Irene Manning, 91; Lyric Soprano Was Best Known for Roles in Film Musicals

Times Staff Writer

Irene Manning, an elegantly beautiful blond lyric soprano best known for her roles in the 1940s film musicals "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "The Desert Song," has died. She was 91.

Manning, whose married name was Hunter, died of congestive heart failure May 28 at her home in San Carlos, Calif., said her stepdaughter, Peggy Shafer.

The classically trained singer was billed as Hope Manning when she made her film debut as Gene Autry's nightclub singer love interest in the 1936 Republic horse opera "The Old Corral."

Manning had two other Republic films to her credit when she was signed to a contract at Warner Bros. in the early 1940s. By then, she had played leading roles with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and others, including appearing opposite the popular operatic baritone John Charles Thomas, with whom she made a series of Gilbert and Sullivan light opera recordings.

At Warner Bros., Manning most notably played a supporting role as turn-of-the-century Broadway star Fay Templeton in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the 1942 musical-drama starring James Cagney as the legendary George M. Cohan. Manning sang three songs in the film: "Mary's a Grand Old Name," "45 Minutes From Broadway" and "So Long, Mary."

She also appeared opposite Dennis Morgan in "The Desert Song," a 1943 musical based on the Sigmund Romberg operetta; co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 crime-drama "The Big Shot"; and appeared in "Shine On, Harvest Moon," a 1944 musical starring Morgan and Ann Sheridan.

"The quality that Irene Manning had was that of a patrician beauty with an exquisite singing voice," said Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical.

But, he said, Manning's "more elegant, more reserved" on-screen persona was out of sync during the war years, when audiences tended to prefer "young girls who were perky and more accessible in some fashion," such as Betty Grable.

"I think that may be why she didn't catch on a little bit more," Kreuger said.

Indeed, by the end of 1945, Manning's contract days at Warners Bros. were over.

The youngest of five children, she was born Inez Harvuot in Cincinnati on July 17, 1912.

In a 2003 interview with the movie publication Classic Images, she recalled: "From the time I was a little girl, I loved to sing. I was always singing. In fact, I was found singing in my sleep when I was 2. Our next-door neighbors heard me and told my mother. They went upstairs and I was singing 'The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia' in my sleep."

Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 10, and after graduating from Los Angeles High School, she studied voice on a scholarship at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Manning, who appeared as herself in the 1944 film "Hollywood Canteen," toured the United States and England with her own four-woman USO unit during the war.

While in England, she recorded four songs in German, including "Begin the Beguine" and "Mary's a Grand Old Name," with Glenn Miller's Army Air Forces Band.

The songs, which were recorded for the Office of War Information a month before Miller disappeared over the English Channel on Dec. 15, 1944, were broadcast between propaganda announcements to German troops on the BBC's "The German Wehrmacht Hour."

"She was a dear lady," said Ed Polic, a historian who interviewed Manning for his 1989 book, "The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band," and kept in touch with her.

Manning's operatic voice "is not the kind of voice you'd use normally with a dance band," Polic said, "but she comes through very well" in the four recordings, which are included on the RCA two-CD set "Glenn Miller ... The Lost Recordings."

In late 1945, after leaving Warner Bros., Manning opened on Broadway as one of the leads in Lerner and Loewe's "The Day Before Spring," after which she resumed playing leading roles in civic light opera productions.

She made her London stage debut in the musical "The Dubarry" in 1947, followed by a tour of English music halls in a variety act, as well as appearing in a couple of other stage productions. She also hosted her own BBC television show, "An American in England," in 1951.

When she returned to the United States, she did nightclub work and appeared on "Playhouse 90" and other top TV dramatic anthology shows before winding down her show business career in the 1960s.

Talked into coming out of retirement in the early '70s, she starred in "Mame" and several other musicals in Bay Area theaters throughout the decade.

And for many years, she was a vocal teacher and mentor to local singers.

Her fourth husband, Maxwell W. Hunter II, was one of the world's leading rocket designers and space engineers, who helped design Nike, Thor and other missiles during the Cold War. He died in 2001, after 37 years of marriage.

"This man did so much," Manning told The Times after her husband's death. "I only made people happy being a movie star, but he changed the world."

In addition to Shafer, of Pleasanton, Calif., Manning is survived by four other stepchildren, Matt Hunter of Los Angeles, Sally Wiley of Evanston, Ill., and David and Max Hunter III, both of Hollidaysburg, Pa.; and five step-grandchildren.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction Manning obituary -- The obituary of singer and actress Irene Manning in Saturday's California section said she made a series of Gilbert and Sullivan light opera recordings with popular operatic baritone John Charles Thomas. Those recordings were not released commercially. Also, a photo caption said Manning played Madina in "The Chocolate Soldier," which she performed in 1941 with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. The character's name is Nadina.
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