Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye

Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye

by Jean Maddern Pitrone


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813121109
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 04/28/1999
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Freelance writer Jean Maddern Pitrone, author often biographies including The Dodges: The Auto Family Fortune and Misfortune.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Sudden-Death Circuit

The plaintive wail of bagpipes drifts across the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, military cemetery where a plain wooden coffin, draped with an American flag, rests on supports above an open grave. The date is October 22,1994. The few family members of the deceased—famed actress, comedienne, singer, and dancer Martha Raye—are divided now as they have been for a few years. Her fifty-year-old daughter sits with her uncle's widow on folding chairs at the side of the grave. The forty-five-year-old husband of the seventy-eight-year-old Raye sits, with his daughter from a former marriage, at the foot of the grave.

    As bagpipes drone "Amazing Grace," uniformed Special Forces veterans stand in a half-circle near the burgundy canopy sheltering the waiting grave of Honorary Lieutenant Colonel Raye. "Colonel Maggie," as she was known to her "boys" in Vietnam, has the singular honor of being the first civilian ever laid to rest at Fort Bragg.

    Raye had served valiantly, bringing entertainment, good cheer, and tender nursing care to soldiers in precariously situated jungle outposts of Vietnam. In 1994, shortly before her death and in recognition of her outstanding service, not only in Vietnam but also in Korea and during World War II, President Clinton presented Raye with the prestigious Medal of Freedom. The nation's highest civilian honor had previously been presented to such luminaries as Lech Walesa of Poland and Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom.

    Raye often said, in purposefulself-deprecation, that she thought of herself as primarily a clown. "Yup, a clown, that's me," she would say, flashing her famous grin. But melancholy lurked behind her raucous laugh. "She was one of the world's four best comediennes," Milton Berle had said, "but she lived a life of personal disaster."

    On learning of Raye's death, Bob Hope issued a statement to reporters regarding her popularity with the GIs in Vietnam where, he said, "she was Florence Nightingale, Dear Abby, and the only singer who could be heard over the artillery fire."

    It is likely that neither Berle nor Hope knew that Raye's melancholy and disastrous tendencies were rooted in what she considered a disability: her lack of education. Her own awareness of this deficiency had taken its toll on her psyche and even on her relationship with her daughter, her only child.

    Martha Raye was, indeed, a multifaceted personality with an assortment of names to match her temperamental disposition. Her birth name was Margy Reed (sometimes changed, on a whim, to O'Reed). She also answered to Maggie, Teresa, Martha, Yvonne, and various last names resulting from seven marriages.

    She was Mom to her daughter when the two of them were together. But when the young girl was packed off to boarding school or when Raye was away performing—which was a great deal of the time—the girl felt alienated from her mother and thought of her much less often as Mom, from whom she was unwillingly detached, than as Martha. Martha the singer and comedienne. Martha the star, to whom a glittering career was the focus of her life.

    A great number of the stories Raye told about her life were products of her lively imagination and of her eagerness to cover up the facts. Still, the stories she told of her birth in the bleak mining town of Butte, Montana, must have been true because each time she spoke of her parents and the date she was born, August 27, 1916, the details were consistent.

The manager of the Maguire Opera House was not impressed by the vaudeville team of The Girl and the Traveler, who came into his office in August 1916 and pleaded for a job. He stared at the nineteen-year-old girl, who looked ready to give birth any day, and at her older, debonair husband. Just another down-on-their-luck pair, he must have thought, striking out on their own and traveling what seasoned performers called the "sudden-death circuit."

    The manager shrugged when the fast-talking Pete Reed boasted of how he and his wife recently had packed in audiences that overflowed into the aisles back in "Frisco." Here in Butte, the manager told them, they ran four shows a day. It was a tough schedule. Still, the Reeds looked as if they really needed a job. The manager relented. "Well, okay. You can start tonight."

    By 1900, the population of Butte had zoomed to 30,000, although in other respects the mining town had changed very little from its boom-town beginnings in the 1880s. Butte had become one of the ugliest, wildest towns in the West as Irish immigrants, spurred by reports of silver and copper, came northwest to mine the riches of Butte Hill. These lusty Irish miners were followed by others from the coal and tin mines of Wales and Cornwall, then by a sprinkling of Slavs and Italians.

    At the end of their shifts, grimy miners put aside their picks and shovels, trudged away from the pits, and headed for tin-bucket wash-ups and hot meals at their camps or boardinghouses. Afterwards they crowded into Butte's saloons or jammed into the opera house, stamping their boots and applauding whenever their favorite singer of sentimental songs, golden-haired Kathie Putnam, was the attraction. Road company fare varied, though, and the miners also watched tear-jerking productions of East Lynne and Ten Nights in a Barroom.

    On that August evening of 1916 when the Reeds bounced out onto the opera-house stage, they were introduced as an "Irish immigrant team." But Maybelle "Peggy" Reed had been born in Montana to Teresa Sanchagrin and Samuel Hooper, who worked as a smelter in Great Falls. Mining towns also were familiar territory to Pete Reed, since his Irish relatives still worked back home in the mines of County Clare. So neither of the Reeds was unaware of the problems that existed between mining companies and their employees in the early 1900s.

    Just two summers previously, the barren town of Butte—its wood buildings gray with smoke from ore smelters and its vegetation shriveled into nothingness—had erupted into a bloody riot and martial law had been imposed. The mining company still refused to recognize a worker's union, and resentment smoldered among the mixed ethnic population.

    Wearing a loose fitting dress to conceal her swollen figure, Peggy fastened a bright smile on her face as she thumped on the piano and then joined her husband in the song-dance-comedy routine that they were accustomed to present on splintered wood platforms that often served as mining camp stages. At such performances, colored lamps, hanging on each side of the stage, and footlights helped to glamorize the setting. In winter, a couple of blazing woodstoves tended to deglamorize the set. But there was no need for ugly stoves now. The heat was oppressive. Perspiration beaded Peggy's forehead at every performance, and behind her fixed smile she worried about the baby who soon would be born.

    Both Peggy and Pete eagerly anticipated getting paid for their performances in Butte so they could pay for the downtown furnished room they had rented in Mom's Block. They also needed money for food and a doctor's services. When Peggy's faint labor pains began, Pete hurried to the opera house. There he discovered that the manager had skipped town with the box-office receipts.

    Pete Reed had no choice but to take his wife to St. James Hospital, where she was admitted as a charity case. Comforted to some degree by the knowledge that her baby would be born in a hospital, Peggy endured hours of hard labor. The baby girl's name was recorded on her August 27 birth certificate as "Margy Reed."

    Two days later, Peggy tucked her daughter into a basket backstage, then danced out onto the platform with her husband. They were back on the circuit again, riding the Anaconda and Pacific to Deer Lodge and moving, with baggage and baby, to perform their routine on any makeshift stage in any raw, western town as they gradually worked their way to the Midwest.

    Margy would later follow the pattern set out by her parents and sometimes, using O'Reed as a last name, claimed to be of Irish descent. Part Irish, yes, but her maternal grandfather, Samuel Hooper, the smelter, had been born in Michigan to English immigrants.

    Before Margy's second birthday, the Reeds found work in a tab show. Pete Reed considered it a stroke of luck to be a part of the miniature musical comedy in its tour of midwestern cities because Peggy was now expecting a second child. The Reeds were still with the tab show in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Peggy went into labor. A second delivery would be much easier, her vaudeville friends assured her. There would be no need for a hospital this time. Douglas, nicknamed Buddy, was born while Peggy lay on a cot backstage, attended by chorus girls who were no novices to births behind the velvet curtains.

    Once more the Reeds were moving from town to town. Each day, they took their children, Margie (as they now spelled her name) and Buddy, from damp basement dressing rooms of third-rate theaters to a boardinghouse or dingy hotel room where there was no relief from heat in summer or from cold in winter.

    Backstage, Margie poked into her mother's powder boxes and rouge pots. At age three and a half, she wandered onstage as Pete and Peggy went through their routine. Caught in the brightness of floodlights, the blue-eyed girl looked up expectantly at her parents. In the tradition of vaudevillians, they had taught their small daughter to sing several popular songs. Now Peggy quickly moved to the piano and began to play "Jada," signaling for Margie to sing. Dressed in blue pajamas her mother had made, her hair cut in Buster-Brown style with bangs, the child sang into the floodlights. "Jadaa. Jadaaa. Jada, Jada, Jing Jing Jing."

    Margie's earliest memory was of the sound of applause echoing backstage. But now the applause was for her, from out front, the sound of it rising around her while she curtsied as she had been taught.

    From that time, Margie was part of the family act. Soon after their arrival in Chicago, another daughter was born. Melodye was a decided complication in the Reeds' lives. Young Buddy already was being trained by his father to take part in the family act, but with the birth of her third child, Peggy was becoming more and more disturbed by the frequency with which her husband drank himself into oblivion whenever he could get hold of a bottle of illegal "moonshine."

    They changed the name of the family act to the Reed Hooper Revue, to see if their fortunes would improve. With Margie prancing about, dressed as a miniature bride in white dress and veil, and Buddy serving as her even smaller groom, Peggy jazzing it up in her usual role of pianist, and Pete performing his song and dance, the Reed Hooper Revue had no better luck than had The Girl and the Traveler.

    Now, with both Margie and Buddy involved in the family act, Peggy worried about their schooling as the Reeds moved from one city to another, playing vaudeville houses wherever they could get bookings. When no gigs were available to them, they went back to Chicago, a kind of home base. (Years later, when the famous movie and television star Martha Raye was asked about her education, she usually would say that she was sent either to public or parochial school, depending on convenience, for short periods while her parents worked at odd jobs and on different shifts in Chicago restaurants or saloons. Her claim of attending school periodically was not true, but she took this protective stance to avoid not only embarrassment but what she feared even more—scorn.)

    The family's friends were vaudevillians who, like the Reeds, were on the move much of the time and considered themselves lucky to stay in one town any longer than three days for a gig. Gerry Society representatives, who were supposed to check on children who were performing onstage and not enrolled in school, found it very difficult to catch up with families like the Reeds and their friends, the O'Connors. Marveling at the O'Connors' ability to survive with six children on the vaudeville circuit, Peggy carefully counted the days between her menstrual periods and breathed a sigh of relief each month when a new period began.

    The two families remained close, sharing backstage baby-sitting chores and exchanging tips on possible bookings. In 1925 when the O'Connors' seventh child was born at the Oriental Theater in Chicago, Peggy suggested the name Donald for the boy who would become a singing and dancing star on Broadway and the silver screen.

    In her concern for her daughter's education, Peggy got hold of an elementary-school speller and drilled Margie on word lists, which the little girl was very good at memorizing. But Peggy's concerns for educating her daughter were often superseded by her more pressing need to provide milk and food for the children. Spelling lessons were pushed aside, too, by the more compelling and practical need to rehearse for the family act. It was not surprising, then, that Margie grew up only marginally literate.

    Rehearsing for the family act was troublesome for the children as their father changed their lines or came up with new interpretations of their roles in his anxiety to make the act more entertaining. Both Pete and Peggy were likely to run out of patience when Margie or Buddy did not pick up their cues or memorize their lines as quickly as the parents expected. When the yelling and cursing began, the children cowered in fear, remembering nothing of their lines as their father or mother slapped them or clipped them on the ears, as if each blow would teach them to remember next time.

    Onstage, though, they were a devoted family as Pete and Peggy proudly introduced Margie to each audience. At her mother's cue, the child would plunge into a hip-swinging, lusty rendition of "I Wish That I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate."

    After being introduced by his father, Buddy, too, launched into a well-rehearsed song and dance. Eventually Peggy and Pete realized that their two children consistently were drawing much more applause than were the parents. As a matter of practicality, they decided that the children's act would highlight their show. Billed as Bud and Margie Reed and drilled relentlessly, the young brother and sister quickly adapted themselves to their starring roles as more and bigger bookings began to come their way.

    The Reeds were moving again now—to Pottstown, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and on to Dayton, Sioux City, and Des Moines on the Loew's Theater circuit. Pete Reed bought a used car, a Pierce Arrow, as the kids hit the big time. "For a while, I was enrolled in the Professional Children's School in New York City," Raye would say in later years. But this claim, too, was not true.

    When the Bud and Margie Reed act accelerated to a $400 weekly salary, the Reeds reveled in their new prosperity and status. They were on top at last, they exulted. But then, before they had an opportunity to catch up with all their bills, they were over the top and slipping. Now there were weeks when there was no work for Bud and Margie. And when a week's billing was offered, the salary was lower.

    Why? Why? the Reeds wondered. The act was as good as it had ever been. The kids were more polished performers. So, why? Peggy and Pete could find no answers, but the time from one week's gig to the next was stretching. Was it true, they wondered, that the decline of vaudeville had begun?

    Desperate for work, the Reeds agreed to a tough schedule performing in Thomas's Tent Show, traveling across the country in trucks and making one-night stands along the way. The rumbling of traffic after midnight became the children's lullabies until they awakened, each morning, in a different town. Since show admission was only twenty-five cents, the tent show had to attract large audiences if it were to survive.

    At the season's end, the Reeds went back to accepting split-weeks in small cities, moving on to Passaic and Patterson, New Jersey, then on to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the same week. Once again, the family was living meagerly, vying with third-rate magicians and animal acts for a favorable spot on the bill. The Reeds considered themselves fortunate to get signed up for a small theater where they were required to give three or four performances a day.

    The new family act that Pete had worked out was one of pure fantasy. Young Buddy, in the role of a spoiled, in-your-face rich kid, had most of the good lines and drew most of the laughs as his father took the part of a butler, a foil for Buddy's wisecracks.

    Somehow, Pete managed to hold on to the battered Pierce Arrow and to keep it running. Often the car served as a shelter for the night as the five Reeds rode as far as sixty miles to fill a one-night date at an Eagles' Club and were paid as little as fifteen dollars for their efforts. To accommodate his family in the automobile, Pete stacked all the scenery for the act so that it made a platform level with the tops of the car seats. While Pete drew up his knees to sleep on the front seat, Peggy and the three children huddled together to sleep on top of the platform.

    When they could afford slightly better accommodations, their shelter was usually a room in a boardinghouse catering to "artists." As soon as the family settled into the furnished room, they hauled their "stove trunk" inside and unpacked their hot plate and a few pots and pans. In the meantime, Margie stuffed the door cracks with paper to prevent cooking odors from seeping into the hallway. Cooking in the rooms was forbidden, but Peggy Reed was more concerned with feeding her family than with observing rules.

    To put food on the table, Pete Reed tried selling Christmas cards door to door. Peggy washed dishes in restaurants. Margie tried, with little success, to sell raffle tickets on various items to other entertainers, many of whom had no more money to spare than did the Reeds.

    By the time Margie was twelve years old, she nourished a growing desire to push ahead in the entertainment world and to escape the crumbling boardinghouses and dingy dressing rooms that smelled of mildew and urine. She was a rapidly developing girl whose eyes reflected her changing moods—depression as she chafed at the poverty and the quarreling parents and the loneliness of having no friends of her own age; elation when she dreamed of her name in lights above a theater marquee, and of fame and success and plenty of money for a comfortable home. She knew, though, that her father had pinned his hopes on Buddy. Pete spent countless hours coaching the boy in comedy routines and seeing to it that Buddy practiced each day on the guitar. Margie was second-best in her father's eyes. She was well aware of that.

     When the family was once more living in Chicago and scrambling for survival, Margie learned that an Erie Street theater was featuring an amateur night with a prize of three silver dollars. Margie ached to win the money and to prove to herself that she could strike out on her own and make it as a performer.

    Sneaking out of the boardinghouse and over to Erie Street, she saw a doorman stationed at the theater entrance. Uniformed attendants with gilt shoulder epaulets were no novelty, of course, to any vaudeville child. Young as she was, Margie soon convinced the doorman that although she had no entrance pass, she was one of the amateurs scheduled to perform.

    A dozen young contestants, most of them trembling with stage fright, took their turns on the stage. When it was Margie's turn, she sang "Dinah" lustily and confidently and went home with the silver dollars jingling in her pocket. The family made good use of most of the money. With the remainder, Margie splurged on candy. A secret cache of licorice and "red hots," she discovered, could buy a lot of friends. For the first time, Margie enjoyed a few days of popularity among neighborhood youngsters. Then it was time for the Reeds to move on.

    Now the car became their shelter at night even more often as the family trekked from one midwestern city to another. Pete and Peggy fought more violently as their bookings dwindled away, and they directed much of their frustration toward the children, punishing them harshly even for minor offenses. Yet despite the meager wages, they always managed to buy liquor.

    In 1929, the family was down on its luck after a short gig in Detroit when Margie, spindly legged but full-breasted at age thirteen, put on a pair of high heels and, hoping that she could pass for seventeen, walked into Detroit's Fisher Theater to ask for a job. "I was born old," she often would say in later years.

    Proudly, she reported back to her parents that she had been promised a job, singing with a stage show. When the job at the Fisher ended after one week, the Reeds used their daughter's money to drive down to Cleveland, where Pete heard there might be work. But only disappointment and frigid winter weather awaited them in Cleveland, and recriminations flew back and forth between Pete and Peggy.

    While Christmas shoppers thronged Cleveland stores for last-minute holiday purchases, the Reeds tried to keep warm in the sleazy furnished room they had rented with a promise to pay later. There was no money for rent. No money for gas or even for food as Peggy parceled out "the single box of crackers that was all the family had to eat," Raye would reminisce years later.

    An embittered, gray-faced Pete Reed walked from one theater to another in search of work while, in the drafty furnished room, Peggy searched the newspaper's help-wanted advertisements and the entertainment section. When Peggy read aloud that bandleader Paul Ash was arriving in Cleveland that very day for a holiday performance, Margie felt a surge of excitement. She knew that Ash used a comedy skit with bit parts, played by locals, for a policeman and a boy who jumped out of a box. If her father and brother could snare these parts while Ash's troupe was in Cleveland, their earnings would carry the family through the Christmas season.

    Margie headed for the theater and had no trouble making her way backstage. Going right up to the dressing room door marked with a large star, she knocked. "Come in," a male voice invited. She opened the door. And sure enough, there was Paul Ash, looking at her questioningly.

    Margie plunged right into the monologue she had rehearsed on the way down. They were show people, she told him, broke and desperate for any kind of work. She told him about her father and brother and how easily they could take the parts of the officer and the boy. The words poured out until Ash agreed to hire Pete and Buddy, sight unseen. But if the father and brother were as convincing and as spirited as this girl, Ash must have thought, they surely could handle the parts.

    Carefully, he wrote down Margie's name and address. As the wide-eyed girl thanked him, he reached into his billfold and pressed a five-dollar bill into her hand. It would be an advance against her father and brother's salaries, he promised.

    Bursting with her accomplishment, Margie hurried back to the dismal room where her family waited. Accustomed to mercurial changes in their lives and fortunes, the Reeds quickly responded to the good news. Perhaps they would make it through the winter after all, they reassured one another. And surely by next year, things would take a turn for the better.

    The next day, a delivery boy knocked at their door. Peggy opened the door and took the package from the boy. Her hands trembled as she opened it to find a turkey, sent by Paul Ash. Her family would have a Christmas dinner after all.

Table of Contents

1 The Sudden-Death Circuit1
2 Martha Raye, Girl Singer12
3 To the Top24
4 Marriage and the Movies35
5 In Love and War52
6 A Child and Charlie Chaplin62
7 Roller Coaster72
8 Shangri-la87
9 Threats in the Night100
10 Imperfect Balance114
11 The Marriage Merry-Go-Round125
12 Separate Lives136
13 Under Fire146
14 Colonel Maggie158
15 The Big Mouth172
16 Newlyweds187
17 On the Edge202
18 Martha Raye, Civilian212

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