Martha Raye

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Martha Raye
Martha Raye - still.JPG
Raye c. 1940s
Born Margy Reed
(1916-08-27)August 27, 1916
Butte, Montana, U.S.
Died October 19, 1994(1994-10-19) (aged 78)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Cardiovascular disease
Resting place
Main Post Cemetery, Fort Bragg NC[1]
Occupation Actress/Singer/Comedian
Years active 1934–1989
Spouse(s) Bud Westmore (1937-1938)
David Rose (1938-1941)
Neal Lang (1941-1944)
Nick Condos (1944-1953)
Edward T. Begley (1954-1956)
Robert O'Shea (1956-1960)
Mark Harris (1991-1994)

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.[2]

Early years[edit]

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.[3][4] Her father was an immigrant of Irish descent, and her mother was raised in Milwaukee and Montana.[5] Raye's parents, Peter F. Reed, Jr. and Maybelle Hazel Hooper, were performing in a local vaudeville theatre as "Reed and Hooper."[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]


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.[7]

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.

United Service Organizations (USO)[edit]

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."[9]

In 1968, she was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in the form of an Oscar.[10]

On November 2, 1993, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton for her service to her country.[7] 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.[11] "

TV career[edit]

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 middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano (whom she called "goombah," Sicilian slang for the Italian "compadre" [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.

Later career[edit]

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 (1970).

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 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 housekeeper Agatha for the six episode run of the retooled McMillan.

Personal life[edit]

Raye's personal life was complex and emotionally tumultuous.[12] She was married seven times.

Her religious beliefs have been disputed[citation needed], in part since she received both a Star of David and St. Christopher's Medal in honor of her military work[citation needed]. In fact she was a devout Methodist who regularly attended church, read the Bible daily and even taught Sunday school classes.[13]

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."[14]

Mark Harris[edit]

Mark Harris was born and raised in Brooklyn to a working class Jewish-American family. Mark was first aware of his future wife, Martha Raye by watching The Martha Raye Show with his family. In his adult life, Mark was married twice and has five children (one was adopted and the other child was born out of wedlock). After working in the the Fashion District and working as a hairstylist he moved to Los Angeles and who began to make his mark in the entertainment industry. He pitched various unrealized projects in Hollywood such as producing the life story of Eddie Fisher. Mark was introduced to his future bride by comedian Bernie Allen, who later regretted ever introducing them. Just after a few weeks of being acquainted with Martha Raye, the two were married on the 25th of September 1991. The marriage to Harris in a Las Vegas ceremony made headlines partly because Raye was 75 and Harris was 42 and partly because the two had known each other for less than a month. (Harris is also bisexual.). After the reception, Martha suffered from severe abdominal pains and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital by ambulance and by the next day she began passing blood. After being treated at the hospital, Martha and Mark celebrated their honeymoon at the Golden Nugget. Dispute various rumors, Mark Harris did say that he and Martha had a very health and natural sex life throughout their marriage. Afterwards, the married couple moved into Martha's home in Los Angeles, and one of Martha's managers, Ruth Webb, who worked with her for thirty years, had no knowledge of the marriage and had no idea who Mark Harris was. After settling into Martha's home, Mark phoned Webb and told her, that he is now Martha's new manager and hung up and immediately changed their phone number as an unlisted number. However, Mark Harris claimed that this incident is not entirely true. In his version he said that Martha and Webb were on bad terms both personally and professionally and that Martha said that Webb is a "bitch" and "nuts" and she insisted that Mark should be her new manager.

Mark Harris said that the reason for marrying Martha Raye was to protect her and to be her ally against Martha's only child, her daughter, Melodye/Melaye who was the daughter of her estranged fourth husband, Nick Condos. Martha and were daughter were in legal disputes since 1988. After Martha's daughter filed the conservatorship, an agreement was signed with a "shaky" signature by Martha, that after the death of Martha, all of her estate and fortune will go to Mark. It was during this period where Martha's mental health was uncertain, since her nurses reported that Martha could not function in daily routines. For instance, it was reported that she could not figure out the number of how many pennies, nickels and dimes go in a dollar. However, Mark claims that it was documented in legal papers from the court that Martha was mentally aware and was capable of doing everyday activities and that, according to Mark, Martha said that her daughter was the one who was "unstable". In the past three wills, Martha left out any mention of her daughter. By the time she passed away, she left nothing to her only daughter.

After moving in, Mark Harris immediately removed all of Martha's colonial furniture and replaced them with his antique collection that he somehow acquired from Europe. Martha, apparently, did not the recognize her own home when she saw all of her furniture gone and replaced with Mark's antiques. Mark also said that this story isn't true. He claims that that Martha gave away most of her furniture to many of her nurses and that he asked for Martha's approval to place his European antique collections into the house. Also, Mark Harris converted Martha's dining room into a discotheque, where he claims he and Martha invited and hosted parties to all of her celebrity friends such as Caesar Romero, Rose Marie and Anne Jeffreys and had "a wonderful time". Many people, including Martha's daughter said that Mark never asked his wife if he could redesign Martha's original dining room and that due her poor heath (after having both her legs amputated and frequently being ill and falling asleep in her wheelchair) Martha hardly participated in any of the parties Mark hosted. When Martha's health began to decline, Mark and the recently hired nurses, who were unaware of Martha's medical history, sent her to hospitals several times and the doctors proscribed her thorazine despite the fact that Martha was taking prozac and noradrenaline regularly.

After the death of Martha Raye in 1994 and with his fame from his marriage with her, Mark attempt to conceive several projects in the entertainment industry. In 1993, Mark developed a television show with Bob Eubanks called "I've Been Screwed" as well a reality television show called "Dress Up America". Both projects were unrealized. Mark also nearly completed writing a biography on Martha Raye, which he started to write after their wedding. To this day, the biography has not published. Also, despite Martha being an anti-fur activist during most of her lifetime, in 1994, Mark used a large sum of the Martha Raye money to create a chain of mink coats he was selling. His business also didn't succeed. It was also during this time, that he was planning to produce, write and to star in the Dorian Grey musical for Broadway. Mark claimed that Robert Evans bought that rights and the project didn't come to fruition. In 1995, Mark began to promote his pilot episode entitled "Tasty Travels" which was a comedy-cooking show in which he would randomly knock on people's homes and start cooking with the family's kitchen to various television stations and nearly got a deal from the Food Network. Also, Mark was planning to open a hotel called Mr. Paganini was would have been a tribute to Martha. In 1996, Mark began pitching another television show called "On the Mark" which he would have played a duo-part which one of the roles he would have played in drag. Virginia O'Brien allegedly would have played his mother, and he told Howard Stern that CBS is "desperate" to fiance the show. Also, he was pitching a television show similar to the show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous called The Poor and the Unknown in England. England was not interested. In 1997, he attempted to create a jingle for Snapple commercials but all of his jingles were rejected. After September 11th attacks, Mark tried to sell his patriotic songs and went on tour across the country to promote the Bush Administration. His longest project that he tried to create was to produce a miniseries based on the life story of Martha Raye in which he wanted either Peter Gallagher or Keanu Reeves to play him.

Mark Harris spent most of Martha Raye's fortune on a mansion he built, which he designed (he painted the home in red, white and blue due to Harris's strong patriotic views). His neighbors filed several complaints about the noise that was making and the entire street, where he lived, all filed a complaint to stop allowing Mark to invite a tour bus of tourists to walk through his home (which was a Martha Raye museum he created). Mark Harris is a staunch Republican. Mark Harris also was for the War on Terror and supported President Bush. In the 1990's Mark was vocally against President Bill Clinton, due to the fact Clinton delayed giving the Medal of Freedom to Martha. Being a known singer, Mark Harris, with the help of composer Leo DeLyon, he preformed satirical songs such as "Dear President Clinton", satirizing Clinton's personal life and his sexual liaison. Mark has also preformed songs in cabarets in Germany, France and in many other obscure places across the United States. He would sing about Saddam Hussein, Dick Chaney, Jane Fonda (who he accused her of being warmonger due her activities in Vietnam), Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Queen Elizabeth, Camilla Bowles, Ben Affleck, Richard Simmons, Howard Stern, Bette Davis, Michael Jackson, Rock Hudson (whom he claimed seduced him once) and Liberace. On the Howard Stern show, Mark Harris's sexuality has been explored and investigated many times. He said he had a brief but passionate affair with a young soon-to-be-married bisexual Frenchman whom he nicknamed "The French Fry". He also had a fling with a young Luxembourger violinist who he met at a spa in Germany. Together they went on a short musical tour in Europe. Mark said that young violinist looked like Ava Gardner. Mark also in a relationship a wealthy young German film director, whom he bathed in buttermilk baths which were heard on the Stern show.

Though he denied it, Mark Harris had many surgical procedures including a face lift and scrotum lift (which resulted in a lawsuit against the surgeon who preformed the surgery, in which the procedure didn't go according to plan).

With most of projects failed, his expensive, luxurious vacations across the world and several surgical procedures, Mark went broke. It has 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. During one of his surgical procedures he claimed he had a near-death experience and said that it felt like a "great sleep". During his experience he saw his parents and was approached by both Martha Raye and Marlene Dietrich.

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 a "treatment" called Maggie which she had provided to Midler some years earlier.[15] It 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.[16]

As of today, Mark Harris is still developing projects at age 65.


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 moved into a hotel after their home was completely destroyed by the 1994 earthquake. In October 1994, when Mark was in New York City promoting his appearance and pitching the Broadway musical Dorian Gray that he written, Martha died in presence of one of her newly-hired nurses. 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.[7] She is the only civilian buried at that location who receives military honors each Veterans' Day. At the time of her funeral, the Howard Stern Show staff, who sent several bouquet of flowers to the funeral as well as a huge American flag that was draped over her casket. Also, Howard Stern personally sent a advertisement of his upcoming movie. Mark Harris held the memorial service at the Friars Club, much to several disapproval from Martha Raye's family. During the memorial service, Mark also performed several songs in honor of his late wife. Although, Mark Harris initially said he didn't receive or inherent any money from the Martha Raye estate, the National Enquirer wrote Mark inherent $2.4 million and Martha's only child didn't receive anything.

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.




Stage Work[edit]


  1. ^ "Martha Raye". 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Birth Certificate.
  4. ^ Tribune staff. "125 Montana Newsmakers: Martha Raye Ament". Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved August 28, 2011. 
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ Lawrence Van Gelder (20 October 1994). "Martha Raye, 78, Singer And Comic Actress, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-17. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Martha Raye". Montana Kids. Montana Office of Tourism. Retrieved August 7, 2011. 
  8. ^ "The Death of Martha Raye". 2002-03-06. Retrieved 2012-03-20. 
  9. ^[not in citation given]
    ^ required)
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Colonel Martha "Maggie" Raye". 
  12. ^ Raye, Martha (April 25, 1954). "Me and My Big Mouth". The American Weekly. p. 7. Retrieved February 8, 2011. 
  13. ^ Pitrone, Maddern Jean Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye Hardcover, The University of Kentucky Press, April 8, 1999, pages 220-221
  14. ^ Interview, The Hollywood Reporter, 1984
  15. ^ "Raye sues over Midler movie" (August 1, 1992) Oxnard Press Courier, Oxnard, California
  16. ^ Pittrone, Jane Maddern (1999). Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye. University of Kentucky Press. p. 216. 

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