1/2/21: Two Very Funny Ladies

By Fred Muenz

Madonna Josephine Davis, (aka Joan Davis), was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June, 1907. Her father was a railroad dispatcher. While she began her show business career in vaudeville while still a child, little is known of her life before her 1931 marriage to fellow performer Si Wills. She and Wills continued to perform as a comedy act until 1933, when her daughter, Beverly Wills, was born.

In 1935, Davis and Wills left for Hollywood with dreams of breaking into movies. She found early success in a Mack Sennett short WAY UP THAR (1935), co-starring a then unknown Roy Rogers. The film was successful, and she was signed to a contract with RKO. She soon became unhappy with the way the studio was handling her career and, in 1937, when her contract expired, signed with 20th Century Fox. She soon became known as one of the few female physical comic performers in Hollywood. Over the next few years, she demonstrated her flawless physical comedy by co-starring with Abbott and Costello and Eddie Cantor in four films. She continued to make occasional film appearances until 1952, when she left movies behind for a career in television.

In 1941, Davis had made her first radio appearance on The Rudy Vallee Show, and soon became a regular on the show. When Vallee left for Coast Guard service in 1943, Davis and Jack Haley became co-hosts of the show. With a title and format change, The Sealtest Village Store remained on the air until June, 1945, when Davis left to do a similar type of show on CBS.

In 1950, Joan created and starred in a pilot for a new TV sit-com called Let’s Join Joanie, but the show didn’t sell. A year later, when I Love Lucy became the year’s top rated TV show, sponsors and the networks clamored for more of the same. They needed an actress experienced in physical comedy and found Joan Davis. I Married Joan premiered on NBC in 1952, casting Davis as the wife of a mild-mannered judge, played by Jim Backus, who continually got her husband into jams, usually with the help of her younger sister, player by her real-life daughter, Beverly Wills. The show was moderately successful but did not receive the ratings achieved by I Love Lucy. By the start of the show’s third year in 1955, ratings were beginning to slip, and Davis was beginning to experience heart problems. As a result, the series was cancelled, and she retired from show business. I Married Joan then became one of the first shows to go into syndication. In May, 1961, Joan Davis died of a massive heart attack. She was 53.

In October, 1963, Joan’s mother, Nina Mae Davis, aged 70, her daughter, Beverly Wills, aged 33, and her grandsons, Guy Grossman, aged 7, and Larry Grossman, aged 4, all died in a fire at their Palm Springs home. It was later determined that Beverly had fallen asleep while smoking in bed.

Margaret Teresa Yvonne Reed aka Martha Raye, daughter of vaudeville performers, was born backstage in a theater in Butte, Montana in August, 1916. Her mother, Marybelle, was back on stage two days later. Little Martha joined the act when she was just three years old, singing with her brother, Bud. Although she attended several schools, including the Professional Children’s School in New York, Martha never got beyond the fifth grade. As a result, she was barely able to read, and scripts and documents had to be read to her for the rest of her life.

By the early 1930’s, she was in Hollywood, working as a band singer. She made her first film appearance in a band short, NITE IN THE NITE CLUB (1934). In 1936, Paramount signedher to a contractwith the intention of using her for comic roles.Her first feature film role was in RHYTHM ON THE RANGE (1936), co-starring Bing Crosby. In addition to her film work, between 1936 and 1939 she appeared as a regular cast member on Al Jolson’s weekly radio show. In addition to providing comedy for the show, she also sang solos and duets with Jolson. As her movie career progressed, she appeared in films with virtually all of the leading comics of the time, including Joe E. Brown, Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, and Jimmy Durante. Many years later, she would say that of the forty films she appeared in, she liked only one.

At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the newly created USO, and entertained American troops in bases around the world. She found the experience so rewarding that she continued performing for the troops during the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The U.S. Army Special Forces made her an honorary Green Beret with the rank of Lt. Colonel. She was affectionately known to them as “Colonel Maggie”.

Milton Berle gave Martha her first break in television and by 1954 she was starring in The Martha Raye Show, with former boxer Rocky Graziano playing her boyfriend. In 1956, with the cancellation of her TV show, the breakup of her fifth marriage and developing health problems, she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. During her recovery, well-wishers gave her a St. Christopher’s medal, a St. Genesius medal, and a Star of David, all three of which she would wear for the rest of her life.

Offstage, she led a dark personal life. Married seven times, among her husbands were makeup artist Buddy Westmore, composer David Rose, a businessman, two dancers and a police officer. Her seventh husband, Mark Harris, was a bi-sexual, 33 years her junior, whom she had known for only a month. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and heart problems, she died of pneumonia in October, 1994, at age 78, Harris inherited the bulk of her estate.

In honor of her years of working with the USO, “Colonel Maggie” was buried at Fort Bragg, N.C., with full military honors.

LOOK FOR ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK

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