This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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“O, SISTERS, WHERE ART THOU?”
by Lawrence Kandrach © 2011
(From Radio Recall, June 2011)
You’ve certainly heard of the Andrews Sisters. Depending on your age and your interests, you have likely heard of the Boswell, King, and McGuire Sisters. However, unless your very specific age and interests are lined up perfectly, you may well not have heard of the DeMarco Sisters. And yet, for a period from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s, they were among radio’s most recognizable female singing groups.
Considering how long it has been since the heyday of their career, that’s understandable. Likewise, as memories of this group have receded into the past, myths have been created to replace them. Among the most prominent of the myths relates to the number of sisters. While all recordings and written materials consistently reference the “Five Demarco Sisters”, the myth persists that there were up to seven! Not true! If nothing else, this author can definitively state that there were indeed only five, three of whom are deceased.
Antoinette (Anne) 11/01/1923 – 7/27/2004
Jeanette (Gina) 5/11/1925 –
Gloria 6/20/1928 – 8/01/1997
Marie Teresa (Terri) 9/29/1930 – 9/3/1999
Arlene 1/28/1933 –
There was also a brother, William, who, as the youngest sibling, escaped the limelight, if not the “protection” of six mothers. There were no other DeMarco children; however, possibly leading to the creation of this myth, there was a brief time at the end of their career as a group when replacements briefly entered the picture.
Other myths arise in relation to how they were “discovered” – and when. Unfortunately, the historical record remains somewhat fuzzy, due in part to the limited sources available and the poor quality of recollections recorded therein. This is especially true for the recollections of Anne DeMarco in Remembering Radio: An Oral History of Old-Time Radio by David S. Siegel. Anne’s informal reminiscences ramble over a period of decades and blend life’s realities from different eras in the group’s existence in a murky stew. However, after sifting through her memories as well as miscellaneous other sources, several things can be stated with some authority.
Yes, the DeMarco Sisters were (re-)discovered in an elevator by Gordon Jenkins in 1944. Yes, Irving Berlin followed up on this discovery, and interceded on their behalf to launch their (second) career. Yes, after Berlin arranged an audition for them with music director Al Goodman, they became a fixture on the Fred Allen Show from 1945 - 1949.
Yes, they did have a successful singing career on their own. This included nightclub appearances with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, and others as well as in their own act from 1951 through approximately 1957. It included television appearances on at least 10 series, spread out over the years 1948 – 1955. The most noteworthy, at least in terms of number of appearances, were The Ed Sullivan Show (perhaps as many as 26) and The Colgate Comedy Hour (at least 4, probably more). And, of course, they had a successful, if brief, recording career.
And, yes, they “crashed and burned” as a consequence of an internal family “falling out”. This, ironically, resulted from their one and only movie, Skirts Ahoy, starring Esther Williams (1952). It also starred Keefe Brasselle, whom Arlene fell in love with and later married (1956), an action her sister Anne recollects led to the direct, peremptory, and mercurial abandonment of the act by Arlene.
When the remaining sisters were unable to successfully replace her, they defaulted on a Las Vegas club contract and lost the ensuing lawsuit. Although this seems to have made them persona non grata on the club scene, they appear to have lost interest in carrying on either as a quartet or as a quintet with a non-family member, so the act folded.
Please note the qualifiers that I placed above regarding the discovery and career of the DeMarco Sisters. It seems that they experienced some success in the mid-1930s, but as a trio. Dates here too become fuzzy, but it appears that their father “arranged” an impromptu audition for the three oldest sisters in the lobby of NBC in 1934!
This resulted, during the next several years, in them making (mostly) single radio appearances on: 1) Uncle Charlie’s Tent Show (1934); 2) The Taystee Loafers with Billy Jones and Ernie Hare (1934); 3) Pick and Pat (1934-5); 4) Woodbury’s Musical Varieties with Paul Whiteman (May 24, 1936); 5) The Professional Parade (December 16, 1936); 6) The Maxwell House Show Boat (January 12, 1937); 7) Your Hit Parade (1937); and 8) Hobby Lobby (likely, 1937). Also, there is one recording credit for them appearing as vocalists on a rendition of “When A Woman Loves A Man” by the Eddy Duchin Orchestra in 1934.
Perhaps their most noteworthy appearances during this period were with Babe Ruth and Fred Allen. In the case of the former, they appeared in a 1937 Vitaphone short, Home run on the Keys, singing “On the Beach at Bali, Bali”. In the case of the latter, they appeared in a talent segment on the December 30, 1936 Town Hall Tonight program. Although they did not win, and apparently did not impress Fred Allen sufficiently to keep him from forgetting them for almost a decade. Moreover that 1936 program is most noteworthy in radio history as being the one that started the (in)famous Fred Allen – Jack Benny feud.
So what happened to the DeMarco Sisters between 1937 and 1944? Well, besides growing from three to five, we really do not know. There is some evidence that they continued to sing on an ad hoc basis, primarily one-night stands and/or, as described in some of their recollections, “on street corners for nickels”. Beyond that, the record – at least in so far as it is available without performing book-length investigative research and interviews - is silent.
That is not to say that there are not other interesting or important facts and observations relating to the DeMarco Sisters. For example, Terri married the late actor Murray Hamilton, who was a very recognizable and talented character actor. Arlene recorded several of her own songs, as well as, after a brief period on the New Jersey public welfare rolls, published novels in 1971 (Triangle) and 1975 (Make-Believe Children). Gloria also recorded several singles in the late 1950s. Additionally, both Arlene and Anne had children who entered show business, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Videos of the DeMarco Sisters’ appearances with Babe Ruth as well as on What’s My Line? (February 22, 1953) can be accessed on the internet. Also, two record compilations from the 1950’s are available, although this reviewer finds them rather unmemorable. These compilations, I should warn, although differing in title, sequence, and format (CD vs. MP3), both contain exactly the same 29 recordings.
Finally, here is my favorite anecdote arising from my research. In September 1952, Kate Smith was holding auditions for her television program. It was presumed that she would hire the DeMarco Sisters for at least one appearance. However, after she discovered how short these sisters were, she apparently decided against them because they would make her appear even taller than her natural 5’ 11” frame. However, when she auditioned the McGuire Sisters (fresh from their successful audition for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts”), she realized that they naturally stood 5’ 8” and were 5’ 11” with heels, so she hired them instead!
In conclusion, I would note that this article is by no means definitive. Clearly there are gaps, because gaps exist in the available data – something which readers are welcome to fill in through their own research. Further, since it appears two of the sisters may still be alive, it remains possible for some inspired researcher cum prospective author (not me!) to find and interview them before they, too, pass on.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lawrence Kandrach is a retired federal bureaucrat (DEA, SSA, NLRB) and Vietnam veteran who resides in Northern Virginia. He fondly remembers eating weeknight suppers during his youth with his parents in their blue-collar Cleveland, Ohio home while listening to "Lowell Thomas and the News" followed by "Amos 'n Andy". A member of the MWOTRC, he serves as a sub-librarian and is best known as the leader of "The Mumble Players", who provide background voices and render bit parts in the club's radio broadcast recreations.