Martha Raye was born Margaret Reed on August 27th,1916. At the time, her vaudevillian parents were appearing in Butte, Montana. Little Martha started performing at a very young age and worked primarily as a singer. By the time she was eighteen, she had made her Broadway debut in a comedy revue named CALLING ALL STARS (1934-35). Martha also appeared in the musical comedy HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS (1940-41) which featured Al Jolson.
In between these two shows she hit her stride in Hollywood. Signed by Paramount Pictures, Martha was soon appearing opposite such players as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown and (over at Universal) Olsen and Johnson and Abbott and Costello. She was in such musicals and comedies as THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, WAIKIKI WEDDING, RHYTHM ON THE RANGE, COLLEGE HUMOR, COLLEGE HOLIDAY, KEEP 'EM FLYING, NEVER SAY DIE and FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP. Her high-water mark in film was undoubtedly a prominent role in Charlie Chaplin's MONSIEUR VERDOUX in 1947.
Martha Raye appeared on television as early as 1949. In 1951, she began to headline episodes of a series called FOUR STAR (later ALL-STAR) REVUE. This was a program that allowed prominent performers to rotate appearances, each appearing once a month or even less. Raye outlasted all the other hosts on the show, which, by January of 1954, was rechristened THE MARTHA RAYE SHOW. The series ended in 1956.
(For some years, her monthly shows were co-written and eventually directed by Nat Hiken, widely considered one of the best comedy writers in the business. He later created the highly regarded sitcoms THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (SGT. BILKO) and CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?)
For the rest of her career, Raye was a welcome guest on many TV variety shows including THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE, THE RED SKELTON SHOW, THE BOB HOPE SHOW, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW and THE PERRY COMO SHOW. She also appeared periodically on the mystery series MCMILLAN AND WIFE the sitcom ALICE and the kids' show THE BUGALOOS. Raye made it back to Broadway as well, essaying the title role in HELLO, DOLLY and performing in a revival of NO, NO NANETTE.
Over the course of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, she made many trips to various combat areas to perform for the troops. This led to her receiving the film Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1969 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993. 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.
Martha Raye died on Oct. 19, 1994. She was buried with full military honors at Fort Bragg, NC.