Penny Singleton, 95; Actress Played Blondie in 28 Movies, on Radio
Penny Singleton, best remembered as Blondie, the scatterbrained yet often sensible character she played in 28 movies from 1938 to 1950, died Wednesday at Sherman Oaks Hospital. She was 95.
She had suffered a stroke two weeks ago, said longtime friend Dick Sheehan.
Singleton was known to later generations as the voice of Jane Jetson in the cartoon movies and TV shows about the futuristic family. But she was most identified with her role as the wife of bumbling Dagwood Bumstead in the movies based on the popular comic strip created by Chic Young.
The family life of the Bumsteads and their children, Alexander (Baby Dumpling) and Cookie, along with their dog Daisy, involved humorous and numerous misunderstandings and mishaps concerning everything from Blondie’s efforts to get Dagwood’s job back (he was always getting fired, it seemed) to Blondie’s efforts to start a bakery business.
As Mrs. Bumstead, Singleton was constantly on call to her husband’s high-pitched, plaintive cry of “Blon-deeeeeee!”
Like the Andy Hardy and Charlie Chan movies of about the same era, the “Blondie” episodes brought audiences to movie houses two or more times a year.
“For a while there, Blondie was apt to turn up on the bottom half of the bill about every other time you went to the movies,” John Springer and Jack Hamilton wrote in “They Had Faces Then.”
Besides her movie role as Blondie, Singleton played the character on a popular radio program from 1939 to 1950. But by the time Blondie came to television for the first time in 1957, Singleton was almost 50, and the role went to the younger Pamela Britton.
Born Dorothy McNulty on Sept. 15, 1908, in Philadelphia, Singleton was the daughter of a newspaper typesetter. She began her career at the age of 7 singing songs at movie houses. She also performed in vaudeville as a child.
“I suppose it would be difficult for many people today to understand, but vaudeville was the most marvelous school for a child imaginable,” she told the Cincinnati Post in 1997.
She also was a talented gymnast whose coach thought she should try out for the Olympics, but by then she had earned money professionally and was not considered an amateur.
By the time she was a teenager, she was getting chorus girl and other small roles on Broadway, including doing a number with Jack Benny in a revue called “The Great Temptations.” By 1928, she had joined a road company of “Good News,” starring opposite Jack Haley. Back on Broadway, she sang two numbers with Haley -- “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “I Could Give Up Anything but You” -- in “Follow Thru.”
While in her 20s, she moved to Hollywood, appeared in a series of minor roles in better movies -- or sometimes better roles in minor movies -- and changed her name to Penny Singleton. She chose her first name because she had always saved pennies; Singleton was the name of her first husband, to whom she was married briefly.
Singleton had a role in the 1930 film version of “Good News” and in “After the Thin Man” (1936), one of the Nick and Nora Charles movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. In the latter, Singleton, playing saucy nightclub singer Polly Byrnes, delivers this line: “Hey, don’t call me illiterate -- my parents were married right here at City Hall!”
Singleton appeared in “Boy Meets Girl” (1938) and many other films.
By the time she was 30, she landed the role of Blondie. “I was thrilled but also surprised,” she told the Cincinnati Post in 1997. “I had been a brunet all my life.”
She quickly bleached her hair and went on to star opposite Arthur Lake, who played Dagwood, for the next dozen years for Columbia Studios.
The remarkable run of movies began with “Blondie” and included “Blondie on a Budget” (1940), in which budding actress Rita Hayworth had a role; “Blondie for Victory” (1942), “Blondie Hits the Jackpot” and the final film in the series, “Beware of Blondie” (1950). Only in 1944, a war year, was no “Blondie” movie released. None were shorter than 64 minutes nor longer than 75.
Besides Hayworth, many actors who later became well-known appeared with Singleton and Lake in supporting roles, including Robert Sterling, Bruce Bennett, William Frawley, Jimmy Durante, Zasu Pitts, Lloyd Bridges, Glenn Ford, Hans Conried and Anita Louise.
The regular characters besides the Bumsteads were Dagwood’s boss, J.C. Dithers, played by Jonathan Hale; the beleaguered mailman, Mr. Crumb, played by Irving Bacon (later mailmen were Eddie Acuff and Dick Wessel); and Daisy the dog, played by a series of cute canines. The Bumstead children were played by Larry Simms and Marjorie Kent (also known as Marjorie Ann Mutchie).
Robert Sparks, who became Singleton’s second husband and to whom she was married for 22 years until his death in 1963, produced some of the Blondie movies.
In his movie guide, critic Leonard Maltin said the first Blondies “were the best -- fresh and original, with many clever touches belying the fact that they were low-budget films.”
He said that by the mid-1940s, however, the movies had become formulaic.
After the Blondie franchise died out, Singleton went on the road with a nightclub act but became mostly inactive in Hollywood. She appeared in the film “The Best Man” in 1964 and, briefly in 1971, she replaced her old friend Ruby Keeler in “No, No Nanette” on Broadway. As children, Singleton and Keeler had gone to professional children’s school together in New York.
Singleton was the voice of Jane Jetson in the TV series “The Jetsons,” which began in 1962. She later worked on TV specials and a 1990 movie featuring the futuristic family, as well as a few guest appearances on other TV programs.
After “Blondie,” Singleton became active in labor unions, particularly the American Guild of Variety Artists, to which she was elected president in 1969.
In 1966, she was a leader in the strike to get better working conditions for Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes.
At the age of 88, Singleton said of her career, “I loved everything I did, big or small, it didn’t matter as long as it was fun and was pleasing to people.”
Singleton, who had lived in Sherman Oaks for many years, is survived by her daughters, Dorothy Henry of Sherman Oaks and Susan Sparks of Paris; two grandchildren, and a great-grandson.
Services will be Tuesday at St. Francis de Sales Church, 13370 Valleyheart Drive, Sherman Oaks. For information, call (818) 784-0105.