Jessica Dragonette: AMERICA'S QUEEN OF THE RADIO
by Cort Vitty, © 2005
(From Radio Recall, February 2006)
(Part two of two - read part one here.)
In 1937 tastes were changing as evidenced by new and different programming. Jessica felt her show could retain its philosophy while updating the format to change with the times. One recommendation would allow her speaking roles in addition to singing; however the sponsor was resistant to the idea. Their reasoning: “Why risk interfering with success?”
Paying lip service to her programming advice, Jessica became discouraged with the future prospects of the show. Her sister, Nadea Loftus, who served as business manager, noticed something curious one day while reviewing her contract. Apparently when last drawn, management neglected to include an option clause that previously was part of the agreement. Without the option, Jessica was free to leave the show at the termination of her contract period.
Thinking long and hard about future possibilities, Jessica decided it was time to test the waters. The people at Palmolive expressed interest in her performing on their show; they sought to feature her talents in a new series of operettas. The salary offered exceeded the figure she had been earning, coming in at 2,500 dollars a week. Jessica decided to accept the offer and soon broke the news to her superiors.
The news was a shock and a significant firestorm erupted as executives quickly decided to publicize her departure as a termination due to outlandish salary demands! Jessica took it all in stride with her usual no nonsense approach. She made her decision regardless of the reasons bandied around radio gossip: right, wrong or indifferent – she was on to other challenges.
Beginning work on The Palmolive Beauty Box in 1937, Jessica was supposed to reinvigorate what was once a highly touted series. The Beauty Box had suffered a significant ratings drop since its debut in 1934. Sadly, the format changes were never made; the program was shortened to 30 minutes and ratings didn’t improve. The show folded later in 1937 and Jessica was simply told that the sponsor was discontinuing the program. After ten years of rigorous live performing, Jessica was without a regular series. Maybe it was time to take a vacation.
As a proper manager (and sister), Nadea encouraged Jessica to relax a little and tend to her health. Jessica admitted that her devotion to work and career may have taken its toll. She took a breather from her grueling schedule and began entertaining the thought of performing concerts, for her legion of fans across the United States.
Her concert career kicked off in Philadelphia, with a benefit for the children’s wing of St. Mary’s Hospital. In an unselfish gesture, Jessica donated her concert fee: half to the hospital and half to her Alma Mater, Georgian Court. Throngs of fans packed her performance at The Academy of Music; flowers and gifts arrived from well-wishers all over the United States and Canada. Critics raved – and Jessica received a new title – Princess of Song, from the admiring press. That moniker would be utilized to publicize future concert events, as she crossed the country, performing for appreciative audiences.
In towns big and small, Jessica traveled the vast countryside, sometimes doing as many as 15 shows a month, usually to crowds that were standing room only! Life on the road was not always easy. Travel included harrowing flights; running to catch late trains and meals consisting of cheese sandwiches and milk, in the back of a speeding car. She would supplement meals by trying to eat healthy between engagements. She feasted upon oatmeal, raisins and her own mixture of pineapple grapefruit juice.
In her singing days, the diminutive soprano stood a little over 5 feet tall and weighed around 100 pounds. Depending on the light, her blue eyes sometimes appeared hazel or even brown, prompting Jessica to joke that her eye color was actually “plaid.” She was described as having a beauty that shone through her eyes; her complexion was clear and fair; her hair was golden with wide natural curls. A staff photographer at NBC once said “nothing in her appearance, conversation or manner seems artificial.”
In March of 1938, on a frozen Midwestern night, with the temperature hovering around 18 below zero, 150,000 brave souls ventured out in the shivering ice and snow to hear Jessica perform her repertoire of song.
Her drawing power built to a crescendo that summer when a crowd of 150,000 fans gathered at Chicago’s Grant Park to personally see their beloved Jessica. Although it was an evening concert, fans started assembling early in the day, anticipating her appearance. People from near and far, many of whom had never seen their favorite little singer, camped out under the scorching sun; strangers whiled away the time by exchanging stories about their devotion to Jessica. A local gentleman related how he visited a hospitalized friend when word got around that Jessica was on the premises. A request was sent for her to visit the floor of his sick friend; she responded with a prolonged visit and even sang for the occupants. An older woman with no family commented how she sent Jessica a family heirloom because she wanted it to be in the possession of someone she loved.
Jessica would often receive letters from fans and add their requests to her concert venue. Appreciative fans would respond with gifts, dinner invitations, and other mementos. She received a charm bracelet, adorned with objects depicting sponsors products, from her adoring public in Columbus Mo. In Detroit, college students picketed a concert, in an effort to win a date with Jessica.
After a performance in Toronto, a young woman had a premonition of being injured and ultimately cured by Jessica’s singing The Ave Maria. An accident actually occurred and the woman was hospitalized in serious condition. At a pre-arranged time, a radio was brought into her room and the song performed. The woman indeed recovered and this fascinating story was retold on an edition of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Her concert series was augmented by sporadic radio performances throughout the late 30s and early 1940s, including The Ford Sunday Evening Hour and Saturday Night Serenade. In 1939, Jessica provided the singing voice of Princess Glory, in the full color animated motion picture, Gulliver’s Travels. This was to be her only movie credit. A segment had previously been filmed for The Big Broadcast of 1936, with the stipulation that she would have final say regarding its inclusion in the picture. She ultimately decided to have the spot cut from the film; Paramount Studios abided by her wishes.
Much of her energy during World War II was devoted to charities benefiting our armed services. Her dedication to duty even earned her an honorary commission as a Colonel, along with numerous awards from the Army and Navy. When pressed by media to discuss wartime politics, Jessica would politely respond that as a singer, she would gladly comment about music. She once remarked that “The Star Spangled Banner” never had more meaning for her than it did during the Second World War. It was her belief that music can help morale; therefore her contribution to the war effort was through song. She was unselfish in performing frequently for the troops and selling lots of war bonds.
She met her future husband, New York businessman Nicholas Turner, at a party given by mutual friends in 1944. After a three year courtship, the couple married in 1947. A private ceremony was held at the residence of Francis Cardinal Spellman, as vows were exchanged.
Jessica always maintained that her career took so much energy that she could not possibly consider marriage. After she married, her focus indeed shifted away from performing and more toward assisting the needs of others. A lifelong Roman Catholic, she donated a great deal of time and talent to church activities, resulting in numerous awards and even recognition from the Pope.
Mr. and Mrs. Turner lived in Manhattan, surrounded by former radio contemporaries, who now were friends and neighbors. Trying her hand as an author, Jessica penned an autobiography, Faith is a Song, in 1952. Within its pages, the lady who had been very secretive regarding her personal life and career came forth with a lot of interesting information about her years in the field of entertainment. Included in her memoirs was a frank assessment of her mysterious departure from The Cities Service program, so many years earlier. The full details had only been speculation until Jessica’s book hit the streets.
Her efforts in the literary world were followed by Your Voice and You in the 1960s. This book is best characterized as a text outlining the lessons she’d learned about voice projection and vocal technique. She also wrote poetry in English, French, Italian and Spanish.
Early in 1980, Jessica became ill with an asthma attack, which resulted in her being hospitalized. She was home from the hospital only a short time when heart failure claimed the petite soprano on March 20th, 1980. She was survived by her husband Nicholas; her older sister Nadea; nieces, nephews and a legion of fans who fondly remembered her storied career.
The former Queen of Radio left a legacy as one of the biggest stars the medium had ever known. The unassuming lady with a clear sweetness of emotion in her voice was a true pioneer in radio and left an indelible mark on its early history.
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.