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Husky-Voiced Singer Debuted at 6 : Beatrice Kay, 79, the 'Gay '90s Girl,' Dies

November 10, 1986|TED THACKREY JR. | Times Staff Writer

Beatrice Kay, whose husky-voiced rendition of turn-of-the-century ballads made her famous as the "Gay '90s Girl" in radio and later in Las Vegas, died Saturday at a nursing home in North Hollywood.

She was 79 and had been in ill health since suffering a series of strokes that began seven years ago.

Four times married and divorced, she had no living relatives. Memorial services will be private.

Veteran of vaudeville, silent and talking pictures, the legitimate stage, records, radio and television, she was one of the first night club headliners to play Las Vegas, becoming a fixture for years at the old El Rancho Vegas, and appearing later at the Sahara, Thunderbird and other hotels.

Radio Show

Though her career began before World War I, she became best known to national audiences as the "soubrette" of the "Gay Nineties Hour," a long-running feature of the CBS radio network during the 1940s.

Hannah Beatrice Kuper was born April 11, 1907, in New York City to parents who encouraged her to become a performer at an early age.

She was 6 years old when she made her first professional appearance in the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy with Col. McCauley's Stock Company in Louisville, Ky., and a year later toured the country with the "Daintytown" company, dancing on her toes and waving American flags.

"When things like that happen to you before you're 10 years old," she told a friend many years later, "you can do or say or think anything you want to, but you are permanently addicted to show business and you will never really quit.

"Heaven knows, I didn't."

Chooses Name

Originally billed as Honey Kuper and later as Honey Day, she had settled on the name Beatrice Kay by the time she made her first motion picture, doubling for Madge Evans in a silent film at the old Fort Lee, N.J., studios.

She later moved back to the stage, appearing with Chauncey Olcott, Richard Bennett and Helen Morgan in a Broadway production of "Sweet Adeline."

The style that finally made her nationally famous, however, did not emerge until 1938, when she opened at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe night club.

"I didn't know any Gay '90s songs when I went to audition for Mr. Rose," she told interviewer Kevin Thomas many years later. "He told me to come back with a bunch of old songs, but none of them were old enough to suit him.

'Belted It Out'

"I sang 'Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom De-Ay' for him, but he didn't like the way I sang it, which made me angry, so I just belted it out." And became a star.

The husky voice belting out the well-remembered lyrics to such works as "Oceana Roll," "The Strawberry Blonde," "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage," "My Mother Was a Lady" and "Make a Noise Like a Hoop and Just Roll Away!" established her once and for all as the 20th Century's premiere singer of '90s songs.

"The Beatrice Kay Show" replaced Fred Allen on network radio one summer, and led to network stardom on the "Gay Nineties Hour" during the regular season. During this period she also began making records for Columbia and RCA, one of which, "Mention My Name in Sheboygan," sold 12 million copies. Her last album, "Living in the Sunshine" is now a collectors' item.

She appeared with Betty Grable in the film "Diamond Horseshoe," and with Cliff Robertson in "Underworld, U.S.A.," and was a frequent television guest star with Rosemary Clooney, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and George Gobel," and had dramatic roles in such long-running television series as "Bonanza" and "Hawaiian Eye."

Voice of Sister Sue

She also was the voice of Sister Sue in the animated television series, "Calvin and the Colonel."

A nightclub headliner throughout the world, she toured Europe (starring at the Moulin Rouge in Paris) appeared at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and Ciro's on the Sunset Strip, and made two highly successful tours of Australia, where her style appeared to be especially popular.

Nevada appearances finally led her to open her own guest ranch, the Lazy BK, outside Reno, which was successful for many years, but later involved her in extremely expensive business problems.

She left Nevada in the 1960s and moved to Hollywood where she lived in semi-retirement for a time with her aged mother. But a fire in the early 1970s wiped out all her possessions, her mother died the year after the fire and Beatrice Kay went back to work, appearing at the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica until incapacitated by her first stroke.

Yet, she was not forgotten.

Impersonators had begun to mimic her throaty, distinctive song stylings long before her illness--and are still doing so.

"Someone asked me if I minded that," she said in an interview more than a decade ago, "and I couldn't help laughing. You know you've really arrived when they start doing impressions of you. It's a kind of fame that lasts longer than you do.!"

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