Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 7

Black radio actresses frequently portrayed domestic servants on network radio and Dandridge found stead employment in such roles. She can be credited with playing at least four different aural maids and cooks. The first was that of Geranium, an overweight maid on The Judy Canova Show. The series starred Judy Canova, a white actress who had created a female hillbilly persona, and entertained listeners for ten years from 1943 to 1953. Geranium was Dandridge’s first long-term radio role and the next year she accepted the part of Mammy Brown, a similar part on The Gallant Heart, an NBC soap opera which ran during 1944. While providing steady income, such demeaning characters provided ammunition for black critics who were increasingly irritated by the servile roles to which so many black radio artists seemed relegated. In 1946 Afro-American writer Richard Dier slighted the part of Geranium as an “Uncle Tom maid.” If Dandridge had reservations about such roles it didn’t affect her career choices as she began starring as Oriole, a maid on The Beulah Show. Beulah, portrayed over the years by white actors Marlin Hurt and Bob Corley and then black actresses Hattie McDaniel, Lillian Randolph, and Amanda Randolph, was a maid herself. Dandridge played Oriole the entire run of the series, from 1947 until 1954. Yet another similar part came her way in 1949 on The Gene Autry Melody Ranch. This role was Raindrop, a “Rochester-meets Aunt Jemima” character according to Autry historian Holly George-Warren.17

Dandridge never achieved her own program, a rare feat for any African-American during this era, but it wasn’t for lack of talent. The producers of Lux Radio Theater, one of the most prestigious radio programs of the era which adapted popular Hollywood films for the air between 1934 and 1955, cast her on eight different episodes between 1941 and 1945. More often, however, she had to settle for guest appearances on the programs of several white celebrities, including The Hoagy Carmichael Show, Bing Crosby’s Philco Radio Time, and The Jimmy Durante Show.18

Financial security is not a luxury afforded to many actors and despite Dandridge’s years of steady network employment, she couldn’t retire when performing opportunities dried up in the early 1950s. Beginning in 1954 she went to work as an agent for Dorothy Foster Real Estate in Los Angeles. This second career lasted until at least 1960. Tragedy struck in 1965 when her famous daughter Dorothy died unexpectedly. Ruby herself passed away in 1987, her ten-year network radio career all but forgotten.

Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 6

Though Jessye’s prime radio years during the medium’s Golden Age were over by World War II, she continued to lead the Eva Jessye Choir for years to come and later made some film appearances. Jessye continued to be engaged in musical endeavors during her later years and in the 1970s and early 1980s she was associated with the University of Michigan and Pittsburgh State University in Kansas. She died in 1992.

The most famous of Kansas’ Golden Age radio actors might Ruby Dandridge, the mother of Vivian and Dorothy Dandridge, the latter of whom made a considerable name for herself in film. Her birthplace varies depending on the source but the most authoritative, Dandridge historian Donald Bogle, provides convincing evidence that she was born in Wichita, KS, on March 1, 1899. Sometime around her twentieth birthday Dandridge moved to Cleveland, OH, to escape the limitations she felt in central Kansas. In Cleveland she married Cyril Dandridge and gave birth to both daughters. The marriage would not last, nor would her satisfaction with Cleveland. With the onset of the Great Depression Dandridge, her friend Geneva Williams, and Dorothy and Vivian headed west and settled in Los Angeles where African-Americans were finding parts in motion pictures.15

Dandridge claimed in the early 1950s to have started on radio with the WPA during the 1930s but supporting evidence for this assertion has not yet been discovered. She did do considerable stage work in the Los Angeles area during the 1930s and it’s possible some of the productions were broadcast. The first and most popular radio series on which she was hired was The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, a comedy which debuted in 1928 and featured two white men – Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll – as two African-American men in Harlem. During the 1940s the radio program included numerous black performers in addition to Dandridge, including Ernest Whitman, Hattie McDaniel, and Amanda Randolph.16

Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 5

The onset of the Great Depression did not hurt Jessye’s radio opportunities. Though Aunt Mandy’s Children left the air in 1930, the choir continued to make multiple appearances in 1931 and 1932 on NBC. These broadcasts include a December 29, 1931, concert and a special Lincoln Day program on February 12, 1932. Jessye’s choir sang over several Sundays during the fall of 1932 in addition to holiday broadcasts on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. The Christmas feature included a nativity dramatization which starred Frank Wilson, one of the busiest African-American stage and radio actors of the era.11

For a change of pace Jessye took an acting role in April, 1933, on a comedy-drama called The Townsend Murder Mystery which aired on NBC. This Octavus Roy Cohen-penned series also featured African-American actors Frank Wilson, Ernest Whitman, and Tim Moore. Cast as the character Magnesia, Jessye did not become a regular on the program (which only aired a few months), nor did she become involved in other dramatic radio programming.12

During the last months of 1933 and into 1934 Eva Jessye and her choir made most of the rest of their known radio broadcasts. These appearances included A Tribute to Negro Soldiers, July 4, 1933, The Capitol Theatre Family, November 5, 1933, and a weekly Sunday afternoon program of spirituals and quiet philosophy, all on NBC. During 1934 Jessye’s singers were guests on the Hudson Motor Company’s Terraplane Travelcade in May and again on The Capital Theatre Family with Etta Moten and Bob Hope later in the year. A notable performance came on July 8 when the choir broadcast to Russia alongside radio singers Eva Taylor and the Southernaires.13

Two broadcasts from later years are known, one from 1937 and another from 1943. On August 31, 1937, Jessye’s choir were guests on Ben Bernie’s show which was sponsored by the American Can Company. In the 1940s, when black programming was increasing, the choir provided music for the National Urban League’s March 20, 1943 episode of Heroines in Bronze, a series on WABC.14

Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 4

Eva Jessye, perhaps Kansas’ most famous African-American radio figure, was born in Coffeyville, KS, in 1895 and is best known as a leader of various spiritual-singing choirs. Her main radio years were from 1927 to 1934, a transitional period during which the radio broadcasting industry transitioned from a primitive, anything-goes entertainment medium in the 1920s to a sophisticated, network driven business which reaped massive profits during a time of general economic collapse in the 1930s.

Jessye’s earliest known radio appearance came with the Dixie Jubilee Singers on October 29, 1925, over a sixteen-station hook-up originating from New York’s WEAF. They performed “John Saw the Holy Number,” “Stand Steady, Brethren,” “Negro Love Song,” “All Over the World,” and “Down Yonder in Virginia.” While many entertainers performed for free at this time, the Dixie Jubilee Singers received $160 for this concert. They sang again on WEAF two days later, on October 31, and then on New York’s WJZ on November 1. They were reported to be under contract to WEAF at the time indicating Jessye’s group were regularly on the air.

The Dixie Jubilee Singers sang “spirituals, jubilees and plantation melodies” on March 13, 1927, still over WEAF which had by this time become a part of the fledgling National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network. The evening’s program included “Time to Stop Idlin’,” “Lucy Anna,” “Santa Anna,” “Watchman, How Long?,” “Kru Evening Song,” “Spirit O’ the Lord Done Fell on Me,” and “I Stand and Fold My Arms.” One month later, on April 10, the Singers were guests on Major Bowes’ Capitol Family broadcast. The choir is known to have made further broadcasts during 1927 and 1928.9

In 1929 the choir received its own series, a weekly program called Aunt Mandy’s Children on New York station WOR. In a change from prior radio work Jessye incorporated dramatic sketches into the broadcasts. One of these productions included a story about Oklahomans of African-American and Native-American ancestry. Other sketches were set in Virginia and Texas. According to Jessye the stories were intended to “raise the status of the Negro in the minds of those who listen in from all parts of the world.” Four Dusty Travelers, a quartet directed by Jessye, received a weekly time slot on WOR for several weeks in 1930 and her entire choir continued on Aunt Mandy’s Children concurrently.10