Raye in 1944
August 27, 1916
Butte, Montana, U.S.
|Died||October 19, 1994 (aged 78)|
|Resting place||Main Post Cemetery in Fort Bragg, North Carolina|
|Occupation||Actress, singer, comedian|
(m. 1937; div. 1937)
(m. 1938; div. 1941)
(m. 1941; div. 1944)
(m. 1944; div. 1953)
Edward T. Begley
(m. 1954; div. 1956)
(m. 1956; div. 1960)
Mark Harris (m. 1991)
Martha Raye (born Maggie Reed; August 27, 1916 - October 19, 1994) and nicknamed The Big Mouth, was an American comic actress and singer who performed in movies, and later on television. She also acted in plays, including Broadway. She was honored in 1969 at the Academy Awards 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; despite her birth certificate showing Reed, some sources in the 1970s and 1980s gave her the surname O'Reed.
Her father, Peter F. Reed Jr., was an Irish immigrant; her mother, Maybelle Hazel (Hooper) Reed, was raised in Milwaukee and Montana. Her parents were performing in a local vaudeville theatre as "Reed and Hooper" when their daughter was born. Two days later, her mother was performing again. Martha first appeared in their act when she was three years old. She later performed with her brother "Bud", and the children became so popular that their parents' act was renamed "Margie and Bud."
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 1936-39, she was a featured cast member in 39 episodes of Al Jolson's weekly CBS radio show, The Lifebuoy Program, also called Cafe Trocadero. In addition to comedy, Martha sang both solos and duets with Jolson. Over the next quarter century, she would appear with many of the leading comics of her day, including Joe E. Brown, Bob Hope, W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello (in Keep 'Em Flying), Charlie Chaplin (in Monsieur Verdoux), and Jimmy Durante. She joined the USO in 1942, soon after the US entered World War II.
She was known for the size of her mouth, which was large in proportion to her face, earning her the nickname The Big Mouth. She later referred to this in a series of television 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 relegate her motion picture work to supporting comic parts, and was often made up so it appeared even larger. In the Disney cartoon Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, she is caricatured while dancing alongside Joe E. Brown, another actor known for 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'.
In 1968, she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in the form of an Oscar. After her death the statuette was displayed for many years in a specially constructed lighted niche at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills. 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 War, and the Vietnam War 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. She starred in the short-lived (28 episodes) The Martha Raye Show (1954-1956), opposite retired middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano, who played her boyfriend. (Raye was known to call Graziano "goombah", Sicilian abbreviation of the Italian 'compáré'('cumpari' in Southern Italian - friend, comrade). (The writer and producer was future The Phil Silvers Show creator Nat Hiken.)
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 by 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.
She often appeared as a guest on other programs, particularly those which often featured older performers as guest stars, such as ABC's The Love Boat, and also on variety programs, including the short-lived The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show. She appeared from the third to the ninth seasons as Carrie Sharples on Alice, making two or three appearances a season. She made guest appearances or did cameo 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 Agatha for the six-episode run of the retooled McMillan, taking over for Nancy Walker, who had left the series. Her last film appearance was as an incontinent airline passenger in the disaster film The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979).
Raye's personal life was complex and emotionally tumultuous. She was married seven times.
Raye was a devout Methodist who regularly attended church, read the Bible daily, and even taught Sunday school classes. Because her religious views were often misconstrued throughout her life, she was noted for having said, "One paper says I'm Catholic and the other says I'm Jewish. I guess that's fitting because as a Methodist I'm meant to be undetermined some of the time".
Her engagement to orchestra leader Johnny Torrence was announced in June 1936. Less than two months later she commented, "They tell me I've gone Hollywood already because I got engaged to Johnny Torrence one day and broke it off the next."
She was married to make-up artist 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; 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, Melodye Condos (born July 26, 1944), with fourth husband Condos.
Politically, Raye was conservative, affirming her political views by informing an interviewer in 1984, "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." Martha Raye was the fifth person to be awarded Honorary Green Beret. While in Vietnam she would assist those in combat hospitals instead of performing because she was a LPN.
Her final years were plagued by ill health. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease and had lost both legs in 1993 from poor circulation. While in poor health and resting in the hospital bed that had to be placed in her home, Martha and husband Mark Harris (who, because of their controversial May/December relationship, became frequent guests on the popular Howard Stern radio program) moved into a hotel after their home was completely destroyed by the 1994 earthquake.
Raye 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. However, based upon 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. She is the only civilian buried at this location who receives military honors each Veterans Day.
The moving image collection of Martha Raye is held at the Academy Film Archive. The collection consists of an audio tape and home movies.