Martha Raye (August 27, 1916 – October 19, 1994) was an American comic actress and standards singer who performed in movies, and later on television. She was honored in 1969 with an Academy Award as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipient for her volunteer efforts and services to the troops.
Raye's life as a singer and comedic performer began in very early childhood. She was born at St. James Hospital in Butte, Montana, as Margy Reed. Her father was an immigrant of Irish descent, and her mother was raised in Milwaukee and Montana. Raye's parents, Peter F. Reed, Jr. and Maybelle Hazel Hooper, were performing in a local vaudeville theatre as "Reed and Hooper." Two days after Martha was born, her mother was already back on stage, and the little girl first appeared in their act when only three years old. She performed with her brother Bud, and soon the two children became such a highlight that the act was renamed "Margie and Bud." Some show business insiders speculated that the lyrics of a Judy Garland song from A Star Is Born, "I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho", was inspired by the circumstances of Raye's birth.
She continued performing from that point on and even attended the Professional Children's School in New York City, but received so little formal schooling (getting only as far as the fifth grade) that she often had to have scripts and other documents read to her by others.
In the early 1930s, Raye was a band vocalist with the Paul Ash and Boris Morros orchestras. She made her first film appearance in 1934 in a band short titled A Nite in the Nite Club. In 1936 she was signed for comic roles by Paramount Pictures, and made her first picture for Paramount. Her first feature film was Rhythm on the Range with crooner Bing Crosby. From 1936 to 1939, she was a featured cast member in 39 episodes of Al Jolson's weekly CBS radio show, "The Lifebuoy Program” aka “Cafe Trocadero.” In addition to comedy, Martha sang both solos and duets with Jolson. Over the next 26 years, she would eventually appear with many of the leading comics of her day, including Joe E. Brown, Bob Hope, W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin and Jimmy Durante. She joined the USO soon after the US entered World War II.
She was known for the size of her mouth, which was large in proportion to the rest of her face, thus earning her the nickname The Big Mouth. She later referred to this in a series of commercials for Polident denture cleaner in the 1980s: "So take it from The Big Mouth: new Polident Green gets tough stains clean!" Her large mouth would come to relegate her motion picture work to largely supporting comic parts, and was often made up in such a way that it appeared even larger than it was to begin with. In the Disney cartoon Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, she is caricatured dancing alongside Joe E. Brown, another actor known for having a big mouth. In the Warner Bros. cartoon The Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos (1937), she was caricatured as a jazzy scat-singing donkey named Moutha Bray.
During World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, she travelled extensively to entertain American troops despite her lifelong fear of flying.
In October 1966 she went to Soc Trang, South Vietnam, to entertain the troops at the base which was the home base of the 121st Aviation company known as the Soc Trang Tigers and their gunship platoon known as the Vikings, and the 336th Aviation company known as the Warriors and their gunship platoon known as the Thunderbirds. Shortly after her arrival, both units were called out on a mission to extract supposed POWs from an area nearby. Raye decided to hold her troupe of entertainers there until the mission was completed so that the servicemen could all watch her show. She often served as a nurse on these trips.
During that time, as a serviceman flying a "Huey Slick" helicopter carrying troops recalled, it had received combat damage severe enough to force its return to base at Soc Trang:
I was the pilot of that "slick" which had received major damage to the tail-rotor drive shaft from a lucky enemy rifle shot. The maintenance team at the staging area inspected, and determined that a one-time flight back to base camp would be okay but grounded the aircraft after that. Upon arriving back at Soc Trang, I informed Martha (she came right up to us and asked how things were going) that we had a gunship down in the combat area and additional efforts were being made to extract the crew. I don't recall if we had received word of the death of the pilot at that time. Martha stated that she and her troupe would remain until everyone returned from the mission. As there were no replacements, the servicemen could not return to the mission. While the servicemen waited, Raye played poker with them and helped to keep everyone's spirits up. I enjoyed playing cards with Martha but regretted it somewhat. It appears that she had plenty of practice playing poker with GIs during her USO service in multiple wars. But I still love her for who she was and what she did. When the mission was completed, which had resulted in the loss of a helicopter, gunship and a Viking pilot, there was also an officer, the major who was in command of the Vikings, who had been wounded when the ship went down. He was flying pilot position but was not in control of the ship when the command pilot, a warrant officer, was shot. When he and the two remaining crewmen were returned to Soc Trang, Raye volunteered to assist the doctor in treating the wounded flier. When all had been completed, Raye waited until everybody was available and then put on her show. Everyone involved appreciated her as an outstanding trouper and a caring person. During the Vietnam War, she was made an honorary Green Beret because she visited United States Army Special Forces in Vietnam without fanfare, and she helped out when things got bad in Special Forces A-camps. As a result, she came to be known affectionately by the Green Berets as "Colonel Maggie."
On November 2, 1993, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton for her service to her country. The citation reads:
"A talented performer whose career spans the better part of a century, Martha Raye has delighted audiences and uplifted spirits around the globe. She brought her tremendous comedic and musical skills to her work in film, stage and television, helping to shape American entertainment. The great courage, kindness, and patriotism she showed in her many tours during World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam conflict earned her the nickname 'Colonel Maggie.' The American people honor Martha Raye, a woman who has tirelessly used her gifts to benefit the lives of her fellow Americans. "
She was a television star very early in its history, and even had her own program for a while, The Martha Raye Show (1954–1956), with an awkward boyfriend portrayed by retired middleweightboxer Rocky Graziano (whom she called "goombah," Sicilian slang for the Italian "compare" [companion]). (The writer and producer was future The Phil Silvers Show creator Nat Hiken.) Some of the guest stars on the show were Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cesar Romero and Broadway dancer Wayne Lamb. She also appeared on other TV shows in the 1950s, such as What's My Line?. Following the demise of her TV variety show, the breakup of her fifth marriage and a series of other personal and health problems, she attempted suicide overdosing on sleeping pills on August 14, 1956. Well-wishers gave her a St. Christopher's medal, a St. Genesius medal and a Star of David. After her recovery, she wore these amulets faithfully, although she was neither Roman Catholic nor Jewish. At the conclusion of each episode of her TV shows, she would thank the nuns at The Sisters of St. Francis Hospital in Miami, Florida, where she had recovered. She would always say "Goodnight, Sisters" as a sign of appreciation and gratitude.
Later in her career, she made television commercials for Polident denture cleanser, principally during the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1970 she portrayed Boss Witch, the "Queen of all Witchdom", in the feature film Pufnstuf for Sid and Marty Krofft. This led to her being cast as villainess Benita Bizarre in The Bugaloos (1970), which the Kroffts produced the same year.
Raye as the outrageous Benita Bizarre on The Bugaloos
She often appeared as a guest on other programs, particularly ones that often had older performers as guest stars such as ABC's The Love Boat, and on variety programs including the short-lived The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, also on ABC. She also appeared from the third to the ninth season as Mel Sharples' gruff mother, Carrie, on the CBS sitcom Alice, making two or three appearances a season. She made guest appearances or didcameo roles in such series as Murder, She Wrote on CBS and The Andy Williams Show and McMillan & Wife, both on NBC. She appeared again as housekeeper Agatha for the six episode run of the retooled McMillan. She also did commercial endorsements for Super Polident Green.
Raye's personal life was complex and emotionally tumultuous. She was married seven times.
Her religious beliefs have been disputed, in part since she received both a Star of David and St. Christopher's Medal in honor of her military work. In fact she was a devout Methodist who regularly attended church, read the Bible daily and even taught Sunday schoolclasses.
She was married to Hamilton "Buddy" Westmore from May 30, 1937 until September 1937, filing for divorce on the basis of extreme cruelty; to composer-conductor David Rose from October 8, 1938 to May 19, 1941 (he left her to marry Judy Garland); to Neal Lang from May 25, 1941 to February 3, 1944; to Nick Condos from February 22, 1944 to June 17, 1953; to Edward T. Begley from April 21, 1954 to October 6, 1956; to Robert O'Shea from November 7, 1956 to December 1, 1960; and to Mark Harris from September 25, 1991 until her death in 1994. She had one child, a daughter, Melaye/Melodye Condos (born July 26, 1944), with fourth husband Condos.
Politically, Raye was conservative affirming her political views by informing an interviewer, "I am a Republican because I believe in the constitution, strength in national defense, limited government, individual freedom, and personal responsibility as the concrete foundation for American government. They reinforce the resolve that the United States is the greatest country in the world and we can all be eternally grateful to our founding fathers for the beautiful legacy they left us today."
Raye's marriage to Harris in a Las Vegas ceremony made headlines in 1991, partly because Raye was 75 and Harris was 42 and partly because the two had known each other for less than a month. (Harris was also bisexual.) They were still married at the time of her death in 1994. Harris received the bulk of her estate, including her home in Bel Air (adjoining Beverly Hills), California. She left nothing to her only daughter, Melodye/Melaye, by her estranged fourth husband, Nick Condos. On April 23, 2008, Harris, interviewed on The Howard Stern Show, confessed he had spent all but $100,000 of the estimated $3 million she had left him. He went on to relate that he had suffered two heart attacks and was living in New York with one of his adult daughters.
Before her death, with Harris' support, Raye sued Bette Midler and the producers of the movie For the Boys in the early 1990s, claiming that the film was based on Martha's extensive experience as a much-loved entertainer of US troops during three wars, but lost in court when the judge, after hearing evidence on both sides, ruled that she didn't have a case.
Her final years were plagued by ill health. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease and had lost both legs in 1993 from poor circulation. She died in Los Angeles at 78 of pneumonia on October 19, 1994 after a long history of cardiovascular disease.
In appreciation of her work with the USO during World War II and subsequent wars, special consideration was given to bury her in Arlington National Cemetery on her death, but on her request she was buried with full military honors in the Fort Bragg, North Carolina post cemetery as an honorary colonel in the U.S. Marines and an honorary lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
Raye has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for motion pictures at 6251 Hollywood Boulevard and the other for television at 6547 Hollywood Blvd.