“I’d sing a song, and I could just see the guys getting this faraway expression. I knew they were going home in their minds.” -Frances Langford
When World War II was in full swing, Hollywood responded. Actors enlisted to fight for their country (or were drafted, in some cases), the USO traveled to entertain troops, and soldiers who were still in the nation could mingle with their favorite stars at the Stage Door Canteen in New York or in Bette Davis’s Hollywood Canteen in California.
Among the many entertainers who traveled overseas to perform for troops was Frances Langford. A beloved singer of the decade, she appeared on radio programs and in several Hollywood films. While her talents took her all over the world, she spent her early years and later years in her home state of Florida.
Julia Frances Langford was born in Hernando, Florida, which is a small town in Citrus County, Florida. Her parents were Vasco Cleveland Langford and his wife, Anna Rhea Newbern. The Langford family later moved to Lakeland, Florida, near the Mulberry area, where Frances grew up. According to her longtime captain, Karim Haddad (who she lovingly called “Junior”), Langford was a boater from the start. She grew up on a houseboat in the Miami River and developed a real passion for fishing at a young age. She graduated from Lakeland High School and stayed in Lakeland to study music at Florida Southern College.
Langford originally trained as an opera singer, however, she required a tonsillectomy that changed her soprano range to a contralto. As a result, she was forced to change her vocal style to a more contemporary big band, popular music style. At age 17, she was singing for local dances. Cigar manufacturer Eli Witt heard her sing at an American Legion party and hired her to sing on his local radio show. After a brief stint in the Broadway musical, Here Goes the Bride, in 1931, she moved to Hollywood. There, she appeared on the Louella Parsons’ radio show Hollywood Hotel, while trying to start a career in film.
While singing on a Tampa-based radio station during the early 1930s, she was heard by Rudy Vallee, who invited her to become a regular on his radio show. He would refer to her as, “my little Florida protege.” Frances’ career would be closely tied to the radio. From 1935 until 1938, she was a regular performer on Dick Powell’s radio show.
With her film debut in Every Night at Eight (1935) the diminutive five-foot-one-inch star introduced what became her signature song: “I’m in the Mood for Love.” She then began appearing frequently in films such as Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), in which she popularized “Broadway Rhythm” and “You Are My Lucky Star,” Born to Dance (1936), which also starred Jimmy Stewart, Eleanor Powell, Buddy Ebsen, and Una Merkel, and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) with James Cagney. Interestingly, she appeared as herself in several of her film roles.
From 1941 onward, Langford was a regular singer on Bob Hope’s The Pepsodent Show, replacing Judy Garland. The show was so successful, that Bob continued broadcasting from training bases around the country and asked Langford to join him. During World War II, she joined Hope, Jerry Colonna, guitarist Tony Romano, and other performers on U.S.O. tours through Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific, entertaining thousands of G.I.’s throughout the world. During a USO tour in the Pacific theater she was invited to take a ride in a P-38 fighter plane. During the flight, a Japanese ship was spotted and the joy ride was postponed until the pilot finished attacking the ship.
During one of their USO tours, she and Bob Hope were forced to leap out of a jeep to avoid fire from a German fighter plane. They both jumped to their safety in a culvert, with Frances landing on top of Bob. Another time they spent the night in the basement of a hotel in Algiers as bombs burst above them.
In his memoir, Don’t Shoot! It’s Only Me!, Bob Hope recalled how Frances Langford got the biggest laugh he had ever heard. At a U.S.O. show in the South Pacific, Langford stood up on a stage to sing before a huge crowd of G.I.’s. When Langford sang the first line of her signature song, “I’m in the Mood for Love,” a soldier in the audience stood up and shouted, “You’ve come to the right place, honey!”
Also, during the war, Langford wrote the weekly “Purple Heart Diary” column for Hearst Newspapers, in which she described her visits to military hospitals to entertain wounded G.I.’s. She used the weekly column as a means of allowing the recovering troops to voice their complaints, and to ask for public support for making sure that the wounded troops received all the supplies and comforts they needed.
From 1946 to 1951, she performed with Don Ameche as his irritable wife, Blanche, on The Bickersons. As a guest on early television shows, she was motivated to venture into television. She was the host of two self-titled variety television programs. She then teamed with Don Ameche for the ABC television program, The Frances Langford/Don Ameche Show (1951), a spin-off of their successful radio series The Bickersons in which the duo played a feuding married couple.
In the Western, Deputy Marshal (1949), she co-starred with her first husband, matinee idol Jon Hall. In 1948, they donated 20 acres (81,000 m2) of land near her estate in Jensen Beach, Florida, to the Martin County Board of County Commissioners, which named it Langford Hall Park. She divorced first husband Jon Hall but they remained friends until his suicide in 1979.
Langford was also the host of the NBC musical variety program Frances Langford Presents (1959), which lasted one season, as did a later program The Frances Langford Show (1960). Another notable appearance was in The Honeymooners lost episode “Christmas Party” which first aired December 19, 1953.
Frances’ association with Hope continued into the 1980s. In 1989 she joined him for a USO tour to entertain troops in the Persian Gulf, meaning that she entertained with Bob Hope throughout World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and beyond.
As a nightclub singer in 1955, she married Outboard Marine Corporation President Ralph Evinrude. They lived on her estate in Jensen Beach and built a Polynesian-themed restaurant and marina on the Indian River they named The Frances Langford Outrigger Resort, where Langford frequently performed. Locals and celebrities flocked to the site. Evinrude died in 1986.
In 1994, she married Harold C. Stuart, who had served as Assistant Secretary for Civil Affairs of the United States Air Force (1949-51) under President Harry S. Truman. They spent the summers in Canada on Georgian Island and journeyed to the Island from their home in Florida aboard their 110-foot yacht “The Chanticleer,” which was a popular tourist attraction when moored at the Outrigger Resort. She had no children.
Health problems plagued her in the last years of her life with periodic hospital stays. She died at her Jensen Beach home at age 92 on July 11, 2005, from congestive heart failure. She was cremated and the ashes strewn off the coast of Florida near her residence.
Today, Frances is remembered well in her hometown and various tributes to her still exist today.
The old Lakeland High School building, where Frances attended high school, still stands at 400 N Florida Ave. in Lakeland, however it is now occupied by Lawton Chiles Middle School.
Florida Southern College is also still in operation today. In fact, Langford appeared on a Lakeland Center stage with Bob Hope at a benefit for the institution.
Education was something that Frances thought was incredibly important, as expressed in a correspondence she had between a teacher. This letter comes from my personal collection and Frances would have written it in her late 80s.
After leaving Hollywood life, she kept up her pastimes of boating and sport fishing. Frances was very fond of fishing and enjoyed her last years on a 57-acre estate in Rio, Florida. The following are photos of Frances in her native Lakeland, Florida, as well as a shot of her Jensen Beach home.
The Lakeland Public Library also houses a collection of photos featuring Frances in Lakeland. Lakeland also housed the premiere of her movie, The Hit Parade, in 1937 and welcomed Frances home with a banner. Lakeland native L. Bradley Spaun dedicated his song, “Down in Dear Old Lakeland” to Frances.
Langford was a supportive member of the Jensen Beach community and constantly donated money to the community. She was a great philanthropist and her generosity to the Florida Oceanographic Society located on Hutchinson Island, Stuart, Florida was well known. The site provides education and research of the ocean, reefs and environment in the Florida area. The visitor’s center bears her name and also houses some of her artifacts. Her collection of mounted tuna, marlin, and other fish adorn the walls.
In 2006, the Frances Langford Heart Center, made possible by a bequest from her estate, opened at Martin Memorial Hospital. It is located at 200 SE Hospital Ave. in Stuart, Florida.
The Chanticleer, Langford’s boat, was an immense source of joy to her during her later years. The following information comes from Power and Motor Yacht:
Capt. Haddad began working on that yacht, a 118-foot steel vessel built by Defoe, in the mid-1950’s, onboard which he served as mess man. He recalls cruising to Mexico, the Bahamas, Honduras, and the Dry Tortugas in search of fish. “She’d start fishing in the morning,” he says of Langford, “and be out there all day. She’d come in for lunch and an hour later, she’d be back fishing again. Then she’d bottom fish and chum all night.” To accommodate Langford’s passion for the sport, both this and the later Chanticleer carried a range of tenders to fish from. Ranging from 13- to 18-footers with a variety of engine arrangements, there was always a different boat onboard for every possible occasion.
In addition to fishing trips, both Chanticleers cruised between their home base in Jensen Beach, Florida, and Ontario’s Georgian Bay. It was Evinrude who introduced his wife to Georgian Bay, having traveled there himself since the 1920’s. As a child he’d been plagued by respiratory problems and had been brought to the town of Little Current on nearby Manitoulin Island to alleviate the effects of hay fever. Evinrude fell in love with the island’s rugged beauty, and the couple eventually bought tiny twin islets in the northeast end of Baie Finn, where they built a waterfront house that they would frequently visit. Even after Evinrude passed away in 1986, Langford continued to cruise in Canadian waters. “In the end, even when her eyes weren’t good,” Haddad says of later trips up north, “she’d know where we were.” The Internet is full of breathless accounts from Georgian Bay cruisers who had spotted Chanticleer and were eager to report that even as an octogenarian, Langford was still looking “very Hollywood.”
The boat is well cared for after restoration and update efforts by its current owners.
Frances’ estates were not as lucky as her boat. Langford Landing is in disrepair.
So, too, is her property known as “The Hut,” which housed live peacocks and swans.
For more information about the status of her estates, visit the following link.
In 1946, Langford was honored by the hometown of her youth, Lakeland, Florida, for her work with the United Service Organizations (USO) and her music and acting career. The City of Lakeland dedicated the Lake Mirror Promenade as the “Frances Langford Promenade.” The Promenade was originally built in 1928 and was designed by renowned landscape architect Charles W. Leavitt of New York.
The Frances Langford Promenade still exists to this day.
The original plaque for the Frances Langford Promenade was replaced in 2013, since the initial plaque had disappeared. After fundraising efforts, the unveiling and dedication took place on an evening at the Frances Langford Amphitheater, followed by a “Pics on the Promenade” movie, The Glenn Miller Story, in which Langford has a small role. This is the new sign:
The Outrigger remained a staple in the Jensen Beach area.
The Outrigger lives on in its own way, but under a new name and new management. It is now The Dolphin Bar, located at 1401 NE Indian River Drive, Jensen Beach, Florida. The Dolphin Bar prides itself on its history and proudly continues to display Frances’ memorabilia.
Finally, the Elliot Museum at 825 Northeast Ocean Boulevard in Stuart, Florida, houses a collection about Frances Langford, which is on permanent display.
If you visit Florida’s Lakeland, Stuart, or Jensen Beach regions, Frances’ spirit and love for her hometown will surely be evident to you.