Kate Smith (1907 – 1986)
Kathryn Elizabeth “Kate” Smith was born on May 1 1907 in Greenville, Virginia. She was discovered by a Columbia Records vice-president who signed her to a recording contract and eventually became her manager. Her first hits came in 1931.
From the start, Kate had a simple direct style and a down home “aw, shucks” manner. She always greeted her audience with “Hello, everybody!” and left them with a heartfelt “Thanks for listenin’!” She was a sensation on radio, starting with a twice-a-week NBC show that was very quickly expanded to six times a week. Throughout the 30’s and 40’s she was one of the top radio performers and her variety show launched the careers of Abbott and Costello and Henny Youngman who got their first national exposure on her program. Her show featured sketches and comedy monologues in addition to songs and one of the sketches, a continuing drama about teenage Henry Aldrich, was “Spun off” into its own series to become one of radio’s most popular shows, before crossing over into movies.
Kate was, as she put it “A big girl” weighing in at 235 pounds before the age of 30. She tried for a career in film, but her first picture “Hello, Everybody” was a flop and comedians of the day had a field day mocking her plus-sized figure. She made several “shorts” for Paramount but felt more comfortable on radio where she knew the audience couldn’t see her. At the height of her radio career and flush with wartime patriotism, Kate agreed to appear in “This is the Army,” an ultra-patriotic film designed to boost the war effort. Composer Irving Berlin had written a song 20 years earlier that Kate had introduced in 1938 as an appeal for peace in Europe. It had been well-received but after being retooled slightly by Berlin and staged for the film as a sort of second national anthem, “God Bless America” became a phenomenon. Not only was it Kate’s biggest hit record, but it has become a standard, played at patriotic occasions and sporting events ever since. The Philadelphia Flyers began playing it before home games in the late 60’s and in 1973 Kate made a surprise appearance to sing the song in person before the Flyers beat the Maple Leafs by 2-0. They’ve played Kate before the game ever since, causing more than one wit to remark “It hasn’t started until the fat lady sings.” The Flyers erected a statue of Kate outside the stadium in 1987.
With the end of radio after World War II, and riding high on her post “God Bless America” popularity, Kate tried television, appearing first as the hostess of an afternoon talk and variety show and then in prime time with “The Kate Smith Show.” She always was sought out as an advertising spokesperson, most famously for Jell-O, who she represented for many years.
As the 60’s dawned, Kate was one of the few entertainers of the day who did not resist the contemporary music boom, recording several albums of pop music that were well-received. She made frequent television appearances and did concert tours, singing her old hits as well as current chart toppers by the Beatles and others. Although Kate’s image was that of a simple country girl, she was in full control of her career from an early age, and kept a watchful eye on all business arrangements. She felt she knew best how to present herself and never trusted managers or stylists to design her shows.
Kate spent her final years in a wheelchair due to complications from her obesity, including diabetes. She died in 1986, but was not interred for a year as executors of her estate wrangled with a particular clause in her will: Kate had an obsessive fear of being buried and so had instructed that she be “interred in the St. Agnes graveyard in a hermetically sealed bronze casket in a mausoleum sufficient to contain my remains alone.” The church had previously refused requests for above-ground mausoleums, but eventually gave in, perhaps due to another clause in Kate’s will that gave them $25,000 and half of her residuals if they did so.
In 1982, Kate was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her inspirational voice. She was posthumously inducted into the radio hall of fame and honored with a US postage Stamp in 2010. You still hear Kate sing “God Bless America” at sporting events all over the country.
April 26 2012 04:04 pm | Extraordinary Women