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Belle Baker



Daughter of immigrants, Belle Baker never went to public school, spent her childhood working in a New York City shirt waist factory, and taught herself to sing. Brassy, urban, and Jewish, she broke into the entertainment business belting ragtime songs in a Jewish Music Hall, located next door to her family's flat on Cannon Street, for three dollars a week. Actor-manager Jacob Adler caught her act and hired her for his company at the Grand Theater. There Lew Leslie coached Belle's performances, counselling her to act out her songs while singing them. Leslie also arranged for Irving Berlin to supply her songs for her vaudeville work.

By 1913 she became a vaudeville headliner, yet her ambition was to act in musical comedy. In 1916, she shifted her repertoire from ragtime to character songs, and specialized in torchy ballads. Record companies found her songs--"Mother's Eyes," "I'll Never Ask for More," "Summer is Gone," "The Sun is At My Window"--steady sellers. In 1926 Florenz Ziegfeld cast her in "Betsy," fulfilling Belle Baker's ambition to stride the Broadway stage, but she quickly returned to the congenial world of vaudeville.

When radio became a significant force in the entertainment world in the late 1920s, Baker was one of the singer's best suited to its demotic demands. From 1929 onward she was a regular presence on the American airwaves, the radio studio providing a new base of operations as the vaudeville circuits expired. Her film appearances were few and not completely successful because she was a performer who enjoyed audience rapport. In radio, she gravitated to shows such as "The Everready Hour," performing before live audiences. She remained a radio fixture through the 1930s. David S. Shields/ALS