Lanny Ross: Troubadour of the Moon

I undoubtedly first became aware of Lancelot “Lanny” Ross (1906-1988) by way of his film work, which is an irony, because there is so little of it. Ross’s fame was chiefly on radio and records, and these are what caused him to get his toe wet in pictures, though little more.

Ross was a second generation performer. His parents were native Brits; his father, Douglas Ross, a Shakespearean stage actor, and his mother, Winifred Williams Ross, a concert pianist. The pair were living in Seattle when Lanny was born, making him, like Bing Crosby, a native Washingtonian. As a kid, he acted with Ben Greet’s company on one of their American tours, presumably with his dad. He attended a number of posh schools including Taft and Yale, and was a star of both the track team and the glee club at both schools, and he also sang with church choirs.

Graduating from Yale in 1928, Ross then moved to New York, where he simultaneously pursued a law degree at Columbia, took graduate classes in voice at Julliard, was a choir director at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, and sang professionally live and on NBC radio, billed as “The Troubadour of the Moon” and “The Idol of the Airwaves”. This was an era when the “college boy” thing was in, the age of Rudy Vallee and young Fred MacMurray, and thus Lanny’s personality was in vogue. In addition to his pleasing tenor voice, Ross also played piano and guitar, assets that helped him stand out. The Lanny Ross Show launched in 1929 and was on the air in one shape or form for over three decades. Success on the radio led also to dates in vaudeville in its waning days. Though he obtained his law degree in 1931, he was also offered a contract to be a regular singer and m.c. on the new radio show Maxwell House Show Boat (based on the musical) with Charles Winninger and Annette Hanshaw. The latter gig paid much more than entry level employment as a lawyer, and so that is the path he pursued.

This national exposure (aided by good looks and a tall stature) led to an appearance by Ross in the musical film short Yours Sincerely in 1933, followed by the 1934 Paramount features Melody in Spring (with Charles Ruggles, Mary Boland, and a young Ann Sothern) and the all-star College Rhythm, which is likely where I first encountered him. In 1935 he toured with the play Petticoat Fever following its Broadway run. That same year he married his manager, Olive White.

Ross stayed with Maxwell House Show Boat through its final sign-off in 1937. He then moved on to The Packard Hour for NBC (1937-1938); and the CBS show Your Hit Parade (1938-1939); The Mark Warnow Show (1939), and Camel Caravan (1942-43). During this period, he gave movies one more try, with a drama called The Lady Objects (1938) opposite Gloria Stuart. He also supplied the singing voice for Prince David in Fleischer’s 1939 Gulliver’s Travels, and had a cameo in Stage Door Canteen (1943). He entertained in the Pacific with the USO during World War Two.

After the war, Ross hosted an early TV variety show called The Swift Show (also The Lanny Ross Show), sponsored by Swift Meats (1948-49), with cast members including Frankie Fontaine, Max Showalter, Eileen Barton, and Susan Shaw (who would later be the wife of Bonar Colleano). From 1950 through 1956 he was also a frequent panelist on the TV program Life Begins at 80, hosted by Jack Barry. His local New York radio show ran on WCBS from 1956 through 1961. He retired from live performing in the 1970s.

More good info on his radio career can be found here. Many of his recordings are cataloged here.

For more on vaudeville and related variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,