Actress Penny Singleton Dies at 95

Penny Singleton
(Columbia Pictures)

By Claudia Luther
Times Staff Writer ~ Los Angeles Times
5:03 PM PST, November 13, 2003

Penny Singleton, best remembered as Blondie, the scatterbrained yet often sensible character she played in 28 movies from 1938 to 1950, died Wednesday at Sherman Oaks Hospital. She was 95.

She had suffered a stroke two weeks ago, according to her longtime friend, Dick Sheehan.

Singleton was also known to later generations as the voice of Jane Jetson in the cartoon movies and TV shows about the futuristic family. But she was most identified with her role as the wife of the bumbling Dagwood Bumstead in the movies based on the popular comic strip created by Chic Young.

The family life of the Bumsteads and their children, Alexander (Baby Dumpling) and Cookie, along with their dog Daisy, centered around humorous and numerous misunderstandings and mishaps concerning everything from Blondie's efforts to get Dagwood's job back (he was always getting fired, it seemed) to Blondie's efforts to start a bakery business.

As Mrs. Bumstead, Singleton was constantly on call to her husband's high-pitched and plaintive cry of "Blon-deeeeeee!"

Like the Andy Hardy and Charlie Chan movies of about the same era, the "Blondie" episodes brought audiences to movie houses two or more times a year.

"For a while there, Blondie was apt to turn up on the bottom half of the bill about every other time you went to the movies," John Springer and Jack Hamilton wrote in "They Had Faces Then."

Besides her movie role as Blondie, Singleton played the character on a popular radio program from 1939 to 1950. But by the time Blondie came to television for the first time in 1957, Singleton was almost 50 years old, and the role was given to the younger Pamela Britton.

Born Dorothy McNulty on Sept. 15, 1908, in Philadelphia, Singleton was the daughter of a newspaper typesetter. She began her career at age 7 singing songs at movie houses and performed in vaudeville.

"I suppose it would be difficult for many people today to understand, but vaudeville was the most marvelous school for a child
imaginable," she told the Cincinnati Post in 1997.

She also was a talented gymnast whose coach thought she should try out for the Olympics, but by then she had already earned money professionally and was not considered an amateur.

By the time she was a teenager, she was getting chorus girl and other small roles on Broadway, including doing a number with Jack Benny in a revue called "The Great Temptations." By 1928, she had joined a road company of "Good News," starring opposite Jack Haley. Back on Broadway, she also sang two numbers with Haley-"Button Up Your Overcoat" and "I Could Give Up Anything But You"-in "Follow Thru."

While still in her 20s, she moved to Hollywood, appearing in a series of minor roles in better movies - or sometimes better roles in minor movies - and changing her name to Penny Singleton. She chose her first name because she had always saved pennies; Singleton was the name of her first husband, to whom she was married briefly.

Singleton had a role in the 1930 film version of "Good News" and in "After the Thin Man" (1936), one of the William Powell/Myrna Loy Nick-and-Nora movies. In the latter, Singleton, playing saucy nightclub singer Polly Byrnes, delivers this line: "Hey, don't call me illiterate - my parents were married right here at City Hall!"

Singleton also had a role in "Boy Meets Girl" (1938) and many other films.

By the time she was 30, she landed the role of Blondie."I was thrilled, but also surprised," she told the Cincinnati Post in 1997. "I had been a brunette all my life."

She quickly bleached her hair and went on to star opposite Arthur Lake, who played Dagwood, for the next dozen years for Columbia Studios.

This remarkable run of movies began with "Blondie" and included "Blondie on a Budget" (1940), in which budding actress Rita Hayworth had a role; "Blondie for Victory" (1942), "Blondie Hits the Jackpot" and the final film in the series, "Beware of Blondie" (1950). Only in 1944, a war year, was no "Blondie" movie released. None were shorter than 64 minutes or longer than 75.

Besides Hayworth, many actors who later became well known appeared with Singleton and Lake in supporting roles, including Robert Sterling, Bruce Bennett, William Frawley, Jimmy Durante, ZaSu Pitts, Lloyd Bridges, Glenn Ford, Hans Conreid and Anita Louise.

The regular characters besides the Bumsteads were Dagwood's boss, JC Dithers, played by Jonathan Hale; the beleaguered mailman, Mr. Crumb, played by Irving Bacon (later mailmen were Eddie Acuff and Dick Wessel); and Daisy the dog, played by a series of cute canines. The Bumstead children were played by Larry Simms and Marjorie Kent (also known as Marjorie Ann Mutchie).

Robert Sparks, who became Singleton's second husband and to whom she was married for 22 years until his death in 1963, produced some of the Blondie movies.

In his movie guide, critic Leonard Maltin said the first Blondies "were the best - fresh and original, with many clever touches belying the fact that they were low-budget films." He said that by the mid-1940s, however, the movies had become formulaic.

After the Blondie franchise died out, Singleton went on the road with a nightclub act but became mostly inactive in Hollywood. She appeared in the film "The Best Man" in 1964 and, briefly in 1971, she replaced her old friend Ruby Keeler in "No No Nanette" on Broadway. (As children, Singleton and Keeler had gone to professional children's school together in New York, where their classmates were Milton Berle and Gene Raymond).

Almost 20 years later, Singleton was the voice of Jane Jetson in the 1990 movie about the futuristic family. She also did Jetson projects on TV, including three movies and the series, as well as a few guest appearances on other television programs.

After "Blondie," Singleton became active in labor unions, particularly the American Guild of Variety Artists, to which she was elected president in 1969. In 1966, she was a leader in the strike to get better working conditions for Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes.

At the age of 88, Singleton said of her career, "I loved everything I did, big or small, it didn't matter as long as it was fun and was pleasing to people."

Singleton, who had lived in Sherman Oaks for many years, is survived by her daughters, Dorothy Henry of Sherman Oaks and Susan Sparks of Paris; two grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Services will be Tuesday at St. Francis de Sales Church, 13370 Valleyheart Drive, Sherman Oaks. Information: (818) 784-0105.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times,1,5678944.story?coll=la-home-leftrail

Penny Singleton  Star of the Blondie films and actors' activist

Mariana Dorothy Agnes Letitia McNulty (Penny Singleton), actress:
Born Philadelphia 15 September 1908;
Married: 1937 Dr Lawrence Singleton (one daughter; marriage dissolved1939)
Married: 1941 Robert Sparks (died 1963; one daughter);
Died Sherman Oaks, California 12 November 2003.

Penny Singleton was known primarily for her starring roles as the much-loved screen incarnation of the dizzy comic-strip heroine Blondie, but she had a long and varied career in show business as an actress, singer and dancer. Blondie may have been scatterbrained but Singleton herself was extremely bright, and later she became a leading political figure heavily involved in union activities. She is credited with creating the concept of residuals - the practice of paying actors for repeat broadcasts of their shows or movies.

Billed as Dorothy McNulty during her early career, she was in the original cast of the hit stage musical Good News (1927) and many years later returned to Broadway when she took over from Ruby Keeler as leading lady in the revival of No, No, Nanette (1971). Later generations came to know her as the voice of Jane Jetson in the cartoon shows about a futuristic family The Jetsons.

She was born Mariana Dorothy Agnes Letitia McNulty in 1908 in Philadelphia to an Irish American family. Her father, Benny McNulty, was a newspaper typesetter, and her uncle was James Farley, Franklin Roosevelt's campaign manager and later Postmaster General. After attending a show-business school, where her fellow pupils included Milton Berle and Ruby Keeler, she was singing illustrated songs in cinemas at the age of seven, billed as Baby Dorothy, and at the age of eight was performing as part of a vaudeville act called the Kiddie Kabaret. Later she toured with a mimicry act and at the age of 18 was playing straight girl for Jack Benny in revue. "I suppose it would be difficult for many people today to understand," she later said, "but vaudeville was the most marvellous school for a child imaginable."

She was a veteran performer by the time she made her Broadway début in Good News, in which her eccentric dancing and gawky charm brought her plaudits and led to a featured role in Follow Thru (1929), a musical by the same composers, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, in which she sang, with Jack Haley, the hit song "Button Up Your Overcoat".

When MGM filmed Good News in 1930 she was given a prominent role (though different from her original one), and her infectious acrobatic cavorting and husky-voiced singing of the title tune and "The Varsity Drag" can still be enjoyed on DVD.

She made one other film for MGM, Love in the Rough (1930), then returned to the stage, appearing on Broadway in a short-lived revue, Hey, Nonny, Nonny (1932), the highlight of which was a hilarious sketch parodying Eugene O'Neill's five-hour drama Mourning Becomes Electra, a modern retelling of Aeschylus's Oresteia which had premiered the previous season.

Still calling herself Dorothy McNulty, she went back to Hollywood to play supporting roles in After the Thin Man (1936), Vogues of 1938 (1937) and Sea Racketeers (1937). Playing a night-club singer in After the Thin Man, she raised a smile with her delivery of the line, "Don't call me illiterate, my parents were married right here at City Hall!"

In 1937 she married a dentist, Dr Lawrence Singleton, and from 1938 she called herself Penny Singleton (the first name because she had always saved pennies) and was billed under that name in the half-dozen movies she made that year, including Hard to Get, Boy Meets Girl, Garden of the Moon and The Mad Miss Manton.

It was her performance as a wisecracking secretary in a misguided screwball musical, Swing Your Lady (1938), starring Humphrey Bogart, that brought her to the attention of Columbia Pictures, who urgently needed someone capable of playing Blondie in a film version of the popular comic strip. The actress originally cast in the role, Shirley Deane, had suddenly withdrawn from the project due to illness. Devised and drawn by Bernard Murat ("Chic") Young, the strip had been running in syndication since 1930. With her brunette hair dyed blonde, Singleton won the role and was praised for investing it with warmth and humanity. Compared to her husband, Blondie is wise, understanding and possesses infinite patience, and, though prone to occasional bouts of misguided jealousy, she manages to get him out of countless scrapes.

Blondie (1938) was a huge hit, making nine times its cost, and spawned 27 sequels over the next 12 years. Arthur Lake played Blondie's ditzy husband Dagwood Bumstead, with Larry Sims (who grew up with the series) as their child Baby Dumpling and the dog Daisy (who often managed to save the day) completing the family until Blondie's Blessed Event (1942) brought a daughter, Cookie (Marjorie Kent). Irving Bacon was the hapless mailman victimised by Dagwood's morning rush out of the door to catch his bus, and Dagwood's boss J.S. Dithers was played in the first 18 films by Jonathan Hale. Several of the plots found Dagwood fired by Dithers for his bungling, with Blondie then helping him get reinstated by persuading a wealthy client to sign with the firm.

Columbia often used the series (as MGM did with their Andy Hardy films) to showcase contract players who would go on to stardom, including Rita Hayworth in Blondie on a Budget (1940), Glenn Ford in Blondie Plays Cupid (1940) and Larry Parks in Blondie Goes to College (1942). Occasionally Singleton would get a chance to demonstrate her song and dance skills, notably in Blondie Goes Latin (1941), and in Blondie for Victory (1942) she did her bit for the war effort by working for the Housewives of America.

 The first dozen films were produced by Robert Sparks, who became Singleton's second husband in 1941, and Frank Strayer was the director, incorporating some novel visual gags and inventive bits of business to enliven proceedings. In 1943 Columbia felt interest in the series was waning (the two films released that year did not even have Blondie's name in the title) and called a halt to production, but the outraged response from audiences was such that the studio reactivated the series in 1945 and made another 14 films, ending with Beware of Blondie (1950).

During her Blondie days, Singleton made only a handful of other films. She was top-billed in Go West, Young Lady (1941), a western musical in which she vied with Ann Miller for the affections of Glenn Ford. The Daily News recorded, "Penny plays the heroine with the same assurance that distinguished her impersonation of Blondie", while the Hollywood Reporter commented, "She has the opportunity to sing and dance, and also stages a rough-and-tumble scrap with Ann Miller that is a dilly."

Singleton played the friend of a war widow - Jane Russell - in Young Widow (1946). Russell, who developed an unrequited crush on her leading man Louis Hayward, later wrote, Penny Singleton saved the day for me. I was supposed to be down in the picture and she was so up. I'll never forget one long and emotional scene that she got through beautifully, crying real tears, only to have me bang my suitcase on the door and screw it up.

Singleton, who also played Blondie on radio from 1939 to 1950, did a night-club act after the series finished, then became active in union affairs, ultimately serving two terms as President of AGVA (the American Guild of Variety Artists). Extremely militant, and consequently both loved and loathed (her supporters called her "the brains of the union"), she organised the Rockettes' 27-day strike against Radio City Music Hall in 1966, and later made national headlines when she sued the union over alleged intra-guild corruption and they countersued. In New York unions were controlled at the time by organised crime and Singleton put herself in personal danger in her successful campaign to drive out the Mafia. In 1974 she famously ousted the whole board of the guild when she felt they were not serving the best interests of the members.

She returned to the screen briefly with a supporting role in the political drama The Best Man (1964), and when her old friend Ruby Keeler took a holiday from the long-running Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette in 1971 Singleton replaced her.Variety wrote, "She has engaging warmth and charm, and gives an excellent account of herself in her big number 'I Want To Be Happy'." She later played the part on tour, and in one midwestern engagement had Arthur Lake as her leading man.

In 1962 she began providing the voice for Janet Jetson for the television series The Jetsons, and she was heard in the role in the 1990 feature-film version.

At the age of 88 Penny Singleton said of her career, "I loved everything I did, big or small, it didn't matter as long as it was fun and pleasing to people."

Tom Vallance
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

Star of 'Blondie' Films Dies at 95

 LOS ANGELES (AP) - Penny Singleton, who brought the comic strip character Blondie to life in a popular series of films and was the voice of the mother on "The Jetsons," has died. She was 95.

 Singleton died Wednesday at Sherman Oaks Hospital, two weeks after suffering a stroke, said longtime friend Dick Sheehan.

 The Blondie series, which had 28 films from 1938 to 1950, was based on the cartoon strip about the  misadventures of a small town family created by Chic Young in 1930. Arthur Lake played Blondie's husband, the bumbling Dagwood Bumstead.

 Among the films: "Blondie Meets the Boss,""Blondie Plays Cupid" and "Blondie Knows Best."

"I'm proud and grateful I was Blondie," Singleton said in a 1973 book on film serials, "Saturday Afternoon at the Bijou."

"She was dumb and shrewish sometimes," she said. "But she was real and sympathetic and warm, a real woman, a human being. And that's how I tried to play her."

In his "Movie and Video Guide," critic Leonard Maltin wrote that the early entries in the series were "fresh and original - with many clever touches belying the fact that  they were low-budget films.""Halliwell's Film Guide" calls Singleton and Lake "perfect screen incarnations."

No one else ever played Blondie and Dagwood on the big screen. Two later "Blondie" TV series were short-lived.

After her stint as Blondie, Singleton was the voice of  Jane Jetson in "The Jetsons," Hanna-Barbera's 21st century counterpart to their highly successful "Flintstones" cartoon family. The show ran in prime time for just one season, 1962-63, but has been widely seen in reruns.

 Singleton also appeared in the 1964 film "The Best Man" but spent most of her time touring in nightclubs  and roadshows of plays and musicals such as "Call Me Madam."

 She became active in the American Guild of Variety Artists, the union representing touring performers,  chorus girls and other entertainers. As union vice president in the 1960s, she helped lead a strike by the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.

 Singleton was born in 1908 - some references say 1909 - daughter of a Philadelphia newspaperman. She got her start in show business by winning an amateur contest and was touring in vaudeville by her early teens.

 After debuting on Broadway in the late '20s, she began appearing in films, at first under her real name, Dorothy McNulty. She took the name Singleton after marrying dentist Lawrence Singleton in 1937.

 In the mid-'30s, she played several roles as shady characters, and got worried she would be typecast.

 "I just didn't want to be typed," she once said. "It goes to show you how you can eat your words. I became probably the most typed actress in the world. But, at least (Blondie) had some dignity."

 Singleton is survived by two daughters, two grandchildren and a great-grandson. 

Penny's Story
Penny's Filmography
Penny's Photo Galleries I
.Penny's Family Album I
Penny's Family Album II
.Penny's eBay Watch
Memories of Penny
Penny's Memoriam
Penny's Photo Galleries II
Victory Photos
Old Mirror Site 1 ~ Site 2
Film Clips

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