ( 2008-02-07 )

Source: not available

MILESTONE President Bill Clinton awarded Martha Raye the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, the year before her death.

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