Ryan and Lee, Together and Apart


Benny Ryan (1892-1968) is best remembered today as a George Burns anecdote; he was his rival for Gracie’s hand, and by all accounts she didn’t make it easy for either one of them. Ironically Burns won out because he was the less successful one at the time. Ryan was always out on the road.

A song-and-dance man, Ryan first began performing in vaudeville when he was 12. He was for a time the partner of George White (he of the Scandals), and was also the straight man in a Dumb Dora act similar to Burns and Allen (which actually antedated the bettered remembered team) called Ryan and Lee, which some say lasted from 1914 to 1925, which seems to ignore the fact that they appeared together in the movie shorts A Tenement Tangle and Websterian Students in 1930, though perhaps that opportunity to make movies merely happened to be the occasion for a reunion.

Ben Ryan was from Kansas City; Harriet Lee (sometimes rendered as Harriette) was from Chicago. She attended Chicago College of Music while working at a local music store, and became well-known for her low, contralto voice. Starting in the mid ’20s she sang with Ted Fio Rito’s band, and became well known on records and radio as the “Chicago Nightingale”. Her peak of national popularity was around 1931. That year she was voted “Miss Radio” at the Radio World’s Fair by a panel of judges that included Ziegfeld. That same year she provided the voice for a Betty Boop short (which is funny, given that Betty’s squeaky voice was at the opposite end of her range). She appeared in a series of movie shorts called Ramblin’ Around Radio Row with an act called Harriet Lee and Her Boyfriends.

By the late ’30s Lee had mostly become eclipsed by newcomers as a performer, and worked mostly as a vocal coach to stars like Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner. Rhonda Fleming, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak and Eva Gabor, and performed voice doubling in movies for Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck. She also sang in the 1945 movie Ziegfeld Follies.

As for Ryan, he contributed to a half dozen Hollywood screenplays in the ’30s as a writer, through he’s probably best known as a songwriter, for he also co-wrote dozens of numbers used by vaudeville stars and Broadway revues, including Jimmy Durante’s “Inka Dinka Doo”, Francis White’s “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I”, and possibly the most famous “When Frances Dances With Me.”  This 1922 version is by Billy Murray and Ada Jones:

To find out more about vaudeville past and present, including teams like Ryan and Lee, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous


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