This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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THE STAR SPANGLED SOPRANO
by Cort Vitty © 2010
(From Radio Recall, June 2010)
When the New York World’s Fair re-opened in 1940, it featured a spectacle called The American Jubilee. Lucy Monroe was the headliner and her duties included singing The National Anthem at opening and closing ceremonies each day. During this busy period of her career, an unnamed publicist christened her “The Star-Spangled Soprano.”
The Star Spangled Banner was adopted by Congress as our National Anthem in 1931. Francis Scott Key authored it as a poem in 1814 to commemorate the retreat of British forces from Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry, during the War of 1812. Later set to music, our anthem has inspired generations of Americans during times of hardship and war.
New York native Lucy Monroe was a direct descendent of President James Monroe. Her mother, Anna Laughlin, was appearing on Broadway, in the original production of The Wizard of Oz, when diamond merchant Van Monroe attended a performance and became enamored with the young star. One night he met the actress backstage, while personally delivering flowers. Acquaintance developed into courtship and the couple married.
Lucy was born on October 23rd, 1906 and educated in city public schools. She joined the glee club at Horace Mann High, where her singing proved good enough to warrant formal voice lessons, prompting her mother think about a career for their daughter; her father leaned toward keeping the child out of the limelight.
Lucy’s dad passed away while she was still a teenager. To earn extra money, she took a job dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies. Her big break came when she filled in for a singer who became ill. Her talent was recognized and presented an opportunity to segue into radio, becoming a regular on Manhattan Merry-Go Round. Her longest stint on the air was co-starring with Irish tenor Frank Munn, on The American Album of Familiar Music. She also regularly appeared with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.
The 5’ 6” tall singer, with reddish brown hair, hazel eyes and attractive features, worked hard at her craft. “I practice vocal exercises an hour each day and sometimes work at the piano for several hours on new music.” In her leisure time, she enjoyed horseback riding and swimming.
Anna Monroe hovered over her daughter’s rising career. In 1937, Lucy was living with her mom in New York, when an apparent disagreement over career plans led mother and daughter to separate. After Lucy moved, a distraught Anna sadly took her own life, leaving behind a note stating: “Lucy is never coming back. Why did I fail?”
Lucy abruptly quit American Album and went on hiatus until NBC recommended her to sing The National Anthem at the American Legion convention in New York. Lucy got the job and ultimately became the Legion’s official soloist. In 1938, she gained national attention singing The Star Spangled Banner over a network of 500 radio stations. Her television debut occurred in 1939 and Variety reported: “Lucy Monroe registered a clear-cut click on television. She looked extremely good; her smile and personality matched a voice that was distinctively something.”
America was teetering on war in 1941. In his book, The Mighty Music Box, author Thomas DeLong commented on her early commitment to service: “Few performers from radio labored as long and hard as soprano Lucy Monroe. Six months before Pearl Harbor, she left radio to tour army camps and defense plants.” Lucy gave up well-paying contracts to devote herself exclusively to personal appearances, often at a grass roots level.”
In the spring of 1941, Lucy made a commemorative recording of The Star Spangled Banner, to celebrate its 10th anniversary as our anthem. To mark the occasion, she borrowed the original sheet music from the Library of Congress and performed the song at Constitution Hall, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Her favorite rendition of the anthem occurred during a July 4th celebration in 1942, while leading a community sing on the grounds of the Washington Monument. The crowd, holding lit matches in the moonlight, joined her in singing the anthem’s chorus. “It was the kind of moment when you could cry with pride and joy at being an American,” stated Lucy. This was creatively estimated to be the 1,776th time she sang The Star-Spangled Banner. She’d go on to conduct many more community sings, including one on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with over 40,000 people in attendance.
Lucy was appointed RCA Victor’s director of patriotic music. She toured the country and worked tirelessly to sell war bonds on behalf of the Treasury Department. She was set to go overseas on a USO tour when a serious case of hepatitis put her out of action. “A dreary ailment” said Lucy, “The only thing that really helps is bed rest. You just can’t do anything. You turn yellow and you look awful and feel awful. If you walk a block, you’re exhausted. It’s dreadfully dull.” After a full recovery, she resumed her hectic schedule.
As the official soprano of The Veterans of Foreign Wars, she extensively toured hospitals all over the country. Lucy never sang the anthem when she visited armed service personnel: “The service men don’t need it. They’ve lived it.” Always happy to take requests, Schubert’s Ave Maria was a favorite, along with When Irish Eyes are Smiling.
She sang the anthem at the 50th anniversary of the Key Museum in 1948. According to The Frederick News: “The beautiful and very gracious lady stuck warm response from Frederick hearts by simple unpretentious charm.” “For the thousands who crowded through Mt. Olivet’s gates for the rededication ceremony, the highlight of the whole day came when Lucy Monroe stood in the afternoon sunlight and sent her exquisite voice soaring in the stirring notes of the Star Spangled Banner. She may have sung it 3,000 times before, but none in her audience could believe she ever had more gloriously than in the perfect setting of the tree rimmed base of the author’s gravesite memorial.”
Lucy continued her call to service by touring Korea in 1953, giving two full performances for thirty consecutive days. Later, semi-retired in peacetime, she graciously accepted invitations to sing The National Anthem at baseball games and other sporting events.
Lucy married New York attorney Harold M. Weinberg in 1961; she was widowed in 1977 and passed away on October 13th, 1987. The Star Spangled Soprano was estimated to have sung The National Anthem over 5,000 times during her patriotic career.
DeLong, Thomas:. The Mighty Music Box.
Dunning, John: Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio.
Newspapers/Magazines: Radio Guide,The New York Times, The Frederick News, The Los Angeles Times, The Frederick Post, The Washington Post