Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Big Mouth


"I didn't have to work till I was three.  But after that, I never stopped."
  -- Martha Raye

Martha Raye was born Margy Reed in Butte, Montana on August 27, 1916.  She was the daughter of Peter and Maybelle Reed, a vaudeville act known as "Reed and Hooper."  Martha joined the act when she was just three years old, performing with her brother Bud.  The siblings proved so popular on stage that their parents renamed the act "Margie and Bud."

Raye was a gifted actress and vocalist.  In 1934, she made her Broadway debut in the musical Calling All Stars.  After a successful run, she made her way to Hollywood, where it didn't take long to find work.  Her first screen role was in the 1934 short A Nite in the Nite Club.  Two years later, she signed with Paramount and made her feature film debut in the 1936 motion picture Rhythm on the Range with Bing Crosby.

For the next three years, Raye was a featured player on Al Jolson's weekly radio show The Lifebuoy Program, performing comedy acts and singing duets.  You can hear one program in its entirety on YouTube.

As America entered into World War 2, Raye left Hollywood and joined the USO.  It was the beginning of a lifetime of service in support of the troops that would ultimately define her career.  Throughout World War 2, the Korean War and later Vietnam, Raye went on several tours overseas to entertain the troops, earning the nickname "Colonel Maggie" along the way.  It wasn't always easy on her though, as Raye was deathly afraid of flying.

Between wars, Raye returned to Hollywood and the world of television.  The Martha Raye Show, a variety series, premiered in 1954 and ran for two seasons.  She was cast opposite former boxer Rocky Graziano, playing her boyfriend on the series.  It featured such notable guest stars as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cesar Romero.

The series was canceled in 1956, at the same time that Raye's marriage to Edward Begley, her fifth husband, ended in divorce.  Coupled with a series of health issues, she attempted to commit suicide on August 14, when she overdosed on sleeping pills.  She survived the attempt however, and spent several weeks recovering at the Sisters of St. Francis Hospital in Miami.  There she was given the Star of David, a St. Christopher's medal and a St. Genesius medal by well wishers.  Although she was a devout Methodist, Raye would wear the amulets faithfully for the rest of her life.  When she returned to television, she would conclude each broadcast with the phrase "goodnight, sisters," as a sign of gratitude.

In 1970, Raye appeared in the Sid and Marty Krofft feature film Pufnstuf, based on their TV series of the same name.  The Kroffts enjoyed working with Raye, and later cast her on their new series The Bugaloos (left), which premiered that fall.  Surely you remember its catchy theme song.

From 1979 to 1984, Raye had a recurring role on the CBS sit-com Alice, playing Carrie Sharples, mother of diner owner Mel Sharples.  During this time period, she also made guest appearances on other popular series of the time, including The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote.  She also appeared in her final feature film The Concorde...Airport '79, playing a passenger who should not have had that second cup of coffee. 

In 1991, Raye married her seventh and final husband, wannabe celebrity Mark Harris, a man 33 years her junior.  His claim to fame was being a frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show, where he would promote a series of projects that ultimately never went anywhere.  One Stern fan put them all together in a 10-hour clip on YouTube.

By this point, Raye's health was already in decline as she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.  Then in 1993, doctors removed both of her legs due to poor circulation.  While she was recuperating from this procedure, her home in Los Angeles was destroyed during the Northridge earthquake in January 1994.  Harris moved the couple into a hotel, where she would spend her final days.  She ultimately died of pneumonia on October 19.  She was 78 years old.

As an honorary colonel in both the Army and the Marines, Raye was eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Instead, she was buried with full military honors at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the home of her beloved Special Forces.  She is the only female buried there.

Location: Row 28, Grave 780-B

Rest in peace, Mrs. Sharples.


  • Although Raye never published her own memoirs, a number of biographies have been released.  The following are all available from Amazon:
      * Remembering Maggie: WW2 Korea Nam by Robert F. Burgess
      * Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown by David C. Tucker
      * Take it From the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye by
         Jean Maddern Pitrone 

  • Raye was known as "The Big Mouth."  While this typically describes someone who talks too much, in Raye's case it was a literal description.  It would limit her work to supporting, comedic roles, and was often satirized.  The 1937 Warner Brothers cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos caricatured Raye as a donkey named Moutha Bray.

  • During the 1980s, Raye did a series of commercials for Polident, using the catchphrase "take it from the Big Mouth."  Here's one of the more memorable ones, featuring fellow denture wearers Danny Kaye, Henny Youngman, Scatman Crothers and Yvonne DeCarlo.

  • Not surprisingly, Raye was politically active, supporting the campaigns of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  Near the end of her life, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton.

  • Raye has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - one for motion pictures, the other for television.

  • Shortly before her death, Raye sued Bette Midler and producers of the film For the Boys, claiming it was based on her life experience entertaining the troops during wartime.  The judge ruled however that she didn't have a case.

  • Raye left some of her estate to PETA, but the bulk of it went to her husband Mark Harris.  Ironically, he used his inheritance to design a line of furs.

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