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