Raye’s life as a singer and comedy performer began very early in her childhood. She was born at St. James Hospital, in Butte, Montana as Margy Reed, where her Irish immigrant parents, Peter F. Reed and Maybelle Hooper, were performing at a local vaudeville theatre as “Reed and Hooper”. Two days after Martha was born, her mother was already back on stage, and Martha first appeared in their act when she was 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 Judy Garland song from A Star Is Born, “I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho” was inspired by Raye’s beginnings.
Raye continued performing from that point on and even attended the Professional Children’s School in New York City, but she received so little formal schooling, getting only as far as the fifth grade, that she often had to have scripts and other written documents read to her by others.
Judy Garland and Martha Raye
Frances Faye vs Martha Raye
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. 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.
Martha Raye was known for the size of her mouth, which appeared 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 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 already was. In the Warner Brothers cartoon The Woods are Full of Cuckoos, she is caricatured as a jazzy scat-singing donkey named Moutha Bray.
Tribute To Martha
Betty Grable, Carol Burnett and Martha Raye 1968
In October 1966, she went to Soc Trang, Vietnam, to entertain the troops at the base which was the home base of the 121st Aviation company, the Soc Trang Tigers, the gunship platoon, The Vikings and the 336th Aviation company. 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 all of the servicemen could watch her show.
During that time, a serviceman flying a “Huey Slick” helicopter carrying troops recalls that his ship received combat damage to the extent that he had to 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 flyer. 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.”
Hosting the Hollywood Palace in 1966. Rodgers & Hart’s “Little Girl Blue”
Martha Raye on What’s My Line?
On November 2, 1993, Martha Raye was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Bill Clinton, for her service to her country.Raye was an early television star when that medium was very young; for a while she had her own program, The Martha Raye Show (1954 – 1956) in which she was the lead and her awkward boyfriend was portrayed by retired middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano. The writer and producer was future The Phil Silvers Show creator Nat Hiken. Other stars who appeared on her show included 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 with 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 faithfully, although she was neither Catholic nor Jewish. At the end of her TV programs, she would also thank the nuns at The Sisters of St. Francis Hospital in Miami, Florida where she recovered. She would always say, “Goodnight, Sisters” as a sign of appreciation and gratitude. Later, Raye served as the television spokesperson for Polident denture cleanser, principally during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1970, she portrayed Boss Witch, the “Queen of all Witch-dom” 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 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 for two years as Mel Sharples’ mother, Carrie, on the CBS sitcom Alice. 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.
Famous Polident Commercial
Raye’s personal life was complex and emotionally tumultuous. She was married seven times.
She was married to Hamilton “Buddy” Westmore from May 30, 1937 until September 1937, filing for divorce on the basis of extreme cruelty; to conductor and composer, 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 which resulted in the birth of her only child Melodye Raye Condos on July 26, 1944; 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. 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 remained married until her death in 1994. At that time, Harris received the bulk of Martha Raye’s estate, including her home in Bel Air, California. Raye’s will left nothing to her only daughter from a previous marriage, Melodye Condos, from whom Raye was estranged at the time of her death. On April 23, 2008, Harris was interviewed on The Howard Stern Show and revealed that he had spent all but $100,000 of the money left to him in Martha’s Will, from an estimated $3 million. He also revealed that he had suffered two heart attacks and was living in New York with one of his adult daughters. Before her death, with Harris’s 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. She lost the case when the judge after hearing evidence on both sides decided that Raye did not have a case.
Raye’s final years were spent dealing with ongoing health problems. She suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and had lost both legs in 1993 due to circulatory problems. She died of pneumonia on October 19, 1994, after a long history of cardiovascular disease. Raye was 78 years of age, and residing in Los Angeles at the time of her death.
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 upon her death, however, at her request, she was ultimately buried with full military honors in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Martha is the only woman buried in the SF (Special Forces) cemetery at Ft. Bragg. Martha Raye was a full Colonel in the US Army Reserve and a Nurse, with a surgical specialty.
Raye has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for motion pictures, located at 6251 Hollywood Blvd., and for television, located at 6547 Hollywood Blvd.
The Martha Raye Show
Sources: Wikipedia.com, youtube.com, nndb.com, imdb.com
Quick Bio Facts:
AKA Margaret Teresa Yvonne Reed
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Friars Club honorary member
Hollywood Walk of Fame 6547 Hollywood Blvd. (television)
Hollywood Walk of Fame 6251 Hollywood Blvd. (motion pictures)
Presidential Medal of Freedom 2-Nov-1993 by Bill Clinton
Risk Factors: Alzheimer’s, Alcoholism, Amputee
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Alice in Wonderland (9-Dec-1985)
Pippin: His Life and Times (1981)
The Concorde: Airport ’79 (17-Aug-1979)
Billy Rose’s Jumbo (6-Dec-1962)
Monsieur Verdoux (11-Apr-1947)
Pin-Up Girl (25-Apr-1944)
Four Jills in a Jeep (17-Mar-1944) Herself
Keep ‘Em Flying (19-Nov-1941)
Navy Blues (13-Sep-1941)
College Swing (29-Apr-1938)
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (11-Feb-1938)
Artists & Models (4-Aug-1937)
Waikiki Wedding (23-Mar-1937)
- Four Star Revue (host from 1951–1953)
- The Martha Raye Show (1954–1956)
- The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, episode “Circus”, December 8, 1962
- The Judy Garland Show (1964)
- The Carol Burnett Show (1969)
- The Bugaloos (1970–1972)
- Twas the Night Before Christmas (1977)
- Skinflint: A Country Christmas Carol (1979)
- The Gossip Columnist (1980)
- Pippin: His Life and Times (1981)
- Alice (cast member from 1982–1984)
- Alice in Wonderland (1985)