Monica Lewis, a former Benny Goodman vocalist who headlined the very first broadcast of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” was the voice of the popular Chiquita Banana cartoons, clowned opposite Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton and Danny Kaye, and had roles in such films as “Earthquake,” “Airport 1975” and “The Concorde — Airport ’79,” died on June 12 of natural causes at her apartment in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 93.
Lewis was born in Chicago to a musical family. Her father Leon Lewis was a symphonic composer and conductor; her mother Jessica sang with the Chicago Opera Company and her sister Barbara was a classical pianist. Her brother Marlo became head of variety for CBS-TV and created Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” show.
Monica studied voice with her mother from the time she was a toddler, but when the family lost everything during the Depression, they moved to New York to start over. Monica quit school when she was 17, took a job as a radio vocalist to supplement the family’s income, and soon had own program on WMCA. This led to her debut at the Stork Club (though she was still too young to drink).
In 1943, Benny Goodman’s vocalist Peggy Lee eloped with guitarist Dave Barbour, and Goodman was frantically trying to find a replacement. Monica auditioned and got the job, performing with Goodman that same night on national radio. She finished out his New York engagements, but Monica’s mother felt she was too young to go out on the road with the band. She quickly went on to star on such national programs as “Beat The Band” and “The Revere Camera Show,” and joined Frank Sinatra as co-star of “The Chesterfield Hour — Music That Satisfies.”
In 1945, Lewis was briefly married to Bob Thiele, a former disc jockey who had started a small independent label, Signature Records. She scored a series of hits on Signature including “Put the Blame on Mame,” “But Not for Me,” “I’m Gonna Be a Bad Girl” and “The House I Live In.” When the company was bought by Decca Records, she continued her string of hits with “A Tree in the Meadow,” “The Gentleman Is a Dope” and “The Bluest Kind of Blues.”
In 1947 she introduced columnist Ed Sullivan to her brother Marlo and suggested they try to do a variety show for CBS, to compete with Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theatre” on NBC. The result was “Toast of the Town,” which made its debut on June 20, 1948, with Monica headlining alongside composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Records and television led to movies, and in 1950, Monica signed an exclusive contract with MGM for both films and recordings. Groomed by the studio’s drama coach Lillian Burns, she was given singing, dancing and acting roles in such films as “Inside Straight”; “The Strip”; “Excuse My Dust” with Red Skelton, and “Everything I Have Is Yours,” in which she got to dance with Gower Champion. Later film credits included “Affair With a Stranger” and “The D.I.” with Jack Webb.
In 1951, Lewis toured the front lines of Korea with Danny Kaye. Upon her return, she signed with Capitol Records, scoring a hit with “Autumn Leaves.”
She also began a 14-year campaign as the voice of Chiquita Banana, a series of musical cartoon ads, and soon the entire country was singing along to “You should never put bananas in the refrigerator—No No, No No!”
Lewis had romances with Ronald Reagan (with whom she appears in the photo above), Kirk Douglas and writer Liam O’Brien. In 1956, she met and married widowed MCA/Universal production executive Jennings Lang, putting her own career on hold in order to become mother to his young sons Robert and Michael, whom she adopted. They were soon joined by a third son, Rocky, now a successful screenwriter, producer-director and author. The Langs also opened their Beverly Hills home for a series of major political and charitable causes, playing host to an array of notables that included Sen. Ted Kennedy, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and the Beatles (who performed a benefit show in their backyard).
As the children grew older, Lewis began accepting guest-star roles on such popular TV shows as “Wagon Train, “Night Gallery,” “The Virginian,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Remington Steele,” “Ironside” and “Falcon Crest.” She also made cameo appearances in several of her husband’s films, in order to accompany him on location: “Earthquake” with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, “Charley Varrick” with Walter Matthau, “Nunzio,” “The Sting II” and the disaster epics “Rollercoaster,” “Airport 1975” and “The Concorde — Airport ’79”.
She resumed her singing career in 1985, with appearances at such clubs as the Vine St. Bar and Grill and Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill in Los Angeles, and Danny’s Skylight Room in New York. She also recorded several albums, including “My Favorite Things,” “Monica Lewis Swings Jule Styne,” and “Never Let Me Go.” Following her husband’s death in 1996, she recorded a tribute album tracing their 40-year marriage, entitled “Why Did I Choose You?”
In 2014, she was approached by filmmaker Ned McNeilage to be among the veteran performers profiled in his documentary short “Showfolk,” and she found herself back on the bigscreen at age 92. The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and went on to win awards on the festival circuit, including the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Palm Springs Film Festival, with Lewis usually taking a bow. In January 2015, she appeared at the Million Dollar Theatre with a screening of “Earthquake” for Vintage Los Angeles.
Lewis is survived by sons Rocky and Mike (the jazz pianist) and three grandchildren.