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Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Martha Raye: The Freedom-Loving ‘Big Mouth’ From Butte

Americans today can learn a lot from the freedom-loving actress and humanitarian who died in 1994.

Image Credit: John Atherton

At St. John’s Hospital in Butte, Montana, little Margy Reed (no relation) entered the world on August 27, 1916. The daughter of vaudeville performers Peter and Maybelle, Margy would go on to international renown as a revered, multi-talented entertainer.

Thirteen years later, as she and her mother browsed a telephone book in search of a new, professional name, Margy chose the one for which she would be known the rest of her life—Martha Raye.

Show business defined her for seven decades. She was only three years old when she began appearing on stages with her parents. She sang and acted her way into a stardom that only faded with ill health late in life. Her filmography includes 26 movies and dozens of appearances on television shows, including one of her own she hosted for three seasons in the 1950s. Wherever she sang, her powerful voice could shake walls.

Raye played Charlie Chaplin’s wife in the 1947 comedy, Monsieur Verdoux, perhaps her most notable film role.

As a comedian, she joked often about her over-sized mouth. I still remember the commercials she did for a popular denture cleanser in the 1980s. They ended with a huge, toothy grin and her famous line, “Take it from a big mouth: New Polident Green gets tough stains clean!”

Martha welcomed the laughs her legendary mouth evoked. David C. Tucker’s biography, Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown, quotes her as saying in 1936, “Go ahead and laugh. It’s my face and I guess I’m stuck with it, but what of it? It got me a contract at Paramount Studios. What has your face done for you lately?”

Raye’s longest love affair was not with any of husbands. It was with the men and women of America’s armed forces. She joined the USO (United Services Organization) shortly after Pearl Harbor and performed for adoring audiences of troops through both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. She was a national vice president for the POW-MIA organization.

Those experiences earned her honorary military designations, including Lt. Colonel in the Army and Colonel in the Marine Corps. Troops in Vietnam dubbed her “Colonel Maggie.”

Martha’s affection for the troops was rivaled only by her love of the country. She told a Hollywood interviewer in 1984, “I believe in the Constitution, strength in national defense, limited government, individual freedom, and personal responsibility. They reinforce that the United States is the greatest country in the world, and we can all be eternally grateful to our Founding Fathers for the beautiful legacy they left us.”

The year before she died, Martha Raye was belatedly awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The citation read, in part, “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 American people honor Martha Raye, a woman who has tirelessly used her gifts to benefit the lives of her fellow Americans.”

At the 1969 Academy Awards ceremony, comedian Bob Hope presented Martha with a humanitarian award for “her devoted and often dangerous work in entertaining troops in combat areas almost continuously since World War II.” Jean Pitrone’s biography of Raye notes that at the time of her death in 1994 at age 78, Hope said “She was Florence Nightingale, Dear Abby, and the only singer who could be heard over the artillery fire.”

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

(A version of this essay first appeared on the website of the Frontier Institute in Helena, Montana, on whose board of directors the author serves.)

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is