Scenic City Showstoppers

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Country music star Lauren Alaina and TV actress Rachael Boston certainly aren’t the first women from Chattanooga to make it big in the entertainment industry. Here’s a glimpse back at seven ladies who launched out from the Scenic City into illustrious careers in radio, theater, TV, movies, and music.

By Katy Mena-Berkley

BessieSmithJazz Legend • Bessie Smith • 1894-1937

Flooding a layered canvas of horns and piano, Bessie Smith’s joyous roar could make the saddest subject matter sound like a dream. It was her gift, her legacy, and it all began in Chattanooga.

Born as Elizabeth Smith in 1894, Bessie Smith knew tragedy from an early age. Her father, a Baptist minister and laborer, died shortly after her birth. This was followed by the loss of her mother and two of her seven siblings before she was 10 years old – yet somehow, Smith still found a way to celebrate life through performance.

Smith sang and danced on the streets of Chattanooga with one of her brothers and was performing in minstrel shows by the age of 18. It wasn’t long before Columbia Records discovered the “Empress of the Blues,” signing a contract that would ignite music for generations to come.

Bessie Smith recorded and toured tirelessly around the country and the world, attracting fans in every city she graced. She performed with the likes of the great Louis Armstrong and sold her albums with rapid-fire abandon, becoming the highest paid black performer of the time.

Her career ebbed and flowed with the times of 20th century America, thriving in the 1920s and steadily pressing forward through the 1930s. Tailoring her blues to the sounds of the jazz era, Smith was the portrait of a professional until her tragic premature death in an auto accident in 1937. She was buried in Philadelphia at Mount Lawn Cemetery, her funeral attended by thousands of fans.

 

dorothypattenBroadway Actress • Dorothy Patten • 1905-1975 

The darling of Chattanooga society at the turn of the century, Coca-Cola heiress Dorothy Patten was the kind of woman who worked because she wanted to. Beautiful, wealthy, and well-educated, she had the world at her fingertips as a young woman of the roaring ‘20s – and she was inspired to live her glamorous life to the fullest in the bright lights of Broadway.

Upon graduating from Girls Preparatory School in 1922  she jet-setted off to New York City where she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art.  The budding young actress auditioned for Broadway productions day after day until landing a gig in 1929 as Penelope in Elizabeth the Queen, the first of more than 30 roles she would play on Broadway.

Acting wasn’t the only capacity in which Patten served the theatre community in New York. In partnership with other actors, she had a hand in the founding of the Group Theatre of New York, which established a dynamic, naturalistic approach to theatre, paving the way for New York’s current-day Actors Studio.

Patten’s role as a patron of the arts continued throughout her life, following her back home to Chattanooga during World War II. Here in town she was closely involved with the Chattanooga Symphony, the Chattanooga Opera, and the Chattanooga Art Association. Today, her legacy lives on through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Dorothy Patten Fine Arts Series.

 

VirginiaMartinComedic Actress  • Virginia Martin • 1927-2009    

It was 1963 when Virginia Martin was nominated for her Tony Award, marking the apex of a long and lustrous career in entertainment.  But it was her performance as Hedy La Rue in the first-ever Broadway cast of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that first earned her rave reviews.

“The Chattanooga, Tenn., miss fills a dress with stunning effect and sings with devastating dexterity,” wrote AP drama critic William Glover of her glittering performance. “Her voice spans three octaves … and has power approximating the full-throated majesty of an ocean liner’s horn.”

Such became the legacy of Martin, a native of Chattanooga and graduate of UTC. After receiving her diploma, Martin made her way to Manhattan where she took her first Broadway role as Ensign Noonan in South Pacific. A wealth of other onstage roles followed, including chorus parts in The Pajama Game and Ankles Aweigh, an understudy part for the lead role of Irene Lovelle in the musical, Say, Darling, and her critically acclaimed performance as Young Belle Poitrine in Neil Simon’s Little Me.

In total, Virginia Martin spent two decades on Broadway, meanwhile earning some time on television as well. The actress appeared in several episodes of Bewitched as Charmaine Leach.

A longtime member of Highland Park Baptist Church, Martin passed away in her hometown at the age of 82. Her success in theatre and television has served as true inspiration for young thespians throughout Chattanooga.

 

AnnePattonInternational Harpist • Anne Lee Patton • 1905-2001 

“I’ve always wanted to play the harp,” said Anne Lee Patton in a 1958 publication of the Washington Afro-American newspaper. “And after a harrowing experience a couple of years ago, I became more determined than ever.”

A black woman who paved the way for artists to come, Patton had a resolve that carried her far through her career as a musician. A graduate of the Cadek Conservatory of Music, she mastered the art of performance through poetry and music, taking her talent internationally to locales including Africa, Europe, South America, and the Soviet Union in the middle and latter parts of the 20th century.

Patton’s instrument of choice was a six-foot Lyon & Healy harp coated with 24-carat gold – a beauty she called “Queen Anne.”As she played, she was known to recite poetic verse, her music and lyrics inspired by African-American spirituals and contemporary Black themes.

When she was not busy playing breathtaking music – “[She] would make music that would take you away from the cares of any day,” one author wrote –  Patton worked hard to build and decorate the exquisite home she shared with her husband, Dr. Levi Patton. Located in the historic Missionary Ridge neighborhood, the limestone house exudes French Colonial elegance. It has been showcased in the pages of glossy magazines and was even featured on HGTV in 2008.

 

GraceMooreMovie Star • Grace Moore • 1898-1947    

A true luminary of opera and film, Grace Moore embodied superstardom in every sense of the word. Born in East Tennessee in 1898, Moore was the daughter of Tessie and Richard Moore – the merchant who would come to own Chattanooga department store Loveman’s in the 1930s.

Moore crafted a sweet and haunting sound that would rocket her to the stages of New York City and earn her the nickname “the Tennessee Nightingale.” In the Big Apple she took on a number of distinguished roles at the Metropolitan Opera House, including the part of Micaela in Carmen and Marguerite in Faust.

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling for the Southern beauty, who would go on to star in musical films such as One Night of Love (1934), I’ll Take Romance (1937),  and When You’re in Love (1937). Shortly following the release of One Night of Love, she performed a concert in Chattanooga that drew over 4,000. Moore euphoria was so strong at that time that the mayor even declared an official “Grace Moore Week.”

Moore was known to appear in concerts between operatic performances and performed for U.S. occupation forces stationed in Austria and Germany during World War II.  Like so many brilliant people who died too young, she was killed in a tragic plane crash in Denmark in 1947– the day after a performance that drew a crowd of 4,000. By her own wishes, she is buried beside her father in Chattanooga’s Forest Hills Cemetery.

 

SallyCruteSilent Motion Picture Actress  • Sally Crute • 1886-1971 

Born in Chattanooga in 1886 as Sally Kirby, Sally Crute possessed a flair for theatrics that drew her to acting at an early age. A bombshell with a confident command of her audience, Crute launched her acting career on the stage before making her way to a new and captivating medium: silent film.

Possessing a striking, almost dangerous beauty, Crute was a natural fit for the silver screen. Employing her good looks and charisma, she expertly built a career in the American film industry with Edison Studios, an American motion picture production company.

Crute was notoriously good at playing femme fatales, widows, and vamps. For the 1915 film In Spite of All, she became a celebrated dancer with magnetic appeal. That same year, she transformed herself into a no-nonsense newspaper professional in the film In Her Vocation.

In total, Crute starred in over 80 silent films during the period between 1912 and 1926. Her last film, Tin Gods (1926), was made right at the advent of sound. “The Chattanooga-born actress spent most of her screen time playing the ladies who did the wrongdoing,” wrote film scholar John T. Soister of Crute. “[She] gives a particularly vivid impersonation of the woman of the world.”

 

KatherineRahtBroadway, Radio, and TV Star • Katherine Raht • 1901-1983     

Hometown girl Katherine Raht was destined to be a classic Southern debutante—or so her family may have thought. History shows Raht had her own plans for the future. She took on a career in education upon her graduation from Bryn Mawr College before shifting gears again to pursue acting in New York.

A great fan of Thornton Wilder, Raht tirelessly pursued a part in the first-ever Broadway production of Our Town (1938). Her singing ability helped her land a part in the chorus as well as an understudy role for the part of Mrs. Gibbs – a kindly, motherly character that would set the tone for her later roles.

When the play wrapped up and was taken on tour, Raht was chosen to play the role she had come to know so well as an understudy.  That was when she caught the attention of Clifford Goldsmith, the creator of radio comedy The Aldrich Family (1939-1953). A few auditions later she was cast as the understanding mother of protagonist Henry Aldrich, a character who, as one writer put it, “tries to cope with the antics of her irrepressible [son].”

Following her celebrated role on The Aldrich Family, Raht starred in television productions including A Doll’s House (1959) as the nurse Anne Marie, Children of Strangers (1959) as Mrs. Fuller, and Cradle Song (1960) as Sister Inez.

 

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