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 Incomparable Hildegarde
by Author Cort Vitty . © 2016
(From Radio Recall, April, 2016)
World War II was raging - and shortages were rampant. Everyday staples like sugar, meat, gasoline and tires, were in short supply. In some respects, another scarcity included seasoned radio performers; many talented actors and actresses were serving overseas, entertaining troops, or selling bonds to support the war-effort.
When Red Skelton was called to active duty in June 1944, NBC radio quickly had to seek a replacement for his highly rated Tuesday night program. As a proposed solution, Raleigh Cigarettes gave NBC the go-ahead to reformat Beat the Band - Red's 1943 summer replacement - into Raleigh Room. The show ran from June 1944 to July 1946, earning top-ten ratings, thanks to the singing, piano-playing and good-natured kibitzing of hostess Hildegarde Loretta Sell.
The public often thought of the alluring and sophisticated singer as hailing-from European ancestry. In reality, she was born to Charles and Ida Sell on February 2, 1906 in the tiny farm community of Adell, Wisconsin, about 19 miles west of Sheboygan. The family later moved 29 miles north to New Holstein, then less than 1800 inhabitants, which had been settled by German immigrants. There Charles ran a small grocery store - notorious as the first local merchant to offer such rare treats as ice cream and roasted peanuts.
Ida Sell named her oldest daughter Hildegard - after a fictional character, described as both "witty and endowed with musical talent." The singer would later add an oversized "E" to the end of her first name - to balance the large capitalized "H." Middle sister Germaine arrived in 1907, followed by youngest sister Beatrice in 1910. All spoke fluent German as their first language; hence each retained a slight accent.
When the family moved 70 miles south to Milwaukee, the girls enrolled at St. John's Cathedral High School, where lda served as music-director; Hildegarde helped by singing and playing piano in the school orchestra. In her autobiography, Hildegarde described herself as an extremely shy child, but never meek, adding, "there are no pills, ointments or exercises to correct shyness."
Despite being uncomfortable with people, Hildegarde secured a part-time job playing piano in a silent-movie theatre. Seated at the keyboard, she'd habitually stare at the ceiling - pretending the theatre was empty. Selling hairpins at Gimbals Department Store helped Hilde become more comfortable with the public.
Hildegarde next studied classical music at Marquette University. In 1930, she joined what she called, "a third-rate Vaudeville band," called Jerry and Her Baby Grands. She later toured with dancer Tony DeMarco, who remembered her as a "plump blonde who carried a catechism, was self-conscious about her German accent, and disliked her first name." She briefly provided piano accompaniment for popular singer Ruth Etting.
In 1932, traveling the Vaudeville circuit outside of Philadelphia, Hildegarde rented a room in Camden New Jersey, where she met Anna Sosanko, the daughter of her landlady. Anna fancied herself an aspiring songwriter and indeed later wrote Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup, which became Hildegarde's signature song.
Sosanko asked Hildegarde to provide piano accompaniment, while she peddled songs in New York. After making the rounds, Hildegarde received a job offer, landing work as a "song-plugger" in Irving Berlin's office. Once on the job, Hilde's singing and piano playing drew attention from renowned talent scout Gus Edwards. He signed the young woman and placed her into his Vaudeville show, Stars on Parade. Edwards astutely recommended dropping her last name - and performing solely as Hildegarde.
In 1933, Hildegarde and Anna formed a partnership as performer and business manager, just as a deepening depression resulted in the wholesale closing of Vaudeville houses. The desperate team signed a $100 a week singing engagement at New York's Hotel Pierre, where a representative from London's Cafe de Paris attended a performance and offered a month-long contract in England. Agreeing to terms, Sell and Sosanko set sail across the ocean and began a process of analyzing audience psychology during the voyage. The duo sought to learn what aspects of a performance turned a club appearance into a memorable event - filled with an allure of exclusivity and elegance.
The team spent the next three years developing little tricks to hold audience interest, while discovering "ways of working on their hearts." Hildegarde added French, Russian, Italian and Swedish songs, to her English (and German) repertoire; this mix of music definitely added an international flavor. She developed precise diction, making every word clearly audible - reducing her slight accent to an "unidentifiable exotic flavoring of her speech."
Sosanko recommended a billing change to: "The Incomparable Hildegarde." The aspect of "glitter and glamour" eventually received publicity in press releases distributed throughout Europe and the United States. Sosanko, who learned theatrical promotion as a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, compiled the non-stop flow of material.
Royalty even succumbed to the hype of Hildgegarde's show. In 1934, an aging King Gustavus of Sweden inquired about her act at Club Casanova, only to learn Hildegarde's contract ended and the show closed. "Not wanting to offend royalty, the club owner located the singer and persuaded her to return - albeit at a salary five times higher than her previous pay." This intriguing story spread throughout the European press like wildfire, "lending a glamorous mystery to the singer. which considerably helped the sale of her records in America."
NBC radio executive John Royal, noting Hildegarde's success singing on BBC radio, offered a contract, enticing her return to New York in 1936. Hildegarde made the rounds with singing engagements on Rudy Vallee, Show Boat, Ed Wynn, and Your Hit Parade, while hosting her own sustaining NBC show, with William Wirges conducting the orchestra. In a Radio Guide interview she remarked: "Radio always fascinated me because it meant reaching so many millions of people at the same time. It is a great responsibility - this matter of satisfying so many people who come in and wait to be entertained. I used to worry about that tremendously, until I realized the radio audience can be just like a cafe audience."
Famously billed as "The Dear Who Made Milwaukee Famous," publicity emphasized that despite her air of sophistication, she was really a farm girl - a fact that often relaxed audiences. "Sosanko always presented her client to the press and public as an American who had made good abroad."
A 1937 Radio Stars article, authored by Elizabeth B. Peterson, delved into her personal life: Hildegarde remarked, "I'm going to postpone (marriage) till I've gotten to that place in my career where I long to be." Hilde was engaged three times, describing "the love of her life," as follows: "Can you imagine what it meant to me, only a few years out of Milwaukee to know a man like this? I guess I never really believed he had accepted me; which is what caused all my heartache." Hilde's travel kept the couple separated for extended periods of time.
A slick Life Magazine cover story (April 17, 1939) shined the spotlight on Hildegarde, as hostess of the musical variety show, Ninety-Nine Men and a Girl. The program featured the large sound and unique combination of instruments, skillfully blended by the Raymond Paige Orchestra. Life reported: "Hildegarde spent over $10,000 a year on her wardrobe, but seldom spent more than $6 a pair, on her evening slippers."
Hildegarde next secured the spot as hostess of Beat the Band, covering for Red Skelton during his summer hiatus in 1943. The show originated from New York, with cash prizes and cartons of Raleigh cigarettes awarded to listeners sending in music related questions, ultimately stumping members of the band.
When the show was re-formatted into Raleigh Room it essentially became a radio broadcast in the atmosphere of a nightclub setting, complete with audience and tasteful decor. Notably missing was food and alcohol, even soft drinks were not permitted. Raleigh ' lavishly promoted the show with extensive print ads and outdoor advertising. Hildegarde, at five feet seven-inches tall, with upswept hair, opera gloves and long stem roses, was depicted as the glamorous star - with all of her 128 pounds distributed - in what Variety called "an arresting chassis."
A New York World-Telegram press notice by Harriet Van Horn, described Hildegarde's energetic a performance: "She's pure enchantment, pinching young soldiers on the cheeks and kissing old soldiers on their bald spot. You can't forget her playing the piano primly, with long white gloves, telling naughty jokes with the air of ~ youngster who has been eavesdropping.
Hildegarde described her on-air formula: "The band plays Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup and I come tripping out in a brand-new Lange creation. l crack a few jokes, then sing something breezy. More jokes and chitchat, directed to the audience, then another song." "l might heave a big sigh of relief on Tuesday after the Raleigh Room broadcast is over, and thank everyone for saying: That was a swell show!" "But in the back of my mind, we've got to do another show next week and it's got to be better - always better!" Marvin Miller served as announcer, with Harry Sosnik conducting the orchestra. Hildegarde coined the phrase, "a little traveling music Harry," as she glided across the nightclub setting.
Raleigh Room may have been a wartime hit, but Hildegarde never shirked her duty to serve in other ways. Her book estimated earning approximately two million dollars in war-bond sales, through concerts and personal performances.
Other than guest appearances, she essentially left radio after Raleigh Room wrapped up in 1946, devoting full-time to nightclub performances. along with guest appearances on television. She considered a lot of what was broadcast on the fledgling medium as a "rebirth of Vaudeville."
Hildegarde toured Europe in 1948 and arranged an audience with Pope Pius Xll. In her autobiography she recalled: His Holiness asked: "If I had any bambini. I shook my head. I am not married Your Holiness," The pope noted sadness in her eyes and responded: "Not all are called to serve in married life." Hildegarde found comfort in his words, realizing her life as a performer positively affected the lives of so many people. She happily accepted invitations to perform charitable work benefitting churches, schools and hospitals.
Hildegarde recorded on the Decca label until 1949. In 1961, former first-lady Eleanor Roosevelt issued a proclamation honoring Hildegarde as "First Lady of Supper Clubs." Her autobiography, "Over 50 - So What!" was published by Doubleday & Company in 1962.
Hilde opened the newly renovated Sahara Inn Chicago, after Gene Autry purchased it, in October 1963. Variety reported: "her ability to project her tunes and personality was an important factor in the rebirth of this spacious supper club." Hildegarde added her own prospective: "Sometimes when I look at a marquee where the lights blink Hildegarde the Incomparable, I think Incomparable is right - incomparable gumption."
In the spring of 1980, seventy-four-year-old Hildegarde took center-stage at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, starring in the revival of The Big Broadcast of 1944. She celebrated her eightieth birthday in 1986, by presenting a one-woman concert (by invitation only) at Carnegie Hall. The Incomparable Hildegarde passed away in New York, on July 29, 2005, at the age of ninety-nine. Per her request, services were held uncharacteristically late in the evening; Hildegarde previously stated: "I never was an early riser."
James Bishop, Milwaukee Sentinel, May 18, 1960.
George Frazier, Life Magazine, November 11 , 1943.
Eleanor Harris, Radio Mirror, March- 1945.
Richard G. Hubler, Milwaukee Cinderella. Radio Guide, January 1937.
Hildegarde Loretta Sell, The Audience- Bless 'em, Tune In, November 1944.
Marion West, Here's Hidegarde, Popular Songs, January 1937.