Some of the Unsung Heroes of Radio

Photo of Martha Wentworth with characters she voiced for Disney animated films: Nanny, Queenie and Lucy in 101 Dalmatians and Madam Mim and Granny Squirrel in The Sword and the Stone
Martha Wentworth's characters from 101 Dalmatians (1961) and The Sword and the Stone (1963)

A salute to the unsung heroes of radio: the men and women whose voices were much more famous than their names. Those who specialized in dialects and impersonating children, ancients and even animals! Radio was a most magical medium -- one could never really be sure to whom any particular voice belonged. The crying baby was usually some shapely young actress, the little boy just might be some plump matron, and in real life the animals were always human, of course, and could be in either male or female form. Sometimes these funny female voices we heard really came from male bodies.

Let's begin with the baby voices. Pretty 20-year-old Shirley Bell Cox was one of the first actresses to specialize in child voices on the air. A native of West Virginia, she had once worked at an orphanage where she listened carefully to the wailing waifs and then duplicated the sounds. She supplied the crying baby voice on the early series Raising Junior.

Madeline Lee was born in Dallas, Texas, one October 28; the petite 5-foot-2 Lee began in radio playing a baby role. She did voices for both girls and boys. During 1930-32 her versatile voice was heard in various roles on The Cuckoo Hour with Raymond Knight. On the Henry Morgan Show she was heard in roles such as Mrs. Beethoven and Gerdrood. On November 23, 1937, she began a role for which she is best remembered: the sultry sounding Miss Genevieve Blue, secretary to Amos 'n Andy. Later she was heard as baby Wendy on The Second Mrs. Burton. In real life she is married to comedian Jack Gilford.

Madeleine Pierce was another radio crybaby who impersonated children of varying ages, such as the nine-month-old son of Front Page Farrell and the four-year-old granddaughter of Stella Dallas.

Dolores Gillen utilized her baby voice for both of the howling twins on Abbie's Irish Rose and Pepper Young's Family. She was also young Sammy Davis on When a Girl Marries.

Sara E. Fussell was yet another actress who made child's work out of children's roles. Her specialty was doing little boy voices. She played young Herbie Pettingill on the Snow Village Sketches. She was also featured on I Love a Mystery, The Right to Happiness and made appearances on The Goldbergs. She was heard as the voice of young Wiki on Just Plain Bill. She was also featured on such radio fare as The March of Time and Cavalcade of America. She retired in the late '50s and went to live at Friends Hall in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she died at the age of 61 in April 1978.

The role of Baby Snooks' little brother, Robespierre, was assigned to Leone Ledoux. She was als heard as Baby Dumpling on the Blondie show. On One Man's Family, Ledoux was kept quite busy supplying the voices for all three of the triplets -- Abigail, Deborah and Constance -- as well as the Barbours' first great-grandchild, Paul John Farnsworth.

Other actresses who specialized in children's voices were Wilda Hinkle, Zel DeCyr and, of course, Ireene Wicker, radio's beloved singing lady who was equally adept at playing old men.

An actor known as Captain James Rosen was a 44-year-old little person weighing 63 pounds and standing 3-foot-8 who frequently played child roles on the air. He had a 15-week run on the Bobby Benson Show. Born in Siberia, he came to the U.S. at the age of six months. He was a graduate of the University of Minnesota. He represented many fellow small performers as an agent.

Tommy Riggs was a ventriloquist of sorts, although he never used a dummy as part of his act. On the air he supplied the voice for his imaginary impish seven-year-old niece Betty Lou. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 26, 1909, he entered radio in 1928. Riggs once had his dual voice examined at the Cornell Medical College in New York City, where doctors explained that his dual voices were due to the unusual size and strength of his throat muscles. In later years Riggs had his own television show in Alabama, and then returned to his native Pittsburgh, where he was a disc jockey on station WCAE. He died at the age of 57 on May 21, 1967.

Actress Cecil Roy was known as the "Gal with 1,000 Voices" and was also called the "Cradle-to-Grave Lady" as she could imitate anyone with vocal chords. On one daily broadcast, she played 17 different roles -- including that of a dog! On Amanda of Honeymoon Hill she was heard as an old corncob-pipe smoking philosopher of the hills, Aunt Mazie.

Back in 1936 Elsie Mae Gordon was being billed as the "Girl of 100 Voices;" she was an imitator of most any animal sound -- cricket or cat, dog or frog. In 1944 she portrayed many roles on the Deadline Dramas program.

Martha Wentworth was known as the "female Lon Chaney of the Air." A master of vocal disguises, she was heard in hundreds of roles -- one of which was the grizzly old panhandler who constantly mooched cigarettes from Red Skelton on his program. An expert at 37 dialects, Wentworth was heard as Joe Penner's mother on his comedy series, and for a time was Old Nancy on The Witch's Tale. On the highly popular 1937 syndicated series The Cinnamon Bear, she was heard as the Wintergreen Witch. She was also active in films.

Harriette Widmer was born in Mississippi in 1893; she entered radio in 1930 playing in a sketch she wrote herself. Very active in radio in the '30s and early '40s, she was heard frequently on Grand Hotel and The First Nighter programs. Specializing in southern dialects, she was heard on The Sinclair Minstrels Show in 1936, and in 1936 played Madame Queen for Amos 'n Andy. During 1937-38 she was heard as Aunt Jemima in The Cabin at the Crossroads program for Quaker Oats. Also, she was featured on The Carters of Elm Street. In 1942 she was heard as Peggy, the elevator operator, on Lonely Women.

Charles K. Stumpf in Nostalgia Radio News, December 1978