Harriet Lee was an American radio singer during the "Golden Age of Radio" in the 1920s–1930s. She was best-known as a blues contralto on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and, later, NBC Radio Networks. Called the "Songbird of the Air", she was named "Miss Radio 1931" following a nationwide contest to select the "most beautiful radio artist" and was one of the highest paid radio stars that year. Lee was one of the first singers to have a show on U.S. television. Her Harriet Lee show aired on experimental New York City station W2XAB (now WCBS-TV) in 1931.
After her radio appearances ended in the mid-1930s, Lee was a voice coach working with various film stars for major Hollywood studios. Between the 1930s–1960s, she gave singing lessons to Dorothy Lamour, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, Rhonda Fleming, Ginger Rogers, and Janet Leigh, among others.
Lee was from Chicago, Illinois, where she answered phones as a girl at her father's automobile dealership. She studied piano and voice at the Chicago College of Music. She began singing off-stage with Ted Fiorito's band at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Because she was unseen by the audience and her contralto voice was so low, many assumed they were hearing a man, "Bobby Lee", singing. She performed on Chicago radio for more than four years in the mid-1920s as one of the singers on WLS-AM and other Windy City stations, including KYW (when it was licensed to Chicago in the 1920s) and the old WIBO. While with WLS, Lee sang as part of the "Harmony Team" duet and also played "Aunt May" on the Children's Hour show.
In April 1929, Lee was introduced by Wendell Hall as the "Chicago Nightingale" on the The Majestic Theater of the Air show on the CBS radio network. She then left Chicago for New York to sing on CBS full-time. On January 4, 1930, she performed on a coast-to-coast radio production from both New York and Los Angeles, singing from New York on a program originating on KNX-AM in Los Angeles and picked up by KHJ-AM, the CBS affiliate at the time in Los Angeles. The Paramount Playhouse show included other musicians such as organist Jesse Crawford. Later that year, she was featured on the cover of the May–October 1930 issue of Radio Digest magazine, dubbed "The Songbird of the Air". By 1931, Lee was one of the highest paid and best known stars on network radio and her career as a singer on the broadcast medium was at its zenith. In July 1931, she sang on the Cunard Weekend Program, sponsored by the Cunard Line on CBS. In Variety's review of the program, the entertainment trade magazine called Lee a "heavy voiced crooner", whose performance "gave a pleasing rendition of a new ballad".
In September 1931, a jury headed by impresario Flo Ziegfeld crowned Lee "Miss Radio 1931", following a nationwide contest to select the "most beautiful radio artist" for the "Radio World's Fair" held at New York's Madison Square Garden. Graham McNamee described her as a "blonde statuesque beauty" wowing the 28,000 Fair attendees, where great interest was shown in the nascent television technology. In early 1932, Lee left CBS for the NBC Blue Network, debuting April 7 on flagship station WJZ in New York. After two years, Lee moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to perform on WTIC-AM, where her program was carried on the NBC Red Network, beginning in October 1934. By 1936, her star had faded when she appeared on WOR's radio show, Return Engagement, which featured radio stars of yesteryear. In his syndicated newspaper gossip column of May 3, 1938, Jimmy Fidler said Lee had "slipped into oblivion" as far as the radio listening public was concerned, but noted she had found a new, behind-the-scenes role as voice teacher for actress Dorothy Lamour. Analyzing Lee's rather abrupt eclipse in popularity, Allison McCracken writes in her book, Real Men Don't Sing: Crooning in American Culture, that the introduction of Hollywood's Hays Code in 1934 created an "especially dire" predicament for low-voiced women and high-pitched male singers. They soon found themselves "persona non grata" as entertainers because they did not conform to the newly entrenched voice standards based on gender stereotypes. As a result, she said, "Female crooners like Harriet Lee found themselves out of work".
Using mechanical television technology, the Columbia Broadcasting System's W2XAB (now WCBS-TV) in New York City began regular broadcasting on July 21, 1931. One of the new station's first programs, Harriet Lee, featured Columbia's popular radio singer. At the time, there were an estimated nine thousand television sets in the New York area and forty thousand nationwide. Because W2XAB was broadcasting its video on 2750 kc and audio separately on W2XE at 6120 kc in the shortwave band, the experimental station's signal could be received in nearby states beyond the New York metropolitan area, as far away as Boston and Baltimore. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, some 80 miles (130 km) distant, the local newspaper even listed W2XAB's daily program schedules, for example, as did the Ithaca Journal in upstate New York, 175 miles (282 km) northwest.
The Harriet Lee television show aired in a 15-minute evening time-slot on Wednesdays and Fridays, produced live in W2XAB's Manhattan studios. It was among the earliest entertainment programs to have aired on U.S. television on something resembling a regular basis, with at least 12 episodes being scheduled. W2XAB broadcast an early Harriett Lee episode on Wednesday, July 29, 1931, at 8:30 p.m., preceded by Tony's Scrap Book and followed by an interview. A later episode aired Wednesday September 30, 1931, at 8:00 p.m. and was the first show on the day's schedule of limited broadcasting. None of the episodes still exist, as methods to record live television were not practical until late 1947.
Films and recordings
Between 1926–1933, Lee made several recordings on the RCA Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick Records labels. Some of her recordings were solos and others were with various ensembles and bands, such as Anson Weeks and his Orchestra.
Lee also appeared in several short films during the 1930s, one of which, Rambling 'Round Radio Row #5 (1933), appears on a DVD compilation of Vitaphone short films. She also did the voice of Betty Boop in the 1931 animated film, The Bum Bandit and was the uncredited voice double for Jean Harlow in the 1933 film, Hold Your Man. In the 1940s, she sang in the film Ziegfeld Follies and was the voice double for actress Audrey Totter in Dangerous Partners. Her final film work was in 1951, which she was the voice double for Barbara Stanwyck in The Man with a Cloak.
Voice teacher to the stars
In September 1936, Lee left New York for Hollywood, having received a lucrative contract as a voice teacher. She worked at Paramount Pictures and MGM in the 1930s–1940s with such Hollywood stars as Dorothy Lamour, Ava Gardner, and Rhonda Fleming. She also did music arrangements for such entertainers as French singer Jean Sablon in 1938. In December 1939, Lee wed Bill Boggess, with Dorothy Lamour as her bridesmaid. In 1940, students from Lee's own Los Angeles voice studio performed on Stage One, a Sunday afternoon radio program on KMPC. In 1946, Lee coached Esther Williams for her first singing part in the film, Easy to Wed.
On August 29, 1951, twenty years after her pioneering television program singing on New York's W2XAB, Lee returned to television in Los Angeles, making a guest singing appearance with Craig Stevens on KTTV's Open House show. The 1950s saw Lee continuing her career as a vocal coach for aspiring Hollywood stars. While making her home in Malibu Beach in 1952, she signed with Universal International Pictures as a singing teacher. In 1953, actor Tony Curtis studied voice with Lee and in 1957, Kim Novak did her own singing in the films, Pal Joey and Jeanne Eagels , after studying with Lee. By 1960, syndicated columnist Hedda Hopper was writing of Lee, "She's taught more [stars] how to sing than you could shake a stick at", mentioning Ginger Rogers and Janet Leigh. Lee continued to operate her Los Angeles voice studio for would-be singers in the 1960s.
In the 1960s–1970s, Lee worked with a number of performers on the Broadway stage. Among them were Ann Miller in Mame and Hello, Dolly!, Anne Baxter in Applause, and Gene Nelson in Follies. Besides Ginger Rogers and Ann Miller, other "Dolly's" she coached for the hit musical Hello, Dolly! and its various touring theatre versions were Eve Arden and Pamela Britton. In 1973, Lee coached Eva Gabor for her role in a touring version of another hit Broadway musical, Applause. In discussing the art of voice coaching with newspaper columnist Norton Mockridge in 1972, Lee said: "I can teach the technique of singing and I can teach a serious student how to use her speaking voice in song. But no one in the world can put a voice in someone's throat if it isn't there to begin with".
- Publicity photo release
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