Frances McCoy: Recovering the Swing Songstress

Christmas Day was the birthday of singer and actress Frances McCoy (Franya Popowsky, 1910-1976) Born in Poland, she moved with her family to the Bronx when a young child. The family’s surname was changed to Popper.

At the age of 19 she emerges in a very public way in a 1930 Vitaphone short with Ben Bernie and His Orchestra, singing the song “Hello Baby” in a very silly flapper-like persona. How she got there is still mysterious at this point. At the time Bernie was one of the country’s top radio stars, with an NBC variety program broadcast from the Hotel Roosevelt. The logical assumption is that she came to Bernie’s attention by being booked for his show, and prior to that sang in local vaudeville houses and nightclubs, but I haven’t yet located any recorded evidence of that. She is already billed as “Frances McCoy” in the Vitaphone short, but it is possible she used the named “Popper” or another pseudonym prior to the making of the film.

At any rate, her turn in the short scored a hit, and she got signed to a contract with Fox that same year. As she was still a minor, her mother signed on her behalf.  Fox started her out in a supporting role in the gangster picture Wild Company (1930) directed by Leo McCarey (Bela Lugosi has a small role in this film!).  And she’s the female lead in the legendary comedy 1930 Soup to Nuts featuring Ted Healy, the Three Stooges, Fred Sanborn and Charles Winninger. I first saw her in this film, but first became interested in her from the Ben Bernie short, intuiting a vaudeville background that I haven’t turned up yet.

Then something intriguing happens that one wants to know much more about. Citing “nervous exhaustion” she abruptly returned to the Bronx, breaking the Fox contract. The ailment is vague enough to cover all manner of possible predicaments or situations. She may have washed out as an actress; she may have refused the advances of a studio executive or other important Hollywood player; she may have gotten knocked up; she may have gotten involved in drugs; or, it may have been closer to the literal implication of the phrase, and the pressures of working in Hollywood were too great for the 20 year old kid. All we know is she came back home as fast as her legs could take her and it’s a few years until we find references to her again.

In a 1936 edition of the New York Post, she is reported as supporting  Jack White at a club on 52nd street In 1937 she, Harry Rose and others appeared in the musical short, Rhythm in a Night Court. In 1938 she’s in a short called Sing for Sweetie with June Allyson, Lee Sullivan and George Shelton. I see reports of her live engagements in a 1939 Brooklyn Eagle and a 1942 Billboard. There’s a news account of her touring with the U.S.O. in 1943.

Sometime after this she married and retired. When she passed away in New Jersey in 1976 her name was Frances Katchen. This is a partial portrait. If we stumble on more info on her early and late years, we’ll share them here. Much of the information in this post was discovered by author and blogger Bill Cappello and his research associates; to them the world owes a debt of gratitude for recovering the memory of Frances McCoy.

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