She was a chubby Southern girl without professional training. But she knew she could sing and at sixteen went to New York City to prove it. She overcame early humiliations to become "America's songbird" with her own top-of-the-ratings radio and television programs. In the process, she broke social barriers against single working women and proved there is more than one mold of femininity.
"Hello, everybody!" she greeted audiences. "Thanks for listenin'" was her signoff. She was one of America's most beloved entertainers, crafting a radio, TV and recording career that endured five decades.
She was Kathryn Elizabeth Smith, born May 1, 1909, to a close Washington, D.C., family. Her parents and grandparents were musical while adamant in their disapproval of the professional entertainer's life. But Kate practically grew up in front of an audience, singing in church choirs and for community events. At age eight she received a medal from General Pershing for her work entertaining the troops billeted near Washington. By the time she was fifteen she had won every local talent prize offered. And she had a dream: to be a Broadway singer.
For another year and a half Kate obeyed her parents, graduating from high school and entering nursing college. But when she was offered a week's engagement on the same billing as Eddie Dowling, she accepted and quit nursing school. This gig led to a contract from producer Abe Erlanger to play the part of Tiny Little in the Atlantic City, then Broadway musical, Honeymoon Lane. Bowing to their daughter's determination, Kate's parents helped her buy clothes and pack.
In New York Kate soon found her new role to be less a singer than a buffoon. Still, Honeymoon Lane ran from 1926 to 1929, and after it came other parts--in Hit the Deck, Hallelujah, and Flying High. In four years she had made her name as an established stage comedienne.
But Kate was unhappy at the direction her career had taken. Other performers such as Bert Lahr teased her both on and offstage about her weight. Directors seemed to cast her for her "robust physique" rather than her voice. She was embittered when producer George White would not release her from a role long enough to visit her father, who subsequently died. She gave White notice she was quitting as soon as the New York run ended. But knowing she had nowhere else to go left her as miserable as before.
Fate intervened in the form of Ted Collins, recording manager for the young Columbia Phonograph Company. One night he visited Kate backstage after seeing her perform in Flying High and persuaded her to make a record. On the basis of sales, she made several more singles. Collins recognized Kate's rich contralto voice and straightforward presentation as unique and made her an offer: he would create a career for her for fifty percent of the profits. And he did. As she was out of work, Collins quickly got her a gig singing between shows at the Apollo Theater. Audiences grew, and soon she was breaking attendance records at the great vaudeville house, the Palace. Then Collins obtained a prime-time radio slot on CBS. For fifteen minutes every evening, Kate was to sing opposite the huge NBC hit, Amos 'n Andy. Until a sponsor was found, she and Ted were paid $5 each per program!
Thus a handshake began one of the most successful partnerships in American entertainment history. Kate later wrote, "The secret of the enduring relationship between Ted...and myself has always been his belief in my talent. I have heard him say, 'If you want a popular song sung the way the composer intended, Kate's the greatest.'" But Ted, a married man, also knew how to handle his product. "Over the years he has evolved methods of handling me which guarantee us that he will get what he wants and that I will be happy about it." As an example, Ted once chose a song Kate didn't like. When she gently rebelled, he answered, "Okay, Kathryn, I won't schedule it again. But did you ever hear Sinatra sing it? He does it great!" Challenged, Kate sang the song and grew to love it (from p. 168 of Kate's autobiography, Upon My Lips a Song).
The Kate Smith Show with its theme song, "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," opened in May 1931. By October Kate and Ted were receiving monthly salaries in the four figures. Over the next several years, Kate became the top radio performer in the country. She made a movie written for her by Fanny Hurst and crossed the country on concert tours. In 1938 they began a daytime program of music and comment for women. That year she also introduced Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" to the country. Both she and Ted had an ear for hit songs, and over the next decades she would popularize titles including "Thanks for the Memory," "White Cliffs of Dover," and "The Last Time I Saw Paris."
In 1940 Kate and Ted incorporated as Kated. This corporation produced her shows and others, bought a professional basketball team, the Kate Smith Celtics, and made its partners millionaires. During World War II, Kate performed on two around-the-clock radio marathons to sell war bonds. Altogether, she sold over $600 million in bonds. In 1950 Kated pioneered daytime television programming when it began The Kate Smith Hour. The show ran four years. They also produced a weekly nighttime TV show as well as the daily radio broadcast that included news by Ted and songs and commentary by Kate.
In 1956 Ted suffered a critical heart attack. Kate cancelled all engagements and announced she would never do another TV show. She spent the next weeks and months either in the hospital or at home praying. Ted recovered, but it was a year before either went back to work.
In 1960 Ted produced a weekly variety show on television, The Kate Smith Show. But its early evening slot and the year-long hiatus had distanced Kate from her fans at a time other musical trends such as rock-n-roll were sweeping the country. Despite good reviews, the show got low ratings and was cancelled after one season. Kate cut back her career, working only "when I want to." After Ted's death in 1964, she limited herself to occasional nightclub appearances and guest appearances on TV shows. She herself died in 1986.
Part of Kate's charm was that she represented the best of American conservatism: strong values and a straightforward, wholesome approach. Early in television's development, she and Collins grew concerned that this powerful medium was being overrun by mediocrity. She commented on its "bad taste, endless imitation, lack of experimentation, over-production, and the disrespect shown to the public by many who have power in the television business but neither the talent nor the faith in the public they should have."
Some of her comments on women's role now seem quaint--such as her suggestion that women attend two years of college before marriage and two years after their children have left the nest, when they are more intelligent and teachable. Others, such as her thoughts on never marrying, are as relevant today as in the 1960s:
I believe a great deal of happiness can be found in every circumstance. It isn't only a matter of being married or unmarried. It's more a matter of being complete or incomplete as a human being, of exploring and employing the best that's in us, of adapting and remaining forever flexible, and of resisting being categorized, labeled, pigeon-holed, or price-tagged. You can live a fairly full life in an imperfect world if you have the courage to be 'you' and seek out and face all the facts--the facts of a life which is never all you dreamed it would be, but which, nevertheless, is your own life in which you can function well and be important to yourself and others."
Charles Moritz, ed., Current Biography 1965 (NY: H.W. Wilson Co., 1965).
New Grove Dictionary of American Music.
Encyclopedia Americana (1990).
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