AMERICA'S QUEEN OF THE RADIO
by Cort Vitty, © 2005
(From Radio Recall, December 2005)
(Part one of two - read part two here)
The future Queen of Radio, literally descended upon the world of entertainment, like an angel visiting earth. The first time her name ever appeared on a theatre program, she was prophetically billed as “the voice of an angel.” Blessed with heavenly talent, she would use her gift to become a major star in the medium of radio.
Jessica Valentina Dragonette was appropriately born on St. Valentine’s Day, in a year that remains a mystery. Most accounts of her life list the date as anywhere from 1905 to 1910; her original birth records were destroyed in a fire. The youngest of four children, her Italian heritage included a long line of successful professionals, many of whom had a great appreciation for the arts and all things musical.
Her mother and father were childhood sweethearts near Genoa Italy. Her young mother was in ill health and immigrated to the United States for medical reasons. She was cared for by an American doctor visiting Italy. When he returned to his native Pennsylvania, they followed to continue in his care. The couple settled in Philadelphia and became U.S. citizens.
Her father was an engineer and work assignments often took the young family out of the country. It was on such a business related sojourn that baby Jessica was born in Calcutta India; joining brothers Nicholas, Fred and older sister Nadea, to complete the Dragonette family. Her mother’s overall health continued to deteriorate. Soon after the family retuned to the states, her mother suddenly passed away, leaving four young children in the care of their grieving father. Worried about the future of his children, he placed them into various schools in Philadelphia. Young Jessica was sent to the Landsowne Orphanage, always hoping that her family would be reunited.
Hopes were dashed when her distraught father was involved in a fatal accident. Jessica found solace in the next thing she loved most in life: her music. Without parents left to please, she decided to work hard developing her talent. Her goal would be to please untold millions through the performance of her music.
Applying herself to studies, Jessica went to the Philadelphia Girls Catholic High School, where her devout faith was nurtured by the extraordinary efforts of the Sisters of Charity, who guided the maturing Jessica in further developing her musical talents. Her education continued at Georgian Court in Lakehurst New Jersey. As a student, Jessica was invited to New York for singing lessons under the renowned teacher Estelle Liebling. Mother Superior cooperated by arranging school work around these trips; even granting a leave of absence to stay in New York for extended periods of time.
Under the tutelage of her new mentor, Jessica gained experience and formal voice training. When Miss Liebling learned that Broadway impresario Max Reinhardt was auditioning talent for his upcoming production of The Miracle, she recommended Jessica try out for the part of an angel.
More than 60 aspiring singers were on hand when Jessica arrived to audition. Although one of the last to perform, Jessica won the part on the spot, thanks to her ability to sing in true pitch without accompaniment. For the next 287 performances, the young schoolgirl thrilled audiences and cast members alike with her fine singing ability. During each performance, Jessica would ascend a rickety ladder – high above stage and seats – take her position on a tiny platform, then on queue sing her heart out! Song completed, she remained unseen by an appreciative and visibly moved audience.
During the run of The Miracle, Jessica learned a great deal about living on a meager salary, often missing meals completely or carefully making pennies go far at the automat. She matured as an occupant of the ladies dressing room; absorbing worldly lessons discussed by bawdy theatre veterans.
While continuing her studies with Miss Liebling, Jessica gained additional work experience through a short role in The Student Prince. Miss Liebling thought her pupil may be suited for the new and growing medium of radio. She arranged an audition at station WEAF and Jessica was again hired on the spot. Overcome with excitement, she left the studio and promptly forgot the date of her first broadcast! Recovering in time to report for work, she entered the studio, approached the cold microphone and momentarily became discouraged -- thinking -- no one was out there to listen! She then proceeded to sing. Rendition complete, there was no applause or reaction of any kind, giving her a let down feeling.
Her depression was short lived; several days later she was presented with a bag full of letters from grateful listeners. She never again thought of the microphone as anything but a live audience. She was touched by the sentiments of her admiring fans; they were touched by the melodic quality of her voice.
Radio was introduced in the early 1920’s and by the end of the decade people were clamoring for more! It was an exciting time; the magic of the new medium enabled people to enjoy distant broadcasts, all in the comfort of their own home! Commercial stations were starting in all major cities and program directors were desperate for talent! Jessica signed a five year contract with WEAF, after being in the business a little over a month.
Assigned to the Coca-Cola Hour, she became Vivian (the Coca-Cola girl), in an hour long series of operettas. It was here that Jessica really began to sense a companionship with the American public; receiving fan letters offering everything from grooming advice to programming notes. Correspondence, in many instances, would be a dialog (back and forth) that continued for years.
It was during her tenure with this show that Jessica initiated one of her signature trademarks: wearing beautiful gowns to perform, even if an audience was not in the studio to see her lovely ensemble. Her rapport with the audience convinced her that listeners could actually see her perform! Jessica would maintain this self imposed dress code throughout her career.
WEAF merged with WJZ to become NBC. The new network moved to a larger studio and planned a series of operettas sponsored by Philco. Jessica inaugurated the show and performed a new musical every week! One afternoon, after the show, she was summoned to the top floor of the studio for an experiment. Executives had gathered around a device that would send Jessica’s image over the air to a distant location some 20 miles away. This test occurred in 1928 and was the precursor of what we now refer to as television.
For two and a half years, she tirelessly performed on behalf of Philco, until they left NBC for the CBS network. Jessica was still under contract to NBC; therefore she was assigned to another series. The resulting move would cause her rising star to soar even further into the upper stratosphere of broadcast radio.
The Cities Service Concert Series, provided entertainment with a philosophy that good music – performed well – would always attract an audience. When Jessica joined the cast in 1930, the show really hit its stride. Broadcast live every Friday night from 8-9:00 p.m., the format included a variety of quality music, all orchestrated by Rosario Bourdon. Blending operetta, popular music and ballads, the show quickly became a favorite with a discriminating audience, earning ratings that placed the series among the most popular offerings in all of radio.
In addition to English, Jessica impeccably sang in German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. She was so good, she once fooled a diplomat into thinking Russian was her native tongue. Never one to use printed music, it’s estimated she memorized over 75 operas and
more than 500 songs.
The Cities Service Show offered quality, talent and needed perfect timing. This was the age of live radio. Performers had to quickly learn and rehearse a show in time for the next broadcast. Execution was crucial; the show had to begin -- and end, on time, without a minute to spare. This of course placed a lot of pressure on performers, all of whom didn’t have the luxury of flubbing a line and starting over. Until recording equipment improved, this was how radio operated and it was under such stress that radio stars earned their living.
Jessica was so popular that she became synonymous with the sponsor. She was voted Queen of Radio in 1935 via a nationwide pole of listeners conducted by Radio Guide Magazine. Her immense popularity resulted in over 1,000 fan clubs sprouting up throughout the country. Her relationship with Cities Service lasted until 1937 and ended with all of the twists and turns of a radio soap opera.
(Continued in our next issue - click here to read part two.)
Cort Vitty, a new member of MWOTRC, hails from New Jersey and is a graduate of Seton Hall University. He resides in Davidsonville MD, with his wife Mary Anne. Vitty became interested in the medium as a grade school student in the late 1950s when his grandmother would dreamily reminisce about her favorite stars and shows. His particular area of expertise is radio singers. Vitty owns and operates a promotional products company. He also enjoys baseball history and is a member of Rotary International.