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.