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Colonel Maggie

Starr also has fond memories of Raye, known to servicemen the world over as "Colonel Maggie." Ironically Raye had starred in a film called "Four Jills in a Jeep" 38 years before joining the New 4 Girls. The plot of the 1944 movie had Martha and three other female entertainers roaming around Europe entertaining the troops, an interesting precursor to her work in 4 Girls 4. The movie even has her performing a comic rendition of the song "Mr. Paganini," which was also part of her New 4 Girls act.

[Click Here for an audio file of Martha Raye on an early Bob Hope Radio Show]

"All of our adventures were caused by Martha Raye," Starr said. "Oh honey, Martha was a story unto herself on every level. Oh god, I don’t know if there’s any truth to the saying that you meet the same people going up as you do going down, but I don’t think half the time she was sober enough to tell whether she was going up or down! But she was always able to perform."

Colonel Maggie
Miss Martha Raye

DiPaolo also recalls Raye’s hard-drinking, fun-loving personality.

"We’d go out after a show, that was a given," he said. "We’d have dinner but end up at the bar, especially with Martha. Martha, she could drink, man. And then she’d get behind the bar and make drinks. And if it was a place that had a piano, all the rest of us would leave and she’d stay and she’d sing with the piano player. She’d be loaded, making drinks and singing. She was a character.

"And she went through some crap over there during the war," he added. "It wasn’t just USO stuff, she went through jazz, man. She was with a lot of roughies. They called her Colonel Maggie.

"One time she was with a soldier who had broken his finger, and she had to put it in a splint. Well, she must have been loaded or something because his finger turned out crooked. Well, years later we played the Palladium in Hollywood and in the audience was a company that Martha Raye belonged to in the army, where she became the honorary Colonel. So we’re at the theater and we hear someone say, ‘Colonel Maggie, remember me?’ And when he went to shake her hand, his finger was completely bent. I tell ya, it just tore everybody up. We laughed ourselves silly."

"Martha Raye was fabulous, but she was really, really, really different from her on-stage personae," Schlereth said. "Very different. Martha Raye was very solemn and quiet. I went out to dinner with her once, but I was, not uncomfortable, but in awe of her. But she drank a lot. She was very, very quiet. Just sort of, not morose, but she was pretty serious. Serious and quiet. Not that she had to be funny all the time, and I wasn’t surprised that she wasn’t funny in her private life, but I was a little surprised that she wasn’t more... I never saw her smile. Everybody else was pretty chummy."

The surviving members of 4 Girls 4 all recall that Raye was only with the act briefly. Rose Marie, for example, said Raye only remained with the 4 Girls for a few weeks. However published reports have Raye sticking with the group for almost the entire duration of 1982. She reportedly played gigs with the "girls" in Colonie, New York; Las Vegas; Reno; West Springfield, Massachusetts; Dallas; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Orlando; Fort Lauderdale; Palm Beach; Atlantic City and other locales.

And she was killing the audiences at every gig.

"The audience was roaring throughout," wrote attorney Sendroff by email when asked to describe one particular Raye set. "She opened with a piece of special material called ‘Hello Again,’ just a ditty about how nice it is to be onstage and there, etc. She then started to sing ‘There’s a Great Day Coming Manana’ and it turned into a frame for lots of physical comedy... including snippets of such chestnuts, with special lyrics, as ‘Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don’t Care’ and ‘Ta-Ra-Ra Boom De-Ay.’ Lots of jokes, pratfalls and funny Milton Berle-type walks-on-her-ankles, etc. She then sang ‘Mr. Paginini’ and again used it as a framework for lots of comedy. She was in spectacular voice. Then she closed with ‘Pennies From Heaven,’ staring slow and meaningfully and then riding the arrangement into jazz, with scatting... She ended by thanking the audience and telling them they ‘sure know how to make an old bag feel good – may God bless you all.’"

The critics loved Raye, too. The Boston Globe described her as "the funniest woman since Ray Bolger as Charley’s Aunt. At one moment Martha Raye is like a dirty old man playing a bag lady; at another she’s Bea Lillie’s vulgar sister; mostly, she’s a blowsy, blatting scullery maid rattling pots and pans while telling ribald jokes. The pots and pans Martha Raye rattles are hung on her person. She’s not above charging her bosom into place with a rude elbow, or popping out foam rubber falsies (then embarrassedly turning them into ear muffs). One of her funniest episodes is her desperate attempt to sit ladylike on a stool (with her legs locked) as she plays a zither. That’s right, a zither. She’s also riotous when she tries to keep her balance on the stage’s slowly revolving turntable. There are, of course, self-depreciating remarks about her canyon mouth (‘Thank God for Polident!’), as well as visual gags which have her nearly swallowing the mike. Martha Raye is rowdy, knockabout, irresistible."

Clooney found her nearly irresistible, too, and the women formed a close bond. Raye’s widower, Mark Harris, said, "she did love Rosemary Clooney very, very deeply, I can tell you that regarding Martha Raye... Of course Martha and Rosemary, being fellow Irish ladies, would have their drinks and go into hysterics and do their bits... and I do know that Martha loved the [New 4 Girls] show very much."

When the New 4 Girls toured the Midwest in the summer of 1982, Rosemary’s nephew George, the son of her TV journalist brother Nick, occasionally acted as the quartet’s chauffeur. And yes, for those who have been living in a cave for the last decade, this is the same George Clooney who would later go on to international stardom.

"That summer, Nick’s son George drove us from place to place," Rosemary wrote in Girl Singer. "We called his maroon Monte Carlo ‘the Danger Car.’ "

"It was a lot of fun," George told the Calgary Sun in 2002. "They were always drinking, laughing, smoking and trashing everyone they knew. They were tough old broads and I loved them. I really, really loved Rosemary."

The same year he told the Chicago Sun-Times, "There was nothing sweet and subtle about driving those broads around. In the backseat, Martha Raye would shout, ‘Georgie, pull the car over, I have to take a leak.’ Then she’d hang a leg out the window and do her stuff while I kept looking forward. Meanwhile, my Aunt Rosemary would say, ‘Honey, don’t turn around. You’ll learn too much about the aging process.’"

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar in1998, Rosemary told the magazine that, when performing as a chauffeur for the 4 Girls 4, George "proved his worth by successfully locating Martha Raye’s missing teeth."

Reminded of this story recently, DiPaolo roared with laughter.

"That was at Nick Clooney’s house in Kentucky. Martha slept overnight there, and she put her teeth in the basket under the bed. She couldn’t find them the next morning and she was saying, ‘What am I gonna do?’ It’s getting close to show time. And I think it was Georgie that was looking around under the bed, and he found them."

According to the book Take It From The Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye by Jean Maddern Pitrone, a highlight of the 4 Girls tour for Raye was an appearance at the JFK Special Warfare Museum/Cumberland County Auditorium at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

"Clooney proved to be a real trouper that night as she went onstage to perform while sweating out a 102-degree fever," Pitrone wrote. "Since Fort Bragg was home to Special Forces, Green Berets Airborne, the singers’ reception there was especially warm because of the presence of ‘Lieutenant Colonel Maggie.’"

Unfortunately, Raye’s experience with the New 4 Girls was not an entirely pleasant one. As she had apparently been with Rose Marie and Clooney, Helen O’Connell was a thorn in Raye’s side.

"As for Martha’s dislike of the late Helen O'Connell, it was common knowledge that Martha had no tolerance for phoniness and/or people putting on attitude," Harris said. "Thus Martha told me how she and Rosemary joked about ‘Madame O’Connell.’... Rosemary and Martha used to laugh and giggle a lot while Helen O’Connell would be getting dressed and fussing with beads and acting lady-like, and of course they’d say ‘Oh what would she know – she’s only a band singer’ and they would make a lot of jokes about her."

Recalls Rose Marie, "When I left, they got Martha Raye, who I knew. I saw her once at a party afterward and she said, ‘How the hell could you stand that Helen O’Connell!’"

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