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Happy Birthday, Penny Singleton!

She had stiff competition for the film role that would make her a household name: actresses Gloria Blondell and Una Merkel had both been approached to breathe life into Blondie, the titular heroine of Murat Bernard “Chic” Young’s popular comic strip, on the silver screen.  When a third actress, Shirley Deane, fell ill before she could play the part, Columbia Pictures ultimately chose the woman born Mariana Dorothy Agnes Letitia McNulty on this date in 1908.  We know her as Penny Singleton (more on how she acquired this name in a moment), a veteran performer who bleached her tresses platinum blonde in order to star in the hugely successful film franchise, and to reprise that role in front of a radio microphone for nearly a decade as well.

Dorothy McNulty was born in Philadelphia to Bernard J. “Benny” McNulty and Mary Dorothy McNulty. Father Benny was a newspaperman, and was related to Jim Farley, who served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign manager and later Postmaster General.  Dorothy didn’t get further than the sixth grade in her schooling before being bit by the performing bug.  She started out as a singer (billed as “Baby Dorothy”) with a silent movie theater before joining a traveling vaudeville troupe known as “The Kiddie Kabaret.”  (Milton Berle and Gene Raymond were among McNulty’s fellow child performers.)  Dorothy even appeared on Broadway in shows like Sky High (1925), Sweetheart Time (1926), and The Great Temptations (1927)—this last show featured Jack Benny.  In addition, McNulty worked in roadshow versions of musicals and did extensive touring in nightclubs.

In the 1930s, Dorothy McNulty made her way to Hollywood and her motion picture debut was in the 1930 short Belle of the Night.  She would also appear as “Flo” in the 1930 musical Good News—a role she had played on Broadway, where she was prominently featured in the show-stopping number The Varsity Drag.  She’s billed as “Dorothy McNulty” in one of her better-known showcases, After the Thin Man (1936—playing a nightclub singer named “Polly Byrnes”), and would keep the name for two more movies before changing it to the more familiar handle.  She married dentist Laurence Singleton in 1937, and the “Penny” came from her propensity for collecting coins.  “They threw parts at me that Claire Trevor didn’t want,” Penny observed drily in later years.  Warner Brothers put her in three Humphrey Bogart features—Swing Your Lady (1938), Men are Such Fools (1938), and Racket Busters (1938).  One Warner vehicle that allowed her a chance to shine (she practically makes off with the movie) is Hard to Get (1938), where she’s a maid forced to impersonate a socialite (played by Olivia de Havilland).

Penny Singleton’s first foray as “Blondie Bumstead” was in the appropriately-titled Blondie (1938), which was released in November of 1938.  Playing opposite Arthur Lake as husband Dagwood (Singleton always insisted her co-star was “Dagwood to his toes”), Penny saw the feature film clean up at the box office and become so successful that it spawned thirteen follow-ups between 1939 and 1943 (featuring up-and-coming stars like Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford).  Even when Columbia was convinced that the franchise was played out, audiences clamored for more Blondie and Dagwood…and after a two-year hiatus, embarked on fourteen additional movies that finally called it quits in 1950 with Beware of Blondie.  With two exceptions, Singleton’s motion picture career was defined by the Blondie comedies: the actress received top billing for the delightful Go West, Young Lady in 1941 and five years later appeared in Young Widow (1946).

To promote the first Blondie film in 1938, Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake appeared in character as guests on The Pepsodent Show with Bob Hope on December 20, 1938.  Their joshing with Hope was well-received, and in the summer of 1939, Blondie premiered as a replacement for the vacationing Eddie Cantor.  When Cantor elected not to return in the fall, Blondie inherited the time slot and would convulse listeners for eleven more seasons. The series was sponsored by Camel for the first five, and then Colgate-Palmolive-Peet (Super Suds!) from 1944 to 1949.  The sitcom’s final season was sustained…but by that time Penny had given up the radio gig. Her Blondie role would be played at various times by Alice White, Ann Rutherford, and Patricia Van Cleve (Mrs. Arthur Lake).

Penny Singleton would also play Blondie on such comedy programs as The Abbott & Costello Show and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet alongside Arthur Lake…but on her own, she starred in The Penny Singleton Show, a short-lived sitcom that aired over NBC Radio from May to September in 1950.  Singleton continued to perform on stage, and even made a foray into guest appearances on such TV shows as Death Valley Days and The Twilight Zone.  In her later years, Penny would remain in the public eye. She became very active in union affairs, serving as the president of the American Guild of Variety Artists from 1958-59 and again in 1969-70.  The actress became notorious for leading a month-long strike in 1967 on behalf of the Radio City Rockettes and, in 1970, led negotiations in a strike against Disney during a variety artists’ strike at Disneyland.

In the fall of 1962, ABC-TV premiered the prime-time animated series The Jetsons, which chronicled the misadventures of a futuristic family.  Penny Singleton voiced Jane, the level-headed matriarch who was a little too patient with her Dagwood-like husband George (voiced by George O’Hanlon).  She made a heralded return to Broadway in No, No Nanette (Penny replaced Ruby Keeler) and a memorable guest turn on Murder, She Wrote. However, portraying Jane Jetson would be the actress’ most prominent gig in the business, and she lent her voice to such Jetsons TV-movies as The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones (1987) and Rockin’ with Judy Jetson (1988).  Her last role was as Jane in Jetsons: The Movie (1990). Penny left this world for a better one in 2003 at the age of 95.

Radio Spirits offers up the recent DVD release of Blondie: The Complete 1957 TV Series in our voluminous inventory…and though this adaptation does not feature today’s birthday girl in her signature movie role, we think you’ll get a kick out of the madcap adventures of one of America’s favorite comic strip families in 26 delightful (and remastered) episodes!

One Comment

  1. Scott Cowden says:

    Another great Bio!! Thanks!!!!!

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