×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Monica Lewis, Actress Who Sang in Chiquita Banana Cartoons, Dies at 93

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.

More Music

  • Streaming Powers U.S. Latin Music Market

    Streaming Powers U.S. Latin Music Market to 18% Growth

    The U.S. Latin music business experienced its second year of double-digit growth in 2018, driven almost entirely by streaming, according to the RIAA’s year-end report. The Latin market grew 18% in 2018 to $413 million, driven by a nearly 50% growth in revenues from paid subscriptions, the report says. Streaming formats made up a whopping [...]

  • Ranking Roger of The BeatThe Beat

    Ranking Roger, of English Beat and General Public, Dies at 56

    Roger Charlery, aka Ranking Roger, the singer and toaster from the English Beat, General Public and Special Beat, died today after a battle with cancer, a rep for the band confirmed to Variety. He was 56. The group, which has existed in several different forms over the years, issued a statement on its social media [...]

  • NF_D_JGN-D14-5180.raf

    The Sexist Metal Scene in 'The Dirt' Is Painfully Accurate, Say Veteran Female Execs

    UPDATED: The fallout from Friday’s premiere of Netflix’s few-holds-barred Motley Crue biopic, “The Dirt,” began even before the film, which focuses on the quartet’s ‘80s-‘90s decade of decadence, was released. The group’s ill treatment of many women in their orbit is a matter of public record, and is depicted both seriously and unsettlingly light-heartedly in [...]

  • BMG Posts Strong Earnings for 2018

    BMG Posts Strong Earnings for 2018

    BMG announced solid earnings for 2018 — its tenth year since the “new” BMG opened for business after its previous incarnation merged with Sony Music — as part of parent company Bertlesmann’s results Tuesday. According to the announcement, despite “negative exchange rate effects,” BMG’s revenues increased by 7.5 percent to €545 million (around $644 million), [...]

  • Rahm Emanuel

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Calls Jussie Smollett Deal a 'Whitewash of Justice'

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted the decision by Cook County prosecutors to drop charges Tuesday against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett. Flanked by Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Kevin Graham, the president of the Chicago police union, the mayor said the decision sends a message that high-profile people will not be held accountable for their [...]

  • Grammy Awards60th Annual Grammy Awards, Press

    Grammy Eligibility Year to Close One Month Early for 2020 Awards

    The eligibility year for the 2020 Grammy Awards will close on Aug. 31, one month earlier than usual, the Recording Academy announced today in a letter to members. The change is due to next year’s telecast taking place on Jan. 26, around two weeks earlier than usual (although the 2018 awards took place on Jan. [...]

  • Post Malone wow video dancer

    Meet the 43-Year-Old Dancing Sensation From Post Malone's 'Wow' Video

    Mike Alancourt is here to dance his heart out, one Post Malone video at a time. The Florida native recently went viral thanks in no small part to his impressive moves. At 43 years old, he appears in the video for Post’s “Wow,” carrying the final third with his bearded, bellied routine. The video caught [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content