Martha Raye (27 August 1916 – 19 October 1994) was an American comic actress and standards singer who performed in movies, and later on television.
In the early 1930s, Raye was a band vocalist with the Paul Ash and Boris Morros orchestras. She made her first film appearance in 1934 in a band short titled A Nite in the Nite Club. In 1936, she was signed for comic roles by Paramount Pictures, and made her first picture for Paramount. Her first feature film was Rhythm on the Range with crooner Bing Crosby. Over the next 26 years, she would eventually appear with many of the leading comics of her day, including Joe E. Brown, Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, and Jimmy Durante. She joined the USO soon after the US entered World War II.
Martha Raye was known for the size of her mouth, which appeared large in proportion to the rest of her face, thus earning her the nickname "The Big Mouth." She often alluded to this in a subsequent series of commercials for Polident denture toothpaste in the 1980s: "So take it from The Big Mouth...new Polident Green gets tough stains clean!" Her mouth would come to relegate her motion picture work to largely supporting comic parts, and was often made up in such a way that it appeared even larger than it already was.
During World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, she travelled extensively to entertain the American troops, even though she had a lifelong fear of flying.
In October 1966, she went to Soc Trang, Vietnam, to entertain the troops at the base which was the home base of the 121st Aviation company, the Soc Trang Tigers, the gunship platoon, The Vikings and the 336th Aviation company. Shortly after her arrival, both units were called out on a mission to extract supposed POWs from an area nearby. Raye decided to hold her troupe of entertainers there until the mission was completed so that all of the servicemen could watch her show.
During that time, a serviceman flying a "Huey Slick" (helicopter) carrying troops recalls that his ship received combat damage to the extent that he had to return to base at Soc Trang:
I was the pilot of that "slick" which had received major damage to the tail-rotor drive shaft from a lucky enemy rifle shot. The maintenance team at the staging area inspected and determined that a one-time flight back to base camp would be okay but grounded the aircraft after that. Upon arriving back at Soc Trang, I informed Martha (she came right up to us and asked how things were going) that we had a gunship down in the combat area and additional efforts were being made to extract the crew. I don't recall if we had received word of the death of the pilot at that time. Martha stated that she and her troupe would remain until everyone returned from the mission. As there were no replacements, the servicemen could not return to the mission. While the servicemen waited, Raye played poker with them and helped to keep everyone's spirits up. I enjoyed playing cards with Martha but regretted it somewhat. It appears that she had plenty of practice playing poker with GIs during her USO service in multiple wars. But I still love her for who she was and what she did. When the mission was completed, which had resulted in the loss of a helicopter, gunship and a Viking pilot, there was also an officer, the Major who was in command of the Vikings who had been wounded when the ship went down. He was flying pilot position but was not in control of the ship when the command pilot, a Warrant Officer, was shot. When he and the two remaining crewmen were returned to Soc Trang, Raye volunteered to assist the doctor in treating the wounded flyer. When all had been completed, Raye waited until everybody was available and then put on her show. Everyone involved appreciated her as an outstanding trouper and a caring person.
During the Vietnam War, she was made an honorary Green Beret because she visited United States Army Special Forces in Vietnam without fanfare, and she helped out when things got bad in Special Forces A-Camps. As a result, she came to be known affectionately by the Green Berets as "Colonel Maggie." She continued her relationship with the Green Berets for the rest of her life. She built a guest house for Green Berets on the grounds of her home in Los Angeles and made many trips to Fort Bragg and other Special Forces Posts throughout her life. In 1988, the Special Forces Association Convention held in Fayetteville, NC carried the theme of “Honoring COL Maggie”.
. She died of pneumonia on October 19, 1994, after a long history of cardiovascular disease. Raye was 78 years of age, and residing in Los Angeles at the time of her death.
On November 2, 1993, Martha Raye was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Bill Clinton, for her service to her country. The citation reads:
"A talented performer whose career spans the better part of a century, Martha Raye has delighted audiences and uplifted spirits around the globe. She brought her tremendous comedic and musical skills to her work in film, stage, and television, helping to shape American entertainment. the great courage, kindness, and patriotism she showed in her many tours during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam Conflict earned her the nickname "Colonel Maggie." The American people honor Martha Raye, a woman who has tirelessly used her gifts to benefit the lives of her fellow Americans."
In appreciation of her work with the USO during World War II and subsequent wars, special consideration was given to bury her in Arlington National Cemetery upon her death, however, at her request, she was ultimately buried with full military honors in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Raye has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for motion pictures, located at 6251 Hollywood Blvd., and for television, located at 6547 Hollywood Blvd.