Martha Raye, who entertained generations of American moviegoers and troops with her spirited singing and raucous comedy, died Wednesday. She was 78.
Miss Raye died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a lengthy illness, said hospital spokesman Ron Wise.
Miss Raye suffered from a variety of health problems in recent years, including a stroke in 1990 and circulatory problems that forced doctors to amputate her left leg below the knee a year ago.
For more than 50 years, Miss Raye teamed with the pre-eminent entertainers of the 20th century: Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and many more.
Her most notable movie role came in 1947's Monsieur Verdoux, in which she portrayed the indestructible mate of a wife killer played by Chaplin.
She also was a tireless entertainer of American troops in three wars and won many citations for her efforts, including a special Academy Award in 1969. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 1993, citing her "great courage, kindness and patriotism."
"She was more popular with the GIs than a weekend pass," Bob Hope said Wednesday. "They loved her in Vietnam. She was a Florence Nightingale, Dear Abby, and the only singer who could be heard over the artillery fire."
In September 1991, 75 and in a wheelchair, Miss Raye married for the seventh time to her 42-year-old manager, Mark Harris, in Las Vegas.
"He makes me feel very young and womanly," she said in a TV interview. "I'm really in love this time."
Miss Raye was appearing at the Trocadero nightclub in Los Angeles in 1935 when she was spotted by director Norman Taurog. Cast in a Bing Crosby musical, Rhythm on the Range, she stopped the show with her full-throated rendition of Mr. Paganini.
Paramount Pictures signed her to a contract, and she appeared in Hideaway Girl, The Big Broadcast of 1937, College Holiday, Waikiki Wedding, Artists and Models, Give Me a Sailor, College Swing and other musical comedies. Her cavernous mouth and exclamation "Oh boyyy!" became trademarks.
"Then they tried to make a glamor girl out of me," she told a reporter in 1955. "They tried to emphasize my legs. That was ridiculous. I was no glamor girl; I was a comedian."
She made wartime movies such as Pin-Up Girl, Hellzapoppin', Navy Blues and Four Jills in a Jeep, and then her film career declined. Her only important film after Monsieur Verdoux was the 1962 Doris Day musical Jumbo.
The comedian was one of the first Hollywood figures to entertain American troops during World War II. She continued her service in the Korean War and in Vietnam, where troops knew her as "Col. Maggie."
President Lyndon Johnson made her the first and only woman authorized to wear a Green Beret uniform and nicknamed her "Maggie of the Boondocks" in reference to her USO service in Vietnam. She also was slightly wounded during a tour there.
She was a staunch defender of the American soldier. "It seems to me a lot of this anti-war stuff is aimed at the wrong target _ at our boys over there," she said in a 1971 interview. By then, she had made 10 trips to the battle zones.
Her work was the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the 1991 Bette Midler-James Caan film For the Boys wrongfully appropriated her life story. A judge dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year after Midler testified that there was no similarity between her part and Miss Raye's life other than that they both entertained troops.
In her later years, Miss Raye was known to TV watchers as the "Big Mouth" pitchwoman for a dental adhesive.
She was born Margaret Teresa Yvonne Reed on Aug. 27, 1916, in the charity ward of a hospital in Butte, Mont., where her vaudevillian parents had been stranded. Pete Reed and Betty Hooper, a song and dance act, traveled under the billing of Reed and Hooper, and their daughter joined the act when she was 3.