Sunday, June 14, 2015

Godspeed Monica Lewis

Jazz singer and movie star Monica Lewis died on June 12 2015 at the age of 93. In the Forties and Fifties she had a highly successful recording career, and went onto appear in such film as Excuse My Dust (1951) and Affair with a Stranger (1953). Starting in 1947 she was the long time voice of the character Chiquita Banana in the company's animated commercials.

Monica Lewis was born May Lewis on May 5 1922 in Chicago. She came from a musical family. Her father Leon Lewis was a symphonic composer and pianist. Her mother Jessica Lewis was a singer with the Chicago Opera Company. Her sister Bobbe Lewis became a concert pianist. Her brother Marlo Lewis was a gifted violinist who would go onto create The Ed Sullivan Show and was its executive producer for years. Monica Lewis studied voice from a young age with her mother as her teacher.

In 1933 when Monica Lewis was 11 the family moved from Chicago to New York City. Monica Lewis was only 17 years old when she landed a job on the radio show The Gloom Dodgers, which aired on New York City radio station WHN (now WEPN). Exposure on the show would lead to Miss Lewis performing at the popular Stork Club. It was in 1943 that she auditioned to replace Peggy Lee in Benny Goodman's band. Monica Lewis was chosen out of around 300 girls who had auditioned. Miss Lewis would appear frequently on such radio shows as Beat the Band, The Chesterfield Hour (on which she sang with Frank Sinatra), and The Revere Camera Show. Monica Lewis would have several hit records in the Forties and Fifties on such record labels as Signature, Decca, and Capitol. Among her hits were “But Not for Me”, “The House I Live In”, “The Gentleman Is a Dope", “Autumn Leaves", “Fools Rush In”, “I Wish You Love”, and “A Tree in the Meadow (with the Ames Brothers).” She was the first performer to record "Put the Blame on Mame", later made famous in the classic film Gilda.

In 1947 Monica Lewis began providing the voice for the animated character Chiquita Banana in commercials for the product. It was Monica Lewis who introduced her brother Marlo Lewis (then an executive of the Blaine Thompson Advertising agency, who had created the radio show Luncheon at Sardi's) to newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan. This led to the creation of Toast of the Town, which was later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show, on which Marlo Lewis was a long time executive producer. Monica Lewis appeared on the very first edition of Toast of the Town in 1948 and made several more appearances on the show.

It was in 1950 that Monica Lewis signed a motion picture contract with MGM. She made her film debut in 1951 as a singer in the film Inside Straight (1951). In the Fifties she appeared in such films as Excuse My Dust (1951), The Strip (1951), Everything I Have Is Yours (1952), Affair with a Stranger (1953), and The D.I. (1957). She guest starred on such television dramas Make Room for Daddy, Studio 57, Peter Gunn, M Squad, Tales of Wells Fargo, Johnny Staccato, The Deputy, Overland Trail, and Shotgun Slade. She appeared on such variety shows as The Jackie Gleason Show, The Larry Storch Show, The George Jessel Show, Texaco Star Theatre, and The Julius LaRosa Show.

In the Sixties Monica Lewis appeared on such shows as Laramie, G.E. Theatre, The Tall Man, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Arrest and Trial, Crossroads, Wagon Train, Convoy, Laredo, and The Virginian. In the Seventies Miss Lewis guest starred on the shows Marcus Welby, M.D., Night Gallery, Emergency!, Ironside, Barbary Coast, and Quincy M.E. She appeared in the films Charley Varrick (1973), Earthquake (1974), Airport '77 (1977), Rollercoaster (1977), Nunzio (1978), Zero to Sixty (1978), and The Concorde... Airport '79 (1979).  In the Eighties Miss Lewis guest starred on the TV shows Remington Steele, Santa Barbara, and Falcon Crest. She appeared in the films Boxoffice (1982), The Sting II (1983), Stick (1985), and Dead Heat (1988).

In addition to being the voice of Chiquita Banana, Monica Lewis appeared in advertising campaigns for several brands over the years, including Burlington Mills hosiery (for whom she was "Miss Leg-O-Genic"), General Electric,  Piel’s Light Beer, and Camel Cigarettes. During the Korean War she entertained the troops alongside Danny Kaye.

Monica Lewis was obviously beautiful and also immensely talented. She was an incredible singer with a voice that was rich, mellifluous, and soulful. In many respects it was perfectly suited to the sort of jazz that was being recorded in the late Forties and early Fifties. It should be little wonder then that Miss Lewis would have a string of hit songs from the late Forties well into the Fifties. Indeed, as far as I am concerned her rendition of "Put the Blame on Mame" is not only the original, but the quintessential version. Her version of "A Tree in the Meadow", recorded with the Ames Brothers, is the best of any version.

Of course, Monica Lewis not only had an incredible voice, she was also blessed with movie star good looks. It should be little wonder that MGM singed her to a movie contract. What is more, Miss Lewis proved to have some talent as an actress. She proved to have gift for comedy playing a music teacher in the Make Room for Daddy episode "The School Teacher". She was equally adept at drama, as shown in the episode of The Virginian "The Decision", in which she played a wife who worried her husband's job as a sheriff could cost him his life. In the Seventies she would prove quite good as a supporting actress in Universal's disaster movies, particularly as Sam's secretary Barbara in Earthquake.

Beyond Monica Lewis's incredible talent as a vocalist, it must be pointed out that she was simply a fine human being as well. As mentioned earlier, she entertained troops during the Korean War. She was also known to support various charitable causes over the years. The past many years Miss Lewis was active on Twitter, where she proved to be as sweet and kind as she was talented and beautiful. On Twitter Monica Lewis displayed the sort of gratitude towards her fans that is sometimes lacking in modern day celebrities. She always had time to answer questions and was very gracious about accepting compliments. Ultimately Monica Lewis was not simply an extraordinary singer and a beautiful woman, but a truly nice and thoughtful lady as well.

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