Penny Singleton

Star of the Blondie films and actors' activist
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Mariana Dorothy Agnes Letitia McNulty (Penny Singleton), actress: born Philadelphia 15 September 1908; married 1937 Dr Lawrence Singleton (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1939), 1941 Robert Sparks (died 1963; one daughter); died Sherman Oaks, California 12 November 2003.

Penny Singleton was known primarily for her starring roles as the much-loved screen incarnation of the dizzy comic-strip heroine Blondie, but she had a long and varied career in show business as an actress, singer and dancer. Blondie may have been scatterbrained but Singleton herself was extremely bright, and later she became a leading political figure heavily involved in union activities. She is credited with creating the concept of residuals - the practice of paying actors for repeat broadcasts of their shows or movies.

Billed as Dorothy McNulty during her early career, she was in the original cast of the hit stage musical Good News (1927) and many years later returned to Broadway when she took over from Ruby Keeler as leading lady in the revival of No, No, Nanette (1971). Later generations came to know her as the voice of Jane Jetson in the cartoon shows about a futuristic family The Jetsons.

She was born Mariana Dorothy Agnes Letitia McNulty in 1908 in Philadelphia to an Irish American family. Her father, Benny McNulty, was a newspaper typesetter, and her uncle was James Farley, Franklin Roosevelt's campaign manager and later Postmaster General. After attending a show-business school, where her fellow pupils included Milton Berle and Ruby Keeler, she was singing illustrated songs in cinemas at the age of seven, billed as Baby Dorothy, and at the age of eight was performing as part of a vaudeville act called the Kiddie Kabaret. Later she toured with a mimicry act and at the age of 18 was playing straight girl for Jack Benny in revue.

"I suppose it would be difficult for many people today to understand," she later said, "but vaudeville was the most marvellous school for a child imaginable."

She was a veteran performer by the time she made her Broadway début in Good News, in which her eccentric dancing and gawky charm brought her plaudits and led to a featured role in Follow Thru (1929), a musical by the same composers, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, in which she sang, with Jack Haley, the hit song "Button Up Your Overcoat".

When MGM filmed Good News in 1930 she was given a prominent role (though different from her original one), and her infectious acrobatic cavorting and husky-voiced singing of the title tune and "The Varsity Drag" can still be enjoyed on DVD.

She made one other film for MGM, Love in the Rough (1930), then returned to the stage, appearing on Broadway in a short-lived revue, Hey, Nonny, Nonny (1932), the highlight of which was a hilarious sketch parodying Eugene O'Neill's five-hour drama Mourning Becomes Electra, a modern retelling of Aeschylus's Oresteia which had premiered the previous season.

Still calling herself Dorothy McNulty, she went back to Hollywood to play supporting roles in After the Thin Man (1936), Vogues of 1938 (1937) and Sea Racketeers (1937). Playing a night-club singer in After the Thin Man, she raised a smile with her delivery of the line, "Don't call me illiterate, my parents were married right here at City Hall!"

In 1937 she married a dentist, Dr Lawrence Singleton, and from 1938 she called herself Penny Singleton (the first name because she had always saved pennies) and was billed under that name in the half-dozen movies she made that year, including Hard to Get, Boy Meets Girl, Garden of the Moon and The Mad Miss Manton.

It was her performance as a wisecracking secretary in a misguided screwball musical, Swing Your Lady (1938), starring Humphrey Bogart, that brought her to the attention of Columbia Pictures, who urgently needed someone capable of playing Blondie in a film version of the popular comic strip. The actress originally cast in the role, Shirley Deane, had suddenly withdrawn from the project due to illness.

Devised and drawn by Bernard Murat ("Chic") Young, the strip had been running in syndication since 1930. With her brunette hair dyed blonde, Singleton won the role and was praised for investing it with warmth and humanity. Compared to her husband, Blondie is wise, understanding and possesses infinite patience, and, though prone to occasional bouts of misguided jealousy, she manages to get him out of countless scrapes.

Blondie (1938) was a huge hit, making nine times its cost, and spawned 27 sequels over the next 12 years. Arthur Lake played Blondie's ditzy husband Dagwood Bumstead, with Larry Sims (who grew up with the series) as their child Baby Dumpling and the dog Daisy (who often managed to save the day) completing the family until Blondie's Blessed Event (1942) brought a daughter, Cookie (Marjorie Kent). Irving Bacon was the hapless mailman victimised by Dagwood's morning rush out of the door to catch his bus, and Dagwood's boss J.S. Dithers was played in the first 18 films by Jonathan Hale. Several of the plots found Dagwood fired by Dithers for his bungling, with Blondie then helping him get reinstated by persuading a wealthy client to sign with the firm.

Columbia often used the series (as MGM did with their Andy Hardy films) to showcase contract players who would go on to stardom, including Rita Hayworth in Blondie on a Budget (1940), Glenn Ford in Blondie Plays Cupid (1940) and Larry Parks in Blondie Goes to College (1942). Occasionally Singleton would get a chance to demonstrate her song and dance skills, notably in Blondie Goes Latin (1941), and in Blondie for Victory (1942) she did her bit for the war effort by working for the Housewives of America.

The first dozen films were produced by Robert Sparks, who became Singleton's second husband in 1941, and Frank Strayer was the director, incorporating some novel visual gags and inventive bits of business to enliven proceedings.

In 1943 Columbia felt interest in the series was waning (the two films released that year did not even have Blondie's name in the title) and called a halt to production, but the outraged response from audiences was such that the studio reactivated the series in 1945 and made another 14 films, ending with Beware of Blondie (1950).

During her Blondie days, Singleton made only a handful of other films. She was top-billed in Go West, Young Lady (1941), a western musical in which she vied with Ann Miller for the affections of Glenn Ford. The Daily News recorded, "Penny plays the heroine with the same assurance that distinguished her impersonation of Blondie", while the Hollywood Reporter commented, "She has the opportunity to sing and dance, and also stages a rough-and-tumble scrap with Ann Miller that is a dilly."

Singleton played the friend of a war widow - Jane Russell - in Young Widow (1946). Russell, who developed an unrequited crush on her leading man Louis Hayward, later wrote,

Penny Singleton saved the day for me. I was supposed to be down in the picture and she was so up. I'll never forget one long and emotional scene that she got through beautifully, crying real tears, only to have me bang my suitcase on the door and screw it up.

Singleton, who also played Blondie on radio from 1939 to 1950, did a night-club act after the series finished, then became active in union affairs, ultimately serving two terms as President of AGVA (the American Guild of Variety Artists). Extremely militant, and consequently both loved and loathed (her supporters called her "the brains of the union"), she organised the Rockettes' 27-day strike against Radio City Music Hall in 1966, and later made national headlines when she sued the union over alleged intra-guild corruption and they countersued. In New York unions were controlled at the time by organised crime and Singleton put herself in personal danger in her successful campaign to drive out the Mafia. In 1974 she famously ousted the whole board of the guild when she felt they were not serving the best interests of the members.

She returned to the screen briefly with a supporting role in the political drama The Best Man (1964), and when her old friend Ruby Keeler took a holiday from the long-running Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette in 1971 Singleton replaced her. Variety wrote, "She has engaging warmth and charm, and gives an excellent account of herself in her big number 'I Want To Be Happy'." She later played the part on tour, and in one midwestern engagement had Arthur Lake as her leading man.

In 1962 she began providing the voice for Janet Jetson for the television series The Jetsons, and she was heard in the role in the 1990 feature-film version.

At the age of 88 Penny Singleton said of her career, "I loved everything I did, big or small, it didn't matter as long as it was fun and pleasing to people."

Tom Vallance