Friday, May 01, 2009
KATE SMITH'S ONE HUNDRETH BIRTHDAY
Today, May 1st would have been Kate Smith's one hundredth birthday. There is not one performer in the world who ever thrilled and influenced me more than dear Kate. If you made it on to her daily variety show on NBC television "you had definitely arrived" in your career. There was not one performer who could hit the last note of "The Impossible Dream" from "The Man Of La Mancha" (as it was written originally by composer Mitch Leigh) as she could. As a little boy, I was so mesmerized by this enchanting and wonderfully warm individual. She thrilled me as no other performer had thrilled me before-- and bar none none of this age except perhaps Josh Groban even comes close. Kathryn Elizabeth Smith was born May 1, 1909, in Greenville, Va., and grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father was a wholesale magazine distributor. As a baby, she failed to talk until she was 4 years old. But a year later she was singing in church socials and by the time she was 8 she was singing for the troops at Army camps in the Washington area during World War I. Alarmed by his daughter's evident penchant for the stage, William Smith made her take up nursing at George Washington University Hospital. She stuck it out a few months, quit and got herself on the bill at Keith's Theater as a singer. Heading the bill there was the actor and producer Eddie Dowling who signed up the young singer for a revue he was preparing. It was called ''Honeymoon Lane,'' and it opened in Atlantic City on Aug. 29, 1926. A month later it moved to Broadway. A review in The New York Times on Oct. 31, 1926, under the heading ''A Sophie Tucker Rival,'' said: ''A 19-year-old girl, weighing in the immediate neighborhood of 200 pounds, is one of the discoveries of the season for those whose interests run to syncopators and singers of what in the varieties and nightclubs are known as 'hot' songs. Kate Smith is the newcomer's not uncommon name.'' She was actually only 17 at the time.From ''Honeymoon Lane,'' dear Kate went into the road company of Vincent Youmans's ''Hit the Deck,'' where she won acclaim singing ''Hallelujah!'' Back in New York she took the company lead in George White's ''Flying High,'' which opened at the Apollo Theater on March 3, 1930, and ran for 122 performances. Portraying a character known as Pansy Sparks, Miss Smith's role was to be the butt of Bert Lahr's (yes, the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard Of Oz) often cruel jibes about her girth. She said later that she often wept with humiliation in her dressing room after the show. One evening, Ted Collins, a representative for Columbia Records, saw the show and heard Kate Smith sing for the first time. He sent a note backstage and asked her to see him in his office. When she appeared a few days later, it marked the beginning of a show-business association that lasted 34 years, ending with Mr. Collins's death in 1964. Kate Smith was baptized as a Roman Catholic in 1965. In 1976, my dear friend Tim Doran played "God Bless America" at a benefit for the last time. He didn't realize what a legend she had become and still was. She have him a note that basically said "why, I have I never met you before" and complimented my dear friend very much. I would have given my eye teeth to have met her. Today, I'm going to offer a little prayer to dear Kate. Maybe she'll send a blessing or two towards our little show that has encountered every little conflict you could imagine. God love you, dear Kate Smith! Happy one hundredth birthday wherever in heaven you may be!