Florida-born Frances Langford (Frances Newbern, 1913-2005) was one of the most prominent members of that rare, fleeting subspecies: a star whose stardom and lasting memory burned brightest in radio, and in other media not so much. While she certainly did much else over the course of her career, I tend to associate her almost exclusively with one of my (and, once America’s) favorite radio sitcoms, The Bickersons (1946-51), opposite Don Ameche. Primarily a singer, she also had extended gigs on the radio variety shows of Rudy Vallee, Dick Powell, Bob Hope and Spike Jones in the ’30s and ’40s.
Langford had some opera training as a kid, but a throat operation thwarted that ambition. She was only 17 when her singing talent got her into local radio in 1930, where her broadcast was heard by Rudy Vallee, who put her her on his show, and this led immediately to nationality popularity. She was a hair too late for vaudeville, but she did spent a little time on Broadway, in the shows Here Goes the Bride (1931) with Bobby Clark, and John Howard Lawson’s straight play The Pure in Heart (1934).
She appeared in nearly three dozen Hollywood films between 1932 and 1954, a third of the time as some version of herself. Most of them are disposable musicals. One notable turn was her role as Nora Bayes in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In 1934 she married Jon Hall, himself a minor movie star, notable for John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937) and Deputy Marshall (1949) in which he co-starred with Langford. Hall is interesting in and of himself; we’ll be blogging about him in a few months. Langford’s last film role was in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) in which she again played herself. As the film depicts, Langford had toured with the USO during World War 2 with Miller, Hope and others, and had even had some close shaves with enemy fire.
In the ’50s and ’60s, Langford concentrated on live performance and television. She appeared on the TV variety shows of Bob Hope (naturally), Ken Murray, Jackie Gleason, Paul Whiteman, Jack Carter, and Perry Como, and even had three of her own: The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show (1951), Frances Langford Presents (1959) and The Frances Langford Show (1960).
In 1955 Langford divorced Jon Hall and married outboard motor king Ralph Evinrude, with whom she shared her life until his passing in 1986. She spent her last decade married to a chap named Harold Stuart, who had been assistant secretary of the air force under Truman, and was a relative (I would assume) of Homer Hine Stuart, for whom the town of Stuart, Florida is named. In adjacent Jensen Beach, to this day one can find evidence of the love affair between Langford and her local community, in the form of Langford Park. In Stuart, there is a Frances Langford Heart Center, and in Lakeland, her birthplace, a Frances Langford Promenade. Langford was still performing into her 80s at her own venue The Frances Langford Outrigger Resort.
To learn more about show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,