Monica Lewis, who started her singing career as a teenage fill-in for Benny Goodman and later became familiar to millions as the playful voice for Chiquita Bananas, has died at her home in Woodland Hills.
Lewis died Friday of natural causes, her former publicist Alan Eichler said in a statement. She was 93.
Lewis’ career as a singer and performer spanned decades. She was a jazz singer, an inaugural performer on the Ed Sullivan show, a USO tour entertainer, a disaster flick actress and a pitchwoman, plugging products from Camel cigarettes to hosiery.
But her 14-year run starting in the mid-1940s as the voice of the Chiquita Banana – repetitively advising listeners not to keep the fruit in the refrigerator – pushed her into near-cult status. Chiquita Brands notes on its website that the jingle, at one point, was being played 376 times a day on radio stations across the country, a push to promote what was then still an exotic fruit.
Lewis revisited the Latin-flavored jingle in a 2007 segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
“It lasted 14 years,” Lewis said of the banana commercial in a 2013 interview with the Washington Post. “And it paid my rent for a long time.”
Lewis was born in Chicago on May 22, 1922. Her mother was an opera singer and her father a conductor. With the Depression bearing down on them, the family moved to New York when she was 11 and by the time she was 17, Lewis was performing at local clubs, despite being underage.
In her autobiography, “Hollywood Through My Eyes: The Lives & Loves of a Golden Age Siren,” Lewis wrote that it was jazz pianist Leonard Feather – later a Los Angeles Times jazz critic – who tipped her off that Benny Goodman had a pressing need for a singer after Peggy Lee ran off with the band’s guitarist.
During auditions, Lewis said that Goodman halted most of the aspiring replacements after just a few bars, but allowed her to complete an entire song.
“He said ‘OK kid, come back at 7:30 tonight,” Lewis told the Times in 2011.
But the gig with Goodman would be short-lived. Lewis’ parents felt she was too young to go on the road, and she quit the band, Eichler said.
Lewis continued to perform, appearing alongside Frank Sinatra and others. Her career stalled in the 1950s, however, when she signed a two-year deal at MGM. She made only two films and the studio seemed unsure how to market her.
“They wanted a threat,” Lewis told The Times. “A threat to Lana Turner. It was being in the right place at the wrong time.”
She later signed a recording contract with Capitol Records but found more lasting employment as an advertising pitchwoman. Lewis also appeared in guest roles in television shows like “Wagon Train,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Remington Steele.” She had roles in a string of disaster epics, from “Earthquake,” a 1974 film starring Charlton Heston, to “The Concorde – Airport ’79,” the last in a series of airport calamity films.
Lewis was among the performers profiled in the 2014 documentary short “Showfolk,” which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. She attended the premiere.
Lewis, whose husband, Jennings Lang, died in 1996, is survived by sons Rocky and Mike, and three grandchildren.