restoration by Win Norf
Rocky Graziano played Martha's boyfriend.
her many personal problems, there was at least one aspect of Martha Raye's life
in which she found fulfillment. Though a strong supporter of U.S. troops as far
back as World War II and Korea, it was during the Vietnam War that she really
distinguished herself. While most entertainers confined themselves to USO tours
of military bases far from any hostilities, Raye went above and beyond the call
of duty, preferring to travel to remote outposts where soldiers were in constant
danger of attack.
author Jean Maddern Pitrone relates in her biography of Raye, "In October
1966, she was performing in the steaming Mekong Delta when the Vietcong suddenly
attacked. As caualties were hauled into the dispensary at Soc Trang, Maggie began
working alongside doctors and nurses - helping to carry litters, cleaning wounds,
changing bandages, and comforting the wounded. She refused to stop and rest for
what turned out to be a seventeen-hour stretch during which the overworked hospital
staff struggled to keep up with the needs of battle casualties."
in the States, Raye opened her home to any veterans who wanted to visit. Her loyalty
to the troops was reciprocated, and they affectionately referred to her as "Colonel
Maggie." (Raye was known as Maggie by her friends.)
service was rewarded when President Johnson named her an honorary Lieutenant Colonel
in the United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets), and she was the first
civilian allowed to wear one of their berets. "She was probably also the
first woman," notes Pitrone, "to be given so many other honorary military
titles: honorary colonel in the Marine Corps, gunner's mate first class in the
101st Airborne, master sergeant of the infantry, and an honorary U.S. army nurse."
To top it all off, in 1993, President Clinton awarded Raye the Presidential Medal
Mouth" because of her most prominent feature, Martha Raye was one of the
greats of TV comedy. "Her routines," explained TV Guide, "are
boisterous, rowdy affairs, full of slapstick, wild plot lines and fantastic mugging
- with appropriate crossed eyes, crooked arm and other contortionist business.
But she's one of only a handful of clowns who can pull it off." Variety
dubbed Raye "the funniest femme in television," which is saying something,
considering that the competition consisted of such colorful comediennes as Lucille
Ball, Eve Arden, Gracie Allen, and Joan Davis. If she's not as well remembered
today as those other stars, it can be largely attributed to the fact that her
shows aired live and were never seen again, whereas I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks,
The Burns and Allen Show, and I Married Joan were rerun endlessly in
the years following their network runs.
had had a long career in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in Hollywood, before moving
into television as one of the rotating hosts of All
Star Revue in 1951. When that show moved from weekly to once every fourth
week in the fall of 1953, Raye became almost the only host and took over the program
entirely when it was renamed The Martha Raye Show in January 1954.
with ace writer-director Nat Hiken (who had worked for Fred Allen and Milton Berle
on radio and Jack Carson on TV), Raye proved to be a potent ratings-getter, not
to mention darling of the critics. Employing the book show format from his Carson
days, Hiken managed to temper Raye's manic clowning, emphasizing the softer, more
endearing side of her persona.
also came up with the idea of casting ex-boxer Rocky Graziano as Martha's boyfriend.
Nicknamed "Goombah" by Raye, Graziano was the perfect foil for the funny
female's mugging. "Who ever thought I could do comedy?" the fighter
wondered. Though typically gentle as a lamb, Rocky acted as Martha's protector
and stood ready to pummel anyone (like the debonair and oft-recurring Cesar Romero)
he thought was trying to make time with her.
shows opened with a song and dance number performed by Martha and the Herb Ross
Dancers. (Choreographer Ross, known later as "Herbert," would be responsible
for such films as The Sunshine Boys, The Turning Point, and Steel
was well on the show for a while. But according to Hiken biographer David Everitt,
when Raye began to exhibit signs of jealousy over who deserved credit for the
show's success and disagreed about the show's content, Hiken concluded it was
time to move on. Taking co-writer Billy Friedberg with him, the writer-director
left after the 1953-54 season, going on to create such TV staples as The Phil
Silvers Show (more popularly known as Sgt. Bilko) and Car 54, Where
Hiken and Friedberg were the ex-Colgate Comedy Hour team of Ed Simmons
and Norman Lear. (The latter, it may be remembered, was the brains behind All
in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons).
Simmons and Lear retained Hiken's book musical format and Raye characterization,
and the show continued for another two seasons.
Lear experienced some of the same problems Hiken had. In one scene during the
October 11, 1955 show, Martha was supposed to be tipsy. Lear knew a subtle approach
would go over well with the TV audience at home. But just before the show, a friend
of Raye's convinced her that it would be more fun if she were dead drunk. She
exaggerated her movements, letting gin dribble out of her mouth, pouring it down
her dress and under her arms, and even spitting it in guest star Douglas Fairbanks's
face. The studio audience howled with laughter, but Jack Gould of The New York
Times thought it was in poor taste. To Lear, Raye's overplaying of the scene
demonstrated one of the key factors that led to a ratings decline. "A live
audience will always howl over things like that," he said in an interview.
"At home, when you're not part of the fun, you're not part of the 'in' group,
it looks like something else."
also cited another incident that, sadly, hurt the show. 12-year-old $64,000
Question winner Gloria Lockerman was a guest, along with Tallulah Bankhead,
on the September 20, 1955 episode. "At the bows, when they were saying goodnight,"
related Lear, "Talullah Bankhead picked Gloria Lochman [sic] up and hugged
her and Martha joined them, and the three of them were hugging, and they both
kissed her. This was 1954. There were so many letters about hugging that little
black child that the show never recovered from it, with the ad agency carrying
on the way it did."
the reason, the show was cancelled at the end of the 1955-56 season, and Martha
Raye's five-year career as a TV host passed into history.
Life of Personal Disaster
lovable clown in front of an audience, Martha Raye was far from sanguine off stage.
"She was one of the world's four best comediennes," Milton Berle once
said, "but she lived a life of personal disaster."
professional entertainer from the age of three, Raye never received a formal education
and was so illiterate that she had to have her scripts read to her. Insecure about
her intellectual abilities and suffering from low self esteem, she sought validation
in the applause of her fans. But she also tended to drink too much, argue with
loved ones, neglect her daughter, and jump from man to man. (Of her seven marriages,
six ended in divorce.)
August 14, 1956, distraught over the cancellation of her TV show, the breakup
of her fifth marriage, and the filing of an alienation-of-affection suit against
her by the pregnant, 20-year-old wife of her lover, Raye attempted suicide by
overdosing on sleeping pills. She made a full recovery and soon went back to work.
But in late September, in the middle of a performance, she collapsed on stage.
When a doctor found nothing wrong with her, her daughter and ex-husband/manager
began to wonder if she was simply desperate for attention.
never really found the secret to happiness. At one point, she was quoted as saying,
"Few people actually know me or take me seriously. I thought success in show business
was the answer to everything. It isn't. I don't know what is."