Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Jane, His Wife

When George O’Hanlon died in 1989, the headlines referred to George Jetson. In fact, when the rest of the main cast members of The Jetsons passed away, obituaries connected them to their work in cartoons. Except one.

Penny Singleton.

When she passed away in 2003, newspapers mourned the death of Blondie.

Of all the major Hanna-Barbera voice actors during the studio’s first number of years, Singleton was the one who had the biggest on-camera career. For over a decade, she starred in Columbia’s rather pedestrian B series of pictures based on the Blondie comic strip. Then television came along and the movies were shown all over again; every weekend for years some station would be playing Blondie.

But Singleton had a career before Blondie. In fact, she had a career before becoming Penny Singleton. We’ve pulled out some yellowed news items about some of Hanna-Barbera’s voice actors before, but we haven’t talked about Singleton. So with Jane Jetson’s 50th birthday coming up this month, let’s do it now.

Penny was known in vaudeville by her birth name, Dorothy McNulty. She used it when she first got into movies. Here’s an Oakland Tribune story dated April 25, 1937.

Dorothy Writes Nursery Rhymes And Likes to Recall World War
Her hobby is writing nursery rhymes and her favorite childhood memory is—the world war!
She has sung in opera, danced in musical comedy and written a motion picture scenario.
Postmaster General James A. Farley is her uncle, but she’s never met him.
Dorothy McNulty.
You’ll remember her as the dancing hotcha singer in “After the Thin Man.”
The East remembers her as a dancer in such musical comedy hits as “Good News” and “Follow Through.”
Chicago remembers her as the hazel-eyed girl with red-brown hair who sang “Mimi” in “La Boheme” for the Chicago Civic opera.
Vaudeville remembers her for her act with Jack Benny.
And M-G-M remembers her as the “hurry up girl.” For Dorothy left New York City at 8
p. m. one night by plane, arrived in Hollywood at 9:30 the next morning and was working on the
“After the Thin Man” set by 2:30 that afternoon.
You can’t say Dorothy shows partiality to any one studio. She made the “Thin Man” sequel for M-G-M, sold her scenario to Universal, and next appears in the Walter Wanger production, “Vogues of 1938.”
Some of her nursery rhymes appeared in book form under the name of “Penny Singleton.”
At M-G-M, Dorothy filled out a biographical questionnaire.
She stated she had lived in “practically every state in United States, and England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and Hollywood” — she’s the daughter of Newspaper Man Bernard Joseph McNulty.
Her favorite animals, she wrote, are “dogs and birds,” her favorite reading matter, “love stories—history,” and her favorite screen role, “Polly” in “After the Thin Man,” (her first and ONLY role at the time).
Where the questionnaire asks “military record, if any,” Dorothy proudly wrote:
“Mascot of Women’s Welfare Workers during war.”
And that helps to explain the dancing poet whose favorite childhood memory is the world war.

Here’s a syndicated story that appeared in papers starting October 11, 1937 about the name change. It’s missing one vital bit of information.

By Robbin Coons

Hollywood — When picture roles failed to keep Dorothy McNulty busy enough. Penny Singleton was born.
The McNulty name has been listed in film casts rarely, considering the excellence of her performances, but the name of Penny Singleton has been appearing fairly regularly under fiction, verse and nursing rhymes in national magazines.
Today Dorothy McNulty and Penny Singleton are merged—under the latter name—into one personality.
Penny Singleton, film actress and author, is a bright-eyed, bright-faced girl about to go places in pictures and behind the typewriter.
“I’ve had such good luck as Penny Singleton in my writing that I’m using the name in pictures,” she says.
On the stage since she was nine, Dorothy McNulty gained fame in musical comedy, more recently appeared in dramatic and comic roles, but her film career has been topsy-turvy.
First Writing Accepted
Last season she was a hit in the film “After the Thin Man,” but nothing mere happened. She thinks it was because she played a character, a “type,” and the studios could see her in no other roles.
“But that’s Hollywood,” she says. “I wouldn’t do that role again, so I didn’t work.”
She hammered the typewriter instead. Just because when one wrote something one sent it to an editor, she mailed her first manuscript and it was accepted. She was overwhelmed.
“Especially,” she says, “because it was something I’d done all by myself. In pictures we have make-up artists, directors, cameramen, sound men, all sorts of help on every performance.
But at the typewriter you play solo. It’s a thrill.”
Does a Mean Tap
Writing, however, continues just a hobby with her. She intends to get to the top in pictures. First real step in this direction, she thinks, is the lead in “Swing Your Lady,” which gives her opportunity to sing, dance and clown as well as act. She has a lilting, twinkling personality, a nice voice and nimble, shapely legs—freckled—that tap a mean routine.
She has no intention of writing a novel.
“I went through only the sixth grade in school," she says ruefully. “Took a course in Columbia university later, which served to make me realize how little I knew—especially about the English language. I’ve been studying it ever since, but if I studied a million years I think I wouldn’t be able to write and speak the kind of English I’d like to. I’m afraid I’d be bogged down in a novel. But I have lots of ideas for stories and pictures—and I’m trying to write those.”
Her present literary undertaking is a book of health rhymes for children.

Dorothy McNulty picked “Singleton” because she was dating Dr. L. Scroggs Singleton. They eloped October 15, 1937 (thanks to Louella Parsons for the info on that). They divorced December 13, 1939; Penny cried in court as she related how her husband was drunk and abused her (United Press and Los Angeles Times reports). By then, the woman who refused to get typed in the movies was now in a role that she’d play for the next 11 years on film and in radio. Unlike many other radio shows, Blondie didn’t quite make the transition to TV. There were two aborted attempts—co-star Arthur Lake tried to get his wife in the title role in one of them—then finally a series in 1957 and another a decade later. None succeeded. None had Penny Singleton. The bland old movies did. TV viewers couldn’t get enough of them.

Despite her popularity, it’s a wonder Hanna-Barbera hired her for the role of Jane Jetson (after giving it to, and taking it away from, Pat Carroll). Singleton became the one thing Hollywood hates—a disturber of dung. In 1959, she got sued after going on the Mutual Broadcasting System and calling Actors’ Union exec Jackie Bright, a “dime store Hoffa.” About the time she landed the Jetsons’ role, she was at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. where she, as the Associated Press put it, “bitterly accused paid officials of the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) today of conniving with night club owners to degrade and exploit run-of-the-mine exotic dancers and other entertainers.” The testimony came two months after yet another defamation lawsuit against her. She counter-sued. No doubt the pay cheque from Hanna-Barbera came in handy.

This AP story of March 16, 1964 explains what happened.

Penny Singleton vindicated
AP Movie-Television Writer

HOLLYWOOD (AP)— It all started because Penny Singleton wanted to drop in on a convention to meet some vaudevillians.
Several years ago the famed Blondie of 44 movies and 12 years of radio was asked to attend the annual convention of the American Guild of Variety Artists at Disneyland. That is the union for variety, night-club, carnival, etc. performers, and Penny thought it would be fun to meet some of the troupers she had known as a child.
“So I went,” she says, “and I had a great time seeing Smith and Dale and all the oldtimers.”
She didn’t know that the chance event was to bring her six years and 19 days of personal hell.
Her ordeal ended Feb. 27 when she was reinstated to the AGVA board and given $15,000 in settlement of her claims against the union. Recently widowed, she is now of necessity turning back to her career. Her
first engagement is a “Twilight Zone,” which will appear on CBS April 3.
After Penny’s visit to the Disneyland convention, she was asked to run for member of the national board of AGVA. She did and scored the highest vote in the union’s history.
* * *
“I went to New York for the installation,” she recalled, “and that was when I began to think something was awry. I listened to a lot of business being presented, and I didn't know what they were talking about.
“But I did notice that two of the officers presented different sets of figures concerning the same matter. I timidly began to ask questions. Then the administration moved in on me.”
Despite a growing feud with administrative officers, Penny advanced in the AGVA hierarchy and even served one term as president in 1958-59. The charges and counter-charges grew in intensity, and she was suspended from the union, thus depriving her of the ability to work as a variety performer.
In 1961 AGVA began to come under the scrutiny of Sen. John J. McClellan's permanent subcommittee on investigations.
Highly publicized hearings were held in 1962 at which Penny and others testified. Allegations of collusion and corruption within the union were made.
The committee’s report in 1963 concluded that AGVA “not only has not defended the rights of its members but, in many cases has operated against their interests.”
Last month Penny accepted reinstatement and the $15,000 rather than pursue her case for damages.
“I’m alone now, and I need the money,” she said.

This wasn’t the end of Penny’s activism. In 1966, she organised a strike by the famous Rockettes against the Radio City Music Hall. In 1974, she had to get a court order to be allowed into her union office after a disputed election. Eventually she carried on with her stage career, replacing Ruby Keeler on Broadway in 1971 in “No, No, Nanette” (Keeler reportedly told Singleton not to sit in the audience when she was performing). And any time the newspapers talked to her, the stories always included the word “Blondie.” Jane who?

I’ve found one lonely little story where Singleton was asked about her cartoon career. The Knight-Ridder News Service buried it near the end of a story on, well, you can guess.

Millions of kids have grown up listening to Singleton. She has been the voice of Jane Jetson on TV series “The Jetsons” since 1962.
“A friend of my husband (producer Robert Sparks) suggested I’d be just right for Jane," Singleton said. “It was a whole new world to me. I had never done a voice-over before. I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Interestingly, Janet Waldo has a similar tale; she had never done animation until the role of Judy Jetson was suggested to her by her agent. Like Singleton, Janet had the title role on a radio show, “Meet Corliss Archer.” She says about her TV mom:

Penny and I loved each other. I don’t believe we’d ever met before The Jetsons.

You know, Penny and I had voices in the same register and I was always trying to get her to go lower, but she’d say ‘No, no, because we’re mother and daughter, it’s okay if we sound alike.’ But then I went higher. And the higher I went, the higher she went. But Joe Barbera never questioned us about that, he never picked on us about our voices being too close.

Penny never said “robot.” She always said “ro-butt.” And Joe Barbera would correct her and she would continue to say “ro-butt.” So I think he just finally gave up.

Comparisons have been made—and not while the show was in first run that I recall—between The Jetsons and the Blondie series. Other than the presence of Singleton and an overbearing boss character, there isn’t too much about them that’s alike. Unlike Blondie, few of the plots revolve around Jane, the driving school and beauty pageant cartoons being exceptions (and though Singleton could sing, I doubt that’s her belting out the wincingly-named “Bill Spacely” in the “Miss Solar System” episode). And George Jetson isn’t as much of a boob as the movie version of Dagwood Bumstead. If you want to hear Penny sing, click HERE.

Penny Singleton died in 2003 at the age of 95. Her time on screen was spent in B movies and cartoons, usually considered lesser forms of film. But there’s no denying she entertained millions of people. And still does, if you watch someone trying to learn how to drive a flying car.


  1. Related: I find it great that Billy West says "ro-butt" when he does Dr. Zoidberg's Yiddishe voice but says "robot" the usual way for Fry and all of his other character voices.

  2. I LOVED the "Blondie" movies - funny, funny, funny!! I loved them even more when AMC (when AMC meant "American Movie Classics") showed them in the 1990s with their original COLUMBIA beginning and end titles!! Penny Singleton was a beautiful lady and a great talent. To me, she will always be remembered for both characters!!

  3. They drag a bit for me, Bart. But it was a popular series and I imagine it only ended because of the advent of television and its effect on the movie industry.

  4. Couldn't warm up to "Baby Dumpling" .... but I always enjoyed Penny .. thanks for a great article.

  5. I've heard a number of actors that were in the biz around Penny's time also say; " Ro-Butt ". Just like both Lon Chaney Jr., and Alan Hale Jr., say " Sa-Fairy " for Safari in various films. Go figure. Thanks for the blog on Penny Singleton. An interesting person and life to say the least.

  6. Penny Singleton was the only one who was the star of a film as far as on camera work is considered;

    Alan Reed have significant roles as blackmailer Ezra Liam Kennedy in ''The Postman Always Rings Twice'', Pancho Villa in ''Viva Zapata'' and as criminal Sally the Tomato in ''Breakfast at Tiffany's' and he was also a regular on multiple television series.
    Allen Jenkins was a sough after supporting player in films of the 1930s and 1940s. Ditto for Janet Waldo. Marvin Kaplan had made several film roles, one for which he received excelent review (''The Reformer and the Redhead''), while Arnold Stang despite the fact that he was more famous for television than with films, Top Cat did have a significant role in ''The Man With The Golden Arm'' As for Howard Morris just as he was starting at Hanna-Barbera, he had appeared in the MGM hit ''Boys Night Out''.

  7. And your point?

    I suppose I could have a ten-page post of credits of every single Hanna-Barbera player but it doesn't have any bearing on what was posted.

  8. Enjoyed the article, Yowp..thanks. Penny SIngleton is one of thew few who seemed to have voiced ONLY ONE chartacter, was a long running-1 year in 1962, then several more in 1985-87--one....and anorher thing,..,she was the namesake of the goofy teenage character Penny Pingleton in the movies nd Broadway musical "Hairspray" which takles place in 1962, the same time the Jetsons aired originally, and itself is pretty cartoony.
    Janet Waldo really understated soimething...not ONLY did she and Penny have same register voice, but *and she seemed to suggest this facv and it's true) they sounded nearly ALIKE!

    I remem bver watching "THe Flying Lesson": one and when the cowardly instructor is with Jane, who seems NOT afriad of flying/driving..Jane sounds Almost LIKE Judy!

    Yeah,it's an odd coincidence that the two gals did no cartoons till the Jetsons,an irony defnitely, although Janet did narrate a series of Barbie ads (using the Capitol sotkc cues that H-B would drop right before the 1961062 season, but that;ds another story). And of course both women highlighted radio shows. Ironic that, apparnetly, Singleton and Waldo never did voice son radio together. BTW As for Waldo not voicing animation before the Jetsons--she passed on through Brandon Peirce, both of whom are my Facebook friends, and Bradon then shared with me, that Janet DOES do the teen babysitter Jeannie in several final of the original 1950s Tom and Jerry]s, like "Tot Watchers"(though that was under Bill and Joe, right before they formed their own studio.) Steve

  9. Who was the phone-happy babysitter in Tom and Jerry's Tot Watchers and Busy Biddie? Janet Waldo or Julie Bennett? Tough to tell.

  10. Tbat is Singleton singing for Jane as much as it is Jean VanderPyl singing Wilma for Flintstones' The Happy Household episode and its the same song Bill Spacely/Bill Shaley.

  11. Anon, it's neither. Waldo never did cartoons before the Jetsons. It doesn't sound like Bennett or Nancy Wible.
    It's apparently Norma Jean Nilsson who was on Father Knows Best.

  12. Yopw, that'sa what Graham Webb says in his ectra-pricey "The Animated Film Ecyclopedia" from 2000--Nillson was also on :Our Miss B rooks,"too." But Webb's known for his voice erorrs. Wouldn't it be neat if Waldo HAD been on early HB's (then we'd hear her with Shaindlin-Green music (though Hoyt Curtin's jazzy soundtrack for Jetsons and Top Cat more than makes up for that)in 1959 as Sagebrush Sal (Julie Bennett) or as a bobbyasoxer in a 1950s Warners or MGM cartoon..but like Penny Singleton, she never did any cartoons till Blasdt off time on the Jetsons.)

  13. Shifting over to George O’Hanlon for a moment… I figured George Jetson to be modeled after (not Arthur Lake’s Dagwood) but O’Hanlon’s “other signature character” Joe McDoakes.

    McDoakes, the subject of a long-running series of comedy shorts for Warner Bros., was for the ‘40s and ‘50s the exact counterpart of the future Mr. Jetson.

  14. Joe, You're onto something there.

    What was Penny Singleton doing in the years before Gordon Hunt and Andrea Romano contacted her.

    "a disturber of dung huh" Sounds like Jane Jetson and YOWP have got the same problems; she got blacklisted because of conflicts with union officials and YOWP because of conflicts with Yakky.

  15. Joe, yeah, George reminds me of McDoakes in some ways, though in the TV set short, his wife is more like one you'd find in a W.C. Fields film.

    Anon, yes, they played up the duck's career. They said a Yowp series wouldn't work. They said one word of dialogue would wear out. "That's one word more than Tom and Jerry had," I said, but that hit a nerve.

  16. Penny did a remarkable job as Jane Jetson in both installments of "The Jetsons". I always considered Jane to be the feel-good level-headed member of the space-age family, always wearing a radiant smile to complement that purple dress. I would be honored to play Jane Jetson in the live-action "Jetsons" movie as a tribute to Penny's memory, though I would prefer ditching the dress and wearing black aerobic briefs and support pantyhose with a purple t-shirt instead as my everyday uniform.