Kate Smith: A Big Talent

kate3Some people choose to celebrate the contribution of the workers on May 1; I choose to acknowledge the birthday of Kate Smith.

Time was when the professional singer — rather than starving herself into a skeleton — worked with what she had. There had been many large women in vaudeville: Mae Irwin, Sophie Tucker, Blossom Seeley, Marie Dressler and Trixie Friganza to name just a few. They took the fact of their size in stride and made it part of their persona, cracked their own jokes about it, and so forth. The result was that audiences found these large women irresistible, even sexy. They were at ease with themselves.

Kate Smith was to top out at 212 pounds and she was always self-conscious about the fact. Consequently, in later years, she was known chiefly as the butt of fat jokes rather than the heavenly singer she was. Her greatest stardom was in radio, therefore, for obvious reasons. She started singing over the air in 1931, and did so fairly constantly through the mid-1950s. She dabbled a little in television variety in the early days, but never quite embraced that medium.

She was born in Greenville, Virginia on May 1, 1909 and raised in the Washington, D.C. area. She debuted at the Keith house there at the age of 15. She ventured up to New York in 1926, and such was the popular approval of her voice that by the end of the decade, she was appearing at the Palace. She continued to appear in Big Time and in the Presentation Houses as long as they lasted. Her greatest legacy is the fact that she introduced the Irving Berlin song “God Bless America” on her radio show on Veterans Day, 1938 and was associated with the song, more than any other, for the remainder of her career.

To find out more about Kate Smith and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



  1. I would say she more than dabbled in TV. The Kate Smith Hour in the early 50’s and the Half-Hour series in 1960. She was a regular guest on TV variety programs throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s.


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