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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Radio's Exotic Personality
By Cort Vitty © 2014
(From Radio Recall, April 2014)
The Niesen family of Brooklyn New York attended a performance of You Said It, a popular show on Broadway in 1931. The production starred Lyda Roberti, a talented musical comedy performer. The Niesen's teenage daughter Gertrude was mesmerized by the experience; she became enamored with Roberti and subsequently spent countless hours learning to perfectly mimic the mannerisms, vocal style and accent of the Polish star.
Gertrude (aka Gertie, Gert and Trudy) was born on July 8, 1911, in Brooklyn. Her parents, Monte and Anita, were of Swedish and Russian descent. Early in her career, stories prevailed about Gertrude's birth at sea, while her parents returned from vacation; she later refuted the story as an interesting tale she perpetuated for publicity.
Gertrude attended Brooklyn Heights Seminary School, where studies included piano and opera lessons. During leisure time, she enjoyed swimming, tennis and horseback riding. She also played stickball in the streets and fished with her dad, who insisted she learn to bait her own hook. The early competitiveness made her comfortable with people and not afraid to stand on her own two feet.
At a party given in her home, Gertrude entertained guests by doing a perfect imitation of Roberti. Friends applauded and hinted at a possible future in show business. Gertrude thought, "why not" and after completing her studies, decided to begin a career search. She thumbed through the city directory, tearing out pages and systematically plotting visits to booking agents in Manhattan.
Realizing agents could be intimidating, Niesen decided to take a very nonchalant approach during the process. Rather than demurely asking about job opportunities, the young singer capped an attitude and calmly insisted: "she wanted a job." When asked about performance history she'd reply, "I'm a singer, I do impersonations." An agent took her information, indicating he'd call back. Gertrude left thinking her career chances were over.
Two weeks later, the phone rang and an audition was scheduled. In addition to Roberti, her arsenal of impersonations included Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Etting, Lupe Velez and Kate Smith. Impersonations were rare among female performers and presented an opportunity for Niesen, who was offered $100 a week to appear at a vaudeville house.
Up to this point, her show business aspirations were kept a secret from her parents. After communicating the news, the Niesen's were adamant that a vaudeville career was not a consideration for their daughter. Thoughtful negotiations ensued and slowly, she convinced her parents to agree; they finally allowed her to accept the offer - with the stipulation that her dad would serve as manager.
A Rudy Vallee henchman attended an early performance and reported her talent for impersonations to the boss. Vallee intervened and ultimately offered Niesen an opportunity to guest on his program in 1932. It was the break of a lifetime for the young singer. She practiced night and day - becoming so good -- that one evening a veteran reviewer, tuning in late, actually reported Marlene Dietrich was singing Falling in Love Again. The red-faced scribe learned the next day that it was actually a Gertude Niesen impersonation.
Aware of a developing radio trend, Niesen wisely started shifting away from impersonations, opting instead to perform songs in the torchy "blues style" of the day. The combination of her rich contralto voice, along with alluring good looks and nonchalant attitude, led Vallee to call her "the exotic personality of the air." Her popularity soared while performing on his highly rated show.
Gertrude next accepted $185 a week to perform at the prestigious 300 Club in New York. By now, booking agents generally dubbed her "La Niesen" based on the indifferent attitude she regularly exhibited. On opening night, she assumed her La Niesen persona as a way to combat an extreme case of stage freight. The performance, ultimately laced with that air of confidence, made her appear to be a stage veteran, well beyond her years. Listening in the audience was a CBS executive, who went backstage and invited her to audition.
The day Gertrude auditioned at CBS, top executive William S. Paley, happened to be touring the studio. Uncharacteristically, he stopped in his tracks upon hearing her sing. She was soon hired to host a sustaining program, Songs by Gertrude Niesen, which premiered in 1933. Next, she costarred on The Big Show, starring Isham Jones and his orchestra. She then moved to The Voice of Columbia, hosted by George Jessel. By 1935, Niesen completely abandoned impersonations and had risen to become one of the top female singers on radio.
The 5' 4" songstress exercised each morning before breakfast (in pajamas) to maintain her weight. Her natural hair color, a dark reddish-brown, now become a rich golden color; her hairdo included stylish bangs in front, and bobbed in back; her green eyes were wide and sensuous. Although radio may have called her exotic, friends considered her "down to earth" and "a grand girl." Gertrude loved animals, keeping a menagerie of rabbits, a spitz, two Boston bulls, a cat and six goldfish. A sign posted at her residence read "Cotton-Tail Farm."
Her successful program on CBS in 1935 led to a yearlong stint with the St. Louis Municipal Opera. She next understudied for Ethel Merman on Broadway. In 1936, she was featured as a weekly guest star on Paducah Plantation, before securing a role in the Ziegfeld Follies, on Broadway in 1937. 1938 was spent in London, where she segued into musical comedy. She was back on radio with Good News in 1939.
Her film work included Start Cheering in 1938, Rookies on Parade in 1941 and He's My Guy in 1943. Gertrude admitted being fed up with the monotony of making motion pictures. The songstress remarked:" I didn't exactly fall in love with making pictures. It just isn't my field, I got fed up." Waiting hours for the director to yell, "cut" didn't match the applause of a live audience. Her 1948 appearance in The Babe Ruth Story was a cameo as a nightclub singer.
In July 1941, while vacationing in Newport with her mom, she inspected a run-down 55-room mansion called Rosecliff. Built in 1902, at a cost of 2 million dollars, Mrs. Anita Niesen later purchased the thirty-seven year old mansion for $21,000, as a birthday gift for her daughter. Life Magazine sent an entourage up to write a story about the purchase. Winter set in, and a frozen water main turned the house into a flooded mess. Gertrude understood the value of publicity and knew the purchase (and flood) were opportunities to use the media to her advantage. She sold the property a year later, earning a tidy thirty percent profit.
The advent of World War II provided Gertrude an opportunity to work tirelessly in support of the effort. In addition to visiting hospitalized service personnel, she was a favorite on Command Performance and a popular "pinup" among Gls. At one.time, her attractive back was insured for $50,000.
In April 1944, Gertrude got an opportunity at musical comedy, when she headlined the Broadway show, Follow the Girls. She rehearsed extremely hard and couldn't sleep the night before opening. It wasn't a case of jitters; it was an infected cut on the hand that kept her awake. Like the trooper she was, her adrenaline kicked in and she scored a major hit.
Gertrude was the only cast member without an understudy and she maintained her tireless work ethic by appearing in all 882 Broadway performances. Her costar was a not so well known (and not so rotund) Jackie Gleason. The signature production tune was her playful rendition of "I Wanna Get Married," which became one of the biggest hit records of 1945. She indeed got married -- in 1943 -- to Chicago businessman Albert Greenfield. During the original wartime run of Follow the Girls, Gertrude personally raised over $850,000 in war bond sales.
The (off-Broadway) version of the show continued to tour until 1946, eventually the total run exceeded 1,000 performances. After the show closed, Gertrude remained in demand, guest starring on radio and performing in the burgeoning new medium of television. Thanks to astute real estate investing, the wealthy couple enjoyed retirement, with Niesen content to make sporadic appearances at charity events. Gertrude passed away in Hollywood on March 27, 1975, after a long illness; she was survived by her husband.
Life Magazine, August 18, 1941 & April 4, 1944.
Radio Guide: June 11 , 1933; March 24, 1934; January 9, 1935.
Radioland: April 1934
Stagebill (Chicago .1946) - Follow The Girls.
The New York Times: April 23, 1944.
The Washington Post February 25, 1938.